Dive! Dive! Dive!

Tony Karacsonyi | VOLUME 21, ISSUE 2
A large school of barracuda and big eye trevally.
PNG’s Kavieng is a must-see diving destination. On the western tip of New Ireland, it boasts everything from WWII planes, to fish-rich reefs and spectacular freshwater caves.

It was just another typical day’s diving in paradise for Dietmar Amon of Lissenung Island, except today he had a diver named Gadi, who wanted to see big sharks. “I’ll take you to see the silvertips at Silvertip Reef,” said Dietmar.

We were soon diving with six sleek and graceful silvertip whalers, two to three metres long. Suddenly, the silvertips disappeared. “This is unusual,” I thought. Then I saw another shark approaching. I drew Gadi’s attention and as the shark came closer, I saw it was a great hammerhead over four metres long – the mother of all hammerheads! Its sheer size scared the hell out of me, but it scared Gadi even more. I hid behind a coral head and he hid behind me. He couldn’t have got closer if he tried. The hammerhead came so close I could have touched it, then it was gone. The silvertips quickly returned and it was back to diving as usual.

It’s hard to describe just how beautiful, graceful and controlled these silvertips are. They are true oceanic sharks – big females, two to three metres long. Back in 1997, there were nine magnificent silvertips resident on the reef, but tragically a fishing company commissioned the locals to kill the sharks for their fins. Seven of the nine sharks, which divers had grown to love, were massacred. Thankfully, shark-finning is now banned in the province.

Hammerheads sport high orca-like dorsal fins and superior maneuverability. They usually eat stingrays and are not typically aggressive, but have been known to make close, unnerving passes at divers.

Dietmar’s divemaster, Andy Baldauf recounted an incident in which he was guiding two divers on Helmut’s Reef when a giant hammerhead suddenly appeared, scaring off a gang of whaler sharks. One of the divers swam out to video the creature when the shark started arching its back – an extreme and aggressive form of shark behaviour. Andy swam out and dragged the diver back to the reef.

Great hammerhead encounters at Kavieng are rare, but Dietmar rates the sighting as one of the many highlights during his six years of diving in New Ireland.

“I love diving with sharks, especially the grey reef sharks at Helmut’s Reef. These days it’s the tiny marine animals that excite me. I enjoy showing our visitors the tiny pygmy sea horses and allied cowrie shells. There are many shrimp gobies and garden eels. You can get close to the eels by hugging the sand and holding your breath. Our divemaster has seen a pegasus sea moth – a creature which looks more like a chicken carcass,” says Dietmar.

Whilst we were diving at Helmut’s Reef with the resident gang of grey reef sharks, a strong current swept over the 30-metre coral reef, which is adorned with big sea fans, sponges and soft corals. Redtooth triggerfish and fusilier fishes filled the sea, while a pair of dogtooth tuna lurked nearby.

GREY MISSILES

Suddenly, an explosive bang on the surface saw the whalers shoot to the top like shiny grey missiles. I was surprised at their speed as they dashed to the surface from 20 metres. One had caught a Spanish mackerel and none of the pack wanted to miss out. Then they returned to the bottom, milling together in an excited pack.

Albatross Passage is a brilliant dive. An underwater wall extending to 30 metres, it then drops into the abyss. When the current is incoming, it is a magnet for sharks, big fish and smaller reef fish.

Among the sea fans were lionfish, bannerfish, angelfish, glasseyes, purple queens and long-nosed hawkfish. Dietmar excitedly showed me a pygmy seahorse with its bulbous little belly. Silvertip sharks and squadrons of mobula rays, a small kind of manta ray, live here.

Beneath an old jetty at Kavieng, living on the sand and ribbon weed beds, lurks the bizarre and the ugly – in other words, a macro-photographer’s paradise. An incredible variety of creatures can be seen at this dive site, which is named The Bottleshop. Some of the inhabitants include panda clownfish, ornate ghostfish and the pipe fishes – harlequin ghost, banded, ringed, mesmate and double-ended. Divers from the live-aboard Febrina even saw the rare shy hairy ghost pipefish.

In Steffen Strait lies a reef known as Peter’s Patch. Best dived on the incoming tide around 15 metres, the reef is covered in coral and fish – anthias, leather jacket, sweetlips, angelfish and diamond trevally. “The fish life is so intense here, it’s like fish soup. Two rare golden cowrie shells were found here,” says Dietmar.

Peter’s Patch was my last dive and as I was enjoying the last few minutes, the fish parted in front, with a chunky grey reef shark flying over the reef crest. I don’t know who got the bigger fright, me or the shark!

ONE OF THE BEST

The Tsoi Islands is where the silvertip sharks live, with Big Fish Reef located nearby. According to Dietmar, Big Fish Reef has swarms of batfish, bigeye trevally, barracuda and eagle rays. “It’s one of the best dive sites in Papua New Guinea, with blacktip reef sharks and bull sharks seen at times.”

During my stay in Kavieng, I dived with both Lissenung Island and Scuba Ventures. If you are interested in freshwater cave diving, I recommend Scuba Ventures.

“You’ll love this place. We found it a year ago and have only dived it three times. We were absolutely blown away,” said Dorian of Scuba Ventures, as we gunned down the road to Fissoa, where a freshwater stream gushes from the heart of New Ireland.

Forty minutes later, using Dorian’s hand-held GPS, we turned onto a secret, muddy track. This is where our adventure began, slipping and sliding, in a two-wheel drive ute. “Normally, we can get in here quite easily, but there’s been a lot of rain and I’m worried, as the flow of the spring could be too strong,” said Dorian.

We arrived at a crystal clear stream, the banks covered in rainforest. Donning our scuba gear, we did a steamy hike through the jungle to a blue pool, where tree stumps and palm fronds lay across its entrance. Entering the pool with a giant stride, the sight that lay ahead was extraordinary – a 45-degree tunnel, furrowing towards the centre of New Ireland.

Dorian and our Swiss dive buddy, Reto Graf, were ahead and already snapping photos of the cave’s entrance. We swam down the tunnel lined in ancient coral to what seemed like 20 metres, only to find my depth gauge read 38 metres! Fresh, sweet water rushed past and the smile on my face said it all. We were in diver’s heaven!

The tunnel narrowed at this point and goodsized tarpon were fighting the strong current. We couldn’t venture any further. Dorian has been a few metres further on, when the spring wasn’t flowing as strongly. It’s a safe dive to 38 metres, but beyond this point is for specialised cavers only.

WAR WRECKAGE

Over the past few years, Dorian and Cara have built up a list of exciting dives specialising in the many World War II aeroplane wrecks and shipwrecks in the area. They also discovered two new freshwater cave diving sites close to Kavieng, with exciting stalagmite and stalactite formations. Divers need advanced certification and good buoyancy skills to dive these.

Kavieng has an amazing World War II history. When the Allies engaged in a massive air offensive, from February 11-15, 1944 against the Japanese, they tried a new, low-flying bombing strategy with their B25 Mitchell bombers, but lost many planes to Japanese anti-aircraft fire and exploding fuel dumps. One of these bombers was the Stubborn Hellion, which now lies in 12 metres of water, still with machine guns intact.

One of our best dives was a Japanese Aichi E13A ‘Jake’ float plane in 20 metres of water, discovered by Dorian in 2001. It still has the Hinomaru (the red Japanese rising sun emblem) on its starboard wing. It’s a beautiful wreck, with soft pink corals on its propellers. Another Jake can be found on the coral at 10 metres. We dived both Jakes and an unidentified Japanese shipwreck. The shipwreck has piles of live ammunition, depth charges, cordite sticks and rubber shoe soles.

In 2003, Dorian also discovered a Japanese ‘Pete’ biplane at 39 metres on a sandy bottom. It’s a bit broken up, but has lots of fish and is still a great dive.

The Der Yang, a Taiwanese fishing trawler, was our first dive where we descended to the shipwreck and sea whip gardens at 30 metres. The surrounding reef is alive with grey reef sharks, blue-finned trevally, fusiliers and green turtles.

Dorian and Cara operate four boats, including a 24ft banana boat named Rok Rok. The rest of their fleet includes a 24-footer named Mad Fish, a 23-footer, and a 22-footer named Dau Dakona, also used for sportfishing.

Friday night buffets at the Kavieng Hotel are not to be missed, while the Sunday night beach barbecue at the Malagan Beach Resort is superb.

The general diving routine involves being picked up on the beach at the Malagan Beach Resort at 8:30am. It’s usually back for lunch at the Malagan by 2pm, with the option of a third dive after lunch.

With a resume of wreck, reef and muck diving, together with sharks and turtles, Lissenung Island and Scuba Ventures are your ticket to Kavieng’s best diving. For divers, I would suggest spending a few days diving with each resort. ¿

ABOUT LISSENUNG ISLAND

Lissenung Island Resort is a small private island, two degrees south of the equator. It lies northwest of New Ireland and is a 15-minute banana boat ride from Kavieng. The bungalows are very spacious and comfortable. The day’s routine is to roll up for breakfast at 8am, collect your gear from the dive shack and leave the beach at 9am. Dietmar usually runs two morning dives, returning at 2pm for lunch. Then there’s more diving.

HOW TO GET THERE:

Fly with Air Niugini to Port Moresby, then Kavieng. Total flight time is 7 hours from Sydney. Air Niugini reservations; 1300 361 380. Stay at the Malagan Beach Resort or Lissenung Island Resort. Each room at the Malagan has airconditioning and the food is excellent. If you are overnighting in Port Moresby, the Airways Hotel has a swimming pool, dining room, and generous buffet dinner.

WHAT TO TAKE:

Diving gear, camera, sunscreen and anti-malarials.

OTHER ACTIVITIES:

Buffet dinner at the Kavieng Hotel (Friday nights); Malagan Beach Resort barbecue (Sunday nights); sailing (from next to the Nusa Island Retreat); surfing, Kavieng markets (Saturday mornings best); snorkelling and cycling from Kavieng.

HOW TO BOOK FOR LISSENUNG ISLAND RESORT:

Lissenung Island Resort, PO Box 536, Kavieng,

N.I.P, PNG.

Tel/fax: 675 984 2526

Email: info@lissenung.com

Website: www.lissenung.com

Airways Hotel, tel: 675 324 5 308, tel: 675 324 5 302

Email: reservations@airways.com.pg

HOW TO BOOK FOR SCUBA VENTURES:

Scuba Ventures, tel/fax: 675 984 1244

Email: scuba@global.net.pg

Website: www.scubakavieng.com

Malagan Beach Resort on tel: 675 984 2344

Email: mbr@mtspng.com

Nusa Island Retreat, tel: 675 984 2247

Email: nir@global.net.pg


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