A LITTLE MULTI-COLOURED fish appeared in the red beam from my focusing torch. It looked nervous as it negotiated the maze of coral that it called home, hiding behind any cover it could find, flitting from hidey-hole to hidey-hole, then freezing before moving on again.
Another arrived, and my heart raced, I could actually hear the pulse thumping away in my ears. I was feeling a little guilty, however, intruding on what should have been a private moment between these two beautiful male and female mandarinfish.
They lay side by side in the coral labyrinth, then slowly rose together, cheek by cheek, as they performed their nightly duties.
A few seconds and it was all over. They disappeared in the blink of an eye, their deed done until they could meet again at dusk the following night for a repeat performance.
I studied the LCD display on my camera, anticipating the worst but hoping for the best as I zoomed in to check for sharp focus.
Yes! Nailed it first go. I was elated – I’d been waiting for years to be able to photograph these little A-listers of the underwater photography world.

JUST AN HOUR AGO, I had been getting off a small speedboat at the end of my journey. Before that I had been driven down ever-deteriorating roads. Some of the small bridges we had crossed were, I noticed, precariously constructed from wooden pallets.
I passed near-naked villagers along the way, the men wearing nothing but penis gourds. They were carrying machetes and spears as they embarked on their non-stop endeavour to put food on the family tables.
A pod of dolphins had accompanied the boat, breaking the mirrored surface, the late-afternoon sun glistening briefly on their flanks.
At the dock I had been greeted by my dive-guide Sebastian, sporting white ear-buds and dancing in his Nikes and Levis to his favourite beat as he flicked through text messages on his iPhone.
I had gone from Stone Age to Space Age during my journey from Gurney Airport in Alotau and along the north coast of Milne Bay in eastern Papua New Guinea to my home for a week at the spectacular, but very remote, Tawali Resort.
After welcoming me, Sebastian had asked what I would like to see under water. My reply of “mandarinfish” had seen us stripping my dive and camera gear from my bags right there on the arrivals jetty.
We had entered the warm water as the sun dropped below the horizon. My target species lived on the resorts house reef, and dusk was the time to see them.
We would dive first, then ascend the winding staircase and book into the resort, get a drink at the bar and sit down to dinner. Now that’s what I call a dive resort!
Perched atop a limestone headland on the peninsula that forms the north coast of Milne Bay, Tawali Resort is surrounded by dense rainforest and is accessible only by boat.
Built mainly from locally sourced materials, everything else was brought in across the sea and constructed using local labour. The project was the brainchild of Rob van der Loos. It took eight years just to negotiate the land deal and then construct the resort without mains electricity, running water or road and wheeled vehicular access. Add to the equation the language barriers, and you realise that this was a Herculean effort on the part of Rob and his team.
Covered timber walkways and steps lead to all the amenities. The guest-rooms are on stilts perched on the steep rock slopes that form the headland, and offer spectacular views through dense jungle foliage, though the best view is offered at the large decking area beside the bar and restaurant.
This is the resorts highest point, directly above the house reef, the expanse of Milne Bay, the coastline and a few local islands. It makes for an amazing sight, especially at sunset.
What I didn’t see at night were any signs of civilisation in the form of lights on the land. This was as remote a destination as I had ever visited.

THE FOLLOWING MORNING, refreshed and rested, we headed out for our first dive of the day.
Wahoo Point is a short boat-ride west of Tawali. Skipper George skilfully positioned our little speedboat on the shallow side of the reef, and we dropped in.
We were greeted with a seabed scattered with huge, bright yellow elephant-ear sponges growing in apparent disarray. Shoals of tiny purple anthias danced around everywhere, fraternising with other species in all the colours of the rainbow.
Large red barrel sponges grew with impunity and vivid red whip corals, some sporting colourful crinoids, waggled in the mild current.
The drop-off beside the reef is the place to be when there are stronger currents, in case
a whale or hammerhead shark, manta ray or even orca should pass by, but for now I was more than happy to while away our dive time exploring the beautiful diversity of the reef-top.
Back on the boat, Sebastian and George were agonising over our next port of call. Muck-diving, it is said, originated in Milne Bay at a shallow site near a black volcanic sand beach, where juvenile marine animals thrive and grow in comparative safety.
Known locally as Dinah’s Beach, it sits in front of a tiny village, Lauadi.
Getting there would mean a quick stop back at Tawali for me to pick up my macro lens and port and fit them to my housing, but we had to pass the resort anyway.
I kept my dome port and wide-angle lens with me – you never know when it might come in handy – but at Dinah’s it would be tiny critters I was hoping to immortalise digitally.
George parked the boat by the beach, mooring onto a small tree, and Seba and I rolled over the side. Whenever I visit these sites I initially wonder what made me decide to dive there. At first I could see nothing but featureless black sand and fine silt.
Then, in the distance, a small purple anemone sitting all alone, its bright orange and white residents darting around the tentacles, proved an instant attention-grabber.
Along the way I was distracted by a pair of “Crazy Eyes” peering from a small hole under a rock. They belonged to a mantis shrimp, and swivelled in every direction as they monitored my movements. I had to stop to get shots.
When the optically superior crustacean had tired of me, it vanished back into its lair. Remembering the anemone I set off, but after only a few feet I had to stop again, this time to photograph a tiny bobtail squid as it hovered just above the sand.
Its fast-changing livery provided what it thought was the perfect camouflage, but the camera told a different story.
A few feet further on I had to stop again as I encountered more bizarre and photogenic critters, including an emperor shrimp hitching a ride on a sea cucumbers back, ornate ghost pipefish and a tiny juvenile boxfish.
The muck at Dinah’s was proving it to be a high-yield dive-site, and it wasn’t until our air was nearing 50bar that we managed to get in front of that beautiful, photogenic purple anemone.

AFTER THE CRITTER HUNT we settled down to a packed lunch on the boat and were joined by a young child in a dug-out canoe with bamboo outriggers.
He was nervous at first, so I asked Seba if it was OK to share some of my lunch with him. “Although we come from adjacent villages, we speak different languages so I won’t be able to converse with him,” Seba told me.
I used the universal language of food as I handed the young boy some beef and rice, then bribed him with a bar of chocolate into letting me take a few photos of him in his tiny boat.
His mother later came running down the beach, screaming at the poor kid to get back to his fishing duties, or more likely to protect her child from the stranger giving him sweets. A grateful smile and a wave goodbye, and he went on his way.
Papua New Guinea is the most linguistically diverse place on Earth, with more than 850 dialects spoken.
Schoolchildren are taught English, as the education system and government have adopted this as their official language. My lunch-partner was clearly not able to attend school.
PNG is a very long way from the UK. With long-haul specialists it’s not difficult to get to an Asian hub airport (in my case Singapore) and join the PNG national carrier Air Niugini flying directly to its capital, Port Moresby. Regular internal flights put you near your final destination.
The question I’ve been asked a lot since my return is: “Was the diving worth the trip” Well, I’d travel back in a heartbeat just to do a single dive on our next site.
Deacons Reef is one of those magical places. Set under a volcanic bluff with the cliff face dropping under water, it is shaded by a lush jungle canopy, allowing vibrant soft corals to grow in a maximum reef depth of just 18m.
As far as reefs go, this little area has everything. Small pinnacles are covered with hard and soft corals. Pristine gorgonian fans, red whip corals, black coral trees, barrel sponges and orange branching corals are littered everywhere, and crinoids in a multitude of hues cling to everything in numbers that beggar belief.
Add to this amazing scene thousands of little fish in an infinite variety of hues darting in and out of their coral sanctuaries, near-endless visibility and little to no current, and you’ll understand why I hold this destination in such high regard.
For a coral-reef nut like me, it doesn’t get any better. Every day we would return to this area at my request, and no one was left disappointed.
Similar sites are dotted all along the coast. Michelles is just around the bay and sits between Deacons and the Lauadi muck sites. It’s famous for its mainly red whip corals, a spectacular swim-through and large number of shoaling fish.
There is also a site named Crinoid City, which consists of a coral mound rising from 40m that hosts, as the name suggests, an enormous variety of these marine invertebrates.
Back at Tawali, sitting on the observation deck and sipping an ice-cold beer after yet another incredible days diving, I marvelled at the totem poles holding up the roof to the bar.
These, I was told, had been cut from local trees and carried by hand through the jungle before being hand-carved on site.
As with everything else at the resort, the logistics involved in overcoming natures obstacles was mind-boggling. This resort really is a diver’s paradise.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Flights from London Heathrow to Singapore with Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com), then to Alotau via Port Moresby with Air Niugini (www.airniugini.com). A tourist visa is required (US $50) and can be obtained on arrival.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION Tawali Resort. Nitrox is available, www.tawali.com
WHEN TO GO Year-round. The climate is typically tropical, with no distinct seasons. Water temperature is in the 26-30°C range.
MONEY The kina is equivalent to around US 50 cents. US dollars and credit cards widely accepted.
HEALTH A high-strength Deet-based insect repellant and anti-malarial tablets are 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 US $48.
PRICES Nigels trip was organised by Original Diving, info@originaldiving.com, tel: 0207 978 0505, which specialises in bespoke itineraries worldwide. For £1750 it can offer seven nights’ full-board in a Tawali Resort bungalow, return domestic flights from Port Moresby, daily boat dives and shore-diving on the house reef, airport transfers from Alotau, reef and chamber fees and fuel surcharges. If you’re willing to use a slightly roundabout route, it can fly you there and back for around £1100pp, but the most direct and popular route through Singapore costs around £1800! www.originaldiving.com
TOURIST INFORMATION www.papuanewguinea.travel