REACHING FOR MY CAMERA on the stern of our dive-boat, I detected the faint aroma of sulphur on the breeze. I scanned the horizon and soon found its source – one of the many volcanoes peaking above the dawn mist was puffing a tell-tale plume of smoke high into the air.
I was in the south of the Pacific “Ring of Fire” at Kimbe Bay, about to experience the diving on offer around New Britain Island in the Bismarck Sea, a little north of mainland Papua New Guinea.
A stride off the dive-deck left me in comfortably warm water, and we started a slow descent.
Visibility was outstanding, yet I couldn’t see the reef rising to greet us. All I could see was a huge shoal of chevron barracuda, the sunlight shimmering off their silvery flanks.
They swam in an organised tornado, slowly circling in the azure waters, accompanied by jack trevally darting from the shoal in groups to hunt an easy breakfast.
As we got closer, the barracuda moved aside to reveal the real treasures. My regulator nearly dropped from my mouth as my smile widened.
Opening up before me was the sort of reef you dream about. Well-remembered images from glossy publications faded in contrast to what was appearing before me.
This small reef had it all: huge red gorgonian fans; vibrant blood-red whip corals with golden damselfish nestled between their fronds; staghorn, yellow lettuce and brain corals competing for space; stunning pink, orange and yellow sponges growing wherever there was room; and soft coral bushes in vibrant shades of red, pink and white intermingled with an endless variety of crinoids, all open and trying to filter the tiny morsels carried on the non-existent current.
Then there were the fish. The reef was covered in an animated mass of bright purple anthias, darting for cover in the coral branches as I approached and rising cautiously as one when the coast was clear.
Anemones in every conceivable hue were dotted around the reef, some closed and resembling beach-balls.
A variety of anemonefish species huddled together where the tentacles were exposed. Blennies peered from their homes. Grouper, surgeonfish and long-fin spadefish patiently queued at cleaning stations for the tiny wrasse and shrimps to work their magic.
I had probably seen all of the species of fish and coral on offer here before, but never in one place at the same time, in such quantity and in such pristine condition. The experience reminded me of Christmas Day – you open your gifts and their contents are all new, with no scratches, chipped paint or faded colours, everything in perfect condition and working faultlessly.
The reefs in the Bismarck Sea look straight out of the box, too. There’s no sign of damage from over-enthusiastic divers or careless deployment of boats’ anchors.
No sign of pollution, nor bleaching from rising water temperatures; no plastic bags or monofilament line caught in the fronds of the coral. This is what the ocean reefs looked like before man started systematically degrading them.

STRADDLING THE EQUATOR some 450 miles north of Australia, PNG is a country synonymous with the exotic; a magnificent land of smoking volcanoes, impenetrable jungles and exotic cultures; surrounded by undiscovered coral reefs and marine habitats.
More than 800 languages are spoken here, so it’s lucky that English is taught in local schools and widely spoken.
PNG is a very long way from the UK. Reaching the international airport at Port Moresby requires at least two flights and 20 hours in the air.
The last leg means an internal flight, in this case to Hoskins Airport in New Britain. However, Neill Ghosh of Original Diving had organised my trip with military precision, reducing transfer times by booking flights that meshed, and made the journey painless.
The journey from Hoskins Airport to Walindi Plantation Resort was an hour’s drive along well-made roads, passing field after field of palm trees growing in neat rows.
Producing palm oil is New Britain’s local industry. Walindi’s owners and creators, agriculturists Max and Cecilie Benjamin, bought their land in 1969 as a cocoa plantation, but replanted it with oil palms in the early ’70s.
A few dives revealed a marine habitat of unparalleled diversity on their doorstep, and the couple shifted focus.
Their dive resort opened 25 years ago, and became a PNG institution and a template for the modern scuba eco-resort.
Superbly run with the help of son Cheyenne and British expat dive managers Cat Stinson and Dan Johnson, everything is laid-back and meets the needs of divers and photographers. Small bungalows are set in lush tropical vegetation with power supplied via central diesel generators (there’s no mains electricity here).
To reduce the carbon footprint the generators are shut down between 11pm and 6am, at which point a vehicle battery and charger in each room takes over running essential lights, the ceiling fan and an outlet for charging cameras and batteries.
Diving is from day-boats that leave the dive centre’s dock after breakfast, returning after up to three dives and a buffet lunch on board.
An optional dusk or night dive on the house-reef is always an option.

A RECENT STUDY HAS REVEALED more than 440 species of reef-building corals in Kimbe Bay – around half the worldwide total! They form mainly large coral bommies in astonishingly healthy condition, all part of the 5000sq mile Kimbe marine protection area (MPA), the first in PNG.
It was set up by the Walindi owners and Australian captain Alan Raabe some 20 years ago, with EU funding helping to form Mahonia Na Dari, a non-government research and conservation centre. Designed to protect the marine environment by raising awareness, it runs courses at local secondary schools, with former pupils later returning as teachers to carry on the process.
No commercial fishing is allowed in the reserve, only low-scale subsistence fishing by a few locals. No wonder the area hosts more than 850 species of fish, and in huge numbers. But with only one dive centre you’ll never see a flotilla of boats vying for space.

I VISITED IN EARLY AUGUST, as normally strong south-east trade winds were giving way to the calm conditions that last until late December. Water temperatures range from 28-31°C and vis from 20m to a mind-boggling 50m!
Walindi dive-boats visit some 25 local sites, the nearest five minutes away and the furthest 90 minutes.
A signature dive is at Susan’s Reef, a submerged ridge connected to a much larger reef by a saddle that creates a channel between them.
The draw is the number of red whip-coral bushes. We saw them everywhere, along with multi-coloured crinoids attached like Christmas bows on presents. At the southern ridge we found a large shoal of filefish living among the whips. Moving as one when approached, they turn to reduce their profiles for protection.
There were many big fan corals, with a host of macro critters waiting to be discovered among their vein-like branches. I spotted a pair of longnose hawkfish and a multitude of shrimp species.
If you’re like me, you can’t swim past an anemone without stopping. I can almost hear those little anemonefish shouting: “Look at me, I’m cute, photograph me!”, and at Susan’s there was a lot of stopping.
In the shallow water at the reef-top is a profusion of staghorn coral in perfect condition, a rare sight these days. Shoals of tiny reef fish pulsate around the branches, creating a living halo.
Lunch was served buffet-style while moored at the beautiful Restorf Island,
a tiny coral islet with lush tropical growth adorning a white sand beach. Also visiting were students and teachers from Mahonia Na Dari, conducting lessons in fish behaviour. Feeding
a shoal of striped damselfish off the beach, their enthusiasm was infectious.
I snorkelled around the island,
finding healthy soft corals in just 2ft of water, thriving in the shade of the foliage canopy. Yet more anemones and a profusion of fish life occupied the shallows.
The diving at Restorf’s Reef is also spectacular; with large elephant ear and barrel sponges adorned with multi-coloured sea-tars and familiar reef fish.
I spent only three days diving from Walindi but could see what makes sites such as Susan’s, North Emma’s, Vanessa’s and Ingliss world-class.

THE SECOND LEG of my Bismarck Sea adventure would take place on the liveaboard FeBrina, owned and skippered by Alan “Mad Dog” Raabe.
Based at Walindi and exploring the waters around New Britain for more than 20 years, Alan has created another PNG diving institution, but unfortunately couldn’t join us as he was visiting his native Australia.
My first impression of FeBrina was of my grandma’s house; old, well-worn but spotlessly clean and extremely comfortable, with everything in its place. Grandma will even wash and dry your clothes daily, to help you reduce your checked baggage. The crew of PNG nationals are managed by the elegant Josie, who introduced everyone before we settled down for our first night.
FeBrina isn’t a large boat. It can accommodate 12 passengers with ease, though we had only seven on this trip.
Cabins are extremely comfortable, with air-conditioning and en-suite shower rooms, and how the ship’s cook Jayne manages to create such culinary delights in her small galley is a mystery.
Nitrox 32 is available via a membrane system, and proved consistent over the entire trip.
Seventy-five miles north-east of Walindi are the Fathers Islands and reefs, our destination for a week of five dives a day.
After fairly rough diving conditions in Kimbe Bay, I welcomed the flat-calm seas in the lee of the islands. The dive sites were similar to Kimbe’s, but more densely populated still. With little or no current, long dives were the norm.
The guides carried out some low-level shark feeds, deploying a gallon container stuffed with chopped fish and kitchen scraps to attract a few close to the reef’s edge.
At Norman’s Knob, we had our first “attractor” dive. We gathered in a small group on a rock ledge beside a drop-off as Josie and veteran dive guide Digga hung the container over the edge, and tried to regulate our excited breathing.
A shoal of barracuda hung in the blue water as clouds of small fish appeared, along with a large Napoleon wrasse, and surrounded the container.
Then the curtains parted and the star of the show arrived as if on cue – a 3m female silvertip shark dwarfed the Napoleon, which eased away looking annoyed. The shark’s sleek lines and pointed features made her look every inch the apex predator, though she showed no signs of aggression, only curiosity as she nudged the container to release scraps.
An hour later, amid high fives and excited chatter, we climbed back on board. The surface-interval talk was of more to come.
The shark dives continued at sites as exotic as Mad Dog’s naming system – with grey reef sharks at Jayne’s Gully and Kilibob’s Knob, whitetips on Alice’s Mound and blacktips at Bradford Shoal.
There were also macro dives with pygmy seahorses and numerous shrimp species. We dived with a hawksbill turtle nicknamed Psycho (though in fact it was friendly and approachable), and saw huge shoals of barracuda and jack at most sites, and incredible coral-filled caves and overhangs.

FOR BRITS NO DIVE TRIP is complete without at least one wreck-dive, and I had begged Josie to take us to a site back in Kimbe Bay where a Japanese Zero aircraft lay intact on the seabed.
The Zero was a fighter used in kamikaze attacks in WW2, and this one had been identified by Max and Cecilie from serial numbers found on its intact hull. It had gone missing in action after the battle of Cape Gloucester on Boxing Day, 1944.
The fate of pilot Tomiharu Honda is unknown but an open cockpit canopy, throttle and trim controls set for landing and a lack of bullet-holes seem to indicate that he ditched the plane when out of fuel.
The fighter lies in just 17m on a silty seabed and is in remarkable condition, with little marine growth except to the rear of the cockpit, which is home to a small anemone.
Our dive here coincided with some poor visibility, as rainwater run-off from the nearby coast mingled with the normally clear ocean water.
For our last dive we revisited Susan’s Reef, where the arrival of Walindi’s day-boat marked the first time we had seen other divers in a week. The Bismarck Sea is a remote destination and on FeBrina we had it all to ourselves. This place has it all – in bucket-loads.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Flights from London Heathrow to Singapore with Singapore Airlines, www.singapore air.com, then Hoskins airport New Britain via Port Moresby with Air Niugini, www.airniugini.com. A tourist visa is required (US $50) on arrival or from the PNG embassy in the UK, www.pngembassy.org
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Walindi Plantation Resort and mv FeBrina. Nitrox is available at both, www.walindifebrina.com
WHEN TO GO Year-round, but August-December and February-June are recommended. There are no distinct seasons but January and July see some strong trade winds. Water temperature range is 28-31°C.
HEALTH: Malaria prevention is essential, with a strong Deet-based insect repellant and anti-malarial tablets recommended. Dive-centres subscribe to a modern hyperbaric facility in Port Moresby. DAN insurance is a requirement. Reef and chamber fees are mandatory and payable locally at $48.
MONEY: The kina (around US 50 cents). US dollars and credit cards are widely accepted.
PRICES: Original Diving, which specialises in bespoke itineraries with high-end dive operators worldwide, offers a package reflecting the one Nigel Wade experienced from £3850pp. This includes all flights and transfers, three nights at Walindi and eight nights on FeBrina with all meals and diving. www.originaldiving.com, 0207 978 0505
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.papuanewguinea.travel