Exploring Papua New Guinea's
Bismarck Sea and Beyond
Aboard the Febrina
Text and Photography by Stephen Frink, Sep. 1997
In August of 1996 I was able to fulfill one of my long time underwater photographic ambitions by diving in Papua New Guinea. This would be a significant trip in terms of time and travel expense and I wanted to make sure I made the right choice of diving services. Because my group wanted the maximum number of dives per day and the best possible range of dive sites, a live-aboard was the obvious choice. But, which live-aboard and itinerary was best?
In researching the destination, I came to realize New Guinea is very large. Comprised of Irian Jaya on the west and Papua New Guinea on the east, this island is the world's second largest. A massive mainland shoreline combines with hundreds of offshore volcanic isles, atolls and coral pinnacles amid the Bismarck and Solomon Seas to create an immense resource. No single boat dives Papua New Guinea in its entirety but several have specific areas of expertise. Some of the boats concentrate on Milne Bay, others Kavieng or the northern Coral Sea. Yet, the one boat that intrigued me the most was the FeBrina. She is based out of the Walindi Plantation on New Britain Island. On Kimbe Bay, Walindi is considered one of the best dive resorts anywhere. I figured we could arrive a few days early, make some dives from Walindi and then join the FeBrina.
In retrospect it was a terrific choice. We enjoyed our time at Walindi and found the diving in Kimbe Bay truly exceptional. The coral was as pristine as any I had seen anywhere in the world and the marine life was both bizarre and abundant. But the best was yet to come, for the FeBrina was our passport to a magical underwater world of giant pinnacles cloaked in pastel soft corals, massive schools of Barracuda, exciting shark dives and all manner of Pacific reef life. Clownfish and Anthias were commonplace on almost every site and the more unusual creatures such as Stonefish, Leaffish, Green Turtles, Spanish Dancers and Ribbon Eels became the norm. Visibility was often in excess of 120 feet and with the invitingly warm 84°F water, we enjoyed four or five dives every day.
The boat was great, the diving amazing and we all felt a special affinity for our captain, Alan Raabe. This jovial Australian has been aboard FeBrina for seven years as owner/operator and he knows every bommie in the Witu Islands and along Fathers Reef. Alan was sensitive to our needs as underwater photographers, was a wonderful host and ran a safe, responsible live-aboard adventure.
This trip had a special significance for the future of diving around New Britain Island, for I had invited a friend to go along, dive entrepreneur Peter Hughes. I had been a guest on all of Peter's live-aboards and at each of his land-based dive resorts and figured for once he might like to dive from someone else's boat. He could scarcely believe the diving could be this good and, of course, could not experience an underwater world this majestic without wanting to make it available to his Dancer Fleet clientele. Sometime that week, perhaps between the exciting shark encounters at Kilibob's Knob and the pelagic parade at Crack a Fat One Reef, an alliance between Peter Hughes Diving and the FeBrina was structured. The 120 foot Star Dancer would join the FeBrina in operations out of Walindi Plantation and together they would deliver some of the best dive opportunities Papua New Guinea has to offer. This collaboration brought new capital and fresh enthusiasm to the FeBrina. Significant renovation was the first order of business. This 72 foot vessel received a $200,000 upgrade that created three cabins in the forward section with private head and shower, as well as four cabins in the stern section with a private sink/vanity. (Note: The sinks in these four cabins are new but the system of sharing a pair of head/showers is much the same as when I was aboard in 1996. While the trend for live-aboards these days seems to be ensuite head/showers, I don't recall ever waiting in line for this shared facility.) The spacious, double occupancy cabins feature portholes that can be opened for fresh air and, of course, the boat is fully air-conditioned. The main salon was enlarged by moving the wheelhouse to a third deck. Since so much of the social time aboard FeBrina is spent in the salon, this was a meaningful improvement. Because underwater photography remains a crucial component in FeBrina's appeal, an E-6 darkroom was installed and a 110 volt station is available for charging strobes and video equipment.
FeBrina itinerary for 1998: Alan's convivial nature has brought him an ever-increasing repeat guest list for FeBrina. He has become intimate with the local customs and cultures of Papua New Guinea and forged strong alliances with the local tribes that control access to the marine resources. This is crucial in terms of offering a diverse cruise itinerary, for without permission from the locals in charge, diving off their islands is impossible. The FeBrina enjoys incredible access and, for 1998, that translates into some exciting new dive adventures.
A call to Peter Hughes Diving can explain more of the specifics of each itinerary but suffice it to say the extended range and cruising comfort of the FeBrina will be put to good use. For example, January through March features unique 12 night itineraries headed south from Walindi, through the Arawe Islands at the south end of New Britain to the D'Entrecasteaux Reefs in the Trobriand Islands. This tour actually begins in the Bismarck Sea and moves into the Solomon Sea for a fabulous series of exploration dives. For those who want to see what few, if any, have ever seen before, this tour is a must-do.
Seasonal considerations help determine when the boat is where. April, June through September and November through December finds the FeBrina cruising its more traditional route within Kimbe Bay, the Witu Islands and Fathers Reef. These are sensational dive opportunities and Alan knows which dives are best at which tides. Plus, he can customize the itinerary for his guests' personal preference. Our group preferred to dive areas of better visibility with more probability of pelagic encounters and FeBrina delivered. Yet, other groups are more focused on the small and unusual marine creatures (the famed PNG Muck Dive) and Alan knows where to go for this as well.
Kavieng is noted for terrific shark action and stunning wide angle vistas. The FeBrina will offer four very special ten day cruises to this underwater wonderland in May/June and during October. The tour will originate at Kimbe Bay and cruise through the Fathers Reef and on to Kavieng for one ten day leg, while the return cruise will originate at Kavieng and disembark at Kimbe Bay.
The logic and convenience of such an itinerary is unique to Papua New Guinea. Because the country is so immense and because of the remote nature of much of the island, air travel is the preferred mode of transportation internally. To that end, there are 466 airstrips scattered around the countryside. International flights arrive in Port Moresby and local flights can be booked to a wide variety of destinations. For example, guests of the FeBrina can fly into Hoskins Airport, board at Walindi Plantation and then fly back to Port Moresby via Kavieng. This assures far more cruising range than would be possible by flying in and out of the same airport.
The newly renovated FeBrina is truly one of the world's great live-aboards and her affiliation with Peter Hughes Diving makes her even easier to book. A simple call to (800) 9-DANCER, (800) 932-6237, will tell you everything you need to know about the various itineraries and can take care of everything from boat to air reservations. The Dancer Fleet staff can even arrange additional tours in Papua New Guinea for those who wish to visit the fascinating and culturally diverse Highlands. Visit Peter Hughes Diving on the Internet at http://www.peterhughes.com; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; phone (800) 932-6237 or (305) 669-9391; fax (305) 669-9475.