1970 An Underwater Adventurer’s Paradise

During nearly four years of continuous conflict between 1941 and 1945, New Guinea was a major theatre of operations resulting in a marine archaeologist’s wonderland, heavily seeded with hundreds of wrecks of ships and aircraft. Many exciting hours can be spent exploring for relics along the shoreline but it is impossible to fully understand the extent of the treasure trove without diving.

In 1970 I was visiting a salvage barge as it lay at anchor in Wewak Harbour, on the north coast of New Guinea, and become enthused with the artefacts that lay piled on the deck – brass compass binnacles, engine room controls, portholes and sextants. The professional divers were more than a little relaxed about the dangers of diving, having spent most of each day underwater for the last year, so, when I asked to have a try, they strapped a double SCUBA tank to my back “Stick this in your mouth and breathe normally” and threw me over the side, whereupon I plummeted 20 metres to the bottom. Thankfully the snorkel diving of my youth had made me aware of equalizing my ear pressure so I was able to concentrate on my surroundings.

There, in front of me, lay a pile of ammunition 5 metres high and 30 metres long, heaped up like gravel when the Japanese barge, lying on the bottom along side, had overturned. On top of the heap lay the remains of an aircraft – one of many in Wewak Harbour. So it was, that on my initiation dive, I returned with the first of my underwater treasures – two brass shell cases and the wheel from a Japanese Zero.

During the following days we dived continuously, finding many sunken vessels which would be attacked by the salvage divers for their valuable bronze propellers. Wrapping plastic explosive and detonator cord around the shafts the divers retreated to their small dinghy and electrically fired the charge. An enormous muffled explosion occurred and we spent the next half hour selecting the best fish floating, stunned, upon the surface, while waiting for the swarm of sharks, attracted by the noise, to eat their fill and go away.

It was during this period that I found an American P-39 Airacobra fighter sitting complete on the bottom of the harbour and it was such capsules of history as this gave direction to my diving expeditions. While the coral reefs and fish life in New Guinea are unequalled to anywhere else in the world they do not capture my imagination like the outline of a ship, which has laid on the sea floor for 50 years, appearing out of the gloom.

Right at my doorstep at Lae where I was based sat one of the best wrecks in the country with it’s bow just breaking the surface and the propellers at 40 metres. The “Tenyo Maru”, a large cargo ship converted to a armed mine-layer, was hit by aircraft from the USS Yorktown and USS Lexington on 10th March 1942 and the captain drove his stricken vessel ashore in order to save the cargo. The bow grounded and the ship eventually came to rest at a very steep angle on a bottom that is 1,000 metres deep only a kilometre from shore.

Despite 35 years having passed since the sinking and the distance from shore being only a 100 metres, the ship was untouched due to the muddy brown water flowing from the nearby Markham River and numerous reports of crocodile sightings around the wreck. An enthusiastic young diver, Rod Pearce, was one of the few who knew the Tenyo Maru’s  secrets in the early 70’s and I swam out from shore with him one day and drifted down through the opaque muddy water until, suddenly at about 4 metres the lights came on and I could see 40 metres or more. Few people realised that the fresh muddy water was lighter than the sea water and floated in the absence of any appreciable wave action, as distinctly as a layer of oil on the crystal clear waters below. There before me lay a huge ship, coral encrusted davits eerily swinging in the slight current, twin 75 mm guns pointing to the surface, the deck strewn with boxes of brass shell-cases.

This initial dive was the first of several hundred on the Tenyo Maru and after the preliminary exploration had been carried out I started a planned search for relics. A knowledge of the ship’s layout was essential for soon, fossicking expeditions took us far into the bowels of the vessel, looking for treasures that may have fallen down under the engines. Of course it was absolutely black and care had to be taken not to stir up the fine silt with out fins as the light from the torches would reflect back like a car’s headlights in dense fog leaving no option but to feel our way back up the stairs and passage ways until eventually coming on deck or popping out through one of the bomb-blast holes in the side of the vessel.

The enthusiasm for this dive grew in a small select group of people in Lae and it was often at 6am a couple of heads could be seen bobbing around offshore to have an hour’s exploration before showering and fronting up refreshed for the day’s business. The reason for this enthusiasm was the almost guaranteed prize which would result from a dive. We had long since given up just floating along looking for objects laying on the outside of the superstructure and had started a systematic search deck by deck , in the metre deep mud that lay inside the ship.

Each diver, by consent, had his own “harvesting” area and equipped with heavy gloves, would burrow bodily into the ooze and work for an hour ploughing along the buried deck with his hands. My finds included such things as a complete set of Japanese Imperial Navy monogrammed dinner plates, beautiful china sake bottles, numerous brass lights and lanterns, bowls, statues and more. Each person in our group did equally as well and several museums hold examples of our efforts. A polished porthole, recovered personally, displayed on a mantelshelf is worth more than a thousand photographs of fish to my mind but we always had one or two enthusiasts who remained outside the vessel like my wife Bev to photograph swarms of fish attracted by the tasty morsels stirred up by the energetic efforts of those burrowing along in the mud inside.

At Salamaua, about two hours by boat from Lae, lay some of the best diving to be had anywhere – both coral, swarming with sea life, and shipwrecks. There was one particular ship, known as the “Deep wreck”, sitting on the sandy bottom alongside a reef drop off, which attracted us. The ship lay at 75 metres of water – far beyond the 30 metres considered the limit for sport diving – and presented considerable dangers with only 5 minutes bottom time allowed before rising to spend an extended time decompressing (also normally taboo for sports divers). As the time on the bottom started when the diver left the surface , the aim was to descend as quickly as possible, so it was decided to carry a native string bag (bilum) loaded with rocks to accelerate the journey to the ship.

Each diver grasped a bag of rocks and leapt over the back of the boat and disappeared from view in an instant. We were doing the dive in pairs with the others staying on the surface to lower spare SCUBA tanks down a rope to be ready for the returning divers to decompress at the appropriate depth. A particularly cocky young fellow, who had been less than attentive when a decompression briefing was held earlier, could not wait to get into the water and inspite of being told to hold his bag of rocks so they could be jettisoned if need be, insisted on wearing them strung around his neck.

Our hero leapt over the back of the boat from which was tied a dinghy on a long line. So accurate was his leap that his legs straddled the rope between the big boat and the dinghy and we watched in amazement as he slipped in an arc and slowly toppled over to go plummeting to the bottom with his string bag full of rocks around his neck pulling him down. The divers hanging from the shot line about 10 metres down, doing their decompression stop, not only saw but heard our friend go screaming past, hand firmly grasping his vital organs.

Not taking advantage of his fast descent the accelerating diver managed to dispose of his load about 50 metres down and head back to the surface where he was pulled moaning from the water. It was with hilarity (for us) that a bottle of Metaphin was produced, as not only is it 90% alcohol and stings excruciatingly but it dyes everything it touches a brilliant red. The patient had almost all the skin gone from his family jewels after the high speed slide down the rope and the medics took great delight in painting him bright red from knees to waistline knowing it would take about 2 weeks for the colour to wear off.

An outstanding dive, which few people have managed to accomplish, is along the old wharves at Finschaffen. This beautiful spot was a main supply base during WW2 and originally had kilometres of docks alongside huge warehouses and several steel matting airfields. Almost nothing is left and only a few natives now wander about the old staging area which is quickly being swallowed by the jungle. At the end of the war the US forces started a dumping program and everything was driven to the wharves and tipped into the sea, finally followed by the trucks themselves. The timber decking has long since been stolen or rotted leaving kilometres of borer eaten piles as the only indication of former greatness.

For those so interested, a dive along these old wharves is a wonderland. Heaps of Jeeps and trucks lay alongside artillery pieces, thousand boxes of ammunition surround bulldozers and graders. Against the old wharves are landing barges of all sizes, loaded to the gunwales and sunk where they were tied up.

Unfortunately the water only being 5 to 10 metres deep contains high levels of oxygen so any relics brought to the surface disintegrate immediately but there is no doubt, sufficient equipment will remain intact beneath the sea to provide a fabulous adventure for divers for many years to come.

We were not restricted to wreck diving in our PNG expeditions and very often two to three families would board our old 20 metre trading vessel, which had been comfortably fitted out, and set off down the coast to a little piece of paradise like the Fly Islands – palm fringed coral islets with small fresh water creeks flowing across narrow sandy beaches.

The “Katibi” would be anchored alongside a reef, swarming with brilliantly coloured fish and, while the SCUBA divers in the group swam parallel with the dropoff at about 10 metres, the non divers and kids would keep pace with them by snorkelling along on top of the coral in about a metre of water, prodding at sea urchins and brilliantly coloured anemones with their “poking sticks”. Late in the afternoon everyone would paddle into the beach for a barbecue then we would sit on the deck watching the moon rise over the palm trees throwing the light across the glassy water. I often thought there could be no better time or place in the world.