|SO Sun Dancer II is making waves around Palau, but whatever happened to its smaller predecessor, the original Sun Dancer I found it, renamed Star Dancer, operating in Papua New Guinea.
PNG, 160 miles north of Australia, covers an area the size of Spain including the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and some 600 smaller islands, atolls and coral reefs.
Three years ago a volcano erupted on the western half of New Britain Island, burying the main town of Rabaul under several metres of ash. Although it destroyed some of the famous wreck dives in Rabaul harbour, many great dive sites have survived, contrary to some reports, and Rabaul is slowly re-awakening.
But it was on the other side of the island, well away from the volcanos, that I went to join Star Dancer.
The popular Walindi dive resort is fairly accessible in PNG terms, an hours flight and another hours drive from the capital Port Moresby, but once there you get the feeling of being in true wilderness.
Both Star Dancer and the Febrina live-aboard operate from here. In summer I could imagine the place to be paradise but in the early part of the year it was pouring with rain, and I was glad to take cover in my accommodation.
Even the basic stateroom is akin to a luxury hotel room, with its queen-sized bed, en-suite facilities, air conditioning and even piped-in music, volume-controlled.
The first night we sailed north into the Bismarck Sea, waking inside the Garove Crater, the centre of what was once a huge volcano. On three sides lush green islands climbed steeply out of the water. There was a strong smell of sulphur in the air.
Lama Shoal is a massive pinnacle rising from 100m to just 12m from the surface. Its walls are covered in gorgonians, bushes of black coral and delicate soft corals. A steady current brings in large numbers of fish, and we found wall-to-wall chevron barracuda and jack. The jack performed a kind of ballet for us - it was an incredible sight.
As I moved into the centre of a barracuda shoal, we were joined by a grey reef shark, dogtooth tuna and mackerel, all on the hunt for breakfast.
On top of the bank, down to 25m or so, were many great places to hover and survey the marine life. At a cleaning station I saw fish I had never seen before and am still hoping to identify!
Relaxing back on the boat, we spotted three orca whales. I climbed into the water, keen to capture them on film, but all I saw was their receding rear view. After a second dive we headed back into the shelter of the Garove Crater as the weather began to deteriorate. We tied up to Dudu Rock to do a couple more dives. On Star Dancer the crew tries to lay on three or four day dives a day and, if anyone is interested, a night dive.
Dudu Rock plunges almost sheer in places to depths well beyond sport-diving limits. Following all the recent rain there was a lot of particle suspension in the water, but we were concentrating on the smaller creatures of the reef. We found octopus, lionfish, hundreds of little sea cucumbers and pretty nudibranchs.
The next day we dived at Middle Reef, where a coral island towers from the depths up to just 11m below the surface. The buoy line was tied off in about 13m at the edge of the plateau, close to a brilliantly camouflaged stonefish.
As at Lama Shoal, a current helps attract many species of fish: jacks and barracuda, blue and gold fusiliers, unicorn, surgeon, butterfly, banner, angel, rabbit, fox, hawk, and parrotfish, moorish idols, sweetlips, pufferfish, snapper, boxfish and a whole range of clownfish. The beautifully marked spinecheek clownfish is a stunning bright red, with white bands that look to have been applied by an artists brush. In the early afternoon we dived at Dons Drifter, a sheer wall that plummets from a shallow plateau. It is a relaxing dive, with young silvertip sharks, shoals of unicornfish, fusiliers and plenty of sponges and sea fans.
We had two dives here, and our third at Dickies Place. Described as a mud dive, it was more like sand and shale. There was plenty to see on the fringing shallow reef, including octopus, shrimp, gobies and nudibranchs the size of dinner plates.
The next day found us on a reef called Swamp Tinny in Lamma Bay. Here, as at Dons Drifter, sheer walls lead down from a coral-covered plateau. Festooned in soft corals and delicate sea fans, these walls hide an abundance of life. Hidden in one sea fan I spotted an old favourite - the long-nosed hawkfish and, up nearer the plateau, the arc-eye variety.
One of my last views over the reef plateau here was of a scene with a small area of black coral sea fans and lovely pink soft coral, with a number of small fish in the background looking as if they were falling as a shower of rain.
With the weather still not encouraging, our skipper Don decided to make a run for Kimbe Bay later that afternoon. Here, despite somewhat reduced visibility, we enjoyed some excellent diving on a variety of sites including Inglis Shoal and Kirsty Jane - steep drop-offs from 15m - and Restorf Island.
Out from here is a fantastic reef system with steep walls covered in a kaleidoscope of marine life, ranging from massive sea fans and huge sponges to beautiful sea whips and soft corals. Everywhere I looked I discovered something exciting - twin-spot gobies trying to mimic a crab, fields of peculiar garden eels, fascinating razorfish hiding among brilliant red whip corals, various shrimp gobies and another old favourite, the mantis shrimp.
By the end of the week the weather was so bad that Restorf Island was one of the only sites worth diving. The fact that we were still able
to enjoy it says something about the magic of PNGs underwater world.
Six nights on Star Dancer and one in Walindi cost from£1345, ten nights from£1920. Return flights from Heathrow with Singapore Airlines start from£1245. Bookings can be made through Divequest Holidays, 01254 826 322.
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