Detritus of War

The smashed RAAF Catalina flying boat lies in 20 metres of usually clear water.
The smashed RAAF Catalina flying boat lies in 20 metres of usually clear water.

Diving off Kavieng- The end of the End

Often Synonomous for fiery mountains, undiscovered tribes and canibalism; the underwater world of Papua New Guinea is a far cry from all of this. Our travels through PNG took in the mighty Sepik River, Tiny Yuo Island and the the north of new Ireland. The last stop on the air route to Truk Lagoon.  Here we explore Kavieng. 

Words and Pictures by Raf Jah

The wrecked Catalina was probably discovered 10 years ago, and yet there was something palpable about the history. No matter who had seen the smashed engines and wing before us, I felt like an explorer. There was no helping it. We were 8 divers, finning undisturbed over the debris, our bubbles rising slowly to the surface. Strewn all around the wreck at 20m depth were large 105mm shells. Some of which had gone off. Perhaps that explained the mid air explosion that had taken this aircraft just after take off. I picked up a smaller shell and stared at it. The casing was large- but the head only 20mm across. I took a photo at the coral encrusted object.

One of the Wasp engines lies on the seabed
One of the Wasp engines lies on the seabed

I snapped a few shots with my rather worn olympus- and it was time to ascend. There was no reef to look at so I stopped midwater and surfaced. We were diving off the town of Kavieng in Northern New Guinea, which had been the first landfall for Japanese aircraft coming south from their base in Truk lagoon 500 ,miles to the north. They would refuel and continue on to their imperial headquarters In Rabaul.

In December 1943 the americans started attacking Kavieng which culminated in a series of massive air raids in February 1943″. In these raids, the Americans repeatedly bombed the air strips, ships in the harbour, and passing vessels. They lost few aircraft and most of the crews were rescued under the noses of the Japanese. This defeated the Japanese in the air and on the ground. Convinced that the raids were a precursor to to an invasion, the Japanese murdered their Australian civilian internees in retribution.

A few hours earlier, I had rather foolishly dropped the ladder over the side and watched it disappear into the sand. Borrowing a mask and snorke- I set off looking for it. With a difting dive boat, the ladder took a lot longer to find than I had hoped. While looking I was amazed by Sheer quantity of war time detrius.

Visibility of often stunning

In order perhaps to keep the equilibrium up- Nozaki, our Japanese guide made sure our our next dive was on a Japanese “nakajima Kate” torpedo bomber. Sitting in only 10 metres of water, the Kate was largely in tact. Due to the lack of Japanese records, we knew nothing about this aircraft. Did it run out of fuel or was it shot down in 1944? We circled it, and shot photos of the two cockpits and the internal struts. It seemed to have come to a halt in the sand before a coral reef.

The next morning Dietmar, the rather cool Austrian owner of Lissenung sent us off to the southernmost passage of the islands. We started on a bommie, looked over the edge at 50m depth and then continued sedately into the passage. The wall was covered with fans and not the largest of fish, but plenty of two to five inch reef fish. As we were swept over the top, we came accross an enormous rock in the middle of the sandy passage, covered with Jacks.  With some seriously hard finning,  I managed to snap a couple of shots before being blown off into the mangroves.

“That was excellent” I said, “I’d do that again”. And we did. Literally- they just dumped us on the other side of the passage, we dived along the wall- and around the fans looking at pygmy seahorses. Then the current, which had been against us, turned and tried to pull us off over the top. Four of us were veterans of Pemba currents. Stu Kayle Cisca  and myself stayed below the edge and watched as Sharks swirled around us- with 300 emperors and 200 jacks and 5 barracudas. The 10 grey reef sharks were cruising and hunting amongst the other schools. In this day of the destruction of the shark  population- I felt truly priveledged to be surrounded by so many. This experience alone was worth the three days it took to get here from London. After a few minutes, we ran out of bottom time, and submitted ourselves to the same current that swept us over the top and into the mangrove lined shallow channel.

Lissenung Island is really small. There is also a strange and pleasant atmosphere on the Island. Dietmar the owner works away in the day. He is assisted by Nozaki and a papuan girl called Vicky. There are no set roles in the hotel- people work in the dive centre and in the hotel. Everyone does everything. Its quite refreshing to see. The local staff are all drawn from the Tigak tribe. They do their jobs in a very reasonable manner. The island is so small- with tiny sandy beaches in various places. Our huts are made of bamboo strips and corrugated iron roofs. They are slightly warmer than the outside until after sunset when he wind blows through the three sided windows. Each house has a balcony. Its all very small and very well thought out.

That sunset Rob made me a splendid gin and tonic. We sat on wicker chairs on a tiny beach- watching theast glimmers of the sun shine on a an even smaller neighbouring island.  Stuart and Kayle join us as do the rest of the group. We retired to the sitting area and chatted. Stuart and I were still chatting at one in the morning- until our whisky bottle was empty.

The sun poured into my room and made sure I was awake. I pulled ciscas towel over my eyes and groaned. Cisca made tea and I felt I ought to get up. After a large cup of tea and a shower I wandered over to the eating area with my camera. Stuart was already there- moving a little slow.

Dietmar had rather cleverly changed our dive sites from an adventurous rush like the channel to  more sedate dives. We motored out  to Lemus Reef. The sea was now flat calm and the sun shone down on us. The Dive site seemed to be a ridge at 15m that was set off at a 70 degree angle from a tiny beach. The rocky reef was covered in small fans and some soft coral. A huge eagle ray swept over the group- or so they told me later, for I was transfixed by the tiny flatworms, the small fish, shrimps and coral formations. I had my 70mm nacro lens on and recorded the details.  We soon lost the others as they went deeper. We stayed at 13-15 metres relaxing, conserving our air, and doing as Dietmar told us.

“Stay  shallow”

Above us at 6m we were constantly covered by two schools of fish that sat in the mild current and criss crossed around us. The whiskey still on my mind I did a long safety stop and kept my ascent rate inexorably slow.

After the dive, we stood on the surface watching three turtles surface and breathe.  Their brown bodies move sedately in the blue green water. We gawked at them while some of the girls went for a swim. All too soon it was time to change our cylinders and get ready to do it all again….

We travelled to Papua New Guinea with the African and Oriental travel company.

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