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The town of Rabaul, once considered the loveliest in all of Papua New Guinea, is in places still a somber war zone, buried under tons of deep, volcanic ash. Flat, featureless fields of gray are punctuated by upthrust ruin: here, the broken trunk of a coconut palm; there, concrete stairs of a collapsed house, now leading nowhere.
In 1994, with virtually no warning, two volcanic vents opened just across Rabual’s harbor from each other, both on the very outskirts of the small town. In three days, millions of cubic yards of heavy, choking ash rained down on much of the city, piling as deep as 12 feet, flattening virtually everything as trees and buildings collapsed under the weight of the hot, volcanic earth.
From a helicopter, the volcanic cones that brought it about are awesome, a true vision straight from hell. Vulcan, now quiet, is a gray mound of ash rising more than 1,000 feet into the air. It looms over the town, deep craters erupting near its peak. Just across the channel, Tavurvur, rising even higher, still smokes and seethes, spewing new clouds of fine, powdery ash each day. The visual mix is incredible: expanses of flat, gray ash; huge volcanic peaks; and bright, turquoise water stained with red-orange minerals that leach from the base of Tavurvur’s cone–a panorama under a blazing blue tropical sky.
We sail out of the harbor on Peter Hughes’ Star Dancer, just as dusk ebbs, gazing back at the town nestled between hills and harbor. Lights twinkle, Rabaul’s proof of her defiance and survival. We pass between the monstrous cones and, is if on on cue, Tavurvur rumbles to life, spewing dark clouds of gray ash thousands of feet into the sunset-lit sky. We are struck speechless by the awesome power of our planet.
Our sail during the night has brought us to the Talili Islands. We awaken to a pure, tropical morning. It is hot, with not a cloud in the sky; the ocean is like a sheet of blue glass. Islands of jungle-covered rock jut from the sea in all directions. Off the stern, an immense school of tuna breaks the surface, feeding in an area several hundred yards across.
Today’s dives are on seamounts that rise from deep, clear water to near the surface. Incredible growths of hard corals shelve the sides and ball anemones of blue, emerald and harvest gold are everywhere. On one dive, I photograph six species of anemonefish, Clark’s, Spine-cheek, Tomato, Orange-fin, Pink and Clown.
At the mounts’ current-most points, huge schools of fish congregate–Black Snappers, Ocean Triggers, Rainbow Runners and Black-fin Barracuda. In the shallows on the reef top, Cuttlefish guard eggs and feed. Completely unafraid of us, they shift colors and stretch their tentacles as if we were not there.
The water is a crystal clear, deep cobalt blue off in the distance, as we hang suspended off Killibob’s Knob, a dramatic seamount between Bambam, Buli and Lolobau Islands. Eight Whitetip Reef Sharks scatter from the bait as the first Silvertip streaks in. Cheeky and aggressive, he hits the suspended batch offish hard, gulping pounds in a bite. Another Silvertip enters the scene, then another. Soon, it’s sharks everywhere, Whitetips, Silvertips and finally, Gray Reef Sharks.
The Silvertips come so close I can see every detail of their fierce, eager faces. Their skin glows like burnished metal under my flash, the milk-white edging of tails and fins glares surprisingly. Visions of photographs-to-be swirl through my mind’s eye.
Until this moment, I had thought our first dive of the day at Alice’s Mound could not be surpassed for adrenaline. We had drifted, mesmerized, through a swirling, darting, shifting maelstrom of fish, thousands upon thousands of jacks, Fusiliers, Batfish, Silversides and more; large Great Barracuda and Trevally slashing through their mass as they seethed around us. The excitement, the sense of natural drama, was so intense we could almost hear it crackle through the clear water.
That thrill, I thought again, could hardly be matched this day. But now, with Silvertips streaking around me, at times just inches away, I’m not so sure.
We slip into the 86°F water just after sunrise and sink down toward the deep seamount. At 65 feet, we reach the top of a huge, natural archway, named, predictably, The Arch. Its perfect rainbow shape is rainbow colored as well. Frilly, pink soft corals lace the top and sides, orange-yellow gorgonian bushes sprout thickly underneath and a huge, mauve barrel sponge sits on the floor, dead center.
Schools of Fusiliers and Unicornfish move about, punctuating a picture perfect scene. Strobes go off in rapid, staccato pop! pop! pop! as the photographers in the group try to capture this rare and incredible setting in our brief moments of bottom time.
Our fifth dive of the day, as always, is a night dive; Ake Reef is a small sea-mount that rises to within 15 feet of the surface. Sponges and soft corals grow thickly around the sides, home to many fish and invertebrates. Juvenile Lionfish are scattered about and live Tiger Cowries crawl across the reef.
At the top of the mound, a solitary Cuttlefish waits patiently, anticipating prey. She does not seem to mind my presence or my photographs. We move very close and my buddy, Beverly, gently coaxes the foot and a half long cephalopod onto the palm of her hand.
Finally tiring of my flash, the Cuttle looks at me then calmly closes her eyes. She has, evidently, had enough.
We rise early, anticipating a special dive with Hammerheads. We are anchored at Bangkok Pass, a channel through a meandering reefline. As each morning has been so far, the sky is bright and blue; the ocean, flat calm.
We enter the water and move with the current down a steep slope. There is a sand patch at 120 feet and the bottom continues to drop from there. We are curious to see if Peter’s “shark rattle” (plastic ash trays strung loosely on a circular piece of wire), a modern copy of the Polynesians’ traditional shark-calling instrument, will actually work.
There! Far below us, at nearly 150 feet, three Hammerheads pass through the dark water. The clack of the rattle is sharp in the deep quiet. One shark turns abruptly, as if searching for the source of the noise. I drop toward it, but it moves away. Again, clack! clack! clack! The nine foot long shark swings around and moves back toward me for one quick pass. My strobe lights up its gray skin; one shot is all there is. He is gone.
I look at Peter and we are both smiling behind our regulators. Shark rattles, indeed. Who would have guessed?
During the night we have sailed back toward Rabaul, to the Duke of York Islands. The underwater terrain is different here, a wild mix of reef mounds, channels and ridges; a change from the deep water bommies we have seen during much of our trip.
We drop in at Valley of the Fans, a meandering, sandy channel. Gorgonians and soft corals stand tall in the roaring current. Crinoids cling to their edges; all stretch to pluck bits of edible matter from the flow, while huge barrel sponges dot the landscape, straining gallons of nutrient-rich seawater through their intricate structures.
As I photograph my dive buddy, Khalijah, I’m struck by the preponderance of color: reds, oranges, yellows and purples. Our dive is a festive, bright celebration. The rest of the group experiences a different thrill; they are surrounded by a school of curious Eagle Rays, which circle them before disappearing into deep blue.
That afternoon, we move the boat into the lagoon to visit Mioku Island, where we go ashore at a small village. The women perform traditional dances for us, rhythmical steps and clapping to the beat of small drums. One of our group, Michael Okh, sits on the ground and videos the dance. Unbeknownst to him, a crowd of small boys has gathered behind him, amazed to see their neighbors moving inside his camera through the large view-finder. Their rapt fascination is shown by wide, bright eyes and beaming faces. As Michael looks up and discovers their presence, his face beams in return. My camera catches a poignant moment–shared smiles and mutual wonder–a touching of cultures across a seemingly unbridgeable gulf.
In early morning we move to the New Britain coastline, just north of Rabaul. A steep, jungled hillside ends in a jumble of huge boulders at the waterline and the bottom drops away sharply. The bow of a ship, an unknown Japanese freighter from the fierce battles of WWII, reaches for the surface at the edge of the shore. A huge torpedo hole gapes in her port side, clear illustration of the cause of her demise. Her bulk extends down, her several hundred feet of length disappearing into the deep, clear water.
Colorful corals and encrusting sponges have turned her masts and spars bright red; fish swirl around her intact superstructure. In her forward hold, broken sake bottles and rubber tires are heaped in silt-covered piles. A huge pufferfish patrols slowly, accepting our invasion of his quiet kingdom.
That night, our last, is spent in celebration at anchor in Rabaul Harbor. Our paths to this moment are varied; we are from Singapore, Australia, Belize, Tobago, New Zealand, Sweden, Papua New Guinea and the U.S.; our occupations equally diverse. Yet we’ve all ended up here, on a beautiful ship on a remote, tropical sea, because we share a passion for the undersea world that only we lucky few can ever know.
We dance on the upper deck late into the night, a good wine in our cups, a full moon looming above in a star-dusted sky. We celebrate our week together; we celebrate the incredible beauty of our surroundings; we celebrate our shared diving memories; and, most of all, we celebrate our mutual good fortune.