Ultimate Milne Bay Adventure… Milne Bay was first place I ever visited in Papua New Guinea. And even after many years and several return trips, my fascination with the area endures to this day. It’s a truly special place with much to see. But it is also a really big area and logistically, getting to all the best locations and spending sufficient time there in a single trip can be a challenge.
2023 marked the 25th anniversary of that initial journey. And so I wanted to orchestrate something really special to celebrate my on-going fascination with PNG, its people, their rich cultures, and of course the diving.
So, I embarked on planning what I fondly referred to as the “big one”… A journey back to Milne Bay that would enable me to immerse myself in all it has to offer in one comprehensive trip. In essence, the ultimate Milne Bay adventure!
The Ultimate Milne Bay Adventure – Milne Bay 101
The first thing to understand about Milne Bay, and why diving all the best locations can be challenging… Is that there are essentially two Milne Bays.
The first is the large, sheltered bay on the south-eastern tip of New Guinea island, named after the British Admiral Sir Alexander Milne. And then there is the much larger province of Milne Bay.
Milne Bay Province spans an area roughly equivalent to the size of New Zealand. However, only about 5% of this expanse constitutes dry land. With the remaining 95% encompassing the waters surrounding the 600+ islands that compose the province.
Those islands are categorized into four primary groups. Consisting of the Trobriands, the D’Entrecasteaux Islands, Woodlark Island, and the Louisiade Archipelago.
Diving however is primarily focused in and around Milne Bay itself, which is still a vast area and can be divided into two distinct regions:
The northern section, comprising the Solomon Sea side of the East Cape peninsula, together with the islands and seamounts near Nuakata Island to the east. And the southern part, centred around Samarai Island . Which, in colonial times, served as the administrative capital of Milne Bay province.
Understanding that distinction is the key to planning the ultimate Milne Bay adventure.
Diving Northern Milne Bay
The northern (Solomon Sea) side of the long, slender East Cape peninsula features a series of small bays. With their headlands extending out into the nutrient-rich currents that flow along the north coast.
Those currents function as nature’s distribution system for the region’s eggs and larvae. It’s almost the perfect supply chain, delivering eggs and larvae to generate marine life and providing nitrogen and phosphorous-rich nutrients to support growth. The outcome is the development of stunning coral gardens on the gently sloping terraces that extend into the depths of the Goschen Strait, between the East Cape and Normanby Island to the north.
These self-contained ecosystems are thriving with the diverse marine life for which the Coral Triangle is renowned, making them a true delight for divers. While there are several options to choose from, my personal favourite is Deacon’s Reef. Named after Sydney based underwater photography and diving pioneer Kevin Deacon.
Diving Northern Milne Bay – Deacon’s Reef
Deacon’s Reef is a remarkable dive site that consistently astonishes with its abundant marine life. Together with the occasional, unexpected encounter with pelagic species.
The north-east coast of New Guinea Island, particularly the Goschen Strait, acts as a kind of pelagic superhighway. And the headland dive sites are well-known for the thrilling encounters that happen when curious pelagic creatures make a random appearance. While to the east of the East Cape is Nuakata Island. With the area in between dotted with several seamounts. Which offer outstanding diving on their vibrant reef systems rich with beautiful hard and soft corals.
But the north coast is not all coral gardens, reefs and random pelagics… It’s also the spiritual home of muck diving – loosely defined as diving where there is no beautiful scenery! The term was coined by Bob Halstead, the original pioneer of diving in Milne Bay who, together with his first wife Dinah, built and operated MV Telita – the very first liveaboard in Papua New Guinea
Bob came up with the term while trying to convince a party of well-heeled American divers and underwater photographers to forego the beautiful reefs and try the black sand and critters at Dinah’s Beach. Apparently, the Americans’ thought Bob was just trying to save on fuel, but they gave it a try and the rest is history!
How to Dive the North
There are two options for diving the north of Milne Bay. Either you base yourself at Tawali Dive Resort and use their day boats. Or you do it from a liveaboard and these days that means booking a trip on the MV Oceania. Which operates in Milne Bay from mid-January to the end of March each year.
Both will get you to the best dive sites and which one to choose really is a function of how many dives you want to do. Essentially that’s why I put together the Big One…
Diving Southern Milne Bay – Mantas!
If the 80/20 rule applies in the north. Where 80% of the dives are on beautiful reefs and coral gardens, rich with wide-angle photo-opportunities and 20% being muck and critters. Then the south is 20/80… Where 20% of the dives are reefs and wide-angle, but 80% is muck and critter diving with abundant macro photo-opportunities
Let’s start with the 20% and my favourite dive in the south: Gona Bara Bara island and its wonderful reef manta cleaning station Giants@Home. The most reliable place in PNG to see these beautiful creatures.
The site is in about 9m of water, just off the beach at Gona Bara Bara. And consists of a solitary bommie in an otherwise featureless sandy area. The bommie is about 5m high and is home to lots of cleaner wrasse that service the mantas when they are ready to be cleaned of parasites.
Cleaning stations are a kind of marine version of a demilitarized zone. Where the normal rules of the reef (winner takes all…) are suspended under a process marine biologists call mutualism. It’s a fascinating and intriguing ritual to observe as the mantas hover above the bommie and the cleaner wrasse service them!
Gona Bara Bara also has some good critter sites, but the very best of that 80% is without doubt Samarai Island jetty!
Diving Southern Milne Bay – Samarai Island
Samarai was selected by the British in 1888 as the administrative capital of the province because of its strategic location near the southern end of the China Strait. The important channel that is used to enter Milne Bay by sea.
And by 1900 the island had become a bustling and attractive cosmopolitan port town and major commercial centre. But unfortunately, those glory days are long behind it. And the town has fallen into disrepair and nowhere is that more evident than the large jetty, much of which is basically crumbling…
But underneath that decaying structure it’s a different story. As critters galore have colonised the accumulated flotsam and jetsam of the last 130 years or so!
The jetty comes out about 50m from shore and the various sections stretch about 150m along it. So there is quite an area to cover… But there is a lot to see with scorpionfish, stonefish, toadfish, crocodile-fish, octopuses down in the rubble. Together with baitfish, batfish, convict-fish, catfish and angelfish swirling around the pylons.
How to Dive Southern Milne Bay
The south is too far from everywhere for day-boats to even be an option. And the only way to dive there is on a liveaboard and these days that means booking a spot on MV Oceania. As it is currently the only boat operating in Milne Bay…
Oceania’s home base is Walindi Dive Resort in Kimbe Bay, New Britain and it covers the best locations in the Bismarck Sea from there when the weather is at its most optimal. During the rest of the year its skipper Dan Johnson relocates the boat to where he knows the weather and conditions are at their best. And for Milne Bay that means the first three months of the year.
Oceania’s Milne Bay routes are typically about 10 nights and will take you to the best sites in both the north and the south. For sure you will have some really great dives! But… is that enough time for such a great location?
The Ultimate Milne Bay Adventure
Once per year there is a unique opportunity to dive not only the best sites in Milne Bay from Oceania. But also some of the rarely visited ones to the north of the East Cape around Normanby Island, as the boat heads for New Britain.
Around the end of March Dan starts the process of relocating Oceania back to Kimbe Bay. Which opens a pretty special door to dive legendary sites like Observation Point in the far north of Milne Bay. Together with those like Lindenhaven on for the remote south coast of New Britain. That trip became the foundation for my ultimate trip. Which I built on by arriving in Milne Bay 10 days early and diving the East Cape and Nuakata Island from Tawali.
It really worked out perfectly and I was able to get to all my favourite sites in the north on Tawali’s day boats. And then revisit some of them on Oceania before heading south. The icing on the cake was the new manta ray site Dan has found in the south at Kei Island. Which he had hinted at when I was last onboard with him… So, it was big smiles all round when he delivered!
The Ultimate Milne Bay Adventure – In Summary…
Located as it is in the heart of the Coral Triangle Papua New Guinea has some amazing diving. And Milne Bay has some of the very best! But you do have to make a choice between concentrating on the north or the south of the Bay…
My ultimate trip meant that I did not have to choose. And I got the double bonus of diving those rarely dived, but wonderful locations in the far north of Milne Bay. Together with the remote south coast of New Britain.
My only regret from the whole adventure being that I had to wait 25 years to do it!
Scuba Diver Article
Scuba Diver magazine recently published a six-page article of mine on the Ultimate Milne Bay Adventure and you can use the link to download a copy of it.