My instructions were clear and I tumbled headfirst from the aft deck and finned down as hard as I could, pulling at the same time on my BCs rear dump to be sure that no trapped air impeded my descent.
I reached the seabed at 30m in less than a minute, but there was nothing but acres of sand, stretching in seductive humps as far as the eye could see - which was only about 15m.
But wait, there was a dark patch. I headed towards it, but there was nothing. Another dark patch. Nothing there either. After chasing more of these shadows, I began to realise that they were caused by either refraction or the mind tricks of sensory deprivation, looking for something where there was nothing.
I headed carefully back to the surface and climbed wearily back onto the dive platform of mv Moonlighting. Captain Tony Collins had just carried out a similar fruitless exercise, chasing down to investigate what might have made the raised contour line on the vessels echo-sounder.
We were looking for the wreck of a small fighter plane, a Bell Aircobra P39, that ditched in the sea during an attack on Japanese supply ships in Hansa Bay in 1943.
The problem was that the fuselage of such a small wreck stood less than a metre clear of the seabed and was hard to distinguish from humps of sand.
After another couple of hours painstaking search, with the boat doing tight grid patterns and us staring blankly at the level trace on the sounder, it was time to seek local advice.
sat a fisherman and his small son. Tony shouted to him in pidgin. The only word I grasped was Youbla!, which evidently translates loosely as: Good afternoon, my man, may I have your attention for a moment
As Tony continued to question our fisherman, he nodded and then started to paddle furiously. We meandered along in his wake.
And there, like witchcraft, in the middle of the open ocean, without a transit in sight as far as I could see, our fisherman pointed down to where he insisted the wrecked plane lay.
Susie took command. Tony dropped a marker buoy and jumped over the side. No-one else relished another fruitless search in the deep over the same old sand. Five minutes later he reappeared.
Shed be right! he nodded. He slung his aqualung back onto the rack. I can understand how we couldve easily missed the bugger!
The Wing-Commander was into his kit and off the back of the boat in a trice. He had beaten all of us, all week, at getting to the front of the queue. I headed down to the plane to find him hovering over the fuselage, which was wrapped in string. The drop-weight from the buoy had landed about a metre from it. So much for echo-sounder versus local knowledge.
The Aircobra sat squarely on the seabed. A single-seater aircraft, it looked rather tiny, but the 37mm cannon in its nose, its barrel protruding through the propeller boss, was not.
I took in the image but something seemed unusual. The great Allinson Vee engine was in the back, behind the pilots seat. The propshaft passed between the pilots legs - not a very comfortable-looking option.
The Wing-Co, our aviation expert, had immediately spotted why the plane had crashed. Its tailplane was missing!
With a wingspan of merely 10m, this wreck was a tiny haven of safety in the abyss for the reef fish that lived in and around it. But it wasnt that safe. I soon spotted the most enormous and well-fed lionfish, which obviously gorged on the smaller prey it found there.
I wondered how these animals had found this place. The whole gamut of Indo-Pacific reef life, including a grouper and two red emperors, seemed to be represented. They were lucky, unlike the pilot of the Aircobra.
The Japanese were defeated in the battles for the Kokoda Trail because their supply lines were destroyed. Although they had built numerous airstrips and improvised harbours along the coast of New Guinea, their naval losses at the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Solomons and their defeat in the Battle of the Coral Sea had put them at a severe disadvantage.
An Allied coastwatcher identified transports unloading supplies in Hansa Bay, around 125 miles from Madang on the Bismarck Sea coast. For the US Air Force, the attack had been less a battle, more a turkey-shoot.
Thirty-four wrecked vessels are recorded as lying, mostly undiscovered and undived, in the bay. Those we had seen on previous days had been bombed almost to oblivion.
Moonlighting is a 50ft Singapore-built trawler-yacht which carries up to six guests. That may sound small for a liveaboard but it has all the facilities one needs, including a water-maker, two generators, full navigation equipment and a satellite phone.
Big Aussie Tony was assisted by Susie, a tough Scots lassie, and another Susie, a local girl from Madang. We would occasionally hear Tony exclaim: Bloody women! but it was all in good humour.
to join them aboard, and it was easy for me to find a few friends to come along as paying guests and fill the rest of the boat to have a private party. Its pleasant to have exclusive use of a charter. You might wish to do the same.
The atmosphere on board was naturally rather British. We made fun of each other relentlessly. We had good material with William, a high-powered and brutally frank lawyer from Lisbon, and cuddly Steven, an ex-government mandarin now based in Hong Kong. He had put on a bit of weight since we last saw him in Cocos a year previously.
Ex-Wing-Commander B Limp was always good for an anecdote. Two other friends, Hitochi and Masau, more polite by nature than us Brits, were from Morioka, Japan. They probably secretly wished that the score had been a bit more even between the nationalities of the wrecks, and were visibly relieved to dive a US minesweeper during the last few days.
Either way, they were able to give us interesting Japanese names for several of the wrecks. The information found in guidebooks was sparse and it was obvious that few people had dived them.
I thought that the wreck with the massive mast and derrick was probably what was described as the Mast Wreck, though Tony insisted it was the Davit Wreck. He thought the Mast Wreck was the one with all the davits, but then, all ships have davits. They swing the lifeboats from them.
Our Japanese experts suggested the name Hoboshira Maru for the first and Kizyuki Maru for the second. The wreck that the guidebook called the Shallow Wreck they called the Aasai Maru. I explained to Tony that whatever he thought, once these names were printed in Diver, they would become fact!
First we dived the Sushi Maru, again a working title. Why divers named it after vinegared-rice remains a mystery - its probably because so many westerners say sushi when they mean sashimi. There were certainly plenty of raw fish around it. I assume that the first to name it were the first to dive it, and they must have been Brits or Aussies.
Our Japanese friends wanted to call it the Umeboshi Maru. I dont know what it means, but I suspect that they were getting their own back for all the ribbing we gave them.
I managed to get in to the water in front of the Wing-Co for our first dive on the Umeboshi Maru - probably because I had tied his swimming trunks in a tight knot to the boats rail.
A turtle hovered by the enormous prow and the rest stretched far beyond the range of visibility. Visibility can be a big problem in Hansa Bay. At certain times of the year, southerly currents bring outpourings from the mighty Sepik and Ramu rivers down this way, and visibility is reduced to North Sea levels. We had chosen our time well. It was September.
This wrecked vessel was not just bombed and sunk. It was bombed and bombed, and then bombed some more. There was obviously a lot of animosity involved on the US side, as well as unlimited munitions. The site is now more of a complex reef system than an identifiable ship that once displaced 5000 tons. The vibrant and fertile marine life of this area has encapsulated everything in corals, anemones and sponges, and hordes of less-sedentary animals live within its shelter.
I could easily make out the shape of the anchor hanging from the bow, from massive hawse pipes exposed where the foredeck was missing. Great winches sat disguised in their new garb and a solitary anti-aircraft gun lay on the sand where it had been blown from its mountings.
Inside the forecastle lay piles of sake bottles. The forward hold revealed the remains of trucks and a fire-tender that had been buried under tons of steel. But there was little sign of rusty metal. It was wrapped up in 60 years of colourful marine growth.
The second hold seemed relatively empty and beyond that was what remained of the engines, but no drivetrain visible. Dont ask me what happened to the bridge and superstructure. Its probably still there, but not as we know it.
I stumbled across a drive-wheel and piston further aft, all that remained of a steam locomotive.
You dont dive the Umeboshi Maru for its marine architecture, but clouds of blue-line snapper dart about, concealing and revealing pufferfish, anemonefish, eels and anthias, juvenile batfish and angels, and the inevitable predatory redmouth grouper hiding behind them.
As I made my way over the side to view the stern and see where the propeller had been at 24m, a large grouper, a real wreckfish, discreetly slipped away.
Then I saw a bigger animal, a man with a speargun, and looked up to see the silhouette of a native outrigger-canoe.
Villagers claim ownership of every piece of sea, and Tony has to pay each headman to let us dive in their water. Fishing is done mainly by spear and breath-hold diving. The sight of a human, including a scuba-diver, sends the mass of fish darting around chaotically.
The water is full of planktonic life-forms and is probably a great place for ear infections. Luckily, I seem to be immune to such things, but obtaining clear photographs became something of a challenge. My failure rate on these wrecks was higher than normal.
Diving the Kizyuki Maru towards dusk, under the eye of a massively rising full moon, I took stock of the outside of the upright hull. It was covered with these large clams. Suddenly one started smoking and then, on cue, so did all the others.
The hull of this smaller freighter gradually caught fire until it was shrouded in the smoke of a thousand ejaculating shellfish. It was a once-a-year phenomenon and we happened to be there to see it.
The Kizyuki Maru and the Aasai Maru are very shallow and not far from the mouth of a river, so visibility would never be gin-clear. The Hoboshira Maru has a massive mast with a flat top that reaches within centimetres of the surface. We watched in amazement from the deck of Moonlighting one day, as a local man stepped from his outrigger canoe and appeared to walk on the water, until we realised that he was standing on the top of this mast.
All these vessels had been caught in a storm of fire and explosions, had gone down mangled and torn and now house many fish. Those who like colourful slugs will regard this place as some sort of nirvana. Out on the sand, large numbers of rays hunted in the muddy bottom but seemed nervous of an approach.
Apart from the poor visibility, the diving seemed easy here compared with on the USS Boston, a small steel freighter used by the American forces as a minesweeper.
Minesweepers are usually wooden or, today, plastic. Steel-hulled vessels are unusual, for obvious reasons. The Boston must have been considered expendable, and its crew fairly safe from exploding mines, as the superstructure with wheelhouse was at the stern.
In fact the Boston was lost when its propeller became tangled in minesweeping cables, causing it, somehow, to slash a hole in its own hull. It lies on the seabed at a maximum 45m, swept by an unrelenting, powerful current, so divers have to drop into the water well upstream.
It was the Wing-Co and I who again managed to get into our kit and throw ourselves off the back of Moonlighting first.
We finned hard to a seabed that seemed a very long way down. We were rushing sideways past the reef wall and soon the hulk loomed. I wondered how I could put the brakes on, and ducked hurriedly into the calm water of its forward hold.
A big pufferfish lurked in there and I took its portrait before making my way up to the superstructure, still in the lee of the current. I took a relaxed look inside the wheelhouse and made my way along a short companionway to the small aft section.
, holding on to a rail, his regulator streaming air on the current, the bubbles stringing out horizontally behind him. I thought it made an evocative image and leaned into the open with my camera. As the single flashhead touched the current, I felt as if a giant had grabbed me.
I was dragged from my hiding place and flung into open water. I washed back past William, who was still gripping the rail, and sailed back to where I had originally sought refuge. I repeated my earlier journey back past the wheelhouse and up the companionway.
I tried for the picture again. The same thing happened. You dont get a lot of time for such party tricks at that depth, so I switched to photographing Susie swimming past the mast.
Then it was time to move on to that apparently fast-moving reef, in shallower water. I followed a hawksbill turtle taking a similar ride on natures roller-coaster.
There are many excellent reefs and walls to dive but there is something unique about diving the scene of a fierce battle.
A well-visited and almost intact corpse of a Mitchell B25 twin-engined bomber lies along a reef near Wongat Island, almost in sight of Madang. Visibility can be poor but it makes for an exciting dive as the hulk gradually reveals itself to be a plane. It lies forlorn, one engine gone, covered in corals and sponges but undeniably a fallen wartime bird of prey.
Some of the turret-guns remain very obvious and I was able to photograph the controls inside the cockpit. A great mass of black coral growing under one wing gave a good impression of a lady shot-putters armpit. A big shoal of shrimpfish hung vertically nearby, trying to look like a growth of eelgrass. These plane wrecks certainly provide a vivid brush with history.
|Outsize lionfish in the engine section of the Bell Aircobra wreck |
|the wing of a Mitchell B25 bomber wreck near Madang |
|blueline snapper on the Sushi Maru |
|a porthole on the Mast Wreck, otherwise known as the Hoboshiro Maru |
|The upper gun turret on the Mitchell B25 bomber |
|Honeycomb clams on the hull of one of the wrecks |
|Under the stern post on the Sushi Maru |
|Controls in the cockpit of the B25 |
|Reef near the USS Boston wreck |
|A fire tender on the Sushi Maru |
GETTING THERE: John Bantin travelled at the invitation of Scuba Safaris (01342 851 196 www.scuba-safaris.com) to Singapore and then on to Port Moresby and Madang with Air Niugini.
DIVING: mv Moonlighting is operated by Blue Sea Charters (www.blueseacharters.com) from Madang.
when to go: August to October for best visibility at Hansa Bay. A 3mm full wetsuit is recommended.
WHEN TO GO: August to October for best visibility at Hansa Bay. A 3mm full wetsuit is recommended..
MONEY:: US $ and local Kina (exchanged at the airport bank when you arrive). All credit cards accepted in hotels though not on Moonlighting.
LANGUAGE: Pidgin and English.
HEALTH: Malaria can be a problem. Doxycycline is recommended for divers.
COST: Seven nights in Hansa Bay aboard Moonlighting costs£2359, including overnight stay each way in Madang (meals not included). Bear in mind that excess baggage charges to and from Singapore can double the ticket price. Also allow $40 for entry tax and airport departure fee. Moonlighting charges for extras such as canned and alcoholic drinks, use of the satphone and the small daily diving fee for villagers. Book in advance to hire diving equipment.
FURTHER INFORMATION:PNG Tourism Promotion Authority, 00 675 3200 211, www.pngtourism.org.pg
Manum is a huge volcanic island which erupted two years ago
Papua New Guinea consists mainly of large islands directly north of Australias Queensland coast, including New England and New Ireland. The major part makes up half the landmass now called Papua New Guinea (PNG) and shared with Indonesias Iryan Jaya. Madang, the regional capital, is on its north coast, which is part of the Pacific Oceans Ring of Fire. Earthquakes are common. One was going on as I checked out of my hotel and it hardly raised an eyebrow with the hotel staff.
Sub-ocean earthquakes cause sunamis, tidal waves that can result in great loss of life in coastal areas. My original plans had to be modified because of an earthquake that destroyed Hoskins Airport in New Britain. Another sub-ocean quake caused a tidal wave near Wewak shortly before I left the UK.
complete with decorative dangly bits, traditional penis sheaths are sported by the local men
The coastline between Madang and Hansa Bay is dominated by the massive offshore islands of Manum and Karkar, which are active volcanoes. Manum blew up only two years ago.
The north coast of New Guinea was originally settled by Germans, but after WW1 it came under the rule of the Australians, who had already colonised Papua in the south. It is a mountainous country but the coastal plains have been made over to huge copra plantations. Copra oil was an important ingredient for machining munitions before synthetic oils were invented.
The locals still live in long houses in villages and fish from outrigger canoes, and many still wear local attire, including grass skirts and penis sheaths. They are desperately poor by first-world standards but tourists find it all very picturesque. Each time we hove to, locals would paddle their canoes out to trade pumpkins, bananas or coconuts for packaged foods.
food trading from a typical outrigger canoe
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