Diving Conflict Islands

By Hayley Versace.

Imagine being invited to an isolated tropical island atoll in the middle of the Coral Triangle with crystal clear electric blue water and abundant fish and marine life.

The promise of amazing species diversity, remote coral reefs over 100 miles away from civilisation with freedom to explore and dive sites nobody else has ever seen before. Imagine drinking sweet young coconuts whilst helping to monitor and protect turtles and working on educational projects for the local communities. This was our reality for four months over the summer as Migration Media were invited to stay at the stunning Panasesa Island Resort, aiming to promote conservation and diving around the 21 uninhabited islands that make up the Conflict Island group. Boasting some of the highest coral biodiversity in the world, prolific fish life and key nesting grounds for green and hawksbill turtles, this is an underwater photographers dream come true.

Sea beams spotlight the reef.

Sea beams spotlight the reef.

Panasesa Island Resort offers scuba diving to all levels of diver experience from beginners to well-travelled thrill seekers and underwater photographers. Scuba and free diving is certainly one of the highlights of the Conflict Islands, which features some of the most pristine, untouched coral reefs in the world along with big animal encounters and pelagic fish life. Situated in the Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea, this volcanic coral atoll formation is surrounded by incredibly deep, clear blue water with strong ocean currents that collide against the walls and reefs providing nutrient rich upwellings to the surface where millions of tropical fish and corals feed. In the most recent scientific study of the area, 430 species of coral, 950 species of molluscs and over 1 100 species of fish were recorded – some found nowhere else in the world.

Each island is entirely different in appearance and functionality. The largest island, Irai, sits on the eastern extreme of the atoll and fast became our favourite dive site due to its close proximity to our base on Panasesa Island and its strong ocean currents and upwellings. With the largest number of different coral species ever to be recorded on one dive, east Irai was appropriately named the Aquarium. Hundreds and thousands of reef and schooling pelagic fish, spectacular corals and the chance to see the unexpected made it highly addictive. Hordes of enormous dogtooth tuna over 50kgs would cruise the deep walls, whilst trevally, barracuda and reef sharks effortlessly swim into the fast-moving currents that flood this epic dive site with nutrients. East Irai is also a hot spot for nesting green and hawksbill turtles during October–February, allowing divers and snorkellers to witness giant adults resting in the shallows just off the beach.

Colourful anthias swarm.

Colourful anthias swarm.

Moving east past the furthest point of the atoll lies an enormous deep reef stretching miles and miles across the electric blue waters of Milne Bay. Between here and Irai sits a deep narrow trough where ocean circulations are pushed through – attracting a multitude of marine life from pilot whales and dolphins to large rays and sharks. Dive early morning and find sharks still awake from the night before; dive during the day to catch the perfect sunrays spotlighting these rich and colourful coral reefs. This truly is an ocean lover’s dream. During one morning dive here I was having to push away tawny nurse sharks as they nudged my body trying examine what was probably the first human they have ever come across.

As well as diving on the island corners, throughout our time at the islands we found ourselves drawn to the passages between islands and reef systems. One of our favourites was a narrow passage between Ginara and Panaboal Island. Deep clear blue water would be drawn through this passage on a flooding tide producing sometimes 40–50m visibility giving epic views of huge three-metre-plus sea fans hugging the reef slope looking to catch the nutrient rich water passing them by. One dive we were inspected by a large sailfish using the passage to find the huge shoals of bait fish that would congregate at the reef passages to feed. Stingrays, giant Queensland groupers, reef sharks and eagle rays were all regular sightings here as well as your regular schooling fusiliers, anthias and surgeonfish. Another regular dive site close by Panasesa Island is Ship’s Passage; the largest passage on the atoll with an entrance 40m deep. Similar to Ginara passage, incoming tides would produce magnificent visibility and abundant fish and marine life. We frequently saw silvertip sharks, dogtooth tuna, eagle rays and majestic manta rays feeding on the inside of the passage.

Hard coral garden.

Hard coral garden.

It was very difficult to pull ourselves away from diving at these spectacular sites but once we had a grip of the currents, during unfavourable days where the current was too strong, we went looking for macro life – which is very difficult to spot when you’re surrounded by so much fish life! Having done the majority of our macro diving in Borneo, Indonesia, Philippines and Mozambique, we generally went looking for your common critters such as nudibranchs, pipefish, seahorses, shrimps and crabs. Although it did take a while for our eyes to adapt, we eventually found that on the inside reef slopes and lagoons there was a large number critters that we had never expected to see on such an isolated atoll. We looked far and wide, finding porcelain crabs, anemone shrimp, nudibranchs and some beautiful crinoid shrimp, before discovering that just walking into the water from Panasesa Resort and swimming 100m to the reef will reveal some incredible macro life. Solar nudibranchs, mushroom coral pipefish and pygmy seahorses are literally straight in front of the resort, allowing long shallow dives to find and photograph these wonderful critters.

Huge three-metre-plus sea fans hug the reef.

Huge three-metre-plus sea fans hug the reef.

Currently the Conflict Islands are only accessible by charter flight from Port Moresby, so people wishing to visit Panasesa Resort and the Conflict Islands must fly to Port Moresby and charter a plane for up to eight passengers for a two-hour flight to the islands. The entire resort can be used for groups of up to 12 guests, with six beautiful ocean-facing bungalows just a few steps from a private and secluded beach and a sunrise view over the central island of Itamarina. The Conflict Islands and Panasesa Resort are privately owned by Ian Gowrie-Smith, a conservation-minded entrepreneur and scuba diver who is looking for like-minded investors who can share costs in creating a marine sanctuary and protecting this spectacular environment. With this pristine ecosystem containing the most colourful and immaculate coral reefs I have ever come across, it’s surely worth protecting.

For more information on visiting the conflict island please contact us www.migrationmedia.com.au

or visit www.conflictislands.com