Explore the BISMARCK SEA

Two Live-Aboards and a Land-Based Resort
at the Outer Limits of the Diving World!

by Bill Gleason

How do you ruin a good breakfast on a world-class live-aboard? Have someone yell ‘Orcas!’ and watch what happens. On a recent trip to New Guinea, our breakfast was shattered with that one word. First the cabin emptied of all passengers and then the crew abandoned their tasks to check out the scene. A mini-pod of four, 15 to 16 foot Orcas was giving our live-aboard, Peter Hughes’ Star Dancer, a thorough check out.

Peter Hughes, Captain Don Edwards and I volunteered to be the first freedivers in the water. We dropped in quietly, in the path of the Orcas. Down we went, 30 or 40 feet, no bottom in sight. Out of blue emerged four Orcas, the closest was just a few feet away. The encounter was serene, eerie, silent and awesome. This is diving in the Papua New Guinea’s Bismarck Sea; it is the outer limits of the Diving World.

The Bismarck Sea is perhaps one of the last pristine areas in the undersea world. It is remarkably rich in marine life, with schools of fish swarming every pinnacle and marine mammals making consistent appearances (a pod of 15 Orcas calls the Bismarck Sea home year-round). It is the cutting edge of dive travel and presents a once in a lifetime opportunity to explore uncharted seas.

Papua New Guinea is no stranger in the diving Hall of Fame, but much of the fabled diving has been done in the Northern Coral Sea and Milne Bay, about an hour south by small plane from where our expedition took place. We were working out of a place called Walindi on New Britain Island, which is about an hour’s drive and a lifetime away from anything resembling civilization.

There are plantations here and there, growing copra, and scattered villages, growing not much at all. You will find an ‘expat’ out and about, except for Friday nights, when they all gather at ‘Max’s Place,’ otherwise known as Walindi Plantation, a 12 room resort that pioneered diving in the Bismarck Sea years ago. It is considered by many to be the doorway to the best diving in the world.

We were there, exploring the outer limits; and it lived up to its reputation. This was my third trip to the area and my first bad weather experience; a big storm pounded Fiji. We dived every day but the conditions were rougher than usual and the sun didn’t shine. The guests on the live-aboards that operate out of Walindi didn’t seem to mind. They were here to dive and the diving was fabulous, even before the Orcas showed up.

The Bismarck Sea lies to the north and east of Papua New Guinea; its southern border laps the shores of New Britain, which is where the action begins. The area around New Britain Island seems to have been carved out of a tropical wilderness. The towering mountains (up to 14,000 feet) are the backdrop that greets you each day. The area is littered with small islands and shoals, making it easy to find more than 200 dive sites in the area of Kimbe Bay alone (the Bay is closest to Walindi; the live-aboards range farther).

Now, when I say Kimbe Bay, don’t think of a small, sheltered bay. It is a large oceanic body of water, covering thousands of square miles. Everything in the Bismarck Sea is on a different scale from the rest of the world; wilder, richer and more lush than any place I’ve ever seen.

The dive operators (two live-aboards and the land based Walindi Plantation) are sitting on the best diving in the world. Sharks are seen on almost every dive and the Orcas are not unusual. There are also large rays most of the time (we saw one in the mouth of an Orca!) and the soft corals are as prevalent as in Fiji’s north. Add to this schooling Barracudas, jacks and other pelagics; halfway through the trip I realized every time I stopped to take a picture I was missing some of the action!

The dive sites here are called ‘bommies’ (Australian for coral head, mates) and are too numerous to list. The sites are similar to pinnacles and sea mounts; they usually start in very deep water and rise dramatically to the surface. As in the South Pacific, the peak time to dive the sites is when there is a little current. The prevailing currents in the Bismarck Sea are gentle in comparison to Cozumel’s or Fiji’s. It’s more like a gentle drift than a real current. The currents bring nutrients, which means the corals open up and feed. When the small fish get into the act, the big fish are not far behind and pretty soon you’re running out of superlatives for your dive log!

The Bismarck Sea and Kimbe Bay offer many opportunities for exploration. Visitors should probably plan to spend more than a week here, since the flight time is long and the diving (and PNG culture) rich. Walindi Plantation is the hub of operations and the only land based resort. It has 12 oceanfront bungalows, a main house and pool and offers divers full dive services and Walindi Photo, a full photo facility. Walindi Plantation dives the classic sites of Kimbe Bay; Inglis Shoals, North Emma, Emma and Cristine’s. Don’t miss them.

Both live-aboards, the Star Dancer and FeBrina, depart and return from Walindi on regular (one week) and extended range (ten day) trips. Peter Hughes’ 120 foot Star Dancer defines the terms ‘luxury’ and ‘service’ for the entire live-aboard industry. There are eight spacious, deluxe staterooms, all with private bath and shower.

The MV FeBrina is a newly refitted 72 foot live-aboard, with seven cabins (three with private bath and four semi private). The comfortable and informal ambiance provides an air of intimacy.

Your first dives aboard these boats will take place right off Walindi in the superb environment of Kimbe Bay. After this, they have different itineraries. Star Dancer concentrates on the western areas of the Bismarck Sea, with normal itineraries including the Witu Islands and Garove Island. On extended range trips, it ventures farther west to the Strudels Group, with oceanic pinnacles soaring from 3,000 feet to within 25 feet of the surface. During certain months of the year, Star Dancer does sail north and east as well. Star Dancer cruises the farthest on regular trips, to the Witu’s and beyond.

FeBrina concentrates on Kimbe Bay sites and ventures north and east to The Fathers, which is spectacular. On extended range trips, it also goes to the islands surrounding Rabaul, the next large island, and an area known as Kavieng. FeBrina will head west during certain weather conditions. FeBrina ventures farther out to the north and east on regular trips.

The cruising ranges are quite important, since they set the style and tone of each operation. With the most ground to cover, Star Dancer’s Captain Don Edwards moves the boat frequently, ensuring a complete range of Bismarck Sea diving. On FeBrina, Captain Alan Raabe cruises more leisurely and can ‘sit’ on a site for as long as the passengers wish. This makes it perfect for photo groups that are not concerned with exploring but just want to find a good site and shoot. Walindi’s Dive Operations Manager, Glenn Barrall, an expert on rare fish species, does cover less ground than the live-aboards but the diving is just as incredible.

For visitors, the travel combinations are endless and exciting. Besides just the traditional land based week stay, or a normal or extended range cruise on one of the live-aboards, there are many Bismarck Sea options. Combine a couple of days (or a week) at Walindi with a week on one of the live-aboards. You will be tired when you get to the island and having a couple of days of land based diving and relaxation before the live-aboard can be perfect. You can also choose to take back to back live-aboard vacations, taking in the entire Bismarck Sea, east and west!

And, we still haven’t scratched the surface when it comes to the topside attractions of Papua New Guinea. This is an exotic culture, with 700 different languages spoken by only three million people. You will visit a village or two on the live-aboards and day tours of the spectacular topside scenery on New Britain can be arranged at Walindi. The Sepik River (on the mainland portion of New Guinea) is one of the strongest cultural attractions.

Given the wide range of opportunities, there’s also some good news on the information/booking side. Star Dancer, Febrina and Walindi can all be booked through Peter Hughes Diving in Miami, Florida. The staff is well trained on the different itineraries and options, and can alert you to special cruising and land based opportunities that come up from time to time.

For more information on any of the options for exploring the Bismarck Sea, write to Peter Hughes Diving, 1390 S. Dixie Highway, Suite 1109, Coral Gables, FL 33146. You can call (800) 9DANCER (800-932-6237), (305) 669-9391, fax (305) 669-9475 or e-mail dancer@peterhughes.com. You can also find information on the Internet at http://www.peter hughes.com.