ANICDOTES AND OBSERVATIONS FROM NEW BRITAIN
Before we leave New Britain here are two short stories….local stories…remembered from the Pacific War.
In the immediate wake of Cyclone Ita, we arrived in Alotau and took a boat to a diving lodge beyond the roads of Milne Bay at the extreme southeast point of Papua New Guinea. On our boat was Edward, a man from the PNG island of New Britain, the largest island in the Bismarck Archipelago (and our next stop). We spoke on the boat and over the next few days on all manner of subjects as he sorted out the IT/internet issues at the lodge in the wake of the cyclone. Edward had lived and studied in Pittsburgh, enduring a Pennsylvania winter (and his first experience of snow). He had fond memories of the warm people (in spite of their climate), though virtually no one had more than the vaguest clue as to what/where PNG was, let alone New Britain, and where baffled as to why he looked like an African American (to them)…..didn’t all people from the South Pacific look like Hawaiians?
Edward also recounted to me a rather touching story from the Pacific War. In late 1943, America landed 10,000 Marines of the First Division at Cape Glouster – the western point of New Britain- to wrest a series of airbases from the Japanese. As they fought their way east, the Marines encountered Edward’s village, where his grandmother was in the midst of a difficult childbirth. Several Marine medics noticed a commotion in the village and asked their local guides what the commotion was about. They lent a hand and Edward’s uncle was born. His grandmother, grateful for the help the medics, felt she must name her new son after one of the Marines. But which one? After considering the situation, and consulting with the elders, Edward’s uncle was rather democratically named “America”. America still lives in the province of West New Britain of Papua New Guinea. Edward visits him whenever he can.
THE SPITFIRE UNDERCARRAGE IS IN OUR BEDROOM
The rugged, roadless rainforest mountains of New Britain hide hundreds of aircraft wrecks from the Pacific War, many of which have yet to be discovered. New Britain also hosts a small but close knit ex-pat community. I met some of them at the annual ANZAC Day remberance (Australian, New Zealand Army Corps. – the equivalent to America’s Memorial Day, focused on the ANZAC sacrifices during World War I, II) in the small town of Kimbe in West New Britain where we happened to be during the annual memorial gathering. Over the years, a small subset of these PNG ex-pats have taken up the challenge of finding at least some of these wrecks, both through their own explorations and contact with the remote clans and tribes in the New Britain interior. In many cases, these discoveries have closed sixty year old MIA cases through a fascinating process of identifying not only the air craft type, but the one individual aircraft from the mangled remains one can imagine would be left after plummeting though the rainforest canopy. Amazingly, many of these IDs were made by something as simple as an engine part, radio gear, wing guns, and in some cases, the personal effects and/or bone fragments of the air crew. We were lucky enough to befriend one of these amazing ex-pats (the name will remain unnoted as it is technically illegal to hunt for these wrecks per PNG law). Pending a proper museum that is anticipated some day, their home was an astonishing collection of WW II aircraft bit and pieces – aircraft engines, wing guns, ammunition, controls, radio gear, reconnaissance cameras, even a roll of the enormous film negatives used in them. Our friend recounted years of searching based mostly on the tips from older locals who remembered the aircraft going down. In some cases they reunited pilots or their surviving relatives with their aircraft. And yes, they did have a Spitfire fighter landing strut in their bedroom!
ON TO THE BISMARCK SEA AND DIVING
After our experiences on New Britain, we boarded the 72’ MV Febrina, a “liveaboard” dive boat, for 10 days of diving the remote pinnacles, reefs and islands of the Bismarck Sea. What’s it like being on a liveaboard dive boat? Close quarters for sure. And it’s all along the diving (but you typically also establish great friendships in the process). A typical day involves arising before six for a quick cup of coffee and re-check of your SCUBA and camera gear, then in the water on the first dive by 6:30. After anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes underwater (sixty on average for us), a surface interval of about an hour is had to eat breakfast and to rid the body tissues of dissolved “residual” nitrogen (you don’t want to be a like a beer bottle when it opens and suddenly “decompresses”, filling with bubbles). The next dive is typically at 9:30, followed by a dive at 11:30, 3:30 and a night dive on many days, for up to five dives a day. Save for our Aussie captain (a 30 year PNG hand that was both politically incorrect and hilarious), the crew were all from PNG (most from New Britain). The divemasters (underwater safety officers and guides) – a man and a woman – were both excellent, looking out for both our safety and guiding us to cool stuff you’d never find on your own, like the pygmy seahorse (see below).
THE CORAL TRIANGLE
Over the millennia, coral reef systems have waxed and waned with climatic heating and cooling periods, contracting and expanding with their need for warm, clear water. But part of the Pacific deemed “the coral triangle” (generally New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Parts of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Phillipines) have weathered these climatic swings for millions of years. The result is an almost incomprehensible level of diversity. Case in point: Hawaii, where many have either snorkeled or dived, hosts about fifty species of coral. New Guinea has more than five hundred (and counting). Many are familiar with the beautiful reef fish known as angelfish. The Caribbean hosts about six species. New Guinea? More than a hundred and fifty. To dive on the reef systems of New Guinea (there are still thousands of square miles of healthy reefs here), is a mind boggling kaleidoscope of color, diversity and near infinite complexity. The coral triangle is a 3D rainforest on steroids.
Here’s one personal story from the Coral Triangle….
The fantastic creature known as the pygmy seahorse (there are several species, all from the Coral Triangle) mimics the sea fans it lives on so perfectly that, in combination with its quarter inch size, is virtually impossible to find without spending hundreds of hours underwater at the sites we dove, which our divemasters had. They’d pass twenty sea fans, then carefully inspect a few square inches of another and….voila…pygmy sea horse (see pictue). To say photographing a pygmy sea horse is challenging, is like saying Jacques Cousteau kinda liked the ocean. In addition to dealing with all the normal diving stuff: buoyancy control, air and decompression status, location of dive buddy etc. you are dealing with a macro lens stopped down up to F40 (that means the lens opening is pinhole sized), with a quarter inch of movement in or out determining whether your miniature equine of the sea is in focus or not. On top of this, the little critters are usually determined to turn away from you. This is where your divemaster can help you out (that is, help ME out) – locating and relocating my diminutive subject while I bang away with fifteen pounds of housed Nikon SLR camera, high powered strobes, and related gear – adjusting F stops, strobe power, strobe/camera position, holding your exact position in the water column and hoping one ofthe shots will be in focus with your subject facing the camera (I had limited success). Underwater photography (Jane does video, I do still) is equal parts technology, skill, persistence and masochism.
So what was the takeaway from spending the equivalent of two full working weeks underwater (forty dives averaging an hour each) in the Bismarck Sea, heart of the Coral Triangle? In these days of rainforest/coral reef gloom and doom, there are still places like Papua New Guinea where, after surfacing from a dive, you can pivot your head down thirty degrees and see absolutely pristine coral reefs – mound coral, brain coral, branched coral, lettuce coral – and fish of every size, shape and color in massive abundance, then pivot your head up to gaze upon mountain range after mountain range of uncut rainforest. Yes, there are still places like that out there!