THE FRONT OF Birie Island faces Dampier Strait. Morning dives usually head out into or along the front garden for clear water, fish and reefs, and afternoon dives are either nearby in the front garden, or round to the back garden.
On the opposite side of the strait is the long island of Mansuar, far enough away for a day trip with three dives and a packed lunch. We arrive at Cape Kri and three liveaboards are already there, one just finishing and two preparing to dive. This is one of the big-name sites on everyone’s route.
With a current running along the reef, the dive is run as a drift. That part works out well. I only occasionally notice divers from other boats far away, and it’s almost as good as having the site to ourselves.
However, it’s not a successful dive for me, as I realise I have sealed my camera housing without switching on the strobe trigger circuit. Natural-light shots won’t do justice to the big shoals of barracuda and jack along the ridge, so I settle back to float along and enjoy the dive – which works wonders for my air consumption.
We move on to a jetty at Sawandarek, where it’s even busier with liveaboards. Between doughnuts I open my housing and switch on the strobe trigger.
Our guides have a cunning plan, and give us an extra 15 minutes’ surface interval, then move the boat to drop in away from the jetty and do the dive the opposite way round to everyone else.
Sweetlips are such pretty fish to photograph and a large shoal above a cabbage patch of coral is most co-operative. At first I think it’s all ribbon sweetlips, then notice a diagonal banded version close to the front of the pack.
It’s a familiar behaviour pattern, and the Raja Ampat marine reserve allows such shoals not to be fished.
As we work back towards the jetty, patches of coral rubble are layered with big grids of steel and sprigs of coral attached, part of a reef-restoration project. As well as plain grids the steelwork has been welded into giant turtles, manta rays and other marine creatures.
In a clearing among this coral-covered steelwork I stop by a giant clam so big that Hollywood would have it swallowing a diver whole, or even a small horse.
In the shallows beneath the jetty about 90% of the fish have collected into one big aggregation, with various sweetlips and snapper mixed together in the protective ball. The rest are spread out in ones and twos doing normal fishy things.
The liveaboards all appear to be on westward routes. For lunch and our third dive we head east to another jetty at Yenbuba, and get the location to ourselves. The end of the dive under the jetty is remarkably similar, with big mixed balls of sweetlips and snapper.
The difference is the way we get there, gently drifting along a big coral slope with turtles, more sweetlips and a shoal of batfish. And that is the only day on which we meet other divers.
About halfway across the Dampier Strait is the small island of Wai, an almost circular blob of sand and jungle in the middle of nowhere. It’s close enough to Papua Paradise that we can do it as a morning trip when the tides are right. When the tides are wrong, there can be big currents.
From 20m I can see the propeller blades standing up from the P-47’s big radial engine. At 5m deeper the slope flattens a little, and up close it’s apparent that the aircraft wreck is upside-down. It’s so overgrown with coral that in places it’s hard to tell where reef stops and wreck starts.
The change in slope of the reef and the height of the tail means there is room to look underneath and upwards into the cockpit to see the pilot’s seat, rudder pedals and instruments.
The dive-plan works out nicely, maxing out at 30m with a gentle ascent along the reef that turns into a regular reef dive.
It’s like two dives in one, but apart from two very friendly hawksbill turtles, the reef isn’t as good as another dive we do further round Wai to the west.
Propeller from the P-47 aircraft at Wai Island.
The ditching of Tubby flight
On 21 October, 1944, the seven single-engined P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bombers of Tubby flight took off from Noemfoor Island to attack Japanese shipping in Ambon harbour, about 750 miles away and close to the limit of their range.
Having spent longer than anticipated on target, the aircraft were low on fuel returning home. Navigation was complicated by skirting round bad weather and, with daylight fading, it was decided to ditch close to Wai island.
The pilot with the most fuel climbed and pinged his distress beacon, and all seven of the aircraft ditched successfully.
Next morning, another flight of P-47s and a PBY flying boat were dispatched to locate and rescue the downed pilots. The PBY picked up two who had made it onto the island and another two from the sea.
Another PBY was called in to pick up another pilot subsequently sighted on the island, and the last two were recovered from the sea later that day.
Three of the wrecks have been found, one broken in 2m and others at 28m and 38m. Considering the remoteness of the location, only the wreck in 28m is now dived.
A COUPLE OF MILES east of Wai, a mound of reef rises to within 5m of the surface for a dive-site called Manta Wai. It’s not a non-stop manta show – a brief couple of passes at the start are followed by a regular reef dive. The rays suddenly return as we start heading up.
Now there’s good reason to go over the nominal 60 minutes’ dive-time. Our guide waves us to drop back down for a few minutes, while he remains above us with the DSMB.
Real “in your face” non-stop mantas come the next morning at Manta Dayang, at the limit of morning dive-trips to the west. Here a narrow channel is crossed by a bank and reef, and the potential for some aggressively ripping currents, were it not for slack water.
We line up along the sandbank facing the coral-head cleaning station, and within minutes the mantas arrive.
I probably see fewer than most because I’m deliberately off to one end. We can’t get any closer to the cleaning station, so I hope that by hanging out at the end the mantas will swim across me on the way to and from their clean-up.
The strategy pays off. The mantas have no issues with flying within touching distance over my head. Sometimes they approach from the front but also from behind me, where the first view I get is straight through the gill-slits from behind. It’s one of those dives where I need a mask with rear-view mirrors.
Such a dive could make the rest of a trip seem anti-climactic, but not at Papua Paradise, with all its variety.