Life Under Foot
A cuttlefish and lionfish in a field of spiny urchins.
Samarai Wharf, PNG
Colonized in the 1880s, Samarai Island was once the largest town in Papua and a magnet for “Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits.” Eventually Port Moresby became the center for government, and Samarai was virtually abandoned, leaving behind a succession of wharves built to accommodate visiting missionary boats, pearling and gold-prospecting luggers, international steamships and government launches.
The eastern section of the wharf still stands; the middle section was demolished and the west section left to fall apart. A pearl farm — gallantly breeding gold lip pearl shell in a bio-clean room inside an ancient warehouse — has brought back enterprise, and happy greetings are the rule from the friendly inhabitants. But Samarai is a shadow of its former glory.
Except underwater. Here it has never been better.
Caressed by the notorious tidal currents of the China Strait, the wharf piles are havens for a miraculous multitude of marine creatures. Yellow tubastraea corals, polyps blooming even in daytime, provide a golden-yellow backdrop to swirling baitfish, batfish, convictfish, catfish and angelfish — including the elsewhere-rare black Samarai angelfish, now named after Tawali Dive Resort operator Rob Vanderloos. A wobbegong shark is usually resting in the shade of the wharf along with scorpionfish, stonefish, toadfish, crocodilefish and octopuses.
Divers wanting a change from critter hunting can scavenge for torpedo and marble-stoppered bottles from the 1890s. Poorly blown, with imbedded bubbles, the most sought after is the marble bottle marked “Patchings — Samarai” made especially for the soda factory on the island. Current-scoured sand gutters off the wharf are good places to search for old bottles. Lively reef patches edge the gutters where resident lionfish, damsels and featherstars hide the lairs of mantis shrimp. A rusty, overgrown anchor juts out from the seabed, an unusual maroon-colored sea star snuggling a fluke.
Care needs to be taken to avoid fishing-line snares and sharp-edged clams, and a Port Moresby tide chart is useful to predict Samarai slack current — two hours before and four hours after high tide in Moresby. And you might very well use all those six hours —with a maximum depth of just 40 feet, you could be exploring the Samarai Wharf for a long time. — Bob Halstead
Make It Happen
Samarai is one hour by speedboat from the Milne Bay provincial capital of Alotau. Diving is year-round, as the site is sheltered (as most wharves are!). Water temperatures vary from 79 degrees F in the winter (July and August) to 84 degrees F in the summer. Visibility ranges from 30 to 60 feet. Live-aboards MV Golden Dawn, FeBrina, Chertan and Spirit of Niugini occasionally include Samarai on their itineraries. Tawali Dive Resort (www.tawali.com) offers day trips to Samarai for its guests. A six-night, 15-dive package at Tawali starts at $1,912 per person. Per night rates for the live-aboards run from $285 (Chertan), $340 to $360 (Spirit of Niugini), $395 (FeBrina) and $350 to $400 (Golden Dawn). Small speedboats use the wharf area, so take caution if surfacing away from dive boat. The dive flag is not recognized by villagers, so it’s best to surface right at the dive boat or tender.