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  • I was in Madang setting up my tripod at the foot of a waterfall when my tour guide—a tiny man wearing bones, beads, feathers and a loincloth—said quite urgently, “big rain come, we must go.” I looked up at gray, but not quite ominous clouds and said, “OK, five more minutes. ”

    “No! Spirits say we must go now, ” he insisted.

    “Ah yes, the spirits,” I agreed, skeptically.

    “Sometimes they don’t like it when people take pictures,” he explained, as raindrops the size of golf balls started falling from the sky. Throughout the trek back up the mountain I was still convinced the spirits had nothing to do with the rain, despite the relentless deluge and rivers of mud, which forced me to clamor up the mountain clinging to tree roots and vines. It wasn’t till I reached the hotel van and watched the rain suddenly cease and the sun pour through the clouds that I had a change of heart. Muddy, waterlogged and exhausted, I laughed and turned to my red-toothed, betelnut-chewing friend, who just smugly nodded his head and smiled.

    Encounters such as this are a large part of what makes Papua New Guinea (PNG) such a fascinating destination, especially since they can happen anywhere, anytime: shopping in the market, at a Sing Sing celebration, in a village or while sitting on the deck of a live-aboard. Papua New Guineans are as intrigued with us as we are with them, and they will always welcome the opportunity to share their customs and stories, and in turn, learn more about our world.

    European traders and missionaries settled along the coastal regions of PNG in the 1870s, but it wasn’t until 1930 that the inner regions of Papua New Guinea, the last unknown civilization, were discovered. Two Australian gold prospectors, Michael Leahy and Michael Dwyer, literally stumbled into the stone age—a lost civilization with more than a million inhabitants. The villagers, who had never before seen white faces, panicked when they saw the intruders, assuming the pale creatures wearing bizarre clothing were ancestral spirits returning from the dead to haunt them.

    PNG occupies the eastern portion of New Guinea—the second largest island in the world. The island is precariously situated on the Pacific Rim of Fire and is the cumulative result of two of the world’s largest geological upheavals. The ensuing terrain is a rich, rugged beautiful collage of towering mountain peaks, dense rain forests, fertile valleys, golden beaches and glistening coral islands. The underwater topography mimics the volcanic landscape above: coral capped pinnacles, lush colorful gardens, fish-filled passes, tunnels encrusted with coral and sandy “muck dives,” where bizarre marine creatures reside. Surrounding PNG’s perimeter are more than 600 islands and 28,000 square miles of coral reefs. It is estimated that within PNG’s nutrient-rich waters, more than 3,000 species of fish and 400 species of coral thrive.

    For divers, this translates into a treasure trove of diving delights: magnificent reefs, bounteous fish life, unusual critters, WWII wrecks, sharks, mammals and pelagics. PNG’s diversity is undeniably intriguing, but it’s actually the lure of the unknown that compels divers to travel this far. There’s something terribly seductive about the possibility of seeing something that no one has ever seen before.

    During the two years I’ve been living in Papua New Guinea, I’ve had the privilege of experiencing several new discoveries and rare encounters. Just last month I was able to enjoy PNG’s newest big animal attraction—a sensational Manta Ray cleaning station, in the Milne Bay region. Manta Rock was discovered in October 1998, a small coral bommie where giant Manta Rays are skillfully attended to by Cleaner Wrasses. It’s these kinds of discoveries that signify just how much more there is yet to find.

    Foremost on my personal list of exceptional PNG encounters are the rendezvous with orcas. So far, I’ve seen them four times—twice from the boat and twice underwater. Orcas, typically found in cold water, have been seen four to six times a year off the north coast of New Britain Island for nearly a decade. The most frequent sightings have occurred in Kimbe Bay, quite often very close to shore. This past year orcas have also been spotted on several occasions by live-aboards operating between Kavieng and the Witu Islands. Once they were seen munching on a Hammerhead Shark, and several months later one of the boats came across a female who had just given birth; the calf was still attached to the umbilical cord. Marine biologists studying their behavior speculate that the Bismarck Sea has several resident pods.

    The thing to remember is that these once-in-a-lifetime encounters, if they happen, are merely a bonus; there’s no such thing as average diving in PNG, it’s all extraordinary.

    Port Moresby, PNG’s international gateway, has more than

    a dozen exciting wreck dives, action-packed reefs and whimsical critters such as Lacy Scorpionfish, Harlequin Ghost Pipefish, Pygmy Seahorses and Wobegongs. Eastern Fields, 10 hours southwest of Port Moresby by sea, offers exploratory diving in its purest form. Milne Bay is regarded as the critter capital of the world, thanks to diving pioneer Bob Halstead, who made “muck diving” for critters an art form. Tufi, a quaint outpost nestled within emerald Norwegian-style fjords, has exceptional reefs, exhilarating big fish corners and an amazing critter dive right in the harbor. Picturesque Madang is a beautiful, bustling, seaside community. There are several pelagic hot spots here and a bizarre night wreck dive where divers descend in darkness and watch thousands of flashlight fish with neon-green luminous patches under their eyes.

    To the east of PNG’s mainland are a handful of destinations collectively known as the outer islands. On the northeast tip there’s Kavieng, best known for pelagics, shark feeds and mystical shark callers. Farther south there’s the Duke of York Islands—a gorgeous collection of sheltered gems—resplendent above and below the water. Rabaul, on the eastern tip of New Britain Island, is a geological wonder. Rabaul ceased being a major dive destination after the 1994 volcanic eruptions, but it still serves as an excellent starting point for live-aboard exploration of East New Britain and the Duke of York Islands. The Father’s Reef System and the Witu Islands, north and northwest of New Britain, are accessible only by live-aboard. These extensive reef systems offer true blue adventure diving: pristine pinnacles, shark feeds, dolphins and pelagics galore. Kimbe Bay, between Witu and Fathers on the north coast of West New Britain is best known for resident pods of Spinner and Bottlenosed Dolphins, Hammerheads, whales and astonishing coral gardens, which flourish in the bay’s calm current-free water.

    I’m constantly being asked why I moved to such a remote part of the world, and the answer is quite simple. During my travels I’ve been told dozens of times, “It’s great now, but you should have seen it a decade ago.” For Papua New Guinea, however, the time to see it is now.