Downey Duck Papua New Guinea  

Tawali & the Spirit of Niugini

How had Papua New Guinea escaped our radar for so long? Would it be worth the travel hassle, the shooting and the robbery? After 21 days in the Milne Bay area, onboard the Spirit of Niugini liveaboard and at Tawali Resort, we had a pretty good idea.

Bill and I flew to Houston, nonstop to Tokyo for an overnight, then on the once-a-week flight to Port Moresby. Luggage restrictions were not an issue. Because we had a short connection in Port Moresby, they put the Alatou people up front so we would be the first through immigrations and customs. After arriving at 4:30am in Port Moresby, we bought visitor visas, cleared immigration and customs, and rechecked our suitcases to Alatou at the domestic counter; we were heading to the door for the two minute walk to the domestic terminal when POW--POW POW--gunshots! Everyone dashed for cover—Susan and I dived for the floor under a table behind a flimsy screen. The airport workers all disappeared. While under the table I noticed how clean the floor was! When it seemed safe to stand up a few minutes later, there was a man on the floor who had been shot. Supposedly there was an attempted robbery just outside the exit door where I had just been heading. Bill went over to the group of locals standing around the downed man and asked for a first-aid kit, but there was none; he then told them how to stop the bleeding. A few minutes later the injured man was helped out of the room. All the Alatou passengers were held in a group and eventually led to the plane through the back doors--a hell of a way to avoid having to go through security! One worker said “it usually quiets down when it gets light.”

The 50 minute flight to Alatou was uneventful as were the 1˝ hour van ride and the 20 minute boatride to the resort. We were greeted by a pod of spinner dolphins and the resort managers Marnie and James. Everyone did a warm-up dive off the resort’s dock—a 400’ drop off with lots of interesting nooks and crannies, a crocodile fish, batfish, and clownfish. But more about Tawali Resort later. The Spirit of Niugini takes 16 people and normally picks up and drops off passengers at a dock only 5 minutes from the airport in Alato; it can also do a pick up at Tawali Resort for groups doing a few days there as well. Once on the boat, instead of an hour orientation, we were given cabin assignments and allowed to roam the boat for a while, then managers Lisa and Richard did the orientation. I liked that.

Most days on the boat 5 dives were available, including a night dive. Two dives were often available at the same site. One of my favorite reef dives was Little China, easily swum around in one dive. Guide Bale showed us one of the many Pygmy sea horses we saw during the trip, as well as a moray eel. There was a strong current. I met up with Susan hanging on a rock; we went up and over the bommie to the lee side just in time to see a manta ray cruising by! The current had calmed down by the second dive and I spent half the dive just hanging out on the top at 18 feet, watching the multitudes of various fish go about their business and taking multiple pictures of tropicals and the different types of clownfish, which I can never seem to pass up. The hard and soft corals are prolific and healthy. Divers are welcome to follow the guides, who know where everything lives. Bill and I tried, but usually fell behind taking pictures and getting distracted by clownfish.

Mornings on the Spirit of Niugini started early, cereal and toast available at 6:15am, followed by a 7:00 dive and then a hot breakfast of eggs, toast, bacon, sausage, fruit, and occasionally pancakes or French toast. The second dive was around 10:00, followed by lunch, another dive, a snack, a fourth dive, dinner, and concluding the day with an 8:00pm night dive. Twice we did dusk dives instead of night dives. Lunch and dinner were similar, including chicken, rice, vegetables, spaghetti, fish, beef, lamb, or pork. Soup and yummy desserts were also served at dinner. Cookies were available until the cookie monsters ate them all. Pop, beer, and wine were extra but not overpriced, and the special was $25 for all the pop you could drink for the week; the group also finished off the Sprite, pineapple soda, and beer. Fruit and vegetables were purchased when possible from visiting dugout canoes or at local markets. The food ranged from good to very good; Chef Billy tried to accommodate special dietary needs and did an amazing job considering the size of the galley and the limited supplies.

Papua New Guinea is known for its muck diving as well as its gorgeous reefs, and my favorite site for that was Bunama Reef. Over the course of 4 dives, including a night dive, we saw flamboyant cuttlefish, waspfish, 4 inch scorpionfish, fish living in cans, porcelain crabs, an 8" spider crab with long thick legs, a crab that looked like a brown stick, squid, sponge crabs, 7" shrimp gobies with 3" shrimp, 2" shrimp gobies with 3" shrimp, seahorses, pipefish, and more that I can't remember, Guides Bale and Junior planted sticks to mark interesting finds. Another great critter site was Observation Point, where I saw more seahorses, pipe fish, bottled octopus, a yellow cuttlefish, and pipe horses. I took more than a few pictures of what I thought were critters, but turned out to be debris. Sometimes you take the picture now and look at it blown up on the computer later! Some on the boat who had never muck dived came up loving it while others would have been happy with less of it.

There are clean muck diving sites and others that have a "ewww" factor. Bunama Reef was clean, but Samarai Jetty definitely was a bit icky, with lots of trash on the bottom. Regulator firmly clenched in my mouth so as not to accidentally swallow any water, I discovered 4" hopping scorpionfish, a juvenile black crocodile fish crawling on the bottom, dozens of 3-4" red banded pipefish, and a 3 foot pufferfish. The night dive produced dozens of crabs and scorpionfish. Dive trips can be tailored to a certain extent as to the percentage of reef versus muck diving.

After a great dive in water that averaged 86 degrees, we climbed up one of the two sets of wide, easy steps, rinsed off in one of the 4 warm showers on the dive deck, stowed gear in the big blue baskets under my seats, and hung our wetsuits, after dipping them in the wetsuit rinse tank. There were two camera rinse tanks, and yet another small tank for masks, regulators, etc.

The layout of the 115’ boat was compact and cozy. The main deck was made up of the dive deck, where we played bumper cars while gearing up on the most cushioned flooring I've ever experienced, the dining area of 4 tables, the small galley where Billy created his feasts, and 4 cabins, two with queen beds and two with side by side twin beds--no bunk beds on this boat. These 4 cabins had large windows. Down one flight of steps forward or aft are four more cabins, each with a small porthole, a bow to stern twin bed and another twin facing port to starboard, kind of in alcove. I liked the alcove because it faced away from the small porthole, was darker for sleeping, and farther from the air conditioner. The bad part was that one of the two generators was on the other side of the bedroom wall, but I considered it very good "white” noise. The non-alcove beds in the bow cabins were higher and it was difficult for vertically challenged people to hoist themselves into bed. The downstairs cabins need some spiffing up--our cabin had dingy beige wall paper that was stained and ripped--rather depressing, but Yvonne and Harriet kept them neat and clean. All cabins had individually controlled air conditioning, drawers, hanging closets, reading lights, and storage for small items by the bed. The bathrooms were bigger than many--the shower could actually hold two people, and the water was always hot (once I realized there was supposed to be hot water and they fixed mine.) Richard did say the lower cabins were on the schedule for a re-do.

One short staircase up from the main deck was a camera room/lounge area with a 3 tiered camera table and lots of charging stations; adapter plugs were readily available. There were so many cameras on this trip the camera table, nearby book shelves, coffee table and even part of the couch were taken over by cameras. Outside was another lounge area with tables and bench seating as well as more camera tables and 2 air hoses. This area has a canvas top, but unfortunately the outer perimeter bench seating was sunny most of the day, so the one corner table that was always shady was very popular, as well as the lounge and the dining area. There's not enough space for reclining chairs, but they need to put in a few moveable chairs so people can get out of the sun. The entire boat is air conditioned except for the dive deck and sun deck. Mats were available on the bow for sunning.

Now this sounds like a pretty great boat, and it is for the most part, but considering it was in dry dock for 8 months and only in service for five, there were too many things going wrong, like ripped seat cushions in the dining area, one broken air conditioning unit out of three, a bad head gasket on one generator (the part had been on order for months), toilets that stopped flushing, diesel fumes occasionally in the lower deck cabins and a wet floor in one cabin from an untraceable leak. On the other hand, there were some nice touches, such as triple-filtered drinking water with a large ice maker next to the water spigot, self-serve pop and beer (honor system), that super cushioned dive deck floor, being able to dive from the mother ship 99.9% of the time, and being allowed to stay in the water as long as my air and computer allowed, sometimes for 1 1/2 hours! Mechanic Philip did an amazing job of keeping everything running and fixing things that stopped working--problems were addressed quickly by the crew. Mechanical problems never interfered with the diving.

Manta Station was fairly shallow and silty, with a sandy bottom. While waiting for mantas to show up, a huge, 3’ tridacna clam was found nearby. Twice Bill started taking pictures of other divers posing with it, and twice the manta swam by--of course the tridacna was quickly forgotten, seeing as they will stay put! The second dive there, half the group elected to go back to the same spot via dingy, while the rest of us jumped in the water below Spirit. Bale led us on an amazing tour of the bottom, seeing all kinds of weird and wonderful critters, like a tiny 2” green crab that looked like a weed, an even tinier green shrimp hanging onto another green weed, and a huge 6" colorful nudibranch. Back under the boat I found a fair-sized octopus that turned half white and half brown straight down between his eyes, and then Bale clanged so we wouldn't miss the passing manta as we were getting ready to ascend. Quite a dive!

Besides critter diving and reef diving, there was also current diving; the currents could be quite unpredictable, sometimes switching underwater. At Boirama we were taken to our starting point by dingy to do a drift dive which ended up being a mild, relaxing dive, seeing a 3" cuttlefish along the way. The second dive at the same sight was right under the Spirit, no current, which produced a Napoleon wrasse, a school of barracudas, a black ribbon eel, crocodile fish, tiny yellow pygmy pipefish plus lots of schooling tropicals. The third dive at Boirama was another dingy drop and this time the current was wild, an OK dive, but I was too busy not bumping into things to enjoy it.

Being more of a fish and critter diver, I almost forgot about the abundance of soft and hard corals--huge plate corals 8' across, healthy staghorn coral, and much more. There were some 6' sea fans, beautiful whip corals, and large areas of colorful wavy soft corals on the bommie tops. There was some evidence of coral bleaching and there was a lot of rubble as well. And I almost forgot about the dozens of nudibranch, and the blue-spotted octopus, and the Rhinopeas, and the--well you get the idea.

And the robbery? One night we anchored at Tawali Resort due to weather conditions. The next morning some of us wanted to go up to the resort to use their internet, but were told no--I found out later there had been an invasion by 6-8 robbers the previous day at 7am, stealing whatever was in the safe and also hitting the guests' rooms. It was an inside job; one of the perpetrators was captured, some of the money recovered. We were lucky to have missed it and I wonder what would have happened if we had docked there one night earlier.

At the end of the trip, the Spirit docked in Alatou and everyone left for the airport except Bill and me; we hitched a ride back to Tawali Resort on the boat, longer but much more comfortable. Upon arrival we were greeted by one of the owners, Rob van der Loos, who also owns and operates the liveaboard Chertan. Our dive gear was switched over, luggage taken to our room, and soon it was time for supper.

Meals are served buffet style. Breakfast choices might include cereal, toast, bacon, eggs, pancakes, or French toast. Lunches were served on the dive boat when 3 dives were on the agenda, and dinner always began with a delicious soup. Main entrees might be fish, chicken, beef, rolls, 2 kinds of vegetables, and dessert. The food ranged from good to excellent. Special dietary requests were attempted, but in my case, not always successfully, partially due to the lack of supplies. My favorite dinner was some good roast beef from Vanuatu, green beans, carrots, potatoes, salad, and a delicious lemon cheesecake for dessert.

The rooms at the resort were spacious and all the ones I saw were the same--each had 2 queen size beds with views of the water, jungle, or both, several drawers, hanging space, long table with chair, 2 night stands, a sitting area with 2 chairs and a low table, and an outside porch with a drying rack and a table and 2 chairs. The bathroom was also spacious with a large sink area. The room was air conditioned and the water in the shower was hot. It's solar powered with an electric booster in case the weather is cloudy for extended periods.

Tawali Resort uses two boats for diving. There is a peg board in the lobby; decide which boat you want and move your peg over; a green dot means you use Nitrox. The 60’ boat can hold up to 20 divers and did three dives farther from the resort, with lunch on board. The 37’ catamaran, handling up to 12 divers also offered 3 dives, closer to the resort, with an option to return to the resort after two dives. When the number of divers dropped later on to as few as four, only the larger boat was used, and we did three dives. There were cookies after the first dive and lunch after the second dive, consisting of salad, a couple different entrees that used to be hot, and the rest of the cookies. Water, juice, hot tea, and coffee were also available.

Some of the dives done from the resort were the same as the ones on Spirit, such as Crinoid City, 1 1/2 hours each way. There we saw a school of barracuda, two pygmy sea horses on the same sea fan, a 6’ carpet anemone, and 3 white tip sharks. Usually we did 2 dives on the same site with an hour surface interval, ate lunch during the 1 1/2 hour surface interval after the second dive, then moved to another site for the third dive before heading back to the resort for a 4:00 arrival. One day it took the crew over an hour to restart the engine, getting us back around 6:30, a long day.

The larger boat had a covered area with a camera table and 4 permanent seats on each side; there were also several unstable plastic chairs available. The tanks were out in the open and the blue gear baskets slid under the seats there. The cabin had a table with bench seating and a small kitchen area where the crew cooked themselves rice. The Faber 71 cu. ft. steel tanks had convertible DIN valves. Only 3 pound weights were available which made weighting a little tricky. One dive my air tasted really bad, as did a couple others' tanks; the problem was fixed by the next day. Unfortunately the boat’s battery problem wasn't and it made for an interesting experience on our last day of diving when we almost grounded ashore after the boat's anchor starting dragging and the engine wouldn't start! There was a head on board but no shower. I was never on the smaller boat. On the long boat rides I read books, watched dolphins play, and saw whales spouting in the distance.

When weather permitted, diving was done closer to the resort, 10-30 minutes, like Coral Gardens where Bill and I saw two lacy scorpionfish close together, a football field size expanse of mostly healthy staghorn corals, 8’ wide star coral, a ˝” nudibranch laying eggs, 2 unusual gray nudibranchs “doing it” and many schooling fish. Another dive I liked was Barracuda Point which had giant 3’ green elephant ear seafans, sharks, and toothpick size pipefish.

We also did a couple shore dusk dives, looking for the Mandarin fish. The first evening my we looked in the wrong place; the second night we found them right under the dock. The males were smaller than others I’ve seen and couldn’t find any females to mate with.

When it was time to leave, one of the van’s wheel bearings started going bad half-way to the airport. The plane was boarding when we arrived, but we made it! I’d hate to miss that once-a-week flight back to Tokyo. So, after 21 days in Papua New Guinea, would we do it again? Absolutely, but either just on the Spirit of Niugini on the longest trip available, or combine a couple days at Tawali Resort with the Spirit. The diving exceeded our expectations.