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  • Delving into the Bismarck Sea
    Exploring Virgin reefs Aboard Star Dancer
    Several months ago I was invited by Peter Hughes to join a very special live-aboard charter. It was to be an exploratory mission setting out from Papua New Guinea's famed Walindi Plantation Resort, destined for dive sites around Rabaul;most seldom seen and many never before explored. The purpose of the journey was to map out a new itinerary for Star Dancer, one of the Dancer Fleet's most luxurious live-aboards. Prior to its arrival in PNG, Star Dancer operated as Sun Dancer, cruising the reefs off Palau.

    Peter Hughes decided to expand his live-aboard fleet into Papua New Guinea in 1995, when a trip aboard the MV FeBrina left him enthralled with the diving. He was inspired by the limitless opportunities in this vast region, still virtually untouched by the civilized world. Peter saw such potential that he not only moved one of his own vessels into PNG but also bought into one of the country's most successful live-aboard operations, the MV FeBrina, owned by Captain Alan Raabe and Max Benjamin, proprietor of Kimbe Bay's Walindi Plantation Resort.

    Throughout 1997 both vessels used Walindi Plantation as a base, exploring Kimbe Bay and the more remote reefs surrounding the Fathers Reef system and the Witu Islands. Although there are several hundred dive sites to choose from in this expansive region, it didn't take long for Peter, Alan and Max to realize that two boats could cover twice the distance. During our recent trip, Peter explained, 'It's too good to be true, the island of West New Britain is lined with 450 miles of spectacular underwater terrain. We want to cover it all!'

    So, in the 'full steam ahead,' Peter Hughes way, plans were made and itineraries changed. As of March 1998, Star Dancer will depart Rabaul, along the tip of the Gazelle Peninsula, off the northeast coast of West New Britain. Seven day itineraries will be offered, encompassing reefs near Rabaul, the Duke of York Islands and isolated outposts such as Midway Reef and the islands of Watom, Urara and Talele;scattered along the peninsula's northwestern shore.

    Although the area around Rabaul is renowned for great diving, tourism has been virtually nonexistent since September 1994, when two surrounding volcanoes, Tavurvur and Vulcan, erupted simultaneously in a violent, fiery storm, burying the picturesque seaside community under several feet of ash and pumice. In 1937, Rabaul experienced similar volcanic devastation and was rebuilt in the same location. This time the airport, businesses and government facilities have been reconstructed well out of harm's way in the neighboring town of Kokopo.

    Although the calamity left the Rabaul area without a local dive shop, there were remarkably few causalities underwater. Hardest hit were the wrecks resting on the floor of Rabaul harbor;now submerged beneath a thick, dusty blanket. Luckily, the outer reefs escaped unscathed. I'd seen many of the reefs just a month before the eruption in 1994 and was surprised to find them even more beautiful now.

    Some of the prettiest reefs are found off the Pigeon Islands, where Star Dancer charters begin, just 40 minutes outside town. The most interesting attraction is a 72 foot coastal freighter that was scuttled in 1985 for the sole purpose of becoming an attraction for divers. The reefs, while suitably impressive, are merely warm-up dives for what is in store on the rest of the charter.

    At least two days of every Star Dancer charter will be spent exploring the Duke of York Islands;gorgeous outposts clustered midway between Rabaul and New Ireland. A steady oceanic current, linking the Bismarck and Solomon Seas, washes through these islands, supporting phenomenal reefs and abundant marine communities.

    The inhabitants of these enchanting islands are as intriguing as the wonders beneath the waves. Entrenched in a simple life, they are eager to investigate the wonders of the world. The islands themselves are legendary in both history and beauty; the tranquil water, lush scenery and idyllic beaches were the site of the region's first mission and home to the illustrious Queen Emma.

    One of the main missions of this exploratory journey was to fortify plans for Star Dancer's arrival with Lesley Mateo, the president of the Duke of York Islands. Although the stage had been set, Peter and Alan needed to meet with President Mateo and map out Star Dancer's new itinerary. Consequently, our arrival was not unexpected. As we cruised through the island's sheltered passages, we were warmly greeted by throngs of dugout canoes packed with smiling faces. Within minutes of setting anchor near the village where the meeting was scheduled, we were invaded by local women and children eager to sell us shells, wooden carvings and woven mats they had prepared especially for the occasion. The meeting went well, and we left confident Star Dancer would be welcome in the Duke of York Islands.

    Diving within the islands is wild and wonderful, big walls and exciting fish action is the norm. One of the most dramatic sites is Rainbow Reef, a colorful haven for marine life large and small. Huge gorgonians and beautiful hard corals decorate the ridges of the reef, which extend into deep water. Sharks, Barracuda and a bounty of reef fish are commonly found off the edge of the reef, where the current is strongest. Kabakon Reef, encompassing a series of reef structures, is equally intriguing. Gullies lined with seafans, sponges and soft corals are found along the deeper edges, while pristine, shallow coral gardens flittered with Anthias, Fusiliers, damsels and a plethora of other reef fish. One of the most unusual dives in the Duke of Yorks is the Two Tanks Wrecks, in Makada Harbor off the northern tip of Duke of York Island. The two Japanese tanks, believed to have been stranded in transport, sit upright, one behind the other, in just 15 feet of water.

    The remainder of the Star Dancer trip takes place west of Rabaul, off the north coast of the peninsula. Although a few boats venture into this remote area, it is for the most part unexplored. In this region it's possible to see everything from whales and Manta Rays to dolphins and Dugongs. We barely scratched the surface on our charter, but what we did see left us wanting more. The walls and reefs were absolutely breathtaking, tumbling down in an avalanche of color. Although the components of the reefs were essentially the same, each had a unique character: Some had ridges lined with enormous seafans, others featured valleys dotted with huge barrel sponges, a few were covered with forests of six foot high seawhips, and most were brightly lit with neon colored soft corals. On all the reefs the fish life was extraordinary. Gray Reef Sharks, Silvertips and Bronze Whalers are common and jacks, Barracuda, Dogtooth Tuna, snapper and Spanish Mackerel were seen on just about every dive.

    The 120 foot Star Dancer is the epitome of live-aboard luxury, exquisitely extravagant in both detail and design. Up to 16 divers can be accommodated in eight cabins, all with private bathrooms, air-conditioning and panoramic picture windows that allow you to fully enjoy the spectacular surroundings. Meals are served in the cheery main salon that functions as both gathering spot and dining area. A comprehensive entertainment area featuring a TV, video and stereo is available for the enjoyment of guests. For those who prefer the outdoors, there's a rooftop sundeck furnished with lounge chairs and hammocks. An open air sheltered seating area outside the main salon is often used for outdoor lunches and barbecues.

    There's no doubt Star Dancer was designed with photographers in mind. The centerpiece of the dive deck is a huge padded camera table complete with air hoses. A battery charging station is set up nearby and several freshwater rinse tanks are reserved exclusively for camera gear.

    On the lower deck you'll find the photo center, outfitted with an E-6 processing lab and an underwater camera rental department stocked with the gamut of Nikonos equipment and underwater video systems. There's a slide projector and light table available for guests to view slides. Weekly slide shows are the highlight of every Dancer charter and Star Dancer is no exception. On the last night of your cruise you'll be entertained by a week's worth of memories captured by the staff photo pro, above and below the water.

    On Star Dancer you can dive as much or as little as you desire. Typically five dives per day are offered, including night dives when possible. Meals and munchies are available between dives. Breakfast and lunch are usually casual or buffetstyle, while dinner is a bit more formal. With advance notice the Star Dancer galley staff will gladly accommodate any special dietary requirements.

    If you have the time, combine your Star Dancer charter with a week aboard FeBrina, or a stay at Walindi Plantation Resort. Walindi, along the edge of Kimbe Bay, offers the comforts of a land based resort and easy access to diving typically accessible only on live-aboards.

    Walindi Plantation Resort's Walindi Photo is the country's first full service photo center. As the photo pro, I have scheduled a series of photo weeks aboard FeBrina and Star Dancer. During photo weeks I'll be giving evening slide shows and will be available for general help and information. Workshops, seminars and photo classes will also be offered. Photo weeks are currently scheduled aboard Star Dancer January 10 to 17 and July 11 to 18; FeBrina's are scheduled for April 2 to 9 and November 27 to December 4.

    Contact the Peter Hughes Diving office in Miami for more information, or to make reservations for Star Dancer, FeBrina or Walindi Plantation Resort; the PHD staff can help you plan all the details of your vacation. Write to Peter Hughes Diving, 1390 S. Dixie Highway, Suite 1109, Coral Gables, Florida 33146. Call (800) 9DANCER;(800) 932-6237;or (305) 669-9391 in Florida; fax (305) 669-9475 or send e-mail to dancer@peterhughes.com. You can find information on Peter Hughes charters on the Web site at www.peterhughes.com.