KEEN TO VISIT more wrecks, I learnt about a seagoing biplane that was dived only a couple of times a year but was very much intact. It lay a couple of hours’ sail from the resort, past the volcano that had inflicted so much damage on the town.
It remains active, with smoke, soot and occasionally fire escaping from the cone. As we passed it, we saw what looked like rubbish floating at the surface. It turned out to be pumice stone ejected from the volcano, some pieces as large as my head.
Sometimes the tide collects it into areas that stretch as far as the eye can see.
I’ve become used to seeing plastics, but never stones floating at the sea’s surface.
We had only a fisherman way in the distance for company at the remote dive-site. It was still early in the morning when we entered the water but the reef was full of colour and the sun’s rays made those pretty patterns on the coral that only us divers are lucky enough to see.
With the unspoilt coral and fish oblivious to our presence, it felt as if no-one else had ever visited the site. A pair of small reef sharks seemed indifferent.
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting but it definitely wasn’t what I saw next.
Resting bolt upright was what looked like a fully intact biplane. Although covered in coral and sponges, both wings were still in place, and even the delicate struts between them were all there. Only the giant float seemed to have broken off, though it still lay in position.
People often refer to wrecks as underwater museums, but this truly was one. Some areas of the fuselage even retained original paintwork. If this plane had been anywhere else in the world it would have become an exhibit on land. We four lucky divers could take our time.
On the way back, we stopped at a small bay at the foot of the volcano to dive George’s Wreck, a Japanese freighter that had once supplied the garrison.
It was named after the man who had discovered it after talking to some of its crew in a bar in Australia in the 1960s.
The reef dropped off into the depths very quickly, and only the forward sections of the ship were accessible, with the stern dropping beyond 60m.
The bomb damage that sank this ship was clearly visible, with metal fragments splayed out from the violence of the explosion. Crinoids and giant barrel sponges covered the top of the wreck.
The hold sat just below the damaged area, and the ship had either just delivered its cargo or been carrying perishable items, because the hold was empty.
During the siege of Rabaul, very few ships had managed to offload, and the Japanese quickly realised that submarines were the only way to stay supplied.
Hidden among the overgrown cliffs along this stretch of coast were many small tunnels in which submarines would offload by night. Although too far to visit, I was told of caves big enough for a sub to surface inside.
Although much of it was buried in the volcanic eruption in the 1990s, the harbour contained many of the Japanese warships intended to be the icing on the cake for my few days in New Britain.
Unfortunately Gavin’s GPS stopped working at this point, and the locations were not known precisely enough to take a punt on diving in and taking a look.