N I G E L M A R S H P H O T O G R A P H Y
U N D E R W A T E R I M A G E S A N D A R T I C L E S
REEFS OF RUST
by Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose
Papua New Guinea has more than its fair share of shipwrecks, around the country are the remains of numerous ships that have been lost on reefs or sunk during the fierce battles of World War II. But there are also other ships that have been deliberately sunk, scuttled as artificial reefs for marine life to live on and for divers to enjoy.
Port Moresby is where most of these ‘reefs of rust’ can be found, as this is where Bob Halstead, one of the pioneers of diving in PNG, lived for many years. Bob opened the first dive shop in the capital and discovered many of the wonderful reef diving sites that visiting divers enjoy today. But he also had a hand in creating some of the best dive sites in the area when he scuttled a number of old ships. The largest and most famous of these shipwrecks is the Pacific Gas, a 65m long gas tanker that was scuttled in 1986.
The Pacific Gas now rests on a sloping sandy bottom in depths from 20 to 45m. After being underwater for almost three decades the ship has been transformed into a colourful artificial reef, encrusted with wonderful corals and home to a multitude of reef fish. The ship also attracts plenty of pelagic visitors, such as barracuda, batfish, trevally and mackerel.
While you can do a quick tour of the Pacific Gas on one dive, due to its depth it really takes several dives to see all its features. The bow is the shallowest part of the wreck, and the first part of the ship that divers will see when they descend the mooring line. There is plenty to see here, including winch gear, pipes, valves and small cabins. While it is possible to penetrate parts of the wreck, it is not recommended unless you have the appropriate training as there is plenty of silt inside the ship. The corals at the bow are just incredible, a real tapestry of colours and forms that continues across the rest of the ship.
From the bow divers can either descend into the holds, where the gas tanks once were, or swim along the handrails. While there is mainly junk in the holds, it is worth a quick look as gropers and lionfish are often found in here. The stern section of the ship is our favourite, but being deep, 30m plus, limits your time to explore. Here divers can explore the bridge area, look in on the wheelhouse and into other rooms. There are also a couple of sets of stairs that are fun to look around, before you have to return to the mooring and ascend.
As wonderful as the Pacific Gas is during the day, it comes into a class all of its own at night. Descending down the mooring line in darkness is an eerie experience for the first time and it gets even creepier when the dive guides ask you to turn off your torch. You would expect to find yourself in complete darkness on the bow of a shipwreck at 20m, but instead there is an unearthly glow radiating out of a hatch. Moving closer, the source of the glowing light becomes apparent, thousands of flickering green lights – flashlight fish!
These incredible fish have a luminous organ under their eye that they use to attract prey. They are also surprising small, and near impossible to photograph. As you watch the fish emerge from the hatch in a dance of flickering lights. They then swarm around the gathered divers and spread across the ship, making it look like it has been illuminated by fairy lights. Of course there are other nocturnal creatures to be seen, but these pale after watching the performance of the flashlight fish.
Not far from the Pacific Gas is another reef of rust, the MV Pai II. This 25m long prawn trawler was scuttled in 1982 and rests in 15 to 30m of water. Exploring this wreck is a joy as it is decorated with brilliant corals and home to a vast array of marine life. This wreck is far more compact, so the main structural features can be visited on one dive, including the holds and the bridge. While bigger species like gropers, stingrays, reef sharks and even the odd tasselled wobbegong shark can be seen here, this wreck’s best feature is its smaller critters. Long-nose hawkfish, pipefish, puferfish, nudibranchs, rock cods, lionfish, basslets and even pygmy sea horses no bigger than a grain of rice can be found here. There are also several cleaning stations on the wreck where cleaner shrimps service the visiting fish. On our last dive here we watched a group of cleaner shrimps working on a titan triggerfish for several minutes, the bold shrimps entering the mouth and gills to remove parasites.
While these two wrecks are generally bathed in clear water, being near the outer reef they enjoy visibility of between 15 and 30m, there are also a number of scuttled ships in slightly murkier water at Lion Island. Lion Island is located in Bootless Bay, right next door to Loloata Island where one of Papua New Guinea’s premier dive resorts is located – Loloata Island Resort. The resort offer daily boat dives to the wonderful dive sites off Port Moresby, including all the shipwrecks mentioned in this article.
Located off the southern end of Lion Island are two shipwrecks, the MV Tuart and the MV New Marine No.6. The MV New Marine No.6 was once a 17m long prawn trawler, but it now rests in 8 to 17m of water after being scuttled in 1989. This wreck is perfect for the less experienced diver, being fun to explore but also packed with marine life.
The mast and cabin area of the ship has the best coral growth, thick forests of soft corals and black coral trees that are home to schools of glassfish, cardinalfish and basslets. Divers will also see pipefish, lionfish, rock cods and numerous hawkfish. It is well worth diving this wreck with one of the sharp-eyed dive guides from Loloata Island Resort as they will also be able to point out ghost pipefish, candy crabs and the resident pygmy sea horse.
The MV Tuart was a 15m long tug boat that now rests in a similar depth to the MV New Marine No.6, but doesn’t have as much pretty coral growth. It is also populated with a good variety of fish, including lionfish, snapper and sweetlips. Many shrimps populate this wreck, but a special feature here are nudibranchs, as dozens of these colourful sea slugs can be found all over the wreck.
There are a number of other scuttled ships of Port Moresby that we haven’t yet dived, so we look forward to exploring these reefs of rust on our next visit.
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