Papua New Guinea: A Land of Painted Faces and Pygmy Sea Horses

Even in the 21st century, flying into tomorrow is a long, excruciating grind. By the time I reached the highlands of Papua New Guinea, I’d spent 26 hours in airplanes and airports. But diving this remote corner of the world is worth all the hassles, and then some. This isn’t your typical live-aboard dive trip. Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a vast, wild country where the infrastructure for tourism, or just about anything else, is in its infancy. That factor lends an aura of adventure to the journey.

Why do divers invariably describe PNG with ecstatic superlatives? In a word, diversity. It’s near the center of the Indo-Pacific realm, the richest region of the world ocean in terms of variety. You’ll see critters here you won’t see anywhere else. Whether your passion is muck diving, colorful coral reefs, pelagics, or wrecks, Papua New Guinea has it all.

Its land area of some 600 islands is slightly larger than California, spread out over thousands of miles of ocean. So it would take many trips to get more than a sampling of all the underwater treasures. Seven major live-aboards cruise disparate itineraries throughout the islands. I had made a trip on a live-aboard the year before, but felt something was missing by not seeing the country. So this time I traveled in the highlands before getting on the boat. This helped overcome jet lag and provided valuable insights.

The Land and People

When the first European explorer, Portuguese Jorge de Meneses, arrived in 1526, he called the place Ilhas dos Papuas, “Island of the Fuzzy Hairs.” Spaniard Inigo Ortiz de Retes later called it New Guinea because the people reminded him of those in Africa’s Guinea. Melanesians are dark-complexioned like Africans, but aren’t related. The rugged volcanic landscape is covered with lush tropical rain forest, and there was minimal contact among different tribes and villages. As a result, more than 700 distinct languages are spoken. Pidgin, a combination of English and German, is understood in most places. It’s taught in schools as well as English, a holdover from the British Empire era.

Nearly 300 years passed before Europeans made a concerted effort to exploit the region’s resources. By the end of the 19th century Holland, Germany, and England had established claim to different parts of the islands. In 1906, British New Guinea became Papua, administered by Australia. During the First World War, Aussie troops conquered the German section, and afterward Australia was awarded the territory by the League of Nations. During World War II the Japanese conquered the northern region, but were turned back by the allies. Sunken airplanes and shipwrecks at diveable depths are among the legacies of that war. As the age of empire faded, Indonesia took over the former Dutch territory in 1963 and it became the state of Irian Jaya. Ten years later the Australian region was granted independence as the nation of Papua New Guinea.

The years that followed were difficult for the new country. There were territorial conflicts with the Indonesians, and a rebellion in Bougainville that wasn’t resolved until 1998. The nation is still plagued by multiple problems including poverty, unemployment and health issues. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the people of the highlands first were contacted by westerners. Cannibalism and headhunting was practiced in some areas into the 1960s.

The Highlands

I was traveling with Georg Flashar, a Red Sea dive buddy I hadn’t seen in 15 years. A German engineer, Georg now lives in Vietnam. He had e-mailed me suggesting we meet on a dive trip.

Our highland base was Haus Poroman, a rustic resort outside the city of Mount Hagen. It was a peaceful retreat shielded by distance and forest from the urban grit. From there we made day trips to some of the surrounding villages.

Village life has changed little from first western contact. An estimated 85 percent of the people live off subsistence farming, on the fringes of the money economy. There’s a constant smell of smoke and dust in the air, a result of slash-and-burn agriculture. It’s a fertile land; flowers grow everywhere.

Missionaries have made a powerful influence. Most people consider themselves Christians, but still revert to traditional religion. Skulls of former chiefs are displayed in shrines like skeletons of monks in European catacombs. Most schools are run by churches, but few children go beyond primary grades.

Pigs are a form of currency, exchanged for reparations, dowries, and debts. If that doesn’t settle conflicts, they resort to Kalashnikovs, today’s substitute for bows and arrows. Fortunately, aggression is focused on rival villages, not tourists.

Cultural shows were arranged for us at three villages. Going in, I was apprehensive about how we’d be accepted. But it finally dawned on me that the shows were as much for their benefit as ours. There aren’t many tourists in the highlands; we were the first visitors at Mindima in five months. Our visit afforded a break from the daily routine, and they had pride in showing off their costumes, songs and dances. Afterward, sweet potatoes and bananas were roasted in a pit and shared among everyone. They were a bit mealy and flavorless, but we were polite guests.

Face painting is an art form in New Guinea. In some villages it’s done with theatrical makeup and Sharpie™ markers. But the skeleton people of Kupnung-ku used ashes and charcoal. And the grotesque masks of the mudmen in Pogla Village were made from natural materials.

September 16 is Independence Day, celebrated with festivals in every village. At one near Walindi we were invited to participate in their dances. We didn’t know what we were doing, but held hands in the circle, yelled and jumped whenever they did. Our only regret was that we had arrived too late for face painting.

On our last day in Mount Hagen we walked through the market. Most people were sitting on the ground, selling everything from vegetables and chickens to brightly colored dresses. I was a bit apprehensive, and brought my point-and-shoot camera instead of my larger SLR to attract less attention. It made no difference because Georg and I were the only “white faces” (the PNG name for Caucasians) there. Despite the language barrier, eye contact and a smile went a long way. I always asked permission to shoot photos and nobody refused. The only problem was that everybody wanted to pose; it was nearly impossible to shoot just one person. As in the villages, they were happy just to see their images in the monitor. I wonder how long that will last.

Diving With Ghosts and Pygmies

An area as widespread as Papua New Guinea offers the entire gamut of diving conditions, from shallow beginning sites to advanced sites with strong currents and greater depths. Expect visibility ranging from 60 to 100 feet plus.

For land-based diving, don’t expect Caribbean levels of amenities. Virtually all diving is from day boats with typical run times of 10-30 minutes. Resorts are generally rustic but comfortable.

In Papua New Guinea a good guide can be the difference between a good dive and great one. Andrew “Digger” Joseph is the most amazing guide I’ve ever encountered, not only because of his ability to find things but also his enthusiasm. He’s been doing this 10 years and acts like it’s his first. A 32-year-old with a fifth-grade education, he’s earned the equivalent of a Ph.D. in marine life.

Digger learned by asking questions of researchers and photographers, by reading and observing. He can find tiny gobies on whip corals, mantis shrimps in holes, and masters of camouflage like stonefish and ghost pipefish. “The way I do it is different than just ripping things apart,” he says. “I put critters back after pictures, and restore the reef so I can find them again. If I move a leaf scorpionfish, I put her back because that’s where she lays eggs and eats.” He seems to have a GPS running inside his head, and can always come back to the exact spot where something is hiding.

“The challenge for me is to find new stuff, like a white pygmy sea horse. Photographers make me enthusiastic,” he says. With digital photography he can now see pictures of the things he found, which wasn’t possible in the days of film.

On my part, there was a positive correlation between the quality of my photography and my proximity to Digger. One log excerpt: “I felt guilty as he found all sorts of critters for me including a ribbon eel, several nudies, a tiny mantis shrimp, a Fu Manchu lionfish, and finally a mandarinfish. I never could have found this stuff myself; it was like cheating.”

The route of our live-aboard took us from Kavieng to Walindi in 12 days. Skipper Alan Raabe doesn’t especially like wreck diving. He says it’s like diving in somebody’s junk pile. But we had three exceptional wreck dives. The first was on a B-25, the Stubborn Hellion, which crashed in 1944 during a raid on Kavieng. She lies in 30 feet (9 m) near the harbor, in poor visibility. The cockpit is broken off and lies by itself on the bottom, with the central controls and both steering wheels still intact. The gun turret and the tail were additional photo spots.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was a pristine Japanese Zero that seemed to have made a perfect landing in 40 feet (12 m) of water. First discovered just four years ago, it is virtually intact. Every instrument is still in the cockpit; as well as all controls. The only thing missing is the gunsight, which had been removed by a British diver. He was caught and fined; the instrument is now on display at Walindi Resort. World War II historians sometimes implied Zeroes were made from recycled tin cans, but after seeing this one after 60 years underwater, I’m convinced they were built like a Lexus.

The Sanku Maru, a Japanese freighter, is barely recognizable as a wreck. It was carrying coal and exploded, breaking in two. Everything is smashed, but it’s a garden with marine growth as rich as anything in Micronesia’s Truk Lagoon. Soft corals, glassfish, zigzag clams, and big sea fans decorate the wreckage; there’s not a bare piece of metal anywhere. It’s easy “penetration” because there is really no place to penetrate; I could see my way out from anywhere inside.

Crack a Fat Reef is dominated by black coral trees on a vertical wall. Fish are everywhere in the water column, from anthias and fusiliers to pyramid butterflies. On the current side, a densely packed school of silvery jacks kept swimming from one end of the seamount to the other, occasionally splitting around a diver, then regrouping. They shared their territory with tunas, and schools of barracuda, batfish, and gray snappers. Covering the top of the reef are brown anemones that can sting through skin suits. But there’s so much going on in the water column that it was no problem keeping clear. It’s one of those dives that gets better with stronger currents.

At Restorf Island I spent a half hour on the sand getting a pair of garden eels to trust me. These were the boldest of their kind I’d ever encountered. I kept moving closer, inch by inch. They didn’t even flinch when my strobes went off, would hunker down for a while but eventually rise up, at least to their first black spot. A great place for muck diving, this site also yielded a shrimp and gobie pair, a crab on wire coral, panda clownfishes, a two spot blenny, and a leaf scorpionfish. Muck diving is heavily dependent upon a good guide. It’s incredible how they can take people to such an uninspiring place, yet find living treasures in the sand.

Shark feeds provoke their share of controversy, but are one of the reasons you’ve been seeing striking images in publications like this one. Alan does them at Kilibob Knob, but not as often as before because he says they’ve become too slow and calm, not like real sharks. He now baits with fish pieces in a five-gallon plastic bucket instead of a big fish hunk. Through most of the dive, all it attracted was whitetip reef sharks trying to act like real ones. Gray reef sharks stayed on the periphery, only occasionally coming in for a look. When Digger took some chunks and tossed them in the water, they turned on the afterburners. Kilibob’s sheer wall would be a good dive even without the sharks.

Dickie’s Place is a night muck dive with a bottom of black volcanic sand. I spent a lot of the time following Digger. He found several cuttlefish, a juvenile crocodile fish buried in the sand and three nudibranchs. I managed to find a big hermit crab, a transparent shrimp, and a sleeping parrotfish with a banded coral shrimp sharing its hole.

The dives I’ve described were limited to the New Ireland-New Britain region and are presented to sample the variety of Papua New Guinea’s diving experiences. This trip covered less than 15 percent of the diveable area. That’s why this island nation has captured the imagination of divers from around the world. Once you’ve tasted it, you’ll want to come back and see the rest.

Story and photos by Eric Hanauer