Saturday, 10 September 2011

I like Diving, not Dying

Subtropical species of the Chan family
Nemo, I mean clownfish
OK, this is not an entry for hardcore diving enthusiasts – I don’t actually know anything about diving yet. I’ve got very little to report on in terms of marine life (no idea about names of fish, I’m still at the ‘Oh look, a Nemo!’ stage) and no (good) underwater pics. Thus far, I’m only 2 months post certification so it’s still very much the Jerry Seinfeld approach for me– ‘scuba diving; another fine activity where the main objective is not to kill yourself’ (or something like that). Not that it’s actually dangerous; it’s just that I’m still focusing on a lot about things when I dive - like breathing. Oh, and crocodiles (yes they’re around in some parts) and whether, if I see a croc, I’ll die from sudden inability to draw breath or because Mr Crocodile is keen to try some fine Australian imported meat.

I was told, but our local instructor that I don’t have to worry about salties (crocs, what crocs?). I was also told, by an expat who works here in tourism and is certainly in the know, that there has been a croc culling program at the Duke of York Islands. The Duke of York Islands are only a short boat ride from Kokopo. They have been culling them there because croc sightings have gone hand in hand with missing children. I’m guessing it’s hard to otherwise lose a child on a small island. Liz also told me about crocodile sightings in the water at the base of Mt Tavurvur, the smouldering volcano on the other side of the habour.

I passed on this info to other divers and was scoffed at; ‘oh that, that was just a rogue croc’. Yeah, rogue crocs don’t frighten me at all, bet they’re really mild mannered when they move outside their usual territory. Did I mention that the instructor looks heaps like Bear Grylls of Man vs Wild fame? Especially his side profile. And his compadre, Vinny looks (when he wears sun glasses), a lot like Kanye West. So, I can be a little nervy at the best of times but when my safety is in the hands of Bear and Kanye look alikes? Entertaining more so than reassuring.

Still, diving is awesome fun and fear of crocs aside, it’s beginning to feel safe and at times, even relaxing. Despite strongly resembling a man known largely for riding rapids on his backpack and relying on juice of elephant poo for nutrients, our instructor/dive guide is a very careful and all around entertaining kind of guy. And Vinny is definitely cooler and thankfully, a hell of a lot more chill than Kanye.

Last week, however, Geoff and I ventured out from under the care of Bear and Kanye and went diving with a group of individuals who can only be described as diving renegades.

Now don’t be concerned, Geoff and I stayed within the limits of what we are qualified to do. Liz – my diving instructor in Byron – if this gets back to you, I promise I was a good girl and didn't do anything that would make you cross. But the whole scenario was, as my lovely American colleague in Japan (hey Rodney!) would say ‘off the hook’.   

To begin with, a group of us (Aussie and Kiwi expats) got on a banana boat and went off to Rabaul to meet with another boat, the Barbarian II. The Barbarian II was built and is owned and operated by a very hospitable guy who was born in Rabaul to Australian parents. He will from this point onwards be referred to as BII. In his own words, BII is a PNG ‘lifer’ and he knows everything there is to know about what went down in East New Britain in WWII. His hobby (though this word does not suffice) is using sonar to locate war wrecks, dredging them and raising them up. He contacts the relevant country and sees to it that if there are bones within, they are returned as appropriate. To my knowledge he’s raised planes for the Japanese, Americans and Australians. He has been diving since the 70s and he dives every single day. The word on the street is that this man has had the bends so many times they don't even bother treating him in the decompression chamber in POM, he just deals with it himself. The man is basically a walking nitrogen bubble. It’s hard not to be amazed and impressed by a man like this.

Well, we were all on board to help him raise the engine of an Avenger - a WWII American plane. The bones of the pilot and possibly the gunner are still inside. The engine was still resting on the bottom of the ocean, separated from the body of the plane. For some time now, the team (fancy word for ‘group of crazy expats’) has been dredging around the engine and today, the plan is to raise it.

First, we have a dive briefing. From my limited diving experience, dive briefings usually go something like this;
‘So, we’ll descend on the rope, take your time, let me know if you have any equalizing issues. We’ll be diving to a maximum depth of..... and so on and so forth’

They are usually informative. They include helpful reminders about safety. They make sure everyone is on the same page.

On Saturday, the dive briefing went something like this….
BII: OK, we’re gonna go down and attach the float bag. We’re gonna fill her with air, we’re gonna try and raise this thing. Trouble is, you never know what’s gonna happen. This is a 2 tonne air bag, could be that we haven’t dredged enough to lift the engine, could be that the engine shoots out of the water in who knows what direction and sometimes, when it surfaces, it just keeps flying up, out of the water and then, when it falls, well, you don’t wanna be in the way of that. So, you just gotta watch it, and get the hell out of the way if it's coming towards you, just swim in the other direction. And Steve, when you’re ready mate, tap on your tank to signal me, I mean, don’t just give it a little tap, really wack that thing cause I gotta know when you’re ready.

Concerned member of dive team: What if you don’t hear it?

BII: What was that son?

Concerned member of dive team: WHAT IF YOU DON'T HEAR IT?

BII: Nah, should be good, sound travels better in water ya see. Now, I need to take down 2 of you. The rest of you, I don’t want you in the water AT ALL. This is dangerous and we’ve lost a few divers in this habour this way. Now, who’s gonna come?

No points for guessing that Geoff and I, in all our wisdom did not raise our hands, but there were others whose hands shot up like 7 year olds competing for lunch monitor. Geoff, myself and a few other sensible chaps waited on the boat and sure enough, the float bag did surface, with the engine attached. There were no dramas and all were accounted for, though when BII did surface, he looked a little worse for wear and was mumbling about ‘being too old for this’.

Geoff and I got to dive later on in the day. BII took me down with him to the site of the plane and I helped him move the pipes for dredging. (I say helped but he didn’t actually need my help, I was merely along for the ride) and Geoff went down later with another guy and did some manly dredging. To his credit BII took great care of a newbie like me, literally holding my hand as we descended through visability crushing jellyfish and a strong current. It was awesome to see the plane and all the wild life that now lays claim to it.

Fastforward to Day 2 on the Barbarian II. Today’s challenge, should we have chosen to accept it (we didn’t) was to drop to about 30m (I’m only certified to go to 18m), along the anchor chain. Then, to RIDE the anchor along the bottom of the ocean looking for a possible wreck, as BII drives the boat along, using his sonar tech to locate the suspected plane. Other than the blindingly obvious safety concerns posed by the above plan, add in the complication that, should one of the divers let go of the anchor or suddenly need to surface, BII will have no way of knowing and would still be moving the boat forward. The diver would then surface, in choppy water (which prevents us from seeing his bubble stream) god only knows where, but somewhere in the middle of a shipping lane.

I straight away said, ‘not for me folks’, but 2 individuals, both expats here in East New Britain ‘encouraged’ me to join them with the kind of enthusiasm year 9 boys usually reserve for pressuring their peers to sniff glue. They even stooped so low as to suggest that readers of my blog, bored out of their mind with my endless prattle would relish an entry about death defying diving stunts, and didn’t I want to deliver that kind of excitement to my readers? I argued that despite a stubborn adherence to general norms of safety thus far, my family and friends still tolerate me and even at times, seek out my companionship. They shook their heads, felt pangs of sympathy for my surely bored brethren and then got kitted up to play horsey with the anchor of a moving boat.

I am pleased to report that all individuals concerned surfaced safe and sound and no doubt yearning for more adventure.

This weekend, there will be no diving for us as Geoff is recovering from the evils of Malaria. (Thanks for the many ‘get better soon Geoff’ facebook comments – he is getting better J. Maybe the weekend after we’ll dive. So, my fellow diving friends, anyone up for visiting? And for all you cats who don’t dig life under the sea, there are many safe and beautiful places to snorkel. And the water? 29 degrees. Sounds warm, and it is right near the shore, but still really refreshing just a little further out. Any takers? I promise not to send you off to raise plane wrecks with a bunch of cowboys but if that’s your game, I can hook you up.

Lukim yu              

Sunken Japanese Zero

Territorial fish pretending to be pilot. 

Rabaul when it's not covered in ash and dust.

Rabaul, taken from the Harbour, cloaked in dust and ash from the volcano. People actually live here.

Wrecked and abandoned ships in Rabaul.

Wrecked ships converted into homes (and some, allegedly, brothels).
Taken from the site we dived at in Simpson Harbour.

Mt Tavurvur, the cause of all the dust.


  1. Okay, I hate to sound like a mommy, but I do NOT like the idea of you hanging out with a bunch of diving renegades who occasionally pressure you to do crazy things. I know you're a tough gal who knows when to say no, but still--moving anchors, rusted wrecks, and recklessness are a lethal diving combination!

    All the same, pics look gorgeous--if I can swing it would love to come diving with you!

  2. LOVE the info about salties. fascinating. love the pics! what kind of camera did you use? do you or someone in the renegade group actually have an underwater camera?? great post! loved the pics. kayne is da man. those people sound crazy. glad geoff is getting better!
    -gay danielle

  3. PS thanks for putting your blog updates on facebook so i don't go mad with checking everyday (even though i still do ;)