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March 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 24, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Tawali and Spirit of Niugini, Papua New Guinea

choose the liveaboard over the resort

from the March, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

My trip to Papua New Guinea started off with a bang - literally. I arrived in Port Moresby at 4:30 a.m., after 24 hours of flight time from the U.S., and was heading to the domestic terminal for my flight to Alatou, when POW-POW-POW - gunshots! I dived under a table behind a flimsy screen. The airport workers disappeared. A man lay on the floor, shot in the arm. Supposedly, an attempted robbery happened just outside the exit door where I was headed. Another tourist went to the downed man, surrounded by locals, and asked for a first-aid kit, but there was none. He told them how to stop the bleeding, and they helped the injured man out. It usually quiets down when it gets light, a worker told me.

Yes, Port Moresby deserves its infamous reputation; the crime rate is high and its no place to linger. But I can also say that the cost, the long flight time and the dive under the table were worth the diving. I spent three weeks at Oceanic founder Bob Hollis mini-empire in Milne Bay -- 10 days aboard his 115-foot liveaboard Spirit of Niugini in January, followed by a week at his upscale eco-resort Tawali. Its a lovely spot with efficient, quick-action staff, although the liveaboard and resort dive boats could use some work. While its far from Port Moresby, Tawali isnt remote enough to be spared from the crime wave, as Ill explain.

Spirit of Niugini

Spirit of Niugini

The 50-minute flight to Alatou was uneventful, as was the 90-minute van ride and the 20-minute boat trip to the resort. Upon arrival, I was greeted by a pod of spinner dolphins, then by Tawali managers Marnie and James (theyre no longer there). After a couple of days of relaxation and a sneak-preview dive off the dock -- a 400-foot drop with crocodile fish, batfish and clownfish peeking out of nooks and crannies -- I boarded the Spirit for the southern route to Milne Bay. Tawali and Spirit of Niugini, Papua New GuineaMy 15 other dive buddies were a mix of Americans, ranging from business owners to retired teachers. Instead of giving us the hour-long orientation immediately, British managers Lisa and Richard, newly arrived from the British Virgin Islands, let us roam the boat.

It was five dives a day, including the night dive. Two dives were often at the same site, fine if you wanted to explore the site further, not so fine if once was enough. Little China was a coral mound easy to fin around in one dive. There, Bale, a friendly but reserved young Papuan, introduced me to one of the many pygmy seahorses I would see during the trip. In the strong current, I went over the bommie to the lee side, in time to see a manta cruising by. The current calmed down on the second dive, so I hung out on the top at 18 feet, watching multitudes of fish go about their business. Hard and soft corals were prolific and healthy. Divers were welcome to follow Bale and Junior, another young local, but I usually lagged, taking pictures of various types of clownfish. Leslie and Richard were also on dives but they had never seen a lot of these creatures, so Richard seemed as interested in photographing as in guiding.

In the mornings, cereal and toast were offered at 6:15 a.m., followed by a 7 a.m. dive. Then a hot breakfast of eggs, toast, bacon, sausage, fruit and occasionally pancakes or French toast, followed by the 10 a.m. dive. Lunch and dinner were similar - - spaghetti, rice and vegetables served with either chicken, fish, beef, lamb or pork. Soup and yummy desserts were served at dinner. Beer was $3 a bottle; wine bottles were also extra but not overpriced. The special was $25 for all the soda you could drink, so Sprite and pineapple soda disappeared. Fruit and vegetables were purchased from locals approaching in dugout canoes or at markets near moored dive sites. Chef Billy, who tried to accommodate everyones dietary needs, produced good meals, especially considering his small galley and limited supplies.

Besides gorgeous reefs, PNG is great for muck diving. Over the course of four dives at Bunama Reef, including a night dive, I saw flamboyant cuttlefish; waspfish; scorpionfish; fish living in soda cans; a thick-legged, eight-inch spider crab; pipefish; the list goes on. Bale and Junior were amazing at finding critters and planted sticks to mark interesting finds. For divers who dont like muck all the time, especially nonphotographers, the Spirit can tailor dive trips to balance the percentage of reef versus muck diving. Some muck sites had the ewww factor. Samarai Jetty was one of the ickiest, with trash galore on the bottom. Regulator firmly clenched in my mouth so as not to swallow any water, I discovered four-inch hopping scorpionfish, a juvenile black crocodile fish slithering on the bottom, dozens of red-banded pipefish, and a three-foot pufferfish. Abundant crabs and scorpionfish came out at night.

Water averaged a balmy 86 degrees. It was an easy climb up one of two sets of wide steps to the cushioned flooring of the dive deck, which had four warm showers. I stowed my gear in a big basket under my seat, and hung my wetsuit after dipping it in the rinse tank. There were two camera rinse tanks and a smaller one for masks and regulators. A short staircase led up to a camera room/lounge area with a three-tiered camera table and lots of charging stations and adapter plugs. There were so many cameras that they also took over the nearby bookshelves, coffee table and part of the couch. An outdoor lounge area had more camera tables and two air hoses. It has a canvas top but the outer perimeter bench seating was usually in the intense sunshine, so divers crowded into the one shady corner table.

Also on the main deck were four, large-windowed cabins, two with queen beds and two with side-by-side twin beds -- no bunk beds on this boat. Stairs led down to our cabins, each with a small porthole, a bow-to stern-facing twin bed and a port-to-starboard twin. One of two generators was on the other side of my wall, but luckily it was white noise for me. Beds in the bow cabins were higher and difficult for short divers to hoist themselves into. Cabins had individually controlled A/C, drawers, hanging closets, reading lights, and bedside storage. The shower water was always hot.

The August 2008 issue of Undercurrent addressed problems with the Spirits renovation. Five months later, I can say its a good boat overall but considering it was in dry dock for eight months and only in service for five, there were still too many things going wrong. Ripped seat cushions in the dining area, one broken AC unit out of three, toilets that stopped flushing, diesel fumes in the lower cabins and a wet floor in one from an untraceable leak. The downstairs cabins need spiffing up -- mine had stained and ripped wallpaper -- but stewards Yvonne and Harriet kept them neat and clean. Richard told me those cabins were scheduled for a renovation. The crew quickly addressed problems and Philip, the mechanic, ensured that mechanical problems never interfered with the diving. The nice touches that kept divers happy -- triple-filtered drinking water with a large icemaker, self-serve pop and beer (honor system), doing most dives from the mother ship and being allowed to stay in the water as long as air and computer allowed.

Currents were unpredictable, sometimes shifting during a dive. At Boirama, I backrolled off a dingy for a relaxing drift dive with little current, cruising by a cuttlefish, a Napoleon wrasse, a school of barracuda, a black ribbon eel, crocodile fish, tiny yellow pygmy pipefish and lots of schooling tropicals. But on the next dive, the current was wild and I was too busy avoiding bumping into things to enjoy it. Tawali and Spirit of Niugini, Papua New GuineaSoft and hard corals were abundant, with huge plate corals eight feet across, healthy staghorn, six-foot sea fans, beautiful whips, and large areas of colorful soft corals waving from the bommie tops. Still, PNG wasnt immune to some coral bleaching and rubble.

Due to stormy weather, we anchored at Tawali one night. In the morning, I wanted to go ashore, but was told no. Eight robbers had invaded the resort the day before at 7 a.m., hitting the safe and guests rooms. It was an inside job; one of the perpetrators was captured, some of the money recovered. What would have happened if we had docked one night earlier?

At trips end, the Spirit docked in Alatou and my dive buddy and I headed back to Tawali for a weeks stay. We were greeted by resort co-owner Rob van der Loos, a 25-year veteran of Milne Bay who owns and operates Tawalis other liveaboard, the 60-foot Chertan. Tawali staff was young locals, friendly but subdued, probably due to the robbery but also because of limited English skills.

Locals carved the woodwork and lofty totems featured in the main lodge, where we had buffet breakfasts and dinners. The glossy rosewood dining room featured a wall of glass bottles found on dives in Samurai Bay. Lunches were served on the dive boat when three dives were on the agenda. Food choices were similar to meals on the Spirit, but the quality was better. Special dietary requests were attempted but not always successful because food supplies werent always fully stocked. My favorite dinner was juicy roast beef from Vanuatu, green beans, carrots, potatoes, salad and delicious lemon cheesecake. The spacious rooms have two queen beds with views of Hoia Bay, jungle or both. My air-conditioned room had several drawers, hanging space, two night stands, a sitting area with two chairs and a table, and an outside porch with drying rack and a table for two. The roomy bathroom had hot water nonstop.

Each day I went to the lobby to put a peg in a board to indicate which of the two boats I wanted and whether I wanted Nitrox. The resorts 60-foot boat comfortably handles 20 divers and did three more distant dives. Cookies were served after the first dive and lunch after the second, a 90-minute surface interval for salad, a couple of lukewarm entrees and the remaining cookies. The covered deck area had a camera table, four permanent seats on each side, and several unstable plastic chairs. The cabin had a table with bench seating. There was a head but no shower. The 71-cu-ft. steel tanks were out in the open, blue gear baskets slid under the seats. Oddly, only three-pound weights were available, making precise weighting tricky. The 37-foot catamaran handled 12 divers close to the resort, with an option to return after two dives.

During my week, the wind was blowing the wrong way, typical for January, making waters nearer the resort too choppy to dive. That meant we dived many sites I had already dived from the Spirit. I didnt mind because those were great diving, but hourplus rides each way got tiresome. Crinoid City, a coral mound rising from 120 feet deep, was a 90-minute trip each way. Crinoids were everywhere, and the front slope was covered with black coral trees. Circling the bommie, I came across two pygmy seahorses on the same sea fan, while a school of barracuda and three white-tip sharks hovered in the background. Usually we returned to Tawali by 4 p.m. but that day the boat had battery trouble, so it took the crew over an hour to restart the engine, getting us back at a dusky 6:30 p.m.

Dive crew at Tawali were all locals, some more skilled and organized than others. Sebastian, an older vet, had the best English so he mingled with divers the most. The guides didnt touch marine life or corals but when they saw gloved divers put their hands on coral, they didnt say anything about it. On one dive, my air tasted bad, as did a couple of others tanks, but the problem was fixed the next day. Unfortunately, the boats battery problem wasnt and it made for an interesting experience on my last day when the boat drifted toward shore, actually scraping the bottom. The crew happened to have a small skiff along, and it managed to pull the boat back into deeper water to reanchor, but we couldnt go back until different batteries showed up.

Finally, when weather permitted, I got to dive closer to Tawali, 10- to 30-minute boat rides away. At Coral Gardens, a football field of healthy staghorn, I saw two lacy scorpionfish lying together, then two unusual grey nudibranchs actually doing it. A half-inch nudibranch was laying eggs. Schooling fish swarmed everywhere. At the wall dive at Barracuda Point, the sea life ranged from muscular sharks and three-foot elephant ear seafans to pipefish the size of toothpicks. I also did a couple of shore dusk dives, looking for mandarin fish to do their mating ritual, but unfortunately the smallish males couldnt find any females to mate with.

On my departure day, it was the resort vans turn to cause problems -- a wheel bearing went bad halfway to the airport. When I arrived, I literally had to run for the plane as it was boarding, otherwise Id miss my connection and that once-a-week flight back to Tokyo. Id hate to be stuck in Port Moresby.

The diving exceeded all expectations. Gorgeous reefs mixed with critter-filled muck sites meant fun dive days and a good assortment of pictures. Diving is good all year but water temperatures are warmest November through February. However, dive site choices depend on the winds, as I found out during my January stay. Next time, Id dive from either the Spirit or Chertan, with just a couple of decompression days at Tawali. Still, Hollis and his team need to get the Spirit fixed up as it should be for the hefty price theyre charging. And wherever you travel in PNG, keep your valuables sparse and close at hand, travel in packs and look for areas to duck for cover in case gunshots ring out.

-- R.J.

P.S. from Ben Davison: Parts of PNG have been like the Wild West since we started writing about diving there in the 80s. You cant ignore the risk, which is a reason why many people prefer to travel there in groups. While resorts throughout the country do what they can to safeguard their customers -- most have guards, some are fenced in -- the robbery in Tawali was apparently far more serious than simple breaking and entering. Having to duck and cover in Port Moresby while watching your back elsewhere is surely adventure travel but not the kind of adventure many traveling divers seek. Ive loved my trips to PNG and would go again, but there are certainly other destinations with equally good diving and nowhere near the potential threat.

Tawali and Spirit of Niugini, Papua New GuineaDivers Compass: Spirit of Niugini charges $340 to $360 per night; extras are a $75 port fee, $8 daily reef and chamber fee, $15 daily fuel surcharge and $12.50 daily Nitrox charge . . . Seven nights at Tawali cost $2,334 for three dives and three meals daily, not including taxes, fees and fuel surcharge of $15 per day . . . From the East Coast, I flew Continental to Tokyo, then Air Niugini to Post Moresby and Alatou for $3,100; depending on the season and if you have the time, you can fly Los Angeles to Sydney for a stopover, then Port Moresby for under $2,000 . . . Dont walk around Port Moresby during the day alone or at night at all, even in a group . . . Tawalis non-diving activities are weekly guided walks to the rainforest, local villages, waterfall and skull caves . . . Mosquitoes werent too bad at Tawali and they spray weekly . . . Youll need to take a malaria prophylaxis; I took Malarone . . . Web site: www.tawali.com

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