Diving West New Britain, Papua New Guinea on the MV Febrina

An underwater photographer's unique and spectacular experience diving in the PNG

Part 1: Sharks and wide-angle opportunities like never before

By Ron Watkins

 
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After fifty hours of traveling from Phoenix, Arizona, the MV Febrina at the Walindi Resort dock is a welcome sight. Even for the most seasoned of travelers, this is a long and trying trip, but the bountiful waters of West New Britain, Papua New Guinea are host to some of the most pristine reefs, prolific marine life and diverse muck diving in the world. Although I journeyed here for the spectacular diving, it was the crew of the MV Febrina, the local people and my fellow divers that made this adventure truly special. 

 

The MV Febrina anchored off Garove Island.

 

Welcome to Papua New Guinea

Upon arrival in Port Moresby, you will need to purchase a visa for 100 Kina (~ $50US), but you must pay with local currency. Unfortunately the Singapore airport did not have Kina, so I went to the Port Moresby airport exchange booth where I was greeted by a young lady who was listening to a very familiar American song. I paused for a moment and then asked “LMFAO?” She gave me a big smile, exposing her red stained betel nut teeth and replied, “I’m sexy and I know it.” We both laughed and I realized that although PNG is one of the least toured countries in the world, there is plenty of Western influence in the capitol city.

Papua New Guinea consists of over 600 islands located just south of the equator and right above Australia. The country has very little tourism infrastructure and with over 800 languages spoken it can be an intimidating place for solo travelers. I worked with Jenny Collister to plan my trip, and she is incredibly knowledgeable of the area. Unfortunately, due to limited vacation days I was unable to venture into the highlands to experience a sing sing (cultural festival) or visit the Sepik River villages. Traveling within PNG is expensive compared to neighboring Indonesia due to the limited infrastructure, the required Air Niugini flights and the high cost of doing business in the country. If you have the time, the budget and a sense of adventure, you should try to extend your trip beyond diving to experience the culture and beauty of this country.

After a bumpy yet scenic drive from Hoskins Airport, the air-conditioned shuttle van dropped us off at the end of the dock. I boarded the Febrina and within 30 minutes we set sail. That night I settled into my single cabin with private bath, unpacked my dive gear and set up my camera equipment on an ample sized table and shelves. There is also a dedicated dry charging station conveniently located on the deck. At dinner I formally met my shipmates for the next nine days, who included two young British doctors practicing in Australia, two Aussie educators, an award winning 3D videographer and his wife from Holland, and five Russians. Josie, the cruise leader and dive master, conducted a thorough safety and dive briefing then introduced us to the smiling PNG crew.  

 

Sharks on Nearly Every Dive

When I woke up on the first morning it was windy, cloudy and rainy. The first dive was on Vanessa’s Reef, with lots of large healthy sea fans, sponges and schooling fish. The second and third dives were on Inglis Shoals, the third dive being a shark dive. A small bucket of chum was placed at about 60 feet and immediately five wide body silvertip sharks and one small pesky white tip approached. The sharks swam in close and fast. The little white tip kept bouncing off of my dome port, biting my strobes and bumping me in a non-aggressive way like a little puppy looking for a treat. During the trip we did a couple of other shark dives and they never disappointed with the quantity and quality of sharks.  Even on most of the dives with no chum it was good to observe that sharks were present and patrolling the reefs, indicating a healthy ecosystem.

 

A silvertip shark comes in for a closer look.

 

A whitetip shark plays chicken with the camera.

 

A whitetip shark turns on a dime inches from the camera.

 

A large silvertip shark parts a school of fish.

 

The Weather Worsens and the Captain makes a tough decision

We spent the night moored at South Emma and awoke to another rainy morning dive. The ship then motored a short distance to Joelle’s Reef and conditions had worsened with stronger current and surge, making a descent down the anchor line a necessity. The Febrina has a nice descent line from the stern of the boat up to the bow and attached to the mooring line. There is also a tank hanging at 15’ at the stern if needed on safety stops.

I almost skipped the dive, but decided I would feel better if I got back in the water instead of remaining on the rocking boat. Joelle’s Reef was another amazing pinnacle encircled by large schools of spadefish, barracudas and red pinjalo snappers. There were numerous sharks including a hammerhead, hawksbill turtles, clown triggerfish and several closed anemones in a ball. When it was time to surface, the current had increased and the seas were much more choppy. One by one, we each carefully timed the ladder in the 6-8’ swells.

Captain Alan Raabe gathered everyone in the saloon to show us the latest weather map, which showed three cyclones in the region and tightly aligned isobars converging on our location (the "perfect storm"). He informed us that we would be skipping the last two dives and motoring six hours ahead to get out of the storm’s vortex. He then added, “It may not be much better conditions where we are headed, but it sure the bloody hell can't be any worse.” Fortunately, Alan's gamble paid off and we moored for a calm evening and enjoyed another delicious dinner. All of the meals onboard were excellent and there was always plenty to eat. I went to bed that night reflecting on the good diving we had thus far and with high hopes for the remainder of the trip, despite the weather mishaps.

 

A diver swims with a large school of red pinjalo snapper.

 

A large school of barracuda converge in the currents.

 

Clark's Anemonefish stay close to the safety of their host.

 

Gabriel observes a pink anemonefish family.

 

Diving in the Famous Witu Islands

After the weather conditions broke, we spent the next few days diving the signature location of the itinerary: the Witu Islands. The area features deep pinnacles with steep sloping drop-offs and muck diving in the volcanic black sand. The water conditions improved at Dicky’s Knob with the sun making a brief appearance from behind thick storm clouds. The pinnacle started in 25’ of water and dropped off to about 90’. This site, like many in the area, is carpeted with a coral called corallomorph that is very painful if touched and can actually penetrate dive skins and thin wetsuits. Fortunately the reefs are also covered with beautiful large soft corals gardens, sea whips, sea fans with colorful crinoids, anemones and a plethora of small schooling fish in every color of the rainbow.

 

A diver descends to a lush garden of soft coral.

 

Schooling anthias stay close to the reef.

 

The warm waters of PNG are home to healthy sponges and corals.

 

Pyramid butterflyfish ride the currents over a plume of soft coral.

 

Several colorful crinoids attach to the coral on the reef.

 

Next week we will be publishing Part II of this article, continuing Ron's incredible adventure in the PNG...

 

About the Author

Ron Watkins is an international award winning photographer and writer. He has been passionate about underwater photography since 1996 and his photography has appeared in magazines, websites, juried art displays, national aquariums, libraries and private collections. Additional images from this trip and many others may be viewed at www.scubarews.com.

 

Continue on to PNG Macro Mania, Part II of Ron's adventure

 

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