Are you a traveler or a tourist? Quick test:
Q: Does the prospect of 30 hours of flying (across nine time zones, through seven airports, on six different airplanes), taking a month's worth of malaria pills and maxing out the credit cards to the tune of $3,000 or more ...
A) Add to the appeal of a dive destination like Papua New Guinea?
B) Make league bowling seem suddenly attractive?
All you type As, come with me. The rest of you, good luck on the 7-10 splits.
Papua New Guinea doesn't come cheap or easy, but it pays off big with electrifying reefs and shark encounters, famous World War II wrecks and unique cultural experiences--and let's be honest, major bragging rights. Not everybody down at the local dive shop has "been there, done that."
That's because PNG is best suited to experienced divers who can handle remote locations, extreme depths and open-ocean conditions. Getting here also takes a considerable amount of patience and travel savvy. But with our insider tips, we can get you there safe, sane and malaria-free.
The Dive Report
Papua New Guinea is located north of Australia in the confluence of major ocean currents from Japan, the Indian Ocean, the South Pacific and the Great Barrier Reef. The result is an astounding mix of 900 species of fish and 400 species of coral in combinations unlike any other place on the planet.
According to our Reader Ratings survey, 90 percent of readers dive PNG by live-aboard, a good choice in a destination with 600 islands spread across the Bismarck, Solomon and Coral seas. Not only do live-aboards let you cover more territory, they also let you maximize dive time relative to travel time.
Another live-aboard benefit: flexibility. By moving ports and itineraries, they are able to offer custom itineraries, take advantage of seasonal dive conditions or just go exploring.
These are just some of the most popular diving areas, according to RSD readers.
PNG North: The Bismarck Sea
Duke of York Islands
Reached by live-aboards out of the port city of Rabaul on New Britain, this idyllic cluster of beaches, palm trees and tiny villages is surrounded by fringing reef with calm, shallow conditions. Two Tanks is the famous pair of intact World War II Japanese battle tanks, apparently dumped off a barge by mistake. They sit upright in just 15 feet of water off the southern tip of the largest island. Valley of the Fans is a pinnacle dive with, you guessed it, an abundance of big colorful sea fans. Mild depths and currents make this a good place to practice spotting hard-to-see fish such as leaf scorpionfish.
This string of volcanic seamounts off New Britain's Gazelle Peninsula rises from great depths to within a few feet of the surface. The shallow tops are crowded with coral growth and reef fish, while steep sloping sides are home to anemones and clownfish, prodigious sponges and sea fans. Expect currents, and with them, lots of big fish, sharks and rays. You may also witness passing whales, dolphins and orcas, so bring a snorkel. Halfway Reef is a classic traffic-cone-shaped seamount while Kilibob's Knob is a trio of plateaus that stair-steps into the deep realm of silvertip and blacktip sharks. Alice's Magnificent Mound is another crowd pleaser with a sloping plateau from 40 to 60 feet, a deep overhang at 130 for the adventurous and lots of table coral formations.
A chain of dormant volcanoes shields Kimbe Bay from open-ocean conditions, creating a pocket of calm water on the north coast of West New Britain. Safe from storms, currents and damaging swells, the underwater pinnacles support an astounding variety of life. The calm bay is a refuge for mammals as well: orcas, sperm, pilot, minke, false killer, humpback and melon head whales are occasionally sighted. Spinner and bottlenosed dolphins can usually be counted on to escort the boat between dives.
Land-based operators in Kimbe Bay offer day trips to a wealth of dives inside the bay, while live-aboards use the bay as a jumping-off point for cruises to Father's Reef and the Witu Islands. Inside the bay, South Ema has it all--fish-filled swim-throughs, giant schools of jacks, barracudas and snappers, a wide variety of fish and stunning coral-covered walls. Just a splash of current brings oval-shaped Joelle's Pinnacle to life. Find the current and that's where the fish will be: sharks, jacks, barracuda, surgeonfish, snappers and oceanic triggerfish are all found schooling in the deep blue breeze. Restorf Island is a renowned critter dive with blue ribbon eels, devil scorpionfish, twin spot gobies, pipefish, crocodilefish, garden eels, seahorses and harlequin ghost pipefish among the star performers. Topside, Restorf is an idyllic island paradise where day boats stop for lunch and live-aboards spend the night.
Located on the northern tip of New Ireland, Kavieng offers access to a thrilling blend of current dives and shark encounters unrivaled anywhere in PNG. Just outside the harbor, the wreck of the Taiwanese fishing vessel Der Yang is a photogenic site. Scuttled as an artificial reef in 1988, the intact ship rests on her starboard side atop a coral-covered pinnacle. Silvertip is a shallow pinnacle swept by currents and crowded with sharks and rays that aren't afraid to get close. Planet Channel is drift diving at its most extreme. Currents flowing through the straits that connect the Bismarck Sea to the Pacific Ocean also fuel prodigious growth among filter-feeders like sea fans, sponges, sea whips and soft corals.
The shoreline of this coastal village on New Guinea Island has everything from fringing reefs and mini-walls to World War II wrecks. Most famous is the intact B-25 Mitchell bomber, ditched under fire during battle. The wreck is in 40 feet of water inside the bay and covered in sea fans and soft corals. Nearby is the tug Henry Leith, sunk as an artificial reef. Outside the bay, divers thrill to Planet Rock, a pinnacle dive where hammerheads are frequently spotted.
PNG South: Solomon Sea
Milne Bay/Tufi/D'Entrecasteaux Islands
From the port city of Alotau, live-aboards exploring the Coral Sea have a variety of options--inside the bay, north along the coast toward the village of Tufi or out among scattered island groups like the Trobriand and D'Entrecasteaux Islands.
Suzy's Shoal is a quiet dive near Sanaroa in the D'Entrecasteaux Islands, with huge sea fans and gray reef sharks patrolling the drop-off. The most famous dive in the Solomon Sea is the BlackJack Wreck, an intact B-17 "Flying Fortress" lying on the sand bottom of the village of Boga-Boga at 150 feet. Deep wreck fans will also appreciate the S'Jacob off Musa Point. This World War II shipwreck at 115 to 180 feet has never been stripped and it explodes with colorful marine growth.
Port Moresby/Bootless Bay
The Gulf of Papua off the island of New Guinea is an offshoot of the Coral Sea. From the capital city of Port Moresby, and nearby Bootless Bay, divers can reach a barrier reef, where gray reef sharks and even hammerheads are spotted, and there are a number of exciting wreck dives, though runoff can occasionally cut visibility to about 50 feet.
When conditions are clear, Suzie's Bommie is one of PNG's top dives. The coral dome tops out at 50 feet and is covered with massive schools of sweetlips, fusiliers, batfish and snapper. Wreck divers will enjoy the trawlers New Marine and Kukipi, and the 200-foot transport ship Pacific Gas--all sunk as artificial reefs. Live-aboard cruises from Port Moresby also hit the remote barrier reef system known as the Eastern Fields, where soft corals, sharks and reef fish are all abundant.
Insider Travel Tips
Papua New Guinea is an ancient tribal culture coming to grips with its 21st century role as an industrial and tourism player in the Pacific. Most PNG residents are very friendly toward visitors, but it is easy for outsiders to unknowingly offend.
PNG-based photo pro Tammy Peluso (WalindiPhoto@walindi.com) shares five tips for for getting along, swimmingly:
Walk the Walk -- PNG people welcome visitors who treat them with respect. Ask before taking photos (some may demand a small tip first), don't go into buildings uninvited and always remember that village tours are people's homes. If you're lucky, you may be invited to a Sing Sing--a festival with singing, dancing and traditional costumes.
Talk the Talk -- There are more than 700 different languages in PNG; luckily English is widely spoken, along with Tok Pisin (Pidgin), a simple language, largely derived from English. You can get by with English, but any attempt to communicate in Pidgin will win points with the locals. Lonely Planet puts out a good Pidgin pocket guide, which covers the basics.
Santa Syndrome -- The easiest way to make friends in PNG is to bring small presents: a few bags of candy or balloons will endear you to many, especially children who paddle out in dugout canoes to gawk at live-aboards.
Cover Up -- In respect to local cultural norms, women should refrain from wearing short skirts. In villages, PNG women are often topless, but they will always cover their legs. A lap lap (sarong) or walking shorts and a T-shirt is suitable for just about any occasion.
Adopt a PNG State of Mind -- Never forget why you came. Papua New Guinea is one of the last frontiers of travel; consequently, things occasionally happen on island time. In just about all cases there will be absolutely nothing you can do, so if things aren't going exactly as planned, relax and make the best of it.
PNG Travel Savvy
Getting There Most divers fly into the capital of Port Moresby, arriving via connections in Australia (Cairns, Sydney or Brisbane), although you can also connect to Port Moresby through Singapore, New Zealand and the Philippines. Domestic flights on Air Niugini, the national carrier, are the best way to travel to outlying dive regions.
- Leave it to the pros. Let a travel agent, the resort or the live-aboard company arrange the flights for you, particularly within PNG. They know the best routes and schedules.
- Burn those miles. If you've been hoarding airline miles for a really big trip, now is the time to cash them in. Using miles to fly between the U.S. and Australia, for example, can save you $1,500 to $2,000--almost enough for a seven-day live-aboard trip. From Australian cities, Air Niugini flights to Port Moresby and outlying dive regions are pretty reasonable.
- Check those bags. In Port Moresby, international passengers with same-day connections on Air Niugini domestic flights can re-check bags before exiting customs. The transfer desk is located in the corner directly past the customs clearance counters. This saves you from having to cart your luggage to the separate domestic terminal.
- Turn layovers into playovers. Many travelers can expect a four- to six-hour layover in Port Moresby. Grab the Airways Hotel shuttle and wait for your flight poolside from a hilltop overlooking the airport (also a good place to stay if aircraft delays cause you to be stuck overnight in Port Moresby). Or arrange in advance a guided tour of the city through South Pacific Tours (011) 675-323-5245. Suggested stops: PNG Art Museum and the Botanical Gardens, both less than 20 minutes from the airport. For authentic PNG crafts, try PNG Art, just 10 minutes from the airport.
- Bag the bag fees. For divers and photographers, excess baggage is unavoidable. Good news: Air Niugini allows divers to check an additional 33 pounds over the standard limit on all flights. Better news: Photographers entering the 2000/2001 PNG Photo Competition are permitted 88 pounds of checked baggage. Print out the baggage information (along with contest details and entry forms) at www.pngdive.com and present with ticket.
Documents -- Passports are required. You can get a 60-day tourist visa (about US$10.25) on arrival, but it's best to obtain one in advance from the PNG Embassy at (202) 745-3680 or at www.pngembassy.org.
- If your itinerary includes overnight layovers in Australia, you'll also need an Australian tourist visa. It's free, but must be arranged (either on paper or electronically) in advance. For details, call the Australian Embassy at (800) 242-2878 or visit www.austemb.org.
- For a fee, companies like Travel Documents System can expedite processing on both visas. For more information, (800) 874-5100.
PNG is as diverse and beautiful above water as below. The country is a mix of mountains, tropical jungle, primordial rivers and idyllic palm-covered islands. Most of the country's inhabitants live in small, remote villages and are engaged in simple lives of subsistence farming or fishing.
To come this far and not explore the country and culture of PNG would be a waste. You can choose from land tours as rigorous or as comfortable as you like, from exploring the central Highlands of New Guinea (where as late as 1995 anthropologists were still finding tribes that had never been in contact with Westerners), to exploring reaches of the Sepik River.