Travel Log: Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea: Pristine and Strange  World

Part of the reason the water and jungle at Milne
Bay is so pristine is that getting there is an adventure in and of itself.
It took us 4 flights (23 hours in the air), two hours by car (also an
adventure,) and a half hour boat ride to get from San Francisco to the
Tawali Resort.

It was exhausting. It was grueling. It was worth it. The Tawali caters
to divers, and serves no more than 30 guests at a time. I cannot speak
highly enough of this operation. Even though we were in a remote location,
every luxury was provided. The rooms were spacious and air conditioned, the
food was fresh and tasty, and the dive boats and equipment were top notch.
The resort even had a mascot, a female cassowary in a very large pen –
apparently there had been two cassowaries, until the local tribe decided to
redistribute the bounty by eating the male during a local feast. Management
arranged great childcare for our 4-year old daughter, who happily went off
to play in the local village every day as we readied our dive gear.


A bobtail squidburies itself near the Tawali house reef.
Photo by Richard Ross.



A cuttlefish flashes warning colors. Photo by Richard


Huge schools of fish swim above the reef. Photo by
Richard Ross.

I believe that part of our challenge as aquarists is to find creative
solutions to complex cultural and ecological conundrums. Tawali navigates
these issues with grace. The resort was built next to a beautiful fringing
reef that the locals fished for food. In order to protect their patch of
coral from over-fishing, the resort spent the time and money to build an
artificial floating ‘reef’ platform a few hundred feet away from the coral.
The larger fish love the new habitat, the locals love the convenience of
being able to fish from the platform, and the divers love the fact that
this leaves the coral undisturbed. This creative solution has resulted in a
house reef full of cuttlefish, bobtail squid, balls of coral cats, and
giant nudibranchs. The highlight of the house reef is a nook with two large
patches of branching Porites where, as night falls, pairs of
mandarin dragonettes rise from the coral head and hover in a mesmerizing
mating dance.

Milne Bay’s deeper waters are home to spectacular coral reefs. These are
the healthiest reefs I have ever seen – no trash, no breakage, no
bleaching, and populated by plethora of vertebrae and invertebrate animals.
Mantas, rhinopias, turtles, crinoids, clams and the giant schools
of anthias fill the water. Below the reefs, were gorgonian
forests, home to many animals, including two species of pigmy seahorse.


Large tabling SPS, surrounded by softies. Photo by
Richard Ross.



Pegasussea moth pair, in 4 feet of water. Photo by
Richard Ross.

As a reef keeper, I was astounded by the variety of both hard and soft
coral. Branching, tabling, plating… it was all there. There were fields of
staghorn that took minutes to swim over. Heavily prevalent were large
branching colonies of green Tubastrea, bright pink/purple
Acropora and red/orange softies. I was torn between wanting to get
someone to set up a collecting station right away, and wanting to never
tell anyone about this place. On the one hand, the income would certainly
be welcome to the locals while reefkeepers back home would certainly would
love to get some of the animals from the area into their home tanks. On the
other hand, there are so few pristine areas left in the world, I couldn’t
help but hope that this one might be left alone.

As wonderful as the reefs were, our favorite marine environment in Milne
Bay was the muck fields. These huge, undulating vistas of settled silt and
mud appear gray and lifeless at first glance. The creatures living there
are generally masters of disguise; but if you have a keen eye, or a good
dive master (which Tawali provides) the landscape is crowded with bizarre
and wonderful discoveries. Pegasus Sea Moths, seahorses, crocodile fish,
cuttlefish, octopus, ghost pipe fish, mantis shrimp, frogfish, and an
unbelievable assortment of nudibranchs inhabit the landscape. Most of them
live in shallower water, above 60 feet, which can lead to some seriously
long dives – 90 minutes plus of slow, effortless, bizarre discoveries.


A small ‘cleaning station’ or patch reef sprouting from
the muck. Photo by Richard Ross.


Clams and tabling acropora side by side. Photo by
Richard Ross.


Occasionally, you’ll find small patch reefs right in the middle of the
muck, which the local dive guides call ‘cleaning stations.’ One minute you
are swimming along over a desert of colorless muck, and suddenly you
encounter a colorful oasis. Huge brain corals, branching corals and an
overwhelming density of reef fish all crowd together in spaces as small as
8 feet in diameter. These little reefs are like fantasy tanks: densely
populated by lionfish, pipefish, cleaner shrimp, coral banded shrimp,
anemones, clown fish, puffers – even a giant school of cardinal fish. You
can’t take one fin stroke without seeing something bright, exotic, or rare.
It is an aquarist’s dream.


Colorful corals abound in PNGs reefs. Photo by Richard

While my wife and I spent most of our time poking around underwater, I
would be remiss in not mentioning what there is to see on land near Tawali.
There are no roads, so the only way to a get anywhere is on foot or by
boat. The jungles are thick and green, and just a few feet away from the
coast the heat becomes oppressive. But, again, your suffering will be worth
it. Hornbills fly overhead, their wings rasping together with a sound like
a swarm of bees. You trudge and trudge, and finally come upon a fissure in
the limestone, only to find a skull cave, where the bones of the locals
ancestors’ are stored in astounding quantities. You are led past orchids,
clouds of bugs, and walls of greenery to a crystal freshwater stream. You
follow the stream to a clearing where a picturesque waterfall plunges down
the rockface to pool just deep enough for a refreshing swim. Yes, there is
suffering. But it’s worth it.


Mandarin Dragonetts rise to mate at dusk. Photo by
Richard Ross.


A field of staghorn coral that seems to go on forever.
Photo by Richard Ross.



Dragon pipefish on a brain coral in one of the ‘cleaning
stations’. Photo by Richard Ross.

PNG is very strange, culturally speaking. Many of the body language
clues we use to communicate with those who don’t speak our language, simply
don’t translate here. If someone looks at you and doesn’t smile, you have
no idea what they are feeling. As long as we were traveling with someone
from the resort, we were met with warmth and hospitality; wander off alone,
and we found ourselves in an environment of suspicion and


‘Dusty’ water above the muck on a windy day. Photo by
Richard Ross.


Pigmy seahorse blends into a gorgonian. Photo by Richard


This coral invoked feelings of lust and greed. Photo by
Richard Ross.

Rather than lessening our enjoyment in the trip, this strangeness added
to it. When we finally arrived home, I felt as if we had really traveled.
The time, the difficulty, and the expense were all worth it to see a
glimpse of this pristine and strange world, both above, and below the
surface of the water.


One of many nudibranchs. Photo by Richard Ross.


A diver follows a school of fish around a ‘cleaning
station’ or patch reef. Photo by Richard Ross.


Skulls of tribal ancestors are piled high in the skull
caves. Photo by Richard Ross.


The Tawali resort’s mascot, ‘Cassie’. Photo by Richard

  Advanced Aquarist
Rich Ross

 Rich Ross

  (27 articles)

Richard Ross currently works as an Aquatic Biologist at the Steinhart Aquarium in the California Academy of Sciences, maintaining many exhibits including the 212,000 gallon Philippine Coral Reef. He has kept saltwater animals for over 25 years, and has worked in aquarium maintenance, retail, wholesale and has consulted for a coral farm/fish collecting station in the South Pacific. Richard enjoys all aspects of the aquarium hobby and is a regular author for trade publications, a frequent speaker at aquarium conferences and was a founder of one of the largest and most progressive reef clubs in Northern California, Bay Area Reefers. He is an avid underwater videographer and has been fortunate to scuba dive in a lot of places around the world. At home he maintains a 300 gallon reef system and a 250 gallon cephalopod/fish breeding system, and was one of the first people to close the life cycle of Sepia bandensis. When not doing all that stuff, he enjoys spending time with his patient wife, his incredible daughter and their menagerie of animals, both wet and dry.

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