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PNG Milne Bay area on the Golden Dawn Trip Report 6/99

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Overview

My trip was a 10 day trip on the boat Golden Dawn in the Milne Bay area out of Alotau. The boat, crew, food and the diving were all first class. All of the passengers were solid divers and nice folks and a good time was had by all. About the only downside was the weather. It rained quite a bit and the runoff affected the visibility at some sites and the relative lack of sunlight made photography more difficult than it otherwise might have been. The diving in Milne Bay is quite diverse and we did a deep wreck (Blackjack B17 at 150 feet), a wild 5 knot current dive near Samurai, the newly famous Manta Cleaning station and lots of walls and `muck´ dives. Other than the Mantas we didn't see a whole lot of pelagics but otherwise we had about every kind of underwater experience imaginable.

The Crew

The boat is captained by Australian Craig de Wit who having spent much of his life in PNG is by now is more of a PNG local than an Aussie. Craig is very enthusiastic about diving in PNG and quite knowledgeable about the dive sites, the local marine life and diving in general. Craig is pretty laid back (providing you don't drip saltwater on the nice new upholstery in the salon! ;-) but despite this the boat is operated efficiently and competently.

Excepting the cook the rest of the crew including Ben the alternate skipper are PNG locals. They were a rather quiet lot but were friendly enough and competent. Gear, especially cameras, was handled respectfully, the cabins were kept clean, Nitrox fills were always dead on and in water pickups prompt. On one occasion I rather foolishly wandered off into blue water on a drift dive and surfaced to find myself quite a distance from the expected pickup site and in 6 foot seas. Less than 2 minutes after deploying my safety sausage I was clambering into the tender.

Our cook was Aussie Sue Barstow who probably should be a chef at a 5 star restaurant somewhere as the food was spectacular. Among other things we were served Chinese stirfrys, BBQ dishes, Mexican food, Indian food, fresh fish and a host of amazing deserts including a meringue pie for one of the other passenger's birthday. Amazing. One thing to note about the food is that this was the first trip following boat work meaning we were provisioned in Australia. As a result we had more leafy greens and other vegetables than might be available from local PNG sources at other times. A vegetarian would have been quite happy with the food selection on this trip but veggie lovers planning a trip should contact the boat in advance to make sure adequate provisions are arranged for.

The Boat

The Golden Dawn is a converted luxury yacht. Constructed mostly of wood in 1978 she is in very good condition and clearly well maintained. Many of the electronics on the bridge were brand new for this trip. She is a very stable vessel both at rest and underway as she is equipped with active stabilizers and `flopper stoppers´ which are like weighted sea anchors deployed from booms on either side of the ship. These keep the boat from rolling while at anchor and seem to be effective although the anchorages were generally sheltered anyway.

The boat has a relatively small dive deck at the back of the boat and a ladder on the starboard side. Roughly half of our dives were conducted from the boat itself and the rest from an inflatable tender. The dive deck had adequate space for the 8 divers we had on board including benches built into the tank racks to make getting into your harness easier. The dive ladder worked quite well as the platform at the bottom was about a foot below the surface making it easy to swim onto it before removing your fins and walking up. A nice feature was a pair of hot fresh water showers on the port side of the vessel. Unfortunately all of the heads were inside in the `dry´ area inside the cabin requiring you to remove your wetsuit before using them.

The dive deck also had a large camera rinse tank and a camera table. The table was mostly used for camera storage between dives. Cameras were brought into the salon for maintenance or when the boat was moving.

The salon was big enough for the 8 passengers we had plus Craig to comfortably chat or watch the efforts of the videographers. Except for breakfast meals were taken on the top deck. The table was protected by the elements by a sunshade and removable curtains on the sides.

Cabins were on the small side but comfortable with adequate storage and each cabin had its own air-conditioner. Some cabins had en suite faculties and others shared. My cabin was the one (and is the only one) adjoining the engine room but despite this was not overly loud. People more sensitive than me to noise might disagree though. My cabin was remarkably free of the funny smells which I've come to expect on below-decks areas on boats. The sink gurgled every now and again and the adjacent shared shower backed up once at the beginning of the trip but this was promptly fixed and didn't happen again.

Diving Operations

Our particular group consisted entirely of experienced and well trained divers and we were treated like it. Divers were free to do what they wanted. If this meant solo diving, deep dives, staged decompression dives or whatever this was fine and we were trusted to do it safely. I found this to be quite refreshing as I hate patronizing dive masters that look at people's computers and lecture them about reverse profiles. I'm also a confirmed solo diver and don't want to be forced to dive with somebody else whom I don't know and who probably doesn't want to watch me spend 15 minutes patiently waiting for the bulldozer shrimp and its goby partner to make a joint appearance in front of my camera.

I'm certain that beginning divers would be taken care of and there are plenty of easy dives. Overall though, I would say that the boat caters more to self-sufficient intermediate to advanced divers than to people who have just finished their Open Water I class. Dives were generally unguided and many of them were somewhat advanced dives.

Dive briefings were informative but generally a bit informal. I found that it paid to hang out in the wheelhouse with Craig and ask questions about the site before we got there to get the most information and he was always willing to do so. (I think it would be harder to get him to stop talking about the diving rather than the other way around...). Depending on the site we either dove from a tender or from the big boat. Rides in the tender were short as the boat was usually anchored close to the actual site.

The boat has Nitrox on board including rich fills for deco bottles or rebreathers if you need it. Since the fills are done by pumping O2 first and then topping off with air they can't currently top off a tank with Nitrox. Since O2 doesn't grow on trees in PNG divers are encouraged to have their Nitrox tanks topped off with air on every other dive to avoid bleeding off O2. In practice this worked out OK although I would have preferred to have 32% 02 for every dive rather than a sequence of 32, 26, 32, 24, 32, 23... etc. This also required some forethought in some cases such as if you had a 26 % fill for your afternoon dive. In this case it makes more sense to dive air or something close to it on the shallow night dive and then have the full Nitrox fill for the likely deep first dive the next morning.

The boat had a variety of tanks from 13 to 120 cu ft in both steel and aluminum. I was able to set up a pony bottle for a bail out rig in addition to the AL 90 I used for my main cylinder. The boat also rents Draeger Atlantis rebreathers and offers certification classes on both Nitrox and the rebreathers. Techies requiring Helium, doubles, rebreather scrubber fills or other advanced stuff should check in advance with Craig and/or make their own arrangements. This kind of diving might also warrant a full boat charter but this would be a good boat to do it on.

The Diving

`OK, enough about all this other stuff! What about the diving?´ you ask? Well the word that best describes the diving in this area would be `diverse´. We did deep dives, 90 minute muck dives in 15 feet of water, wreck dives, wall dives, drift dives and dives where you spent the whole dive in one place watching a rock (more on that later). As mentioned in the overview the weather was a disappointing but it wasn't awful either. The seas were mostly calm and visibility was mostly in the 70 to 80 (about 25 M) range. In the northern areas the water was about 82F (27 degC) and was more like 77F (25 degC ) in the southern areas. There was a general lack of large edible species like grouper due to fishing by the villagers but overall the health of the reefs was excellent. Here are some highlights:

Wreck of the Blackjack: The Blackjack is a WWII era B17 sitting upright and intact in 158 fsw (47 M). The plane was ditched by its crew members in front of a village after two engines gave out due to flak damage. The crew ditched the plane right next to a reef which has the happy result of providing a nice wall to look at while decompressing. The plane is in excellent condition (the tail gun still moves in its mount) and we had sufficient viz to see the whole plane at once. If you are shooting video or pictures make sure you have a good plan before getting in the water as even on Nitrox 26 you only have about 10 minutes of time on the wreck unless you are planning on some serious decompression time.

Dinah's Beach: Wow. This is a cool site. Made famous by Bob and Dinah Halstead this site lives up to its considerable rep. Looking at the beach you can divide it into two distinct areas with two completely different dives. On the left is one of the prettiest walls you'll ever see. Huge sea fans, amazing fields of lettuce coral, schools of big humphead wrasse and two of our divers even saw hammerhead sharks. To the right is the beach area which has some remarkable `muck´ diving. Here we saw mating octopus, mantis shrimp, cuttlefish (although no Flamboyants), clownfish, lots of lionfish (at least 5 species including the secretive twin-spot), several kinds of morays, nudibranchs and more.

Cobb's Cliff: A very nice ridge with walls on either side topping out at 20-25 feet. Corals were very nice here and we also saw two large spanish dancers, a blue ribbon eel and the usual huge schools of anthias and other pretty reef fish.

Observation Point: Funny what perseverance can do for you. This is a muck dive spot with a bit of a coral reef on the left side of the site. We spent a great deal of time in deep water on the sandy bottom looking for the elusive red Rhinopius and other weird critters that allegedly live here. Every log and rock on the beach from about 140 feet up was carefully examined with no joy. We did see some interesting things like fire urchins but overall it seemed disappointing. But then our cook Sue noticed some squid in the shallows acting strangely. Turns out they were mating and laying their eggs in a branch of coral. This went on for over a day on and off and is one of the coolest things I've yet seen underwater.

A pass near Samurai: I forget the name of this site but it was a lot of fun. On an incoming tide the current runs over 5 knots at the point where the pass is most closely throttled. Makes for a helluva ride. At the end you get swept into an amazing soft coral and gorgonian garden. Saw some bigger grouper here in the pass (must be hard to fish for them in the channel) and some grey reef sharks as well.

The Manta Cleaning Station: This dive is currently a Golden Dawn exclusive. Mantas are everywhere along a sandy beach but owning to limited vis and their ability to move quickly its hard to get in the water with them - except in one spot. For some reason the Mantas have designated an otherwise unassuming little bommie to be their official cleaning station. When the tide is right they congregate here to be cleaned. The water was murky and during the periods when the Manta's weren't there it was a bit dull but OTOH I did 6 dives here and saw mantas on 5 of the 6 dives and at a distance of no more than a few feet. I think our group was able to identify at least 10 or 11 individuals including two Craig has already named: Paw Print and Darth Vader. Overall a really fun experience. Perhaps not by itself a reason to travel all the way to PNG in the manner of the Hammerheads at Cocos but its a can't miss dive if you're on the Golden Dawn in the Milne Bay area.

And this is just a sampling...

Logistics

Getting there is NOT half the fun. Coming from San Jose, CA it took me 2 whole days, 3 countries, 4 airlines and 6 airports (SJC, LAX, SYD, CNS, POM and GUR). Egad and I had to suffer through `My Favorite Martian´ three times! Its also a good idea to get there at least 1 day early in case your luggage decides upon a different itinerary. After arriving early in Alotau I stayed in the Alotau International Hotel which was still under construction. By PNG or even western standards it is quite nice and should be better real soon now. Alotau itself is a pretty dull town. If you are staying longer make sure you have specific plans for what to do before arriving (hopefully from a very knowledgeable travel agent). I'm sure there are cool things to do on land nearby but you won't find them if you just fly in and wing it like I did. Allegedly the hotel will have a tour service when it is finished which might help.

Overall I had a great trip and can recommend both the Milne Bay area and the Golden Dawn without reservation.

Happy Diving.

Clinton

Written by Clinton

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Last modified: 6:st of July 1999
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© Clinton 1999