In this five-part series, underwater shooter Don Silcock tells you everything you need to know about capturing the best of Papua New Guinea, a country he has traveled to two dozen times over the past two decades…
Beautiful barrel sponges on the offshore reefs at Tufi: Make sure you take a wide-angle lens with you to Tufi—you’ll need it
When the 16th-century Portuguese and Spanish explorers first arrived in the far eastern part of what was then called the Malay Archipelago, they had no way of knowing they had stumbled upon the second-largest island in the world. Neither could they possibly know that the island is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, occupying just 0.5% of the Earth’s surface, but with almost 10% of its species—and that is just on the land!
What they did note, though, was the similarity between the indigenous people and those of the Guinea region of Africa, which is how the island came to be called New Guinea. Once discovered, New Guinea became part of “The Great Game” played by the European colonizing nations, with the Dutch taking all of the western half of the huge island, while England and Germany held the eastern quarters until World War I, when they were amalgamated and handed over to Australia to administer. Independence from Australia came to the eastern half of the island in 1975 when the country of Papua New Guinea was born, with the western half ultimately becoming the Indonesian province of West Papua.
A flamboyant cuttlefish under Samarai Jetty at Milne Bay: There are many superb critter opportunities here and you will need both your short and long macro lenses
The Coral Triangle
Equally certain is that those explorers knew absolutely nothing about what we now call the Coral Triangle. The portion of the Indo-Pacific widely acknowledged as the richest known area of marine biodiversity in the world, it encompasses the eastern parts of Indonesia and Malaysia, together with all of Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and the Solomons. The Coral Triangle’s marine biodiversity is simply stunning, with more than 600 species of coral and 3,000 species of reef fish. (To put those numbers into perspective, the Red Sea has around 200 coral species and 1,000 fish species, while the Caribbean has 50 and 900 respectively.)
New Guinea island sits at the very heart of the Coral Triangle, with two of the most well-known global diving locations at its extremities: Raja Ampat on the western tip and Milne Bay on the eastern tip. Numerous other marine biodiversity hotspots have been found around the vast coastline of New Guinea. But the sheer remoteness of it all means there must be many others just waiting to be discovered!
Schooling sweetlips at Susie’s Bommy off Port Moresby
Diving Eastern New Guinea Island
There are three main diving locations on the “mainland”—as the eastern half of New Guinea is often referred to in Papua New Guinea—and Milne Bay is at the very top of that list. Milne Bay is what first put Papua New Guinea on the radar of traveling divers and underwater photographers—largely as a result of the late Bob Halstead and his adventures on the MV Telita, the first liveaboard in the country. That was some 30 years ago, and while much has changed since those exciting early days, Milne Bay is still as biodiverse as it always was and is an incredible diving experience.
On the north coast of New Guinea is the wonderfully scenic location of Tufi with its magnificent tropical fjords and vibrant offshore reefs. Then, on the south coast is the less well-known, but equally excellent diving around the capital Port Moresby.
Superb hard corals on the offshore reefs at Tufi
Diving Milne Bay
The area of Papua New Guinea referred to as “Milne Bay” is a little confusing, because in reality there are two Milne Bays… The first is the large, sheltered bay on the southeastern tip of New Guinea island, named after the British Admiral Sir Alexander Milne. And then there is the much larger province also called Milne Bay. The province is roughly the size of New Zealand, but only about 5% of that area is dry land. The rest are the waters surrounding the 600-plus islands that make up the province. Those islands fall into four main groups: the Trobriands, the D’Entrecasteaux Islands, Woodlark Island and the Louisiade Archipelago.
Apart from periodic exploratory trips, diving is only really possible in and around the bay itself. And there are two options available to do that: resort based in the north of the bay or a liveaboard covering the complete area. Both are great options, and the perfect trip would be a combination of both, because that would allow a real appreciation of the incredible diversity of the overall area.
Incredibly vibrant elephant ear sponges in Milne Bay: You will need that wide-angle lens in Milne Bay, too!
Tawali Dive Resort is located on a limestone headland on the Solomon Sea side of the peninsular that forms the north coast of Milne Bay. The main lodge and accommodation is perched up on the headland, surrounded by dense rainforest and overlooking the house reef and main jetty. To the west is a large bay where the resort’s service area is located. Tawali’s location is both picture-perfect and ideally situated for quick and easy access to the best dive sites on the north coast. Plus, it is possible to day-dive some of the excellent sites at Nuakata Island near the mouth of the bay.
The north coast has a tremendous selection of dive sites, ranging from black sand critter diving to superb fringing reefs, plus there are a number of dynamic offshore seamounts. My personal favorite on the north coast is Deacon’s Reef, located on a headland near the small village of Lauadi and swept by the nutrient-dense coastal currents. Those rich nutrients have created an astonishing array of beautiful hard corals, sponges and sea fans, which make the site a delight to dive. And because it is a relatively shallow dive, it is usually bathed in light and an absolute joy to photograph. Plus, the nearby deep waters mean that there is a good chance of seeing cruising hammerheads, whale sharks and oceanic mantas out in the blue.
Where “muck diving” was born: Lauadi critters in the black sand
Spectacular Deacon’s Reef
The big advantage of diving Milne Bay from a liveaboard is that you get access to the remoter sites around the East Cape Reefs in the north, together with the excellent sites in the southern area of the bay around Samarai Island and the China Strait. In the south, there are two really exceptional sites that are essential diving. First is the manta ray cleaning station at Gona Bara Bara island, which is the best and most reliable location in all of Papua New Guinea to see reef mantas (Mobula alfredi). Second is the jetty at Samarai Island, the former provincial capital under Australian colonial rule. The jetty has definitely seen better days, but it is a really excellent critter site where you can spend hours exploring the accumulated flotsam and jetsam.
There are two liveaboards that operate in Milne Bay: MV Chertan, owned and operated by Rob van der Loos, who enjoys a particularly strong following with macro underwater photographers. Rob has been diving Milne Bay Province for nearly 35 years and simply stated, he knows the bay better than any other single individual. Based from Alotao, the main town and provincial capital, Chertan has itineraries that cover both the southern and northern areas of Milne Bay. The second option is the country’s newest liveaboard, MV Oceania, which is skippered by Dan Johnson, another long-term Papua New Guinea resident. The boat was launched in 2019 after being completely refurbished by Dan, and in a word, it is impressive! Based from Kimbe Bay on the north coast of New Britain, Oceania relocates to Milne Bay in February and March as part of Dan’s plan to operate the boat year-round in the best locations in Papua New Guinea.
A black reef manta at Gona Bara Bara
A porcelain crab under Samarai Jetty
Located at Cape Nelson on the northeast coast, this area is without doubt one of the most scenic and picturesque areas in all of Papua New Guinea—and Tufi fjord is the stunning epicenter! The diving at Tufi ranges from critter hunting in the assorted debris and general junk around the main wharf to pristine offshore reefs rarely visited by anybody other than the resort’s guests. Add the interesting World War II wrecks and fjord sponge gardens in between, as well as the superb above-water scenery and interesting local village culture, and you’ve got a pretty special combination.
A photogenic sponge garden at Tufi fjord
Schooling razorfish near Tufi jetty—a wonderful place to be at the “golden hour”
There is only one real option for diving this part of New Guinea island and that’s Tufi Dive Resort, which is located on a ridge overlooking the main fjord and surrounded by dense rainforest that descends right down to the water’s edge.
A typical dive day at Tufi will have you leaving the dive jetty at 8am for the trip out to the offshore reefs, with two dives on sites dictated by the prevailing weather. The journey out varies on the sites but is typically between 40 and 60 minutes. There are about 25 offshore reefs that are dived regularly, and they vary from seamounts to fringing reefs, but generally all are good dives; several are truly exceptional. A third dive in the afternoon will be either in the main fjord or around the jetty, with night dives at the jetty.
A hard coral garden on the offshore reefs at Tufi
One of the many nudis around Tufi jetty
Diving Port Moresby
It has to be said that Port Moresby does not exactly enjoy a great reputation. And there are indeed parts of POM, as it is known locally, that you should avoid like the plague… But is it the near-death experience it is associated with? Well, in my experience, it is not. What’s more, there is some remarkably good diving to be had, including one of the best shipwrecks in the country.
The best dive sites are concentrated along the offshore and sunken barrier reefs, which involves a boat journey of up to an hour to access. A couple of those sites, like End Bommie and Suzie’s Bommie, are great places to see both the elusive, but spectacular, Rhinopias and pygmy seahorses.
A pygmy seahorse off Port Moresby
Located on Horseshoe Reef is the wreck of the Pacific Gas, a former LPG tanker that was scuttled in 1986. The wreck is completely intact and sits upright on the reef slope with the top of its bow at 45 feet and the stern at 140 feet. Swept as it is by the rich currents of the south coast, the wreck has become a beacon to large pelagics and because it is so intact, it makes for a really excellent dive.
There are two options to dive Port Moresby. Pro Dive is run by long-term Papua New Guinea resident John Miller with his boat MV Solatai, which operates from Tahira Marina. Alternatively, Loloata Island is the newly refurbished private island resort in Bootless Bay, which also offers diving on all the Port Moresby sites.
Beautiful sea fans at Port Moresby: Amazing diversity so close to a capital city
Located in the heart of the Coral Triangle, the huge island of New Guinea has some amazing diving and the eastern half—the “mainland of PNG”—has three key locations which all offer great diving and underwater photography opportunities. Milne Bay has incredible biodiversity and variety, Tufi has its critters and wonderful offshore reefs (plus scenery to die for), and Port Moresby has great overall diving and an incredible wreck.
In truth, it’s tough to choose. The perfect trip would be three or four days diving Port Moresby, followed by a short one-hour flight to Alotau, and the same at Tawali; then a 7–10-day liveaboard to experience the rest of Milne Bay, before heading back to Port Moresby for a connecting flight to Tufi and another 3 or 4 days of diving. What a way to cleanse the mind of 2020 and pandemic lockdowns!
Hiding in the rubble under Milne Bay’s Samarai Jetty
Planning Your Underwater Photography Trip to New Guinea
- MILNE BAY
- How to Get There: The only really viable option for getting to Milne Bay is by air from Port Moresby to Alotau’s Gurney (GUR) airport, which is served on a regular basis by Air Nuigini.
- When to Go: Milne Bay is an all-year round destination, as the shape of the bay and the many islands of the province mean that sheltered locations can always be found. To dive Milne Bay at its very best, you should visit from November through to late January, as that is the dry season for that part of Papua New Guinea and the minimal runoff from the rivers and streams means that underwater visibility can be exceptional.
- Complete Guide: Read more about this incredible part of Papua New Guinea and the great diving to be had there in Don Silcock’s Complete Guide to Diving Milne Bay.
- How to Get There: The only way to get to Tufi is by air, as there are no roads through the Owen Stanley Range that separates the north coast from the south. The resort has built its own landing strip and is served by Air Nuigini from Port Moresby.
- When to Go: The best time to dive Tufi is in October and November, during the doldrum period between the trade wind seasons when the diving conditions both offshore and onshore are optimum. As a result, the seas are calm, visibility is great and the water is cooler—which brings out the critters.
- Complete Guide: Read more about this truly beautiful part of Papua New Guinea and the great diving in the fjords and offshore reefs in Don Silcock’s Complete Guide to Diving Tufi.
- PORT MORESBY
- How to Get There: Port Moresby is the only international gateway in to PNG and is well served by Air Nuigini and Qantas from both Brisbane and Cairns.
- When to Go: The absolute best time to dive Port Moresby is from mid-April through to the end of May in the doldrum period between the end of the wet season and the start of the dry season.
- Complete Guide: Read more about this greatly maligned and misunderstood part of Papua New Guinea in Don Silcock’s Complete Guide to Diving Port Moresby.
Incredible perfection in Lauadi’s black sand: This is where Bob Halstead came up with the phrase “muck diving”
Check out Part I of Don Silcock’s PNG guide: “An Underwater Photographer’s Guide to Papua New Guinea – Part I: Introduction.”
In more normal times, Don is based in Bali, and his website www.indopacificimages.com has extensive location guides, articles and images on some of the world’s best diving locations and underwater experiences. Make sure to check out DPG’s Photographer of the Week article featuring more of Don’s awesome pictures.
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