The "Newly Refurbished" Spirit of Niugini Liveaboard - A Floating Nightmare!
(and the reason I became my own group trip leader)
Hoping to attract discerning divers, Tawali Resort in Papua New Guinea announced in 2008 that after many months in dry dock the Spirit of Niugini was ready for charter. They claimed that the vessel underwent extensive refurbishment, including the installation of new interiors, revarnishing and a bright new paint job. They boasted a roomy dive deck, delicious dining, and tastefully furnished accommodations. The vessel was crewed by experienced local and international staff and her operations managed by people with extensive experience in cruise ship and hotel management who were themselves dedicated divers. Tawali Resort and this boat were partially owned by Bob Hollis, who was one of the founders of Oceanic, a manufacturer of dive gear. The local manager was Rob Vanderloos, who I understood did a wonderful job at Tawali Resort. He was also in the area to assist with the first charter after dry dock.
I had been to Tawali once before and I was impressed that anyone could build such a beautiful resort in such a remote area. Between the good impression and the hype promoting this trip by the travel agent group leader, I was excited beyond words about finally diving this area of PNG. I also found a review on Scuba Board that gave the boat rave reviews (dated January 2008), but I later learned that it had to have been written by someone tied to the boat owners. The boat was in or headed to dry dock at that time and was not available for charter in this area until our trip in October 2008.
Rainy season here is in January, February, and March, with April being cyclone season (most form in the Coral Sea and head south). Yet it had rained for two months non-stop before and through our trip. Nice weather would have been great, but it would not have helped with the issues we experienced on this boat. This trip went down in history as being the worst live-aboard experience in my 30 years of diving. Not only did I go home very ill, but I took with me some of the worst dive trip stories imaginable. The notes in this report were written during the trip, so none of this was from fading memories.
The boat doesn't look bad from the outside, but there was nothing good about this boat.
Day 1 - Nail-biting Bus Transfer to Tawali Resort
The Tawali minibus was waiting for our arrival at the Gurney Airport in Alotoa. They loaded us up and warned us to make pit stop before we left the area. There would be no bathroom breaks until we got to the boat, which was about 30 miles away. The road was rough a couple of years ago when I visited and the trip took us 90 minutes one way, but this trip was much worse. The bus was air conditioned and the condensation from the AC was dripping on the seats in the back of the bus. It started as a drip, but ended up filling a small cooler by the time we got to the boat, even after soaking our luggage. There was enough water to ruin a suitcase full of cameras or a laptop!
There had been a lot of rain and what was described in the promotions as "rainforest with trickling streams" were now mud slides and floods. Many parts of the road were washed out. At one point we had to wait for the road crew to fill the washed out road with gravel so we could pass. The trip took us over two and a half hours to get to the dock where we were picked up by a Tawali dive boat to be taken around the point to board the Spirit of Niugini at the Tawali Resort dock.
Arrival at the Spirit of Niugini
When we finally arrived at the boat, the crew unloaded our luggage, assigned our rooms and moved us onboard.
The boat had been in dry dock for the past six-nine months and this was the first charter since. The captain and crew were also new to the ship. We were expecting some shake down on this trip, but were ill-equipped for what we were about to experience in the next eight days. I had later discovered that the group leader already knew that the boat wasn't ready for charter, even after our departure, but never told any of the passengers.
The boat layout was somewhat unusual compared to other boats I've been on (18 of them in my diving career). The main deck lounge and eating area were one in the same. Here we would eat all meals at the four dining tables. The very small galley was on the other side of a partial wall just next to where we ate. When meals were being prepared the grease fumes and anything burnt filled the lounge. Yummy!
The accommodations were located on both the front of the main deck and on the lower deck in the front and back with the engine room in the center. The staterooms on the main deck were not bad, with bright windows (pictured in their marketing), but the lower deck rooms were dark, damp, and dirty (not pictured in their marketing). The toilet in my room looked like it hadn't been cleaned...ever. The tiles were cracked and the shower curtains were moldy and falling apart.
The dive deck was located behind the main lounge area. The dive deck didn't give us much space to move around. It might have been better for 10 divers instead of 18. From the dive deck steps lead to the upper deck and a shaded seating area. The camera tables were also inconveniently located here. We had to walk up and down slippery, wet steps every time we got into and out of the water. The rocking of the boat on the second deck threw several of the housings off the table onto the floor. This happened several times during the trip while the boat was moving. The enclosed camera room included camera charging stations. This room had lots of shelves with both 110 and 220 power. This was a comfortable lounging area because it was warmer than the other heavily air-conditioned parts of the boat. Inside the storage areas where we kept our expensive camera gear we found rodent droppings and cockroaches. The entire boat was dirty and insect infested.
There was a sitting area in the front of the boat, but since we only saw sunshine on the first day of the trip, we didn't get to use it.
Day 2 – Finally get in the water
Tawali Resort Jetty
10d 15.997’S 150d 46.611’E
The next morning Greg, our host, gave us a dive briefing for the check-out dive. Since two passengers had some of their bags left in POM by Air Niugini, the boat did not leave that night and we did our first dives right under the boat. I had heard good reports about reef in front of Tawali Resort, so I was glad we got a chance to dive it. The reef here is a sloped wall with large bommies full of undercuts where fish and critters hang out. We found lots of oysters, upside-down jellyfish, nudibranchs, tunicates, elephant ear coral. Some small fish, anthias, large puffer, bumphead wrass. Lots of trash down the wall too (beer bottles, new hat, coffee cup, pieces of tarp) and small rocks tied up with some kind of leaf, probably used by the locals for fishing. Water temp was 82 degrees and vis was about 50'.
10d 15.187’S 150d 47.032’E
A small point located on the North side of the mainland with a shelf from 15' to 50' in depth and dropping with a sheer wall down to 200+'. The site also hosts a variety of anemonies, a school of barracuda and very large elephant ear sponges and cabbage patch coral. The wall was steep with huge corals, crinoids, and schools of anthias darting in and out of the coral. We encountered several species of angelfish, sweetlips, and found lots of nudibranchs. Several divers saw a small whaleshark at the end of the dive. Wish I had been set up for wide angle.
10d 12.664’S 150d 53.669’E
The third dive was out further past the end of the peninsula at a spot they called Cobb’s Cliff, but I was still too exhausted from the travel, so I skipped it to prepare for my evening presentation about photo composition. Dinner was steaks and fish, vegetables and scalloped potatoes. Dessert was strawberry shortcake.
Day 2 - Normandy Island
The good: At 5:15 the next morning the boat left the dock and headed for Normandy Island about two hours from Tawali Resort. The waters were smooth at first and the ride was very comfortable half way out, then it got windy and rough. Many of the crew were getting sea sick and items in the lounge were not tied down, so stuff was flying everywhere. We learned that some of them had been recruited from the local village and had never been on a boat before! Passengers were feeling it too, but all was fine once we arrived. It was at that time we were told that there would be no NITROX for the trip, due to a problem with the compressor. This was later resolved.
Our first dive would be at the Calypso Reef area named "Womps" or "Barbarian", depending who you ask. All these dive sites already had names, but when the resort owners moved into the area they took it upon themselves to name the dive sites after their friends and family.
The dive site consisted of a couple of pinnacles in the middle of nowhere. They could not be seen from the surface. The early morning and dark skies influenced me to put on my 60mm macro lens, but as soon as we hit the water we could see why we roughed the trip to get there. The bommies were covered with large sea fans, some easily 15’ across and most of them multiple layers deep. There were large schools of fish of all sizes. The green cup coral branches were full of golden anthias and fusiliers. Lots of blue and red cod (bass?) and several lionfish. With the macro lens I felt like I was dragging around a boat anchor the entire dive! I'm much more of a wide angle shooter than I am macro, but I had no idea I would be staring into the face of hundreds of missed photo opportunities when I jumped into the water.
After a surface interval I jumped back in with my 10-17 fisheye lens. It was me and Mother Nature for the first 15 minutes of the dive and I was in heaven. Large schools of jacks and snappers "whooshed" around me, sounding like a strong wind in the woods, as they evaded capture by the tuna and other bigger fish feeding on them.
After lunch we went to "Observation Point", which is off the tip of Normandy Island for some muck diving. We were diving under where the boat had anchored. The sandy bottom sloped off to over 100 feet. There were all kinds of weird critters crawling around in the sand and debris. We found several good sized nudibranchs, lots of small shrimp dancing around the anemones, a strange yellow on yellow clownfish, golden ghostpipefish, red devil fish, both yellow and brown seahorses, peacock flounders, sea pens, bright red snake eel, blue spotted rays, hermit decorator crabs, cuttlefish, baby octopus, and some cup corals on the rocks near the grassy shore. We were lucky to do two dives here. The last dive was bordering between dusk and night and it was totally dark by the end of the dive, since we were down there for almost 90 minutes.
The bad: When we got back to the boat Greg warned us that there were some BIG box jellyfish that were gathering around the lights on the other side of the boat and suggested we get some shots. I saw in National Geographic showing the effect of tentacle contact to human skin, as well as possible death, so I declined his offer.
We got back just in time for dinner. At dinner one of the passengers commented that a local attempted to spear her from his canoe at the surface. She was at 70’ and videotaped a spear fall to the sandy bottom too close for comfort. Assuming he was aiming at her and not the fish her video lights were attracting, she came to the surface, foregoing the mandatory safety stop required by her computer. Unfortunately that locked her out for 24 hours.
The ugly: With so many things breaking on the boat, inexperienced crew, and constant rain the mood of the trip was headed south fast. Greg, who was the ship's host was already drinking beer and talking about his resignation. Our drunken group leader was acting like a 16-year-old cheerleader, because she was hooking up with one of the other passengers onboard.
The ugly: This being the first trip after a long dry dock, we expected a few hick-ups, but the crew, who as also brand new to the boat have been doing the best job they could. We could also see that the crew was having a difficult time getting things to work properly on the boat. The clothes dryer didn't work, so we had no dry deck towels after the dives. The towels they had been using for several days now were very ripe! The crew had the dryer up on the second deck and were attempting to fix it with a big hammer, but it was obvious they have no clue what was wrong and wouldn't have the right parts anyway. The crew decided to put the stinky towels in the engine room to dry, so from here on out instead of warm, fluffy deck towels we had stinky taco shells. The towels got worse as the week progressed, to the point of being absolutely disgusting!
On any liveaboard trip there is always an interesting mix of individual personalities. When I board the boat I can’t help but begin to size up the people in the group to determine who will be “the one” on this trip. One person almost always emerges as the high maintenance diver, the chronic complainer, the loudmouth redneck – you know what I mean. Sometimes it is obvious from day one. Other times it takes a few days for someone’s personality to get the best of them. Have you ever wondered...if by the third day nobody on the trip takes the title of being "the one" do you ever wonder it perhaps it is you?
The good: Double Towers
09d 37.420’S 150d 56.868’E
This is an area in the middle of nowhere where huge coral foothills scatter the sandy bottom. The crew had a hell-of-a-time dropping anchor on the dive spot. It took them over an hour after the call to go diving, but when they finally did, the dive was worth the effort. Unfortunately much of the reef had been ripped up by the multiple attempts to anchor and it landed right in the middle of what had been huge sea fans. I couldn't help but take pics of what this incompetence had done to the reef.
There was soft coral as far as the eye could see and large sea fans covered with crinoids. As we descended down there was a lot of current, but the area between the two main bommies was calm. We found huge branches of soft coral and massive sea fans. Lots of batfish, puffers, anthias. The DM found an ornate ghostpipefish on a huge seafan.
The bad: When we got to the surface most of us on a euphoric high, we discovered that some of the other divers were complaining that the dive was too difficult for them because there was too much current and angrily decided to skip diving for the rest of the day and start drinking. Bad decision! The second dive was at the same site, but the current had died down significantly. Soft corals were still open and the dive was gorgeous.
During the next surface interval, we caught wind that one passenger had gone off on Greg, because locals had stepped up on the back swim platform of the boat and she felt it was a security risk. Another passenger fanned the fire even more by showing her video of a the local fisherman's spear underwater, which she believed had targeted her. Some of the passengers were freaking out unnecessarily. Other passengers were getting very tired of all the negativity. While some of the passengers felt that they were in grave danger by being on this trip. The rest of us went diving!
It's important that people understand what they are getting themselves into when traveling to third-world countries. There is a lot of crime in PNG. In Port Morrisby a tourist would not dare wander past the confines of their hotel walls, but the remote islands can also give shelter to those with bad intentions. The locals from the village who had come to the boat that morning came there to warn us that there were "bad people" up the river. Possibly a band of criminals who had run from Port Morrisby, who might have been a risk if they knew we were there. Those local people who came to our boat were actually there to help us. These remote villages have no income except for the few tourist who come there by boat.
Since our last dive was out in open ocean, the captain moved the boat to Esa-ala Jetty for dinner and our last dive. During the crossing things got pretty rough my housing took a dive off the camera table. Camera too. After careful inspection and water check all seemed to be OK in spite of this. Now would be a terrible time to start having camera problems. The camera tables are on the second deck just behind the camera room, so motion is a bit more amplified on that level. I should have known better, but this was a stupid design and bad setup. I got lucky this time.
The boat anchored at Esa-ala Jetty and some of the passengers did a fourth dive while others stayed on board for a presentation about RAW file processing, images size, resolution, JPG vs RAW.
The good: Day 4 - Balaban’s Bommie
09d 44.529’S 150d 43.157’E
The skies look a little cloudy, but it’s not raining and the water is very calm. It looks like things have calmed down with the passengers who were having issues, so hopefully everyone can move on and enjoy this amazing place.
The next dive site was a reef called Balaban's Bommie, which is another mound of coral at the edge of a wall drop off. The wall part of the site was absolutely amazing with many deep cuts into the reef that created large, vertical rooms that went from over 100’ to the surface. Not as much soft coral or as many seafans as the other sites, but the typography alone was amazing enough to make this wall one of the best I’ve seen anywhere. At 80 feet we saw two very small white tip sharks. Andrea videotaped another kind of shark the books said was an Miline Bay Epaulette shark. Toward the top of the reef were huge table corals, staghorn coral, and the fish that find protection there as far as the eye could see.
The other side of the mound was a shallow sloping reef, also with lots of caves where we could cut in and find a gazillion fish, strange sponges, scallop oysters and huge barrel sponges. Around the other corner we found lots of staghorn coral, lettuce leaf coral, anemones with clownfish.
After the third dive we moved the boat back to the mainland to anchor for the night at Dyna’s Beach, said to be one of several places where muck diving was originated. When we jumped into the water we swam for 10 minutes before we started to find interesting stuff, but later found out we went in the opposite direction of what the dive briefing told us to do. Still we found a well-camouflaged crocodile fish, a cuttle fish that followed up around for a while, lots of small shrimp, sea cucumbers with multiple shrimp, an orange mantis shrimp, and another Epaulette carpet shark. When we came back to the boat we found out that there were four or five box jellyfish in the water around the boat.
The bad: When we went back into the dungeon to my room I noticed that the carpeting in the hallway was soaking wet. This also went into the rooms next to the engine room, which puddles forming! The AC compressor had a busted line and all the water from the air conditioner was being dumped here! The crew attempted to clean it up, but the stink remained for the entire trip.
Day 5 - Still raining
First dive of the day was on a deep wall just around the corner from the muck dive we did last night. It was a bit dark from all the rain, but still a very cool dive site. Lots of swim-throughs and caverns with multiple entries and exits. We found some very pretty anemones and a large toadfish just hanging out on a coral ridge on the wall.
The second dive was at the other side of the boat in the mucky slope. The first thing we found just under the boat was a pretty little yellow seahorse. Down the reef we found a couple of coral patches mixed about the sand that were loaded with lionfish, eels, juvenile fish, and other critters. We did a 90 minute dive here.
For the next dive Greg moved the boat to another reef called Banana Bommie. It's still raining, so things are kind of dark. Donna and I did a photo shoot that ended up in a big goof-off. We did find a big cuttlefish and the biggest blue ray with yellow spots that I have ever seen.
We had the option to do the night dive, but nobody wanted to do it. I think we’re all cold and sick of the rain.
Day 6 - Wednesday - Crinoid (Black & Silver) (2)
10d 16.170’S 150d 58.520’E
Looking out the porthole of my cabin I can see that it is still raining. This is supposed to be the dry season here in PNG, but we have yet to see one day without at least 16 hours of rain and gray skies.
This morning we headed out to another reef they called Black & Silver. This area was large enough to swim around in a dive. The wall side was a slope covered with seafans and soft corals. Around the point where the current picked up the slope off to the deep was scattered with seafans and coral. Jack found a huge lionfish that was out over the reef and didn’t mind being bombarded by cameras and flash. On the sandy area between the reefs we came across a silvertip shark sleeping on the bottom. At the safety stop Jack found a solar powered nudibranch. We did a dusk dive here too. Vis was bad at the last 15 feet and the current had picked up, so the lines at the back of the boat were used to bring in all the divers who got caught up in the strong currents.
The land-based managers of the boat (Rob Vanderloos sp?) FINALLY gave up on the crew's attempt to fix the clothes dryer with a hammer and brought a working replacement out to the boat. At the same time Greg found a stash of fresh towels that had been stashed away in an area he didn't know about. Only 6 days too late.
Site 2??: Linda’s Reef (2) 10d 15.966’S 150d 58.587’E
Captain Bill moved the boat back to a calm bay at Nuakata Island for the night.
The good: Day 7 – Thursday - Banana Bommie
Last day of diving and it is still raining. Greg took us back to Banana Bommie. The vis was down and the skies were dark, so I set up my camera for 60mm macro shooting. The last dives there were OK, but this time we went around the bommie counter-clockwise and found a much nicer area. There was a mound of coral at about 80’ that was loaded with large sea fans, green cup corals, leather corals, soft corals, and lots of life. I was having some problems with my strobes and TTL converter, so I switched to totally manual settings and got things straightened out. On the way back up the reef to go back to the boat we came across four cuttlefish what swam in formation for all the photographers. Higher up at the surface we found a small group of squid. Lots of pretty nudibranchs here too.
For the next dive we moved to another reef they called Sarah’s Reef. This looked much like the last dive site, so I went with the 60mm macro once again. Here the dive guides found pygmie seahorses on the seafan at about 80’.
Several of the divers found a shark’s egg casing with a fetus shark inside. So we went back for several last dives here. The guides thought it was probably a Milne Bay Epaulette shark. Also found some nice nudis on the spines of a sea cucumber.
Day 8 – Friday
Things are winding down and we’re all trying to dry dive gear and pack up. After lunch we get off the boat at Alotau and head to the airport. We were all surprised to find that we could pick up a wireless signal from somewhere on shore, so we had a chance to touch base with the real world for a short time. After much more rain and waiting around, we were finally on the plane back to Port Morrisby where we would spend the next night before we flew out the next day.
We were a bit ahead of schedule on our return due to last minute flight changes by Air Niugini. Our original return was supposed to be the next day but the only airline in PNG can pretty much do whatever they want, regardless of the consequences for their customers. All things considered, this trip was much less of a travel nightmare than I’ve experienced in the past. We didn’t get dinged for overweight baggage or heavy carry-ons like last time. This was thanks to our group leader, who handled this as a group check-in. In spite of a few hick-ups, everything went very smoothly.
The crew included:
Greg – Cruise director
Bill – Captain
Johnny – electrician
Eli – welder
Elija – engineer
Kiddy – dive crew
Nelson – second engineer
Manny – dive crew
Precilla – hostess
Harriet – hostess
Benson – chef
Junior – divemaster