In this six-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 red sea whips in Kimbe Bay
At their closest distance, around two-and-a-half miles separates Australia from Papua New Guinea and yet there is so much that is different between these two close neighbors. Australia is a first-world country that enjoys generally excellent health, education and social systems, a robust and fully functional democracy, and an average life expectancy of 83 years. By contrast, PNG is very much a third-world country that has major issues with its health and education systems, an operating but troubled democracy, and a life expectancy of just 64 years. But PNG has a unique social system that is both a saving grace and the lead in the saddlebags of real progress. And, it has to be said, the country suffers from a terrible reputation for random, violent crime.
So, why would you bother going there? Well, the answer to that question lies in those very differences, plus the amazing topography, the incredible biodiversity, and, for the traveling underwater photographer, a veritable smorgasbord of photo opportunities!
A diver checks out the amazing offshore reefs of Tufi
The Atun wreck in Rabaul
A Complex Place…
The country that we call Papua New Guinea came into being in September 1975 when it gained independence from Australia, which had administered the former colonies of British and German New Guinea since the end of WWI. In retrospect, it was a rushed and flawed shift from a colonial administration to a Westminster system of government, and many of the current problems PNG faces can be traced back to that transition.
The basic issue was the patchwork quilt of tribes and clans that form PNG, together with the principle of wantok (“one talk”), where a person’s primary loyalty and allegiance is to those who speak the same language or dialect. It’s a complex thing in what is said to be one of the world’s most heterogeneous countries: PNG has a population of around 7.8 million, but over 850 languages, together with nearly 1,000 traditional societies and ethnic indigenous groups.
A traditional ceremony at Tufi
When the first European explorers surveyed New Guinea island—the second-largest in the world—in the 16th century, they saw the mountain range that runs down the spine of the island and assumed nobody lived up there. What they, and all that came after them, did not realize was that the mountains they saw from the south coast were not the same as the ones seen from the north! In reality, there is a large rift valley (of which those mountains form the sides) inhabited by numerous tribes living a village-based subsistence lifestyle—and engaged in an ever-shifting series of conflicts. Most of the tribes had their own language or dialect and were largely isolated from one another because of those conflicts.
Incredibly, “first contact” with the outside world did not happen until 1932 when an Australian prospector called Michael Leahy, from rural Queensland, entered the rift valley looking for gold. Even more incredibly, given the year, Leahy owned a Leica camera and took an extensive series of photographs. Hence, a unique visual record into an amazing series of events was established, with Leahy fully documenting his experiences on the expedition in a daily journal. Those languages and dialects, together with the long history of inter-tribal conflict, are the basis for the wantok system.
A fire dancer in Rabaul
...with a Great View!
The world’s third-largest island country, after Indonesia and Madagascar, PNG consists of the eastern half of the huge island of New Guinea, together with the Bismarck and Louisade Archipelagos, the Admiralty Islands, Bougainville Island, and numerous other smaller islands in the Bismarck and Solomon Seas. PNG is located on the southern rim of the infamous Pacific Ring of Fire, and it is volcanic activity that has created the country’s amazing topography. Massive, almost impenetrable, mountain ranges covered in dense rain forest dominate both New Guinea and New Britain islands. The coastal areas bask in the rich currents of the Indo-Pacific, creating superb reefs and ecosystems, while many of the far-flung islands offer stunning locations that are almost once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
PNG sits at the very epicenter of the famed Coral Triangle, the richest known area of marine biodiversity in the world. Much has been written about the Coral Triangle and the six countries that it covers, Indonesia, Malaysia, Timor-Leste, the Philippines, the Solomons, and PNG. The simple version is that the incredible biodiversity of the Coral Triangle is a result of the massive flows of water from the Indonesian Throughflow and the Southern Equatorial Current, both of which deliver nutrients from the deep-water basins of the area and distribute the eggs and larvae of the region’s species. Uniquely, because of its location, PNG is touched by both water flows, creating wonderfully diverse locations that have to be experienced to be fully understood.
A stunning aerial view of a Kimbe Bay reef
Amazing hard corals at the Witu Islands
Diving Papua New Guinea
There is some tremendous scuba diving in PNG, but in such a large geographical area, it makes sense to concentrate on the main diving locations: New Guinea, New Britain and New Ireland. (Unless, of course, you have unlimited time and money, in which case you should probably do them all—diving PNG is addictive!)
The obvious starting point is the main island of New Guinea and the well-known area of Milne Bay, centered around the town of Alotau on the eastern tip of the island. Milne Bay offers excellent diving and phenomenal biodiversity. There is also surprisingly good diving near the capital, Port Moresby, on the south coast of New Guinea. In addition, there’s excellent diving at Tufi, on the northeast coast. And finally, there are some really nice sites around Madang, further up in the northwest.
A manta ray in Milne Bay
The Pacific Gas wreck near Port Moresby
Going east into the island provinces is the large island of New Britain, where the diving on the north coast is centered around Kimbe Bay. Kimbe Bay is to New Britain what Milne Bay is to New Guinea: an incredible location with tremendous diving on the seamounts and reef systems of the bay. It is also the base for the liveaboards that dive the Fathers Reefs at the remote eastern end of the bay and the Witu Islands in the Bismarck Sea.
On the northeast tip of New Britain is Rabaul, famed for its massive caldera and 65 WWII Japanese wrecks now largely buried under volcanic ash after the 1994 eruptions the Tavuvur and Vulcan volcanoes. While most of those wrecks are no longer diveable, a couple of them are, and there are several other really great sites in the area. Finally, there is the remote south coast of New Britain, which can only be dived a few months of the year but is both truly exceptional and a real adventure.
A beautiful anemone in Kimbe Bay
Schooling barracuda at Fathers Reefs
Located along the edge of the Bismarck Archipelago, the province of New Ireland forms the eastern flank of PNG and is quite remote from the main island of New Guinea, with its own distinct and interesting traditional cultures. The province consists of the large, musket-shaped main island of New Ireland, together with numerous other smaller islands, the largest of which is New Hanover.
Diving in New Ireland is centered around Kavieng, the main town and provincial capital, which offers a broad range of experiences: shipwrecks, WWII aircraft wrecks, dramatic walls, dynamic channels, bustling reefs and schooling pelagics. New Hanover also has some excellent diving with a superb mixture of rarely dived reefs and Japanese WWII shipwrecks, including a completely intact midget submarine!
The Der Yang wreck near Kavieng in New Ireland
The Japanese mini-sub wreck in New Hanover
Is Papua New Guinea Safe?
Hopefully, you now have a degree of insight into why PNG is such a special and unique place, but you may well still be wondering if you should travel somewhere with a reputation for being unsafe. The truth is that the country is not 100-percent safe. There are parts of Port Moresby where you would have to be crazy to go to! But if you stay away from those areas, you will be just fine, and once you get to your final diving destination, you will be in excellent hands and have no concerns at all. I last visited PNG in March 2020, my 24th trip in 20 years, and I can honestly say that in all those journeys, I have never once had any real cause to worry.
Incredible sea fans in New Hanover
A diver goes deep in Kimbe Bay
I often get asked why I am so fascinated by PNG, and the answer is the place is just so different and quite unlike anywhere else I have been to. The history, the tribal cultures, the terrain, the marine biodiversity, and the incredible diving—they are an intoxicating combination. Plus, as an Australian, which other major diving destination can you leave from the east coast of Australia in the morning and be at your resort or liveaboard that same evening? Granted, the country has its issues, but that’s all part of the excitement of going there. Hey, it’s Papua New Guinea—expect the unexpected!
Volcanoes are a defining feature of New Britain
Check out all the parts of Don Silcock’s Underwater Photographer’s Guide to Papua New Guinea: Part I: Introduction, Part II: New Guinea Island, Part III: New Britain Island, and Part IV: New Ireland.
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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