The Colourful Pacific: Papua New Guinea

Located 160km north of Australia, Papua New Guinea (PNG) is an island paradise, with its rich culture that is largely untouched by the modern world, lush tropical jungles and pristine beaches. In addition, the country has some of the best dive sites in the world, one of the best being Milne Bay. The crystal clear waters provide great views of the colourful coral reefs, diverse marine life and hulking WWII wrecks that dot the ocean floor.

History and Culture

Remote and shrouded in mystery, Papua New Guinea has always captured the imagination of adventurers. The population of around 5 million is split into over 1,000 different tribes that speak more than 700 languages, with some only having recently come into contact with the outside world. Once practising head-hunters and cannibals, the islanders are now peaceful people, more than happy to invite travellers into their homes and villages to show off their rich heritage.

With one of the most diverse populations on the planet, almost every tribe has different cultures and customs. However, all lead predominantly subsistence lifestyles, farming, hunting and gathering to survive. Although modern clothes are worn, and there is the odd mobile phone and 4WD, people still mostly live as they did hundreds of years ago. Most villages are in isolated portions of the jungle, cut off from modern civilisation.

To get a glimpse of traditional life, there are villages that are open to visitors (usually on organised village tours). Visitors will be able to meet the chief, watch the men perform their traditional dances, and may be given the chance to see evidence of the island’s head-hunting past.

There are many festivals in PNG that celebrate the people that inhabit the country, with the largest and most famous being the Goroka Show. Held annually in September in the Eastern Highlands, more than 100 local tribes participate in a 2-day event where each one shows off their unique cultures. The colourful event features tribes like the famed Asaro mudmen with their white clay-covered bodies and giant clay masks and the fierce-looking Silimbuli warriors with their blackened faces.

Milne Bay in WWII

During WWII, Milne Bay became a huge naval base through which hundreds of thousands of servicemen passed; today, it’s home to a number of wrecks. The Battle of Milne Bay (1942) also happened here, when Japan tried to invade Milne Bay but was thwarted by Australian troops, ending their campaign in just 13 days. It was the first major battle in the Pacific where Allied troops decisively defeated Japanese land forces.

Diving on Milne Bay

There are several great dive sites in Papua New Guinea, but one of the best is Milne Bay. Located on the eastern edge of the country, the province is famous for its beautiful coral reefs and culture.

Milne Bay is also celebrated among divers as the birthplace of muck diving, where you search the ‘muck’ on the ocean floor for all kinds of weird and wonderful creatures such as the pygmy lionfish, cockatoo wasp fish, and the whimsical mantis shrimp. You can your time sifting through the sand to catch a glimpse of this elusive marine life.

These muck diving sites are located along the north coast, including Dinah’s Beach, Tawali House Reef, and Observation Point, a curved beach near a village. These are enclosed on both ends by small reefs and play host to sealife like snake eels, stargazers and cuttlefish.

Another great place is Lauadi, where you can find elusive creatures such as octopus, cuttlefish, mantis shrimp, mandarin fish, and seahorses. If you’re lucky, you may even spot some sharks or rays swimming about.

It’s not just a great spot for muck diving, as there are also lots of options for those that don’t want to get dirty. Tania’s Reef for example, is a colourful reef playing host to a huge variety of life that’s just 2.5m below the surface. You can circumnavigate the entire reef on one air tank, meaning that you can see a lot in a short space of time. For those who want to get up close with one of the ocean’s most fearsome predators, there’s Wahoo Point, located on the north side of the mainland. With a sheer cliff that
drops down over 60m, it’s one of the best places to see hammerhead sharks and even the occasional whale shark, although this is a rare occurrence. Manta rays and schools of barracuda also call this beautiful spot home.

One of the best and most intact plane wrecks in the whole of Papua New Guinea, a B-17 Bomber called the Black Jack, can be found in the north near Cape Vogel at a maximum depth of 46m. This famous plane was credited with sinking many ships and was ditched in 1943 following engine trouble.

Samarai Island, south of Milne Bay, has an easily accessible manta ray cleaning station and a wonderful wharf to dive.

Logistics

For land-based diving, there are resorts and dive operators in Alotau or along the north coast of the bay. There are also liveaboard diving vessels that frequent this vast area. Diving is year-round, although rainy season (May to August) can be choppy with poor visibility; September is manta season.

Milne Bay is ideal for divers looking to pack the most into a short break. It has some of the best muck diving in the world and a diverse range of sites, all in close proximity to one another, offering the chance to see everything from tiny shrimps to huge sharks. Even non-divers will find something to do, whether it be relaxing on the beach or experiencing the ancient local culture.

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