The Far Reaches: Papua New Guinea

Batfish pause for a cleaning over the reef at Echuca Patch in Kavieng.

Well, we've finally done it — we've traveled to the end of the earth. When I look at the horizon, a blue smear of sky indistinguishable from ocean, it seems thoroughly reasonable that if we kept moving toward it, we'd tumble right over the edge.

We've pointed out Papua New Guinea on dozens of maps to perplexed friends and family members ("You're going where?"). We've spent months agonizing about flight connections and baggage weight. We've flown tens of thousands of miles over multiple days, crossed oceans and jungles and smoldering volcanoes, and the result is neither clean nor fresh-smelling. I have no idea what day it is, and if I put my head down, I'd undoubtedly pass out for 14 hours. But when I look at that blue smear, all I can think is, "Totally worth it."
It's the doldrums in Papua New Guinea (PNG for short), and there isn't a lick of wind. We're whizzing across the flattest ocean I've ever seen, passing tiny atolls so prototypical desert island that whenever we spot a volleyball-sized coconut in the water, someone plaintively — if inaccurately — shouts, "Wilson!" in homage to the movie Castaway. The captain nimbly steers through a bewildering series of channels, and then kills the engine over one of the dozens of patch reefs that are common here. The selected one, Echuca Patch, is a ridge jutting into the Pacific that stretches from 50 to 115 feet, with the wreck of the Der Yang, a Taiwanese longline fishing boat, tilted on its side at the bottom.

We begin with a roam around the colorful wreck, which is dotted with sponges and branches of soft coral. I then weave my way up the reef — a monstrous ridge of hard coral topped by a single yellow soft-coral-laden boulder. Pristine though it is, I find myself quickly looking beyond the coral to watch the fish, perhaps because one-spot snapper stream by every few minutes, and a large, loose school of chevron barracuda school waxes and wanes overhead — and that's only if I want to exert the effort to tip back my head. Multiple cleaning stations ensure that I need only to pick one and settle in to watch as batfish and sweetlips glide in for touch-ups directly in front of my face and lens.

In contrast, at Peter's Patch the coral is tough to look past. I immediately fall in love with this site, a seamount rising to 40 feet that's liberally covered with huge sponges and

Peter’s Patch in Kavieng is liberally encrusted with soft corals, crinoids
and Tubastrea.
sea fans, treelike Tubastraea and pops of soft coral. The local turtle population is big into the buffet, and each time we request yet another dive at Peter's (enough times that we receive eyerolls from fellow divers) we spot a hawksbill or two gnawing on the corners of the reef. The fish life is an added bonus; an omnipresent eddy of trevally and reef sharks hovers on the Pacific side of the reef, and clouds of anthias and fusiliers rise over the rest.

The shallow reefs also blow my mind. I spend hours every afternoon exploring the Lissenung Island Reef, a maze of hard coral bommies and clownfish-inhabited anemones where resident schools of batfish and jacks gather to feed near the surface as the late-day sun organizes fetchingly into rays. Equally lovely is the sponge-encrusted, glassfish-filled wreckage of a Japanese "Jake" bomber, which lies in a coral garden in 35 feet of water. The wreck is conveniently located between many dive spots and our resort, lending itself to quick drop-ins on the way back from other sites and ensuring that we're regularly the last ones to arrive at mealtime.

A dense school of jacks passes behind a clownfish-inhabited anemone at
Kavieng’s Lissenung Island Reef.
The dive staff keeps insisting that small stuff is also in abundance here, but I have a tough time getting over the remarkable vistas long enough to look down. I become convinced only when the backdrop is removed at the Bottle Shop, a site under the town pier. Sure enough, blennies, nudibranchs and octopuses dwell in and among rubbly coral, jetty pilings and a jumble of discarded bottles. I don't think once about my wide-angle lens until I find myself face-to-face with a terrifying mantis shrimp that's nearly 10 inches in diameter.

Although our visit to Kavieng has been amazing so far, something's afoot — we've yet to see the area's signature site, and our time here is dwindling. Every morning we arrive at the boat to find the crew gesturing over a tide chart, shaking their heads. Finally, our dive guide tells us what's up: We may not get to experience the best of Albatross Passage, the channel adjacent to New Ireland island. By all accounts, Albatross is a spectacle — one of diving's greatest hits. During the incoming tide, the push of clear water from the Bismarck Sea brings nutrients, which bring fish, which bring bigger fish, such that a typical dive has everyone watching in awe as all hell breaks loose (piscine-, shark- and occasionally manta-ray-style) overhead. The tides are generally long and leisurely, allowing for reliable viewing, but we've arrived during a bizarre series of abbreviated tides, so opportunities are reduced.

A World War II-era Japanese Zero wreck rests in Kimbe Bay, revealing a
small part of PNG’s history.
On our last day we're given hope: There might finally be a reasonable incoming tide in the late afternoon. When we begin our descent, we dejectedly look at one another. The current is nonexistent, and we're sure we've struck out. We explore the edge of the channel, admiring the sponge- and fan-covered wall (gorgeous, tide notwithstanding), and circumnavigate nearby Danny's Bommie, a pinnacle attended by standoffish clusters of snapper and sweetlips. Nearly an hour into our dive, however, a switch flips. The water hue changes abruptly from aqua to deep cobalt, and the fish snap to attention, assembling on the shallow coral ledge atop the wall.

I glance toward the open ocean and spot a growing school of jacks — 20, then 40, then 100 — swirling in the blue. When the other divers signal that they're low on air, I check my gauge and want to cry. I have plenty of gas left, but the sun will be setting soon, and given the whole end-of-the-earth situation, it's a terrible idea to stay down on my own. I start my ascent, dilly-dallying as much as is reasonable. The fish schools are becoming larger by the second and now include a magnificent addition: a large gathering of bumphead parrotfish. By the time I am handing up my fins to a crew member, an array of sharks has begun patrolling the edge of the wall — dozens upon dozens of whitetips and gray reefs. My distress runs deep. Spectacular as the show has been, I'm leaving right as it truly begins.
Kimbe Bay

A diver admires sponge- and sea-fan-encrusted Charmaine’s Reef in Kimbe Bay.
I have this place sussed out early on the first day, not long after we clamber into the dive boat. Everything here reaches: the reefs that jut toward the ocean's perfectly smooth surface, the squawking birds that lift through the trees and the mountainous islands (give or take the occasional puff of volcanic vapor) that stretch into the sky. I'm captivated by what's below, of course, so I lean far over the railing and watch as we weave past dozens of light-colored spots, each the top of an immaculate hard-coral pinnacle.

Whip corals tuck thickly into an orange sponge at Kimbe Bay’s Katherine’s Reef.
One is finally selected, and we roll in at Katherine's Reef, disturbing a busy school of fusiliers. We kick our way to the rim of the reef, taking care not to touch the corals that come within 2 feet of the ocean's surface, and then we eagerly descend. Garish orange sponges wrapped around dense clumps of crimson whip corals are liberally tucked into the sloping walls. Crinoid-covered barrel sponges take up much of the remaining space. A subsequent dive at nearby Charmaine's Reef reiterates the classic Kimbe Bay features — orange and barrel sponges and copious whip corals — with the added bonuses of gigantic sea fans and schools of anthias.

An enormous green turtle rests on the reef at Cape Heusner in Kimbe Bay.
The ocean persists in remaining ridiculously flat, and our boat captain excitedly shepherds us aboard early the next morning to head for Cape Heusner, a site that's easily (or at least pleasantly) accessible only on the calmest of days. The fuss is understandable. We pull up next to a picturesque tree-topped islet, the charms of which are undeniable but neatly eclipsed by the adjacent underwater features. The shallow reef here quickly drops off, first to a slope that's packed with ghost-white leather and whip corals and then to a bommie that's loaded with fans, sponges and soft corals. A monstrous green turtle, its shell crowded with remoras, watches warily as I approach, zooming off almost as soon as I lift my camera. We make a morning of maxing out our dive times here and stick to shallow explorations in the afternoon.

The pristine hard corals that cover Emma Reef in Kimbe Bay can keep divers
enraptured on the shallowest dives.
I resign myself to a high likelihood of mundane postlunch dives, but fortunately I don't verbalize that ridiculous notion. After a quick stop to explore a beautifully intact World War II Japanese zero (the pilot is said to have survived and swum to shore), we head over to Emma Reef, a pinnacle topped by flawless hard corals of such differing texture and color that I don't even consider what's below 25 feet.

We have one thing left on our wish list: a dense, swirling school of chevron barracuda. This is a definitive PNG experience, and our guides are determined to make it happen. On our last dive day, they take us to Joelle's Reef, a seamount reaching 55 feet that slopes before it steeply drops off. The famed barracuda are nowhere to be found, but the reef itself is opulent enough to console us, pushing schools of bigeyes and emperors in front of our lenses instead.

Schools of brightly colored bigeyes are a vibrant sight at Joelle’s Reef in Kimbe Bay.
Bradford Shoals is our final opportunity, and at last we hit pay dirt. The dive site is spectacular — a paired set of 60-foot-deep seamounts joined by a corallimorph-carpeted, moray-colonized saddle — and a quick glimpse into the distance reveals several deeper pinnacles stairstepping into the infinite blue. A large school of trevally and barracuda is parked on top of one of the shallow seamounts, and they shift in unison as our group approaches. They hang with us for most of the dive and then descend toward a deeper pinnacle, leaving us behind.

Most of the divers obligingly head for the surface, but I hang back. My trip is ending soon, and I'm not foolish enough to abbreviate it. I look down and pray hard for a last-ditch reward, which arrives moments later when a glinting stream catches my eye. The barracuda have returned to the shallow seamounts and rise upward toward me, circling dizzyingly above the peaks. For a glorious five minutes I'm surrounded by silver, and then the fish sink back into deep water. They curve into a slow spin and churn downward, bound for a currenty destination far beyond my view, slipping gracefully over the edge.
How To Dive It: Kavieng and Kimbe Bay
Papua New Guinea (PNG) is an independent state wedged between Australia and the equator, encompassing half the island of New Guinea (the remainder is a province of Indonesia) and hundreds of idyllic islands.

Getting there: Several airlines fly to Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea. From there you can connect on one of two local airlines to get to Kavieng or Hoskins (near Kimbe Bay). Local airlines may permit additional baggage weight for dive gear; careful research of individual airline baggage regulations is recommended prior to travel. A visa is required to enter PNG, though specific requirements vary depending upon the visitor's nationality. Detailed information is available at

Seasons: Water temperatures in the Kavieng and Kimbe Bay areas are in the low- to mid-80s°F year-round. A shorty, skin or 3 mm full wetsuit is recommended for diving. The rainy season runs from December through April, and the dry season spans May through October, with the doldrums in April-May and November.

Conditions: While some Kavieng and many Kimbe Bay sites are fine for novice divers, an intermediate level of experience is recommended due to variability of dive difficulty and the remote nature of the destination. Currents in Kavieng can be significant; a surface marker buoy is a good idea at some sites. There is a recompression chamber in Port Moresby.
Explore More
Discover more of Papua New Guinea in an online photo gallery.

© Alert Diver — Q1 Winter 2019