The story of a legendary dive boat.
By Bob Halstead
“You’re a lucky guy, Halstead”
This was the common reaction after a look around our live aboard dive boat, Telita.
Forget all the hard work, it did not take me long to find the right response.
“You’re right. If I had not have found that treasure, she would still be a dream”.
“You found treasure?!!”
“Of course, haven’t you met Dinah?”
And there is the truth of it, I am a lucky guy. Telita was named after our daughter Telita. Dinah informed me that Telita was a traditional name and one of her ancestors had been called by that name – later I realised that the name had been donated by Samoan Missionaries who had set up a Mission very near her
family home in the 1880’s – it derives from the Old Testament “Telitha”.
Dinah and I saw an opportunity for a sport diving business in Port Moresby in the mid 1970s. We started a diving school, a dive shop, ran day, and night, dive trips and even Milne Bay Scuba Safaris where we camped divers in villages using our 36 foot day boat Solatai. This satisfied our fanatical desire to do plenty of diving, but not our ambition to explore the many reefs around Papua New Guinea which had not yet been dived.
There were, of course, other sport divers around the country diving their local waters, but there remained vast tracts of ocean, mostly marked on the charts, “Caution, Unsurveyed” that were tempting us. A boat big enough to take ten diver guests in comfort (no more tents!) became our dream.
In the early 1980s there were few live aboard dive boats in the world and these were mostly converted from other uses, smelly, cramped and lacking convenient dive decks. We realised that to get the sort of vessel that would do the job we wanted, we would have to design and build it ourselves. We knew very little about boat building so figured the best thing to do was to contact someone who did.
In the 1930’s The Australian Territory of Papua and New Guinea was administered by Sir Hubert Murray. This visionary bureaucrat had a great love and ambition for the Papuan people and was not content to just keep order and allow foreigners to exploit the riches. One of his many personal projects was to employ a young shipwright and naval architect from Sydney named Arthur Swinfield. At his interview in Port Moresby, Arthur was told to keep his hands of the local girls and to produce a Papuan boat builder. He married his Sydney sweetheart soon after, which took care of the first command, and they both took up residence at the mission station at Kwato, near Samarai in Milne Bay, where he started work on the second.
Before the war started, Arthur had trained dozens of boat builders. They in turn trained their children and grandchildren and by the time I arrived in Milne Bay in 1973 the Province was famous for its seaworthy diesel powered timber boats, built in the villages in the European tradition of carvel planked hulls with copper fastenings. These safely transported people and trade goods around its thousand Islands.
I called Arthur in Sydney and told him we wanted to build a sixty foot boat in Milne Bay using the grandchildren of the boat builders he had trained at Kwato. Although eighty years old, and long retired, he burst into energy. “I’ve been waiting for this call” he said, “Of course I can help, what took you so long?!”.
So Arthur drew Telita’s lines and the detailed plans that we would need for her construction. He incorporated our requirements for a live aboard dive boat. These plans may have been just a little different if we had drawn them today but remember in those days dive boats were only a little ahead of camping – no one even dreamed of en-suite cabins. We thought we were pretty radical by insisting on air conditioning.
Telita’s hull was built in Milne Bay, launched and towed to Madang where she was fitted out. Our ignorance was certainly bliss initially, but as we gradually learned what an enormous task and expense we had committed ourselves to, we often questioned our sanity. So did our friends, and bank manager.
Eventually in December 1986, after more than two years, and an all night session laying carpet, Telita was sort of ready to receive her first ten guests. It was a baptism of unseasonable howling winds and bumpy seas. But we survived and Telita performed flawlessly. As if to make amends, the next cruise, which took us from Alotau to Rabaul, was flat calm and the diving, nearly all virginal, sensational. Our dream was coming true. It included the discovery of an amazing, and huge, underwater arch near the tip of New Ireland which we named Baldwin’s Bridge after Kevin Baldwin who supervised the fitting out of Telita in Madang and who now runs his own dive boat Tiata.
Telita was a success right from the start. She proved to be a magnificent sea boat, handled beautifully and her relatively shallow draft meant that we were able to put her right on the dive sites. She was so reliable that we never lost a single day to breakdown in all the 10 years we operated her. She had my luck too – if she did have a problem in was invariably just as we sailed into port with just enough break time to get it fixed. Divers loved her and returned year after year – our guest return rate was around 41% for several years and bookings had to be made two years in advance.
She hosted the world’s most famous divers and she also worked with probably the world’s most famous Dive Boat, Captain Cousteau’s Calypso, when it voyaged through Papua New Guinea in 1988. Shark Lady, Dr. Eugene Clark, has used Telita as a base for her marine research and eco tours in Papua New Guinea since 1987, returning almost every year.
Telita enabled us to cruise through uncharted waters and to seldom visited islands. We had a wonderful time discovering not only dramatic new dive sites but also a number of new marine species. A taste for the unusual led us to pioneer “muck diving” from Telita, and she was also the first dive boat to offer regular dives with Nautilus to sport divers. In 1992 Telita was voted the World’s best live aboard by readers of In Depth magazine which included the citation:-
“It may be difficult to concur on where the best diving in the world is, but New Guinea is always included in the argument and the 65’ Telita delivers it in style and comfort.”
Around this time other dive boats started to appear in Papua New Guinea and standards of on board comfort and expectations were rising. So in 1993 Telita went to Cairns for a refit. I am a great believer in my own Captain Cook Cup Of Tea Theory of Adventure – if only Captain Cook had stopped for a cup of tea instead of going ashore at Hawaii …. By 1996 Dinah and I had ten years of extraordinary adventures on Telita, and it was time to take a rest and sip several cups of tea. We sold her to Mike Ball Dive Expeditions.
Mike ran Telita for a further two years by which time she was tired and in need of some tender loving care which she received from the present owners, Frances and Gary Zamparutti, who made her into their private family home, based in Western Province PNG. But in 2000 Gary and Frances decided to put Telita back into the dive business and she was brought back to Cairns for a huge refit. The wheelhouse was moved, en suite cabins, heads and showers fitted, a poop deck dining area and wet bar added, all our galvanised steel stanchions and rails replaced with gleaming stainless steel, and all her beautiful Papuan timbers stripped bare and lovingly revarnished.
So with anticipation, and great pride, I joined the new Telita in Milne Bay in May 2001 on another adventure with Dr. Genie Clark. The boat looked superb – and so did Genie, both brimming with youthful energy and beauty. Our main purpose was to do research on the weird and wonderful “Convict Blenny”, Pholidichthys leucotaenia. Swarms of up to a thousand juvenile “Pholies”, which apparently mimic the venomous catfish Plotosus lineatus, are common on the reefs of PNG but they have strange life styles, going to bed at night in an elaborate warren of burrows inhabited by one or two very much larger adults. The adults never completely leave the burrows but their heads can be seen periodically through the day as they spit sand and gravel keeping the burrows clear.
Our team of enthusiastic divers spent days at various sites counting fish, recording spits, videotaping behaviour and generally looking just like a sudden outbreak of scientists on the reef. Up before dawn to see the fish wake up and emerge from the burrows, until dusk to observe bedtime, each day was filled with thrills – and secret pointers as those who deviated from the straight and narrow path to Pholidichthys described their other finds. This is Milne Bay you know!
The Telita cruise ended all to soon for me at Gonubalabala Island dive site “Giants at Home” discovered only a few years ago by Craig De Wit on his live aboard MV Golden Dawn. This is a site where Manta rays come to be cleaned and it was my job, since I know the site, to set a guide line to the cleaning station. The water was unusually clear and I could see a manta hovering over the cleaning station rock as I carefully laid the line close to the bottom to prevent any Manta from snagging it. Work done, I moved to the rock and the mantas came, one, two, three, all black number four ….. another all black number eight, nine! The most I have ever seen at one time.
I sat by the rock mesmerised as the mantas came to me, pausing above my head before rejoining a marvellous ballet. But no Swan Lake this, these guys were dancing to Stravinsky! A vision of power and grace, then a sudden gyration and change of pace, collisions avoided by mere molecules, swoops and glides, up loops and down loops, with a host of minor characters, remoras and wrasses, strutting their stuff. By the time the other divers had joined me, to the enthusiasm of the performers who stepped up the tempo even more, I was out of film.
It was a go-homer. I washed off my gear and packed my camera. Telita was back. A beautiful boat, stunning diving, joyful companions in a place of extraordinary beauty and customs. Long live Telita!