Papua New Guinea is Australia’s closest neighbour, yet it remains largely untouched by tourism. It is one of the least densely populated countries in the world, which means there are hundreds of uninhabited islands. Tempted by adventure and a pristine marine environment, a group of friends excited about diving, snorkelling and fishing, embarked MY Beluga in March 2019 on an expedition to the islands and coral atolls east of Milne Bay.
Day 1 – Alotau to Conflict Islands
After a short plane ride from Australia, we arrived in Alotau via Port Moresby. Alotau is a sleepy tropical coastal town of 15,000 people. The game boat Zulu was waiting for us and a quick 15-minute transfer later, we approached MY Beluga, a 34.9m Moonen built luxury expedition vessel, that would lead us on an adventure of a lifetime.
We were greeted by the crew with cool face towels scented with essential oils and a silver tray of cool fresh coconuts. After a tour of the boat, the distinct smell of freshly baked bread filled the air and called us in the direction of lunch. We sat down for an amazing 3-course meal at a magnificently set table as the boat headed towards our first destination of the Conflict Islands.
Although we arrived amidst grey skies and rain, as we set sail the clouds began to drift away on an adventure of their own, which allowed us to catch the first glimpse of the breathtaking landscape. In the evening, as we enjoyed some sunset drinks, Captain Peter joined us to talk about the itinerary for the trip, and what kind of adventures to expect. After an exquisite dinner, we retired to our luxurious cabins to get some much-needed sleep for the big day ahead.
Day 2 – Conflict Islands
After a calm overnight passage, we awoke to find ourselves anchored in the middle of a ring of submerged volcanoes known as the Conflict Islands. We began the day by watching the sunrise with freshly made coffee in our hands. The rain from the previous day had disappeared and we were greeted with the tranquil views of the lush green jungle which ran right to the edge of the volcanic rock. We realised that the scents spilling out of Chef Danielle’s kitchen would be something we anticipated each day excitedly. This morning, alongside a delicious breakfast of everything you could dream of, she also served up the most heavenly tasting scones, infused with fresh dates and organic whipped butter.
After breakfast, we set out for our first snorkelling adventure of the trip. We spent a good three hours exploring the reef here. It is almost impossible to describe what we found below the surface, it was so beautiful. The colours of the coral were lit in such a way through the lens of the ocean water that it glowed in the most vibrant alluring ways. Fish of all sizes and patterns and colours darted through the uniquely shaped corals, and swaying anemones enticed us in for a closer look as tiny, fluorescent orange male clownfish greeted our intrigued faces with the fearless courage of a protective father warning us that we are getting too close to his family. Thousands of small electric blue fish shot past our snorkelling masks, large rainbow parrotfish swam gracefully along the seafloor, gaping mouths opening and closing, spitting out sand as they continued about their business, seemingly unphased by our presence in their beautiful marine sanctuary.
Jake and Ryan from Crew Beluga gave us some freediving tips and soon we were lucky enough to find a few painted crayfish for our lunch the next day. As we headed back to MY Beluga, we were met with cool towels and what would soon become our daily ritual of “cocktail of the day” prepared by Chief Stewardess Megan.
We sat down for lunch, surrounded by palm trees set amongst the tips of the lush green jungle situated on the volcanic islands, completely uninhabited. The islands were only visited by local fishermen in their handmade canoes, travelling through the waters, using the currents, the rocks, the stars and the sun as their map to find and gather fresh fish for their families. It was truly a memorable moment to reflect on the wonders of nature and how magical it can be when left untouched, the way it was intended.
That afternoon we decided to try our luck at game fishing. Zulu is a custom-built game fishing boat, perfectly set up for the task. We set out with the highly experienced and friendly crew of Zulu who first decked us out head to toe in the top of the line game fishing gear. We had not been game fishing before, so after spending 10 minutes taking hilarious selfies of ourselves wearing the gear we were ready to go.
WHAT AN AFTERNOON! Firstly, the crew were fantastic. They were enthusiastic and passionate and showed us all we needed to know. Casting out into the open waters with hooks baited and our gin and tonics topped up, we became enthralled with catching something, and we didn’t have to wait long.
Listening to amazing fishing stories, we took turns in the marlin chair. The waters were peaceful and we almost forgot we were fishing, until the huge rod began to silently bend, and the line dipped into the water and then gave way slightly as someone yelled: “We’re on!” Steve heaved back the rod. He and the fish danced with each other, testing the strength of both their stamina and the hi-tech fishing gear! Exhilarated, Steve reeled back the rod once more. Zulu crew member Jake raced towards the back of the boat with a large net, cradling the amazing creature in the softness of the ropes as it was pulled from the deep blue ocean. A huge Dog Tooth Tuna flapped about on the wooden deck, beaming its sharp teeth and proving itself as magnificent as expected from the performance it gave. After a brief photo opportunity, the colossal fish was thrown back in and off it went. We spent the next 2 hours pulling in more dogtooth tuna, beautiful red and blue coral trout and a handful of mackerel.
After three hours on board, a delicious fruit platter was prepared by Jake, who is also a trained chef, and numerous glasses of champagne were poured as we arrived back at Beluga, very proud and, pardon the pun, totally hooked!
Day 3 – Panasesa Island
In the early morning, we arrived in the Conflict Islands. This group of 21 islands is uninhabited, apart from Panacea, which is home to a turtle research centre and hatchery, as well as an eco-resort. Managed by an Australian couple, Hayley Versace and Ed Cardwell, the Conflict Island Conservation Initiative (CICI) aim to protect the pristine coral reef habitat and its endangered species. A call was made to the resort and Hayley advised we could visit the island and take a guided tour. An unexpected addition to our itinerary turned out to be the highlight of the entire trip and a day no one would ever forget.
We jumped on to the tender and slowly pulled up to the pristine shores by a long wooden jetty, encrusted with oyster shells and huge schools of fish that looked like blobs of majestic black ink floating with the rhythm of the tide near the jetty pillars.
We were met by Hayley, who is a marine biologist, and the island’s two friendly resident dogs. Walking on sandy paths through groves of swaying palm trees, we felt we had arrived in paradise.
Hayley showed us where she and her team of 20 locals grow their fruit and vegetables, snake beans, pumpkins, bananas, and a huge variety of other foods.
Soon, we arrived at the turtle hatchery, which was a substantial building, built from bamboo. In this enormous space, we found ourselves surrounded by large pools filled with baby hawksbill and green turtles. The turtle sanctuary employs locals, offers volunteer and internship programs and runs research and educational initiatives. The team monitor the turtle nests and relocate eggs to safe areas to protect them from predators. As the first 72 hours are the most dangerous in a baby turtle’s journey in life, the hatchery aims to reduce the risks for them. By the time they are released, they are bigger and stronger and have a far better chance of survival.
Hayley and her team also educate the locals about conservation, and encourage them not to eat the turtle eggs, or use their shells to sell at markets and to tourists. After feeding some of the baby turtles, we were thrilled to have learnt so much about them and seen something so special, but that special feeling wouldn’t end just yet. We had a surprise awaiting us!
As we walked along the white palm-fringed sand, Hayley casually asked if we would like to release about 80 of the baby turtles back into the ocean. We could not think of enough ways to say yes. We couldn’t believe we would be part of such an important event.
Soon we found ourselves back onboard Zulu with two large Tupperware containers brimming with 80 adorable baby turtles. We were able to hold them and gently trace our fingers across the unique patterns that nature printed on to each turtle’s shell.
Once we reached a deep area of the ocean, we enthusiastically launched into the deep blue waters. As we bobbed around the open waters in the middle of Solomon Sea, the two containers were passed overboard and floated along in the current with us. One by one we took turns to scoop out the turtles, plant a kiss on their adorable heads and wish them good luck. We glided alongside the little turtles as they swam their little hearts out, out of sight, unable to fathom how we were able to be present to witness something so truly beautiful.
Day 4 Conflict Islands to Deboyne Lagoon
We woke this morning still on a high from the turtle release but also thrilled at the plans for the day ahead. During dinner the evening before, Captain Peter had mentioned there was a sunken WWII plane on the way to our next location and he hoped we could find it to explore it. After breakfast, there was time to relax, drink coffee and fresh watermelon juice and read our books in the sun. Soon we slowed down and Captain Peter told us that he had found the WWII dive site.
The Japanese Zero crashed on May 7 in 1942 during the battle of the Coral Sea, and it is one of the few wrecks that can be snorkelled, as it sits in 3m of water.
As we jumped overboard the water was warm and welcoming. We went free diving down to the remains of the fighter jet. The propellers were still intact, and the entirety of the remains was clothed in a robe of sea algae, barnacles, and rust. Where parts of the plane were missing or had worn down to a cloud of fine brown dust, living organisms made their way inside the plane, and inhabited it as their new home.
Sea anemones and coral were plentiful and sprouted vibrantly from the body of the jet, although a magnificent site, an eerie feeling swept through the area, partly because of the almost silent remote location, and partly due to thoughts of the pilot who met his fate at this very spot. We were entertained for quite a while by the quantity of overly assertive clown fish families living in the skeleton of the wreck, dancing in and out of arms of colourful sea anemones who were unknowingly cradling the clownfish children.
That afternoon we arrived at the Passage Islands, to a place called Deboyne Lagoon. We didn’t know it yet, but this was going to be one of our favourite places on this incredible trip.
From the moment we arrived, almost out of nowhere, traditional dugout canoes started to appear, some with makeshift sails made from old tarpaulin and perfectly constructed masts using any materials that perhaps had washed up to shore. We soon found ourselves with at least four boats, guided by local fishermen and their children pulling up to the side of Beluga.
Beaming huge smiles, showing teeth discoloured from the beetle nut they chew on all day, the fishermen offered freshly caught fish and crayfish in exchange for drinking water, tools and toys. The Beluga crew had come prepared with some old tools from the engineer’s toolbox, some bottles of water and lots of footballs, which the children embraced excitedly.
These trades continued throughout the day as more and more boats visited Beluga.
Around lunch, we jumped into the tender and travelled towards a huge coral bommie drenched in sunshine. We gently toppled off the sides of the tender and plunged into an oasis of underwater life. The coral came in shades of purples and blues we did not know existed, it jutted out in clustered claws sculpted into complicated shapes that only untouched nature could create and maintain.
Lilac coral, shaped like brains, coral formed into the shape of giant mushrooms illuminating in a glow of vibrant yellows, and blankets of coral shelves harbouring unbelievably well-fed and magically coloured and patterned fish, covered huge areas of the location.
Electric blue starfish the size of dinner plates sunbaked in their bed of sand on the ocean floor, whilst spotty neon blue clams showed off their seemingly velvet blue interior as though putting on a show just for our visit. Small reef sharks propelled through the water effortlessly as though operated by lithium batteries. We spent four hours in the water here and only got out when we were so waterlogged our hands and feet were almost as wrinkly as the coral!
Some of our fellow guests decided to go scuba diving that afternoon, and had a great wall dive, encountering sharks, a large dogtooth tuna and some barracudas!
Back on Beluga, after another exquisite 3-course dinner, we enjoyed a movie night. Snuggled up on the couch with a glass of red wine, blankets, a delicious cheese board and freshly made popcorn, we sat anchored somewhere in the middle of the Solomon Sea.
Day 5 – Passage Island
We woke up to another sunny and calm morning in paradise and decided to explore some of the uninhabited islands and reefs around us. On the way there we dropped off Steve, our resident fishing tragic, who wanted to try his luck at fishing off the magnificent white sandy shores of one of the islands. We then moved further out from the island to a coral reef shelf. It was a deep drop-off to about 40m. Huge cavernous structures held home to an array of sea life and allowed us to dive and explore for over two hours.
It was here that we were also lucky enough to be paid a visit by a family of pilot whales, peacefully passing by us about 10 metres away. Majestic and silent these whales were the highlight of the morning.
Picking Steve and Dan from Crew Zulu upon their deserted island, we arrived to find them grinning ear to ear. They jumped into the tender and began to relay their morning of catching amazing huge fish.
When we arrived back on Beluga, it was time for lunch, and Chief Stewardess Megan had the table charmingly set with nautilus shells lining the centre of the dining table and linen napkins held in place by starfish.
Afterwards, we relaxed on the top deck, some lazed in the spa with a glass of wine, looking out at the natural beauty that surrounded us, whilst others chose to layout on the sunbeds, read their books and listen to the sounds of the peaceful ocean.
Feeling replenished, the divers in our group decided to attempt an advanced drift dive on the outer edge of the lagoon. We entered the warm water amidst 40m+ visibility, and soon were zooming along the reef, propelled forward by the strong currents. Taking photos and videos of the amazing underwater landscape around us, we were mesmerised to see a school of large giant trevallies not just swimming along us, but soon encircling us, whilst we were drifting along the drop-off.
We saw sharks, turtles, large rays, barracudas and tuna, making this the best dive of the trip.
It was another fantastic day where the divers went diving, the snorkellers snorkelled and the fishing enthusiasts caught fish, and everyone had a great time.
Back on Beluga, it was cocktail hour, and chief stewardess Megan did not disappoint.
Day 6- Passage Islands
Our second day in the beautiful Passage Islands, began, as every day, with the most amazing breakfast spread prepared by the chef, followed by decisions on what activities the day would bring. Some guests wanted to go diving again, and the rest of us headed off to a nearby island to explore.
As we approached the pristine white beach, it was clear that much like most of the places we had visited so far, this island was uninhabited.
There were, however, signs that it was used as a stopover point for native fishermen. We saw several vacant small bark huts with remnants from discarded campfires, charred logs and stones and hundreds of small shells that once homed an edible delicious plump sea creature. As we walked further, we discovered what seemed to be some sort of wild animal trap. It was a huge pit filled with razor-sharp poles embedded into the ground, sure to impale anything unlucky enough to fall victim to the trap.
We circumnavigated the whole island, stopping to swim when we got too hot, collecting distinctive fragments of driftwood or shiny mother of pearl coloured shells.
As we adventured inland a little more, we found a mangrove area clutching a body of water as warm as a bath. It seemed to be a type of shark nursery as baby reef sharks zipped about in the shallows. Walking further along the shore at the end of the island, I found a huge uninhabited nautilus shell that had washed up behind a large hollow tree log.
After a barbecue lunch back on Beluga, we decided who wanted to go fishing and who was going snorkelling.
The snorkellers were met by large sea turtles that effortlessly camouflaged into the darker corals, moss and barnacles adorned the turtle’s shell-like antique sea jewellery. An enormous spotted eagle ray floated below us, and I was lucky enough to glide alongside it for a few meters, admiring its duck-like snout and long tail flouncing far behind. It only took seconds to find that I had followed the mesmerising creature off into the deep blue water off of a huge drop into the ocean. The reef sharks here seemed calm and peculiarly inquisitive, yet luckily already very well fed as they went on about their business. Vast splashes of colours disguised as tropical fish flurried past our goggles, as the larger fish whirled below us.
Our fishermen had an even more exciting afternoon, catching and releasing a sailfish!
Back on Beluga, we enjoyed another impeccable dinner, crowned by Chef Danielle’s famous chocolate lava cake. As we lifted anchor, off to the next stop, we decided that it was time for game night. Chilled French champagne in one hand and chilli dark chocolate dipped strawberries in the other, it turned out to be a lively Trivial pursuit game!
Day 7 – Wari Island
The unfortunate reality is that all good things must come to an end. We awoke today knowing it was our last day in this spectacular part of the world.
After breakfast, we decided to explore Wari Island, meet the locals and visit the village they called home. We took with us many items we knew the locals needed, like school books, swimming goggles, children’s clothes, sugar, flour, rice and fishing hooks/tackle, and of course, footballs and tools for carving wood. Our guide Ange, who was from Papua New Guinea, had told us they would be putting on a small market for us and that they liked trading with visitors.
Captain Peter drove our tender towards the beach, where we were met by an enormous group of children of all ages. Adults hovered further behind the group, eagerly watching us step on to their island. Children’s laughter echoed and bounded off palm trees, kids ran around barefoot, squealing with delight and waving their little hands around in the warm air, eyes wide with exhilaration and enormous smiles spread across their faces.
It was at this point we brought out a brand new football from one of the bags, and almost immediately we were surrounded by a swarm of football fans, eager to play the game with us. We were led towards an enormous green grass patch and a game began. No words were spoken, no rules were established, and no teams were chosen, we just ran around the grassy field, mud spat up as the ball was booted, people slid on the wet grass, and it was joyous chaos all around. Soon a tennis ball appeared, and a parallel game started.
Next, we were given a tour of the island. One of the biggest buildings in the village was the school. I stood in front of a large hand-painted sign that read in big red block letters “Department of Milne Bay Division of Education Ware Elementary School” underneath the writing was a huge hand-painted picture of the island, and the ocean surrounding it, with a pod of dolphins jumping out of the bright blue water, underneath was scrolled in yellow letters, “A gateway to success”.
The inside of the school was spacious but very simple. The timber frames were exposed, holding up the grey tin roof, sunlight seeped in through the edges of the building’s ceiling. The children sat on a smooth brown cement-like floor. To the left, the windows looked out on to big beautiful swaying green palm trees, and to the right, the light blue colours of the ocean against the white sand in the distance. Plastered all over the walls, were posters of the alphabet, numeracy, literacy and everything else. In the middle of the classroom on one of the wooden columns was a horizontal line of posters from the Cancer Foundation. They read: “What causes mouth cancer, Most Mouth Cancer is caused by Betel Nut, alcohol and tobacco, research suggests 1 in 10 deaths are due to cancer, don’t smoke, don’t chew, reduce alcohol.” The teacher, who was only 17 years old herself, informed us that they were trying to spread awareness of the concerns of chewing betel nut, but it was proving to be quite challenging.
From here we were led to the area where they kept their livestock and grew all the produce. Their large snorting pig was quite hefty, marked with huge black oval spots and pink skin everywhere else. She was due to give birth any day and she was met with belly rubs in her wooden pen by the kids. We looked on and let the happy pig sniff our hands with her big pink snout before she let us scratch her head.
Then it was time to barter in the market. The women of the village had set up tables under a long open-ended hut, heaving with a large variety of brightly coloured, uniquely patterned and shaped seashells, hand-painted art, grass woven baskets. Soon, goods were being exchanged amidst big smiles, our children’s clothes and carving tools proving to be a hit.
After a few hours in the village, it was time to bid farewell. We distributed the last of our gifts and made our way back to our tender, followed by the children, who were waving and laughing and posing for photographs.
We had been shown such hospitality, and friendliness and we took with us happy memories of Wari Island and its friendly villagers.
We arrived back on Beluga in time for a late lunch. Chef Danielle had prepared a seafood extravaganza incorporating some of the beautiful fish caught by our anglers. Commencing our cruise through Milne Bay back to Alotau, we watched beautiful coral reefs and past palm-fringed white beaches pass by. It was time for the spa, a massage, or a cocktail or two. Later, we were served champagne sundowners on the top deck. We laughed and reflected on our adventures and admired the beauty of Papua New Guinea as we slowly cruised back towards Alotau.
When our friends and owners of Beluga asked us to join them on this holiday, we didn’t really know what to expect. Google told me to expect pirates and mosquitoes, which I researched in great detail. At the end of the holiday, what we remembered was pristine coral reefs, amazing diving and fishing, and a sense of profound sadness that it was ending. We did not want to leave. Trying to describe in words what we saw, what we experienced and what we felt, is difficult because nothing can describe the pure untouched beauty of this place. This trip to Papua New Guinea on Beluga, has formed the type of memories that you tell your grandkids about, the type of memories that remind you to be thankful of the marvels of nature, and the type of memories you think of when you go to your “happy place”.
The oceans of Papua New Guinea will forever be our happy place.
By Natalie Erdedi, Elani Miles and Sandrina Postorino
Images: Guests and Megan Beker