I could have titled this "Around the World in 59 Days" or "Around the World in 92 Dives." In any case, it was a dream dive vacation that took us around the world and the opportunity to visit some of the planet's best dive spots.
Last year, the light of my life, my wife Deborah, announced that she was going to retire. So, I decided to take a year's leave from my faculty position and join her in the first year of her retirement. Our friend, Wes, had organized a group dive trip to Papua New Guinea on Peter Hughes' Star Dancer that we were signed up to do. I had read in many of the guide books that round-the-world airfare was about the same as flying to Asia and back. Well, since we were going to have the time this year, I asked Deborah if she wanted do the RTW thing and go somewhere else after we did PNG. I should have known what her response would be, YES!!!! YES!!!! YES!!!!
When you book RTW airfare, you can't backtrack and must do at least three stops. After reading Undercurrents, Scuba Diving, and consulting with some of the members of this board, we narrowed our wish list down to three live-aboards and one land-based dive operation: the Star Dancer in PNG, Borneo Divers in Sipadan, the Ocean Rover in Thailand, and the Manthiri in the Maldives. We would be gone from home for seven weeks and fly more than 35,000 miles! (We had additional reservations for a few days in Jordan and three weeks in Egypt, but canceled that part of the trip after 9-11).
On the Epiphany, January 6, we met most of our group going to PNG at LAX for the 14.5 hour flight to Australia. There, we spent four beautiful days touring in Sydney before going on to PNG. Sydney is a great town, clean, friendly, good food, and lots to do. The Opera House is awesome.
We flew on Air Niugini to Port Morseby by way of Brisbane. There had been some concern about baggage weight as we were told that we could only take 70 pounds per person. The photographers were hard pressed to meet the limit. I had been told by several members of this board that we could get by with more than the published maximum. They were right. No one asked about the weight, even on some legs where our tickets clearly stated that we were only allowed 20 Kg (44 pounds). At the airport in Port Morseby, we connected to our flight to Rabaul in New Britain.
The Star Dancer people met us at the airport and collected our luggage for the one-hour ride to the dock. After being shown to our cabins, C-cards were checked, forms were filled out, we were briefed on the boat and introduced to the crew. You can find out more about the boat by visiting the PH website: Click here
The Star Dancer is comfortable, spacious, and well maintained. The cabins are large for a live-aboard with in-suite bathrooms. The dive deck has plenty of room and the camera table was big enough for everyone's toys. Nitrox is available. The crew was a mixture of Aussies, Kiwis and Papuans. The cook, Hannah, was a highlight of the trip, a real character and a fantastic cook.
The diving was done off the back of the Star Dancer and most of the sites were on bommies (large table-top coral heads rising up out of the deep). Two dive masters were in the water on each dive, but you could do your own thing if you wished. We were asked to stay shallower than 130 feet, to do a safety stop after every dive, and not do any decompression dives. No one ever checked our computers. A couple of dives were of the "muck diving" variety, looking for strange and unusual critters. Here are two examples:
Barney's Reef. 80 feet for 60 minutes. After a giant stride off the dive deck we could see the pinnacle at the end of the mooring line. This was a bommie and a moderate current was blowing across the reef. Vis was greater than 100 feet and the water temperature was a balmy 86 degrees. We were told that the best fish action would be on the up current side of the structure. Moving into the current and up to the lip of the bommie, we hung out for a while looking out into the blue. Zillions of baitfish were feeding in the water. Periodically they would flash back towards the rocks in unison whenever a jack or other predator made a suspicious move. Once the threat passed, the schools would expand away from the structure like a fireworks bloom to feed until the next attack. A few lone tunas and a small two-foot gray shark sailed by effortlessly in the current. Meanwhile, a big school of barracuda swirled over-head in a large circle, making for a great photo opportunity. After about twenty minutes, we moved off the lip of the bommie to explore the coral and to look for small stuff. Deborah found a friendly cuttlefish that was laying her eggs in nooks and crannies. We saw pairs of flame dartfish, five different kinds of anemone fish, many lionfish, nudibranchs, two turtles, clown triggers, various butterfly fish, angels, etc. The coral was healthy and the fish too numerous to count. Running low on bottom time, we made our way to the mooring line and moved up past a school of 12 bat fish to our safety stop. A typical dive in PNG.
Dickie's Reef. 65 feet for 1:20. We moored in a bay off one of the islands in the Witu chain. The bottom is black sand slopping off into deeper water. Here and there were patches of antler and lettuce coral. This was to be a "muck dive". We discovered groups of banded pipefish out hunting on the sand. The dive guide pointed out a two-spot goby moving to and fro pretending to be crab. Anemone fish played hide and seek among the tentacles. An enormous puffer fish plodded across the sand. A school of ballyhoo hugged the surface above us and the occasional scorpionfish pretended to be a rock. Moving up into the shallows, we poked among the patches of sea grass, closely examining the bottom for little stuff. There, looking like a blade of grass was a yellow ghost pipefish! What a curious creature, swimming with its head down, hiding in the grass and confident of its invisibility. We continued crisscrossing the sand finding even more strange critters before returning to the boat.
In short, Papua New Guinea is a fantastic dive destination. We saw a few sharks: silvertips, grays, and whitetips; one Napoleon wrasse; and many turtles. The smaller life on the reefs is healthy and there are many unusual creatures to see and photograph. I would go back in a heartbeat!
This was the Star Dancers last voyage in PNG. She is being moved to Palau and the Palau boat moved to Belize to replace the Wave Dancer.
Next stop, Borneo!
Click here to go to Part 2.