By Sarah Sekula
There’s a reason that intrepid travelers are smitten with Papua New Guinea: The tourists are few and far between, the locals are superbly friendly and the jaw-dropping scenery doesn’t hurt either. Better yet, this South Pacific group of islands, just north of Australia, is still a little known destination among Americans. In other words, if you choose to visit, you’ll definitely head home with bragging rights.
The cultural diversity of this remote corner of the world appeals to many, but what tops the list for the water-loving crowd, no doubt, is the diving and snorkeling. Papua New Guinea is known for its staggering biodiversity and scientists continually discover new species here. With that said, if you’re lucky you might spot the rare thumbnail-sized pygmy seahorse or the snub-nosed dolphin.
I certainly kept my eyes peeled for rare creatures during my stay at Tawali Resort where the star of the show is the pristine reef. Located on a volcanic bluff overlooking the protected waters of Milne Bay, this private resort is only accessible by boat and attracts divers from around the world.
During my stay here, I met the Roms, an adventurous couple from Ventura, Calif. Forty- year-old Chris, an anesthesiologist, and Jenny, 33, a high school teacher, have dived in New Zealand, Samoa and Nicaragua over the past year; Papua New Guinea was on the bucket list, too.
“The muck dives here are awesome,” says Jenny. “You can tell not many people have been on these reefs.”
Their contagious enthusiasm combined with all the research I’d done beforehand prompted me to join in the underwater exploration. I quickly signed up for a discovery dive, an introductory course catering to the non-certified crowd. After a brief orientation with Yuka, my Japanese scuba instructor, I took a giant stride off the dock and into the warm, turquoise water.
As we passed by reefs covered in coral, we were immediately engulfed in a cloud of purple anthias fish, each about the size of my pinky. I happily flipper-kicked my way beside my affable guide as she pointed to several clown fish hiding in the waving sea anemone. She quickly cupped her hands into the shape of a heart; I did the same. Shortly after, we paddled our way down about 30 feet to the sea floor where she discovered a well camouflaged sea cucumber. Without her in the lead I surely would have missed that.
Toward the end of our 40-minute dive, came one of my favorite moments. Yuka motioned ahead at a cave. My first thought was, uh oh, I’m not a fan of enclosed spaces; this is only my second scuba dive, after all. My next thought was: This could be really cool. I signal OK, and swam past the luridly colored parrot fish and upward into the dimly-lit hole where I could not see any fish at all. Before I could think about the creepiness factor, I was turning slightly to the right and out the other side.
In just a few minutes I had conquered a fear and, in fact, relished the experience. In turn, I was grinning from ear to ear all evening. The next morning, I was sad to leave the seaside hideaway, so I woke early to squeeze in more water time. As I sleepily kayaked around the inlet I kept my eye on the reef below, which was dotted with huge, blue sea stars and teeming with brightly colored fish of all sizes.
And then came the finale. A huge pod of dolphins surfaced about 200 feet away. Not only were they jumping in unison, but so was the large, silvery fish they were hunting. Every 10 minutes or so, the prey would shoot straight up, twirl in mid-air and land back in the water. It was straight out of National Geographic, as was the case with much of my Papua New Guinea trip. Needless to say, I’m an now smitten with this far-flung locale, and I’ve only scratched the surface.
IF YOU GO:
Alotau, Milne Bay Province, PNG
It’s best to find an experienced outfitter, like Trans Niugini, to pick you up from the airport and shuttle you to the bay and boat you over to the resort.
Take guided bush walks into the rainforest or walk along the coast through local villages. Take a pair of binoculars to view the cockatoos, hornbills and parrots along the way.
Guides will take you on a 40-minute hike up through the lush forest to beautiful waterfalls.
ORCHID AND BOTANICAL WALKS
Starting in the local villages guests can walk into areas dense with beautiful orchids and lush vegetation. Don’t be surprised to see some amazing birds. There are more than 250 species of birds in Milne Bay alone.