By Bob Halstead
“Forget your cameras, bring your laundry!” So begins Captain Craig de Wit’s briefing for an extraordinary dive. He is joking, but I considered it sage advice for we were about to dive Sawasawaga passage, the fastest drift dive in Papua New Guinea.
Earlier in the day we had steamed through the narrow passage on Craig’s boat, MV Golden Dawn, against the flow. The strength of the current caused the boat to lose way in the middle of the passage, and she had even begun to drift backwards. Craig ordered full throttle to both engines before we gradually eased through the standing waves into the lagoon. Exciting stuff, but the guests were incredulous; “You expect us to dive here?” they asked in astonishment. “Absolutely!” was the confident reply, “Welcome to the Washing Machine”.
Inside the lagoon the water was glassy calm. MV Golden Dawn anchored close to a village of boat builders in a nook out of the current. Looking down into the water we could see a fringing reef with live corals and tropical fishes, a perfect spot for an easy shallow dive. Some of the guests decided that discretion was the better part of valour and opted for this dive; the rest of us prepared for the ride of our lives.
Sawasawaga passage lies between Sariba and Sideia Islands near Samarai in Milne Bay Province. The currents here are tidal and the direction and strength can be determined by using a Port Moresby tide chart. The northward current is “incoming” meaning divers would drift into the safety of the lagoon rather than out to sea. So timing is important. Modern fancy navigation gear may tempt you with a mass of detailed information, but I have found it inaccurate. Stick to the tried and true Port Moresby tide chart. Maximum northward current is approximately one hour after high tide Port Moresby, slack four hours after, and currents are much stronger on “spring” tides.
Craig explained that we would be aiming for a strong, but not insane, incoming current and start the dive using the powerful dive tender, leaving MV Golden Dawn anchored. We would enter the water outside the passage on the eastern side in about five metres depth, clear of the main stream. To get in the flow we would swim down the slope to 12-15 metres depth. He advised us to keep the eastern slope in view and avoid going right to the centre of the passage that inevitably ends in a deep-water tumble and not much to see. Keeping to the eastern side we can keep on drifting along the reef slope eventually ending up, out of the current, near MV Golden Dawn.
The tide had changed and, with the ocean swells now running in the same direction as the tide, the standing waves had disappeared. We had a smooth, if swirling, ride in the tender back out through the passage. I ignored the advice about laundry, hefted my camera, and took off for the bottom. Following the sandy slope downwards, I was soon at 12m where I could feel a gentle but insistent current. Overhanging coral ledges appeared. The sand had been scoured from beneath so here was an area providing shelter for fishes that also had abundant and colourful soft corals. I was able to pause occasionally for some portraits of sweetlips, snappers and batfish as schools of fishes surged about. But the current was building and it was soon time to surrender to its clutches.
Deeper down, the current really got hold of me. The visibility dropped to 10m and I tried valiantly to concentrate ahead as I was accelerated past coral boulders and ridges to speeds of 4-5 knots (the surface current can reach 9 knots). The bottom was fabulously decorated with soft corals, blue Lace corals and brilliant yellow Tubastrea corals with polyps extended – a rare sight in daylight. Fish were prolific. A Giant Queensland Grouper buzzed me, then a Grey Reef shark. The clutch of the current reinforced how crazy anyone would be to try to fight such an inexorable force. Surrendering was actually relaxing, but I tried to get as close to the bottom as possible so the effect of the speed was enhanced. All I could do now was look ahead and direct myself out of the way of any coral boulders in my path. I orientated slightly sideways so I could kick clear as needed, set my camera to a slow shutter speed and took some photos.
The climax was approaching; there was a ridge across the narrowest part of the passage. The dive had become a wild bouncing ride; giant boulders appeared and the current hurled me between them. Suddenly I was in the Washing Machine and tossed head over fins by the turbulence. Abruptly I fell into a back eddy and promptly stopped, only to see another diver fly overhead. Swimming down hard I picked up the current again, and a fabulous seascape whisked past.
I was at 20m with more ledges packed with marine life. A couple of Wobbegong sharks were resting under one and I was able to shoot a portrait as the current eased. Now it was back to a gentler glide and I gradually ascended the reef slope to a lovely coral garden. After a while I was using my fins and listening for the sound of MV Golden Dawn’s generator. When I picked up the noise, I knew I was close and pottered around in the shallows for a while. Eventually I surfaced to find the boat just a short swim away. I had not only survived the Washing Machine, I felt cleansed and elated!
I have since dived the Washing Machine many times, and even led dives myself. I have found it advantageous to develop a technique to give prospective participants the confidence to give it a go – at the same time I only encourage those with sufficient skills to attempt the dive. From a safety point of view it looks worse than it is, and anyone uncomfortable could bail out to the surface where they would be swept into the lagoon, with the tender waiting to pick them up. Easy.
Nevertheless it is intimidating from the surface. Basically, I lie through my teeth. “You lucky people, I’ve never seen such great conditions here before, it’s perfect! Let’s go!” and so on. Occasionally the crew, who ask, “Diving the Washing Machine, eh?” then wander off uttering evil chuckles, have sabotaged me. But usually I get everyone hyped up and before they know it they are in the tender and committed. “Follow me!” I command before I splash, knowing very well when the current grips they will be intent on their own survival, and not at all interested in what I am doing.
One thing is always the same. Back up on the boat they come straight up to me and demand, “Can we do it again?”
For MV Golden Dawn see www.mvgoldendawn.com