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April 2003 Vol. 18, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Star Dancer, Papua New Guinea

quarter inch critters, thirty foot monsters

from the April, 2003 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Is Papua New Guinea among the best dive destinations in the world? Having been to Palau, the Maldives, Indonesia, the Solomons, and Yap, I have a basis for comparison. To find out, I chose back-to-back September weeks on the Star Dancer, a craft that was my first liveaboard, in 1996 when it was Sun Dancer I in Palau. I even had the same cabin!

An erupting volcano had closed the airport at Hoskins, forcing the Dancer to come and go from Rabaul instead of the Walindi-Rabaul and Rabaul-Walindi itineraries I had expected. It also forced us to change our Air Niugini itinerary, and my partner and I failed to make most of our scheduled flights. Our travel agent, Cliff Comfort from Reef & Rainforest, happened to be with us on the first day and managed to get us to the boat in Rabaul on time.

For the most part we had perfect weather -- days in the 90s, nights in high 70s -- but rough seas made for a few uncomfortable nights, though this was supposed to be the best season. Under the surface, we usually had calm water -- 80-84 degrees and usually 100-foot visibility but as low as 20 feet near shore in the muck. Almost every dive was on a bommie with the bottom at 15-25 feet. Captains Jock or Matt tied up to moorings, so finding both the reef and the boat was easy, as was making safety stops on the reef. Everywhere the hard coral was healthy, and so were the soft corals, fans, feathers, whips, and gorgonians. Midway Reef had acres of staghorn coral, and bright red anemones were home to many spine-cheek clownfish. There were clouds of fish -- big schools of trevally and fusiliers and rainbow runners racing around the reef perimeter, as well as varieties of unicorns and groups of barracudas, snappers, and triggers. Often batfish followed me around like puppy dogs. Floating over the reef like confetti were swarms of brightly colored anthias, pennant butterflies, and many kinds of damsels, busy threatening all other fish and all the divers.

The divemasters found plenty of flesh-colored seafans with quarter-inch pygmy seahorses, which are exactly the same pink shade. They showed them to me with the help of magnifying glasses, but I dive with bifocals for occasions like this. Mostly the pygmies hung on with their tails and swayed with the fan, but I saw some motor a couple of inches to a new post. Our divemasters were very protective of them, cautioning us not to do anything to disturb these fragile little treasures. Then, at the other extreme, the second dive day we encountered a massive whale shark. The resulting celebration looked like an underwater version of a home team's winning touchdown. Everyone was jumping up and down and cheering. Apparently the critter appreciated the applause, returning to check out the boat and allowing many of us to get another look.

On muck dives, I saw unusual critters -- elegant firefish, juvenile blue ribbon eels, juvenile yellowtail coris, ghost pipefish and harlequin ghost pipefish, leaf scorpionfish, devil scorpionfish, twin spot gobies, urchin clingfish, and tiny white nudibranchs. Divemasters Tim, Caroline, and Keiko -- along with Patrick and Jonah, the dive deck crew -- often dove with us. They were expert at finding these elusive fish and at filming both them and the guests. They were also expert at taking care of divers, and were safety conscious and helpful. I set up my equipment upon arrival, and then never had to touch it. They immediately refilled the aluminum 80s to 3000 psi in place, so I was always ready to go. Under the bench in front of each tank was a basket for masks and accessories. Wetsuits hung close by, so I suited up, grabbed my mask, slipped into my tank, walked down the steps to the dive platform where fins were kept, and stepped into the sea. If you have physical problems, they will carry your tank for you. Divemasters were always in the water, but buddies were free to go off on their own. Five dives were available most days, including a night dive, even if only one diver was nocturnal. Warm showers at about sea temperature and warm towels were waiting after the dives.

Chef Andrew and his "galley girls"-- Veronica, Patrisha, Mariah, and Beverly -- created varied and delicious meals, enabling me to maintain my energy for all this diving. You could have morning coffee in your room -- just leave the sign on your door and they would deliver it. Continental breakfast was available before the 6:15 a.m. dive briefing, with a full breakfast after the first dive. Sometimes we had waffles, French toast, or "Aussie Breakfast" (baked beans on toast). Always there were fresh fruit, juice, cereal, toast, and "Eggs How U Like Em" with bacon or ham. Buffet lunch was a feast: hot soup, steamed rice, a choice of four hot and four cold dishes, and dessert. I chose from such things as stir-fried pork and veggies, pasta with chicken, spaghetti, barbecued chicken, coleslaw, "two potato salad," or marinated tomatoes and cucumbers. If the fishing were good, we had "fresh catch." Dinners were more formal: soup, salad, entree, and dessert -- with wine -- were served at the tables. (All drinks, alcoholic and otherwise, are included on Dancers.) There were always two entrees -- steaks, pork chops, lamb, chicken, and fish -- and you could pig out and have both. Desserts were divine, and some were chocolate. Star Dancer, Papua New GuineaThey offered some goodies both morning and afternoon, and giant chocolate chip cookies and the "famous peanut butter cookies" were always in the big jar.

Other special amenities include eight comfortable air-conditioned cabins: some with single beds that can be pushed together to make one almost-king, some have twins that can't be moved together, and some have queens. There are ensuite bathrooms, thick terry bathrobes, turn down service with mints on the pillows, videos and CDs in the entertainment center, books in the library, a partially shaded sky deck, and an onboard "boatique." Spacious camera tables and rinse tanks are set up on the dive deck, with a separate area for recharging. E-6 photo processing is available, with light tables for viewing slides.

Photographers had plenty of opportunities. One of the best was The Arch, a deep water coral promontory, where the crew rigged a line from a bommie to a beautiful natural arch, covered with fans, whips, sponges, and other growth. I got outstanding shots of divers swimming under the arch -- which would be a great spot for an underwater wedding!

Elsewhere, I got close-ups of sharks: silvertips, whitetips, gray whalers, and blacktips. Turtles posed for me, and huge Napoleon wrasses and humphead parrots paraded past. Juvenile black and white snappers reminded me of spotted drums, and the adults were fashionable in their black lipstick. Black and white humbugs and damsels danced above table corals, disappearing as one amid the fingers when I came too close. There were nudibranchs in many colors and patterns and mantis shrimp swiveling their eyes around like satellites.

Yet all is not pleasant in paradise, as one morning underwater I heard a loud boom, and then on the second dive I saw three dead fish. Damn if it wasn't dynamiting. The reefs I dived didn't show damage, but it's not a good sign for the future in this still primitive society. Wherever we stopped, local residents paddled out in their outriggers to trade produce for rice, sugar, or salt. Their lifestyle is basically the same as it's always been, and they seem no more worried about the future -- unfortunately -- than they do the past. We tourists passed out a few trinkets -- pens, pencils, combs, hair scrunchies, and balloons -- and they rewarded us with big smiles and thank you's in pidgin or English.

As for the diving, each time I got wet I saw more fish than I would see in the Caribbean in a week! But this itinerary didn't have spectacular shows such as those in the currents of Palau's Blue Corner and Peleliu Cut, the walls of jacks and barracudas as in the Solomons, or the squadrons of eagle rays in the Maldives. Because all the diving was on coral gardens and bommies, they were all similar. Nonetheless, the reefs were beautiful, the fish plentiful, and the boat superb. Two back-to-back weeks were too much; next time, I'd take one here and take another of the many boats (see sidebar) that travel elsewhere in PNG. After all, there is a lot of ocean here.

-- K.I.

Star Dancer, Papua New GuineaDiver's Compass: We made all arrangements through Reef & Rainforest in Sausalito, Calif., www.reefrainforest.com ... Peter Hughes' website for the Dancer Fleet is www.peterhughes.com ... Rates for our cabin in 2002 were $2195 + $65 port charges, per week, with a 10% discount for back-to-back weeks ... Nitrox is available at extra charge ... the nearest chamber is Australia, a long and painful haul ... The price for 2003 is listed as $1895 for the same room -- quite a difference ... We used frequent flyer miles to fly to Sydney, then Cairns, from where we hopped to PNG on Air Niugini ... At the Cairns Colonial Club, our Superior Room was $105 per night, including transfers, www.rihgacolonialclub.com.

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