Milne Bay. Papua New Guinea
Milne Bay. “Earning my living as an underwater film maker, I found that working with big and potentially dangerous marine animals provided a ready market,” began Stan Waterman. “I focused on sharks, and this allowed me to put my kids through college. While I was initially spurred on by the romance of these big animals, I began to move on. I became interested in looking for smaller, more prolific targets for my camera. This has evolved into a fascination with macro life and what’s become known as muck diving. Milne Bay, off Papua New Guinea, is one of the apex sites for seeking macro creatures.”
The nation of Papua New Guinea comprises the eastern half of New Guinea, a land-mass northeast of Australia. Reference books often characterize New Guinea as the second-largest island in the world although thanks to its size, cultural diversity, and biodiversity, many who know it well bristle at this factoid and think of New Guinea as a continent unto itself. Papua New Guinea—an area slightly larger than California—has more than 850 indigenous languages, with most of its citizens living close to the land. (Contrary to tabloid perceptions, the majority of social groups here are not cannibalistic; the last recorded incident of cannibalism occurred in the early 1970s, and even in earlier times, the cannibalism was limited to just a few tribes.) Papua New Guinea boasts one of the world’s greatest levels of biodiversity, and is home to 5 to 10 percent of the total species on the planet, many of which are endemic. A quick statistic puts the breadth of Papua New Guinea’s aquatic diversity in perspective—it has twice as many marine species as the waters of the Red Sea and ten times as many as the Caribbean! Milne Bay, off the nation’s southeasternmost tip, lies at the intersection of the Solomon and Coral seas, and is perhaps PNG’s greatest marine treasure.
Trobriand Yam Festival. Milne Bay.
“I was introduced to muck diving at Milne Bay,” Stan continued. “I’d heard about the experience and sought out Bob and Dinah Halstead, who were dive pioneers around Papua New Guinea and coined the term ‘muck diving’ in the early eighties. It was incredibly eye opening. Every dive held a surprise, thanks to the big range of macro life present. I came upon fifteen species of nudibranchs, and wonderful poisonous creatures like stonefish, scorpion fish, and stargazers. I never saw anything like this assemblage of animals.” The variety of critters is both amazing and expansive, and includes panda clownfish, twinspot, wunderpus, harlequin, ghost pipefish, spiny devilfish, cockatoo wasp fish, and Merlet’s scorpion fish—for starters! That these creatures are a foot in length or less hardly diminishes their stature. “Some of the consumer cameras on the market today—both still and Sony video—allow you to fill the frame with the head of a shrimp,” Stan added. “A miniature lionfish is just as exciting as an animal hundreds of times its size when it fills the frame. The optics now available enable you to shoot macro by lying quietly, waiting for the animal to come up—either on its own, or encouraged by a guide.”
Though Milne Bay and Papua New Guinea are still very much on the diving frontier, there are some established muck spots that your divemaster is likely to show you. One is Dinah’s Beach, a site on the north coast of Milne Bay. (While it is here that muck diving was “discovered” by Bob and Dinah Halstead, the name stems from the fact that Dinah’s family—long-time residents of Papua New Guinea—actually own the beach.) Like other notable muck sites, the bottom here is not especially inviting at first glance; there are rotting tree trunks, coral rubble, and other detritus. But a closer look reveals a panoply of critters—five species of lionfish, blue ribbon eels, mantis and cleaner shrimp, six species of anemone fish, a host of nudibranchs, flamboyant cuttlefish, cockatoo waspfish, and Bugs Bunny scorpion fish. Better yet, all of these animals are in water that seldom exceeds thirty feet in depth. Nearby Observation Point is another famed muck-diving site, with many of the same characters present at Dinah’s Beach, plus black crocodile fish, decorator crabs, and mimic octopi, among many others.
Battle for Milne Bay
Though the muck may have put Milne Bay on the collective diving map, there is a wealth of other opportunities available. There are sensational reef dives, including Deacon’s Reef (near Dinah’s Beach), where enormous coral towers rise from the sea floor, and are interspersed with stands of staghorn, lettuce corals, and fan corals in all the colors of the spectrum. If pelagics are of interest, you might visit Giants at Home, a reliable manta cleaning station in just twenty-five feet of water. There are places to see hammerheads, places to see whale sharks, and sometimes even killer whales will make an appearance. For wreck enthusiasts, there are the intact remains of a P38 Lightning fighter bomber and a B-17 bomber of World War II vintage. And for everyone, there are opportunities to spend a little time on shore to gain some perspective on the cultural heritage of this fascinating land.
If You Go:
Getting There: Alotau is the departure point for most tours of Milne Bay. It’s serviced by Air Niugini (+67 5-327-3780; www.airniugini.com.pg) from Port Moresby, PNG. Port Moresby has service from Brisbane, Australia, on Air Niugini and Qantas (800-227-4341; www.qantas.com.au).
Best Time to Visit: You can dive Milne Bay year round. Visibility is highest June through October; November through May, different macro creatures show up.
Accommodations: Most divers visiting Milne Bay will opt for a live-aboard, and Bob Halstead’s Telita Dive Adventures (+67 5-3211-860; www.telitacruises.com) is highly regarded. Resort-based diving is available from Tawali Resort (800-684-9480; www.tawali.com).
Recommended by Stan Waterman