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THOSE ELUSIVE HAMMERHEADS!

By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

Hammerheads! They have become an obsession of ours over the last few years, mainly because we can’t seem to find any. We have dived a number of destinations where hammerheads are seen, but with no luck whatsoever. Hoping to change that unlucky streak we recently headed to Tufi, one of the best places to see hammerheads in Papua New Guinea.

 

Why the obsession with hammerheads? Well we both love sharks and hammerheads are one of the main species that have eluded us for many years, which maybe because their numbers have been decimated around the planet in the thirst for shark fins. This horrible practise has seen hammerhead numbers plummet, with studies indicating that some species of hammerhead have been reduced by 99%. That is a very scary thought.

 

Flying into Tufi, located in Oro Province on the north east coast, we had more than hammerheads on our minds as we flew over the spectacular coastline of this part of the country. Tufi is set in an area of fjords, carved by ancient glaciers these fjords are now fringed by coral reefs.

 

After landing at Tufi, we were quickly at Tufi Resort, only several hundred metres from the airstrip. Tufi Resort is famous for its diving, but offers much more than underwater adventures. Guests also come to bushwalk, fish, bird watch, visit local villages and canoe the fjords.

 

After unpacking we met Glen, the dive manager, to discuss our underwater activities for the next week. The resort operate a number of dive boats and take divers to explore the offshore reefs each morning for a double dive, while afternoons are spent exploring the house reef, at Tufi Jetty. We asked Glen about hammerheads and he said we would have to wait and see.

 

The next morning found us on the dive boat and ready to explore Tufi’s reefs. Ritchie’s Bommie was a great introduction to Tufi diving – clear warm water, wonderful corals and a rich variety of marine life. Spending an hour underwater we encountered many of the reef inhabitants; crocodilefish, lionfish, trevally, anemonefish, and even one shark, no not a hammerhead, but a more common white-tip reef shark.

 

Our second dive at Honeymoon was just as good with the highlight being a colourful broadclub cuttlefish. In the afternoon we walked down the hill from the resort to explore the house reef for the first time. Stepping off the jetty into green water didn’t look too appealing, but once under the surface the visibility opened up and so did a whole new world of critters.

 

This house reef at Tufi Jetty is a brilliant muck diving site, and each afternoon we encountered pipefish, octopus, cuttlefish, moray eels, shrimp gobies, flatworms, mantis shrimps, crabs, anglerfish, lionfish, upside down jellyfish and numerous colourful nudibranchs. It is also a great night dive, with twilight seeing Mandarinfish emerge from the boulders in front of the jetty. This jetty was also used as at PT boat base during the Second World War, and the remains of two PT boats can be found at 46m.

 

Day two and our quest for hammerheads continued at Tony’s Bommie, a lovely dive site consisting of two giant coral heads. We saw a valley full of garden eels and also encountered trevally, barracuda and numerous reef fish. However, the next dive site was the one we were waiting for, a visit to Veale Reef, the site where hammerheads are most often seen off Tufi. We jumped into the water with great expectations, and quickly had several grey reef sharks buzzing around us. This reef is a very sharky spot and as we drifted along the wall we also saw white-tip and black-tip reef sharks, plus schooling pelagic fish and even a hawksbill turtle. A great dive, but no hammerheads.

 

The following day one of our dive guides Archie suggest we dive an uncharted reef (many of the reefs off Tufi are still unexplored) as more sharks are seen on these undived reefs. He took our group an hour offshore and wasn’t joking about the sharks. As soon as we descended four grey reef sharks rose from the depths to greet us. It was a brilliant dive, which we called Archie’s Pinnacles to his great embarrassment, with lovely corals, multitudes of fish, but unfortunately no hammerheads.

 

Archie wasn’t giving up and took us to another uncharted reef, which was almost as good; masses of fish life, pretty corals and reef sharks. By now we were pretty sure that we weren’t going to see hammerheads, the water just a little too warm for their liking, so told Archie that we would also like to see a smaller endemic shark, the Milne Bay epaulette shark. This nocturnal shark, which is less than a metre long and only recently described, is occasionally found hiding under corals during the day. Archie smiled at us and said maybe tomorrow.

 

Each day we had been heading to the further offshore reefs, so today Archie took us to explore some of the inner reefs, Minor Reef and Bev’s Reef. These were two of the prettiest reefs we have seen anywhere; wonderful hard corals on the top of the reefs and fabulous red whip corals, soft corals and giant sponges on the deeper parts of the reef. The volume of fish covering these reefs was simply staggering – schools of surgeonfish, fusiliers, damsels, fairy basslets and many more. Watching all these fish the hammerheads were quickly forgotten.

 

The highlight of these two dives came on Bev’s Reef, while looking for a resident lacy scorpionfish; Archie called us over and pointed at a plate coral. We looked under the coral and there was a wonderfully patterned Milne Bay epaulette shark. That was a very special moment and almost as good as seeing a hammerhead.

 

The next day was our final day of reef dives, so Glen decided to take us to one of his favourite sites called Overhang. This brilliant group of bommies were covered in fish, including two large barracuda, and home to a couple of reef sharks. The current was a little stronger today, so Glen suggested one last look at Veale Reef.

 

Descending the wall we drifted with the current to the end of the reef. We quickly had grey reef sharks, mackerel and trevally buzzed around us. But suddenly a larger shape appeared, with a very distinctive head, gliding off the point was our goal, a scalloped hammerhead. However, there wasn’t just one, as two other hammerheads quickly joined the first. They were gone in a flash, too far away to photograph, but we had finally seen our hammerheads!

 

We had a brilliant week of diving at Tufi, the hammerheads may have been the highlight, but our memories of this spot will be of the beautiful rich coral reefs, the bizarre critters of the house reef and the wonderful Tufi Resort. We know we will have to return as our new quest is to photograph those elusive hammerheads!

 

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