Reef of Papua New Guinea
Photo by Dana Africa
Divers go to Papua New Guinea to meet the zany and infamous
Captain Alan Raabe, as well as to dive the Bismarck Sea aboard the
good ship FeBrina. Master Raabe's reputation as entertaining and
irreverent precede him on a global scale. So it was with shock and
disappointment when our group was informed that The Captain had
taken a break to Australia. My fourth trip to PNG, I was not ready
to have a stranger take me hundreds of miles across open ocean.
As trip leader, the dreaded question fell from my lips," Who's
Matty, a skinny Aussie who looks like he just graduated middle
school, met my eyes and said, "Me". I let out a groan of
Matty Johnson redefined the task of Divemaster last time I
visited the boat. Seemingly two or three people at once, he could
fix your regulator, fix the engine, and somehow be next to you
under water, pointing things out. Hannah the Cook adores him,
which, in my book, is an absolutely gold-plated character
reference. That he suddenly levitated to the status of skipper
didn't really surprise me so much as how the hell he did it in a
year and still not age one wrinkle's worth.
In spite of my confidence, I had some disappointed customers.
They wanted Alan Raabe. Instead they got a virginal teenage skipper
with a penchant for Hawaiian print, hip-slung baggies. Matty had
his work cut out for him from the get-go.
Our itinerary took us from Walindi Plantation to Kavieng via the
Fathers Reef system. Two of the group were brand-new divers, while
the other eleven reeked of ancient booties and tattered dive logs.
Martina, our Australian Divemaster on vacation from medical school,
took on the newbies and taught them stuff no dive manual could ever
Matty's first big hit with the group was to smoothly moor the
FeBrina on a bommie in Kimbe Bay, cut the engines, then somehow be
in the water waiting with an encyclopedic collection of macro
critters to show us. Anemone shrimp, Frogfish, bizarre nudibranchs,
and octopus. A blue-banded sea snake slithered by. How'd he do
Awe of his skills rapidly replaced his youth-and-beauty
reputation. By dinner of the third or fourth night, he had managed
to sit with everyone at least once, shared a glass of wine,
refilled glasses, told stories, listened to other people's stories,
and generally schmoozed each and every one of us. Thoughts of the
missing Cpt. Raabe just went away. Dubbed "Captain Matty's
Cherry-Poppin' Kavieng Cruise", the whole adventure exceeded
The boat running smoothly, the meals on time and delicious, we
all fell into the routine of dive, eat, dive, dive, eat, dive, nap,
dive, eat, (drink), sleep. FeBrina is a fall-off-the-back-deck kind
of dive boat, with a rare dinghy dive just to keep you fit.
Briefings are just that. Brief. Here we are, this is how deep,
you'll probably see this, this and that. Bring this lens. Be back
on board by then because we're leaving.
If you needed a little hand-holding, Nelson did the honors. For
whining about not finding a crinoid crab, Nelson gently brought me
the entire animal, decked out with two crabs, a cling fish, and a
crinoid shrimp. After I shot up my roll of film, he took the
crinoid back to its coral head.
Nelson is a local man in his early twenties, divemaster, deckie,
and excellent critter spotter. He knows where the Harlequin Ghost
Pipefish live. He's on the guest list of Restorff Island's Devil
Scorpionfish. Nelson gets the stone fish to come out at night and
successfully herds cuttlefish.
The fish populations around Fathers Reef are staggering. I read
this as evidence that little more than subsistence fishing is done
here. Every dive is a blitz of PNG Butterfly fish, multi-colored
anthias, great flows of Trevalee jack, barracuda, and fusilier.
Squadrons of Batfish check your every move.
The coral is healthy-table, staghorn, lettuce, gorgonion, whip,
and even the unusual Organ Pipe corals. Littered in amid the
crannies reside the most spectacular array of anemones and their
resident fish. There are a couple of common ones, like the Pink and
the Spinecheek, then a handful of the slightly more unusual; a
Whitebonnet, the Orange Fin, and the Red and Black Anemone
One becomes inured with the sensory overload of fish species.
There are so many striped fish, it's hard to settle down and
catalog them. The multitude of angels, butterflies, banners, and
sergeants weave rainbow nets across your field of vision. There is
a cleaning station around every corner packed with shrimp, wrasses
and their loyal patrons. It would seem impossible that a parasite
could survive these well-ordered waters.
Some people just can't be pleased with a plethora of every fish
and invertebrate listed in the Who's-Who of Ocean Life. They want
sharks. They want sharks on every dive. Not so with this group, but
Matty figured he could make points by tipping the odds of shark
sightings in his favor.
The Eigenheir Device is an invention created by the Mother of
Necessity (Matty), and named after the gentleman who made the
initial sharkless complaint. It is a flat-sided, half-gallon,
plastic jug with one inch holes cut in it. Stuffed with old fish
parts and securely hidden in a reef wall, this device sneakily
wafts dinner smells to the shy reef sharks. Damn, if we didn't have
sharks on most dives! Even after catching on to the lure, the
divers were tickled by the toothy company.