Diving in Paradise

Author: Hilary Lee

Hilary Lee explores the reefs of New Britain, Papua New Guinea from Walindi Plantation resort.

It was one of those wonderfully clear and still days, when the sea mirrors the blue of the sky and the few fluffy white clouds above. The sweet fragrance of frangipani wafted on a light breeze as we made our way through the tropical gardens from our bungalow to the dive dock, and why the travel advertisements call this ‘Diving in Paradise’. One of the wonderful things about Walindi, apart from the incredibly friendly atmosphere in the resort, is the way the bungalows have been constructed: each one nestling in tropical gardens and looking out across Kimbe Bay.

I simply adore the first few minutes of a dive. Splash, and I’m in the water, for a moment my world is full of bubbles, then the bubbles clear and there below me is the reef, simply brimming with fish! For me, this can be one of the best moments of the dive, full of promise, full of excitement. What will I see this time? A few quick wriggles as I check that all my gear is in place and functioning properly, locate my buddy and then we are off!!

Ann-Sophie’s Reef, in the channel between Taora Island and the tip of the Williamez Peninsular, is a seamount which rises to within 3 or 4 metres of the surface. Dropping down to about 15 metres, we were confronted with a veritable wall of fish, blocking the light and swirling slowly round, silver scaly bodies catching the light as they turn. The height of the school seemed endless as it spiralled upwards reaching towards the sun and making me crane my neck upwards to try and see the top of the school. This huge school of hundreds of Big-eye Trevally and thousands of Chevron Barracudas were patrolled by a couple of Wahoo, watching and waiting like a pair of eager sheepdogs. Several Grey Reef Sharks emerged from the deep and closed in on the school as if assessing the situation for a later visit, before weaving off into the blue, their ghostly shadows fading as they departed.

Everyone dives for a reason. Every diver has his or her personal favourite way of spending their time beneath the waves. For some, it is a fascination with underwater photography or video: the search for the ultimate image. For others it may be the exploration of wrecks or perhaps the challenge of technical diving. For me, it it the discovery of strange creatures, the richness of the marine life, the fascination of observing behavioural patterns such as the shrimp and the goby, but perhaps more than anything it is the excitement of a BIG schools of fish. I just have to get in there. I want to be at one with this fishy mass. There is no holding back. A few strong fin kicks and I am in there. Right in the middle! I wriggle my arms, legs or body simply to create patterns in the school - to make the school heave and change shape with my movements. This is my idea of ‘action painting’! This is my idea of heaven. I lift my arms and cup my hands. The fish change direction. I lunge to my left and watch as the fish nearest to me turn and swim over my head and ‘pour’ down my back - wonderful. I loose track of time and have to be dragged out by Mark to see some other, different delight.

Below the school was a sand flat covered with peeping Black Garden Eels, each one swaying gently as if under the power of some invisible snake-charmer. We dropped on to the sand and crept forward, slowly and carefully stalking our ‘prey’ to see how close we could get before the little heads popped back down their burrows. As we crouched on the sand I was able to spend some time in one of my other favourite occupations - watching shrimp gobies and their shovelling shrimpy friends. The little shrimps endlessly shovel out sand from the gobbie burrows, sometimes sharing the work with a partner shrimp. I wonder how they know when the burrow is finished. Do they ever just call it a day and start a new burrow?

Around us were some amazing pelagic species: beautiful Coachwhip Trevellies with elegant long threads streaming from their dorsal fins and a school of Banded Trevellies. It seemed as though Ann-Sophie was gathering up all my diving favourites as a Hawksbill Turtle rowed slowly passed us, when a strange noise behind alerted us. Crunch! Crunch! Crunch! Two immense Bumphead Parrotfish, their huge, ugly teeth gaping in their mouths in a kind of weird smile, swam right by us crunching their way across the reef and tearing away great chunks as they did so. Thank goodness there were only two of these extra-terrestrial looking giants, otherwise there would soon have been very little reef left! Thank goodness they don’t eat divers, too! As a student of behaviour, I have to say that I was absolutely fascinated to see the huge cloud of ochre yellow ‘fallout’ evacuated at frequent intervals by these big fellows. Watch out if you dive near a Bumphead Parrotfish!

What bliss to have a fascinating safety stop at the end of the dive! Unless there is something going on at 5 metres, I always resent having to spend my last minutes of the dive hanging around. On Ann-Sophie’s this is no problem! It was great to see the school of trevellies and barracudas had moved and were hanging out above the steps of rock beneath the boat. The last minutes of our dive were spent creeping up on the school and moving them backwards and forwards like sheepdogs maneuvering sheep, before we slowly ascended the last few metres to the boat.

All this in warm water (29oC), under blue skies and sunshine, and with a cool beer waiting for us in the bar after the diving. Thank you Ann-Sophie!

Hilary Lee stayed at Walindi Plantation Resort, New Britain, Papua New Guinea.

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