Divers’ delight: islands of the Solomon Sea

Tony Karasconyi | VOLUME 24, ISSUE 2

Locals believe that magic controls everything in these exotic islands.

The Trobriands (today known as the Kiriwina Islands) were named after Denis de Trobriand, an officer with the French d’Entrecasteaux expedition, which explored the islands in the early 1790s. I was lucky to join a scuba diving expedition to the Trobriands and the culture and diving in these enchanted isles surpassed my wildest expectations.

The Trobriands is home to a unique people made famous by Polish anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, who, in 1914, took part in an expedition to New Guinea and Melanesia, spending four years studying the Trobrianders. In his books, Coral Gardens and their Magic (1935), The Sexual Lives of Savages, and Argonauts of the South Pacific, Malinowski described the rich, distinct culture of the Trobrianders which, even today, sets them apart from other islanders in the region. It was the promise of superb coral reef diving and a chance to meet the Trobrianders that drew me to these islands, off Papua New Guinea.

My adventure started in Madang. Kaileuna Island was our first deep wall dive, where we saw lots of yellow-margin triggerfish building nests. I was mighty glad they weren’t the titan species – with so many around I had visions of ending up on their dinner menu. Titan triggerfish are quite aggressive during nesting time.

Other tropical fishes adding to the smorgasbord of entertainment included fire gobies, teira batfish, blue-band gobies, male striped boxfish, yellowtail coris, whaler sharks, sleeping nurse sharks, dogtooth tuna, eagle rays and blue-fin trevally.

BUBBLED-WRAPPED

At Kitava Island we enjoyed a 30m wall dive in lovely deep water with perfect visibility. Dozens of enormous sea fans, decorated with vividly coloured feather stars, made for excellent wide angle photography. We found some very unusual starfish, whose surface texture resembled bubble wrap, and chunky dogtooth tuna, Spanish mackerel and a few barracuda topped off this dive nicely.

We later enjoyed a beachside barbeque on the tiny island of Nuratu, close to Kitava, where a flotilla of Trobrianders paddled across by canoe and, armed with ghetto-blasters, laid on a great night’s entertainment.

At Kaibola, Trobrianders swarmed around us offering exquisite carvings, and at Kitava we were treated to a dance by the community’s school kids. Walking through the hibiscus-lined villages, we ended up at the chief’s yam house, a sacred place where huge yam tubers are kept.

The Trobrianders are excellent farmers and most of their time is spent growing yams, which is their staple food. Yams symbolise power and wealth, and some Trobrianders grow them to 4m – so big they have to be strapped to timber planks and carried by several men.

A yam harvest festival to celebrate growth and fertility is held each year. It was this festival that largely earned the Trobriands the somewhat unwanted reputation as the ‘Islands of Love’. The original intention of the festival was to reflect the abundance and fertility of a successful yam harvest.

At Malai, in the Siassi Islands, stilt houses were decorated with chambered nautilus shells and fishing nets. A pet hornbill hopped about the village chasing a young boy, who looked terrified at the size and potential damage that might be inflicted by the great bill.

Here we enjoyed a deep wall dive with coronation trout, hordes of three-spot butterfly fish, unicorn fish and the absolute grand-daddy of green sea turtles. Meanwhile, a big hump-headed maori wrasse fossicked in the coral.

At Aromat Island, the ‘Little Hong Kong’ of the Siassis, a flotilla of canoes and kids paddling out on chunks of foam greeted us. Pigs wandered freely in the village and fishermen cleaned their catches of bright orange coral trout. Our travelling friend,

Sergio serenaded the islanders with the classic Italian song Marina Marina, while the local children followed him around like the pied piper.

WILD ISLES

The mysterious d’Entrecasteaux Islands, lying off the south-eastern coast of PNG, are riddled with extinct volcanoes. Hot springs splutter and spew boiling water several metres into the air. The mountainous islands are like those of French Polynesia, rising 2255m into the sky. By reputation, the people who live here are said to be wild, like the islands they inhabit.

The d’Entrecasteaux Islands were named by French admiral and explorer, Antoine de Bruni, chevalier d’Entrecasteaux. D’Entrecasteaux discovered and explored the islands in the early 1790s while searching for his missing compatriot, Comte de la Perouse, who had last reported from Botany Bay in 1788.

The d’Entrecasteaux Group contains Goodenough, Fergusson, Dobu and Normanby Islands. The channels in between are bathed in nutrient-rich waters, giving life to coral reefs and thousands of dainty tropical fish called anthias.

In the Amphlett Group, spectacular little islands rise sharply from the sea. We dived at a reef amidst a swarm of thousands of colourful anthias as a sea turtle rested nonchalantly on delicate corals.

At Nabwegeta Island, famous for its upside-down pottery, we checked out a big Kula canoe with decorated splash-boards and traditionally woven sails. With high sides for sea voyages, they’re reinforced and painted with murals. It takes several people to heave these huge outriggers ashore, while singing traditional magical chants.

Kula is also a traditional trade route, which involves the exchanging of shell ornaments, armbands and necklaces around a circle of islands known as the “Kula Ring”. In the past, Kula chiefs sailed for months in these highly decorated canoes, navigating by the stars, to exchange the prized items.

POACHED PRISONERS

At Fergusson Island, hot volcanic vents spewed boiling water several metres into the air. Standing on the edge, I was one step away from boiled oblivion. The sulphuric fumes made breathing hard and reminded us of the potential violence that lurked beneath our feet. We searched for bones as the islanders used to boil their prisoners of battle in these very pools.

As we peered into the water, a pair of vibrant ecclectus parrots flew through the mist and later we saw a large black bird of paradise, manucodia chalybata, which flew with a weird bobbing action of its tail. The grandeur of these islands and their bird life is matched only by the intense and exotic marine life forms.

On a dive near Goodenough Island, thousands of crimson anthias swarmed over the pristine coral heads. We were almost visually overwhelmed as virtually every PNG fish species weaved, ducked and dived like swarms of aquatic butterflies.

The walls of the reefs were adorned in huge sponges, sea fans, and enormous purple vase sponges, on which tiny sponge gobie slay. Surfacing into flat, sheltered waters surrounded by steep, jungle-clad islands, I felt like I was in diver heaven.

The area’s richness is thanks to the tidal currents, which push the deep ocean water back and forth at either end of the major channels between the islands. The currents carry plankton for the corals and hordes of fish.

At Fergusson Island, we walked to the Budoya Mission, where we were given a warm welcome by the children, who took great pleasure in trying on my sunglasses. “Hey man, that’s really cool,” we commented, encouraging the kids, who displayed great big smiles on their brown faces. The scenes here reminded me of all the things I have come to love about PNG: the friendly, smiling faces, breath taking scenery and superb diving.

Observation Point is a special place that seems to attract bizarre marine life. Many fascinating discoveries have been recorded here. Some of the rare and unusual animals found include striped octopus, flamboyant cuttlefish, ghost pipefish, flying gurnards, razorfish, spiky devilfish and silver moonfish.

Normanby Island is the location of a particularly rich and unusual dive site near the Bunama Mission Station. The seagrass beds around here are home to a wonderful biodiversity of marine creatures, such as double-ended pipefish, seahorses, frogfish, squid and venus-comb murex shells. It’s a great place for a night dive, with unusual marine animals scuttling around in all directions.

With a combination of pristine coral scuba diving and unique cultural experiences, I can highly recommend a dive trip exploring the Trobriand and d’Entrecasteaux Islands.

FAST FACTS

Trobriand Island expeditions can be arranged by request, on the diving liveaboards MV Golden Dawn and MV Telita. A side-trip to the Star Reefs adjacent to Tufi Peninsula and the d’Entrecasteaux Islands can be included. There are historic WWII wrecks in this region, including aircraft and ships. Milne Bay is famous for its outer reef systems teeming with pelagic marine life. The best time to dive the Trobriand Islands is in April/May or November/December. October can be good in some years. Trade winds can adversely affect diving in other months.

HOW TO GET THERE

Air Niugini flies via Port Moresby to Madang or Alotau, depending on where you board your liveaboard charter. More information: Melanesian Tourist Services, www.mtspng.com.


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