ARTICLE BLOG

Published in Diver Magazine UK February 2020

SEARCHING FOR MADANG'S LITTLE HOODS
by Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

Arriving at the Madang Resort early in the morning, the first thing we did was visit Nathan Yavala, the manager of the onsite dive centre, Niugini Dive Adventures, and ask him about a little shark species only found in this region of Papua New Guinea – the hooded epaulette shark. We were excited to hear Nathan’s reply “yes we see these sharks all the time, five or six on a night dive and even sometimes during the day”. But then came the bad news, “unfortunately the only night diving site where we see them is now off-limits due to a dispute over ownership between two villages.”

This was not the news we had expected, especially after wanting to visit Madang for many years. Fortunately, Nathan had a solution “we can try a night dive at another site where we once saw one by day.” Nathan sounded pretty confident that he could find us one, even though he had never dived the site by night. But having travelled to other destinations where you are guaranteed seeing a certain species and then not see one, we had our doubts.

The hooded epaulette shark (Hemiscyllium strahani) is a member of the bamboo and epaulette shark family Hemiscylliidae and grows to only 60cm in length. Epaulette sharks are only found in northern Australia, Papua New Guinea and eastern Indonesia, and of the nine species, three are found exclusively in PNG, with the hooded epaulette shark only found off the north coast. Also commonly known as walking sharks, as they use their fins to walk across the bottom, epaulette sharks are nocturnal hunters, and spend the day hidden away under corals and in holes in the reef.

Returning to our room, we setup our cameras, then headed back to the dive centre for our first day of diving. Niugini Dive Adventures operate two dive boats and have over twenty regular dive sites they explore off Madang. Often called the prettiest town in PNG, Madang town itself is not very attractive, but its setting is truly spectacular. Surrounding the town are the mountains of the highlands, and the town sits on the edge of a large lagoon, dotted with dozens of reefs and palm tree studded islands. And if that wasn’t enough, on the horizon are many other islands, including Karkar, an active volcano.

We enjoyed this amazing vista as we headed north to our first dive site, Sek Passage. Most of Niugini Dive Adventure’s dive sites are on the reefs outside the lagoon, but they also dive a number of channels that drain the lagoon. Just before we plunged into the water a whale, possibly a fin whale, was spotted nearby. This ended up being a daily occurrence, lots of surface activity – schools of feeding fish and birds, dolphins, flying fish, leaping eagle rays and even marlin splashing about.

Jumping into the water we followed Nathan on a slow drift along a coral wall. At first the fish life and corals were a little average, but reaching a saddle across the channel everything changed. It was like every fish in the area was attracted to this spot. Swarming all around us were schools of barracuda, trevally, batfish, fusiliers, sweetlips, bannerfish, squirrelfish, snappers and surgeonfish. But the corals were also incredible – gorgonians, soft corals, barrel sponges, whip corals and sea whips. We also spotted several whitetip reef sharks, a large Maori wrasse and an endless collection of colourful reef fish.

We could have spent the whole dive on this saddle, but being 30m deep our bottom time got chewed up quickly. Continuing along the other side of the channel, Nathan started to madly bang his tank and pointing out into the blue. He had spotted a scalloped hammerhead shark which are often seen in the area. Finishing the dive in the coral gardens in the shallows, we started our quest to find a hooded epaulette shark. We peeked under every ledge and into every hole, but without success.

For our surface interval we headed to nearby Wongat Island, inside the lagoon. This island looked like something out of a postcard - swaying palms, local kids swimming in the clear blue water and canoes parked on the white sandy beach. It was also the location of our next dive, a B25 Bomber.

During World War II Madang fell to the Japanese and was the site of a base and airstrip. Until the town was captured by the allies in 1944, Madang was regularly bombed by allied forces. In one of those sorties a North American B25 Mitchell Bomber was shot down and crash landed near Wongat Island. Five of the six crew survived the crash, but four were later killed by the Japanese. The plane now rests on a sandy slope, in depths from 15m to 22m, and is almost completely intact, apart from one missing engine.

Plane wrecks are always fun to dive and this is one of the best in PNG. We spent almost an hour inspecting every part of the plane – the cockpit, the nose guns, the 20m wide wings, the large prop and engine, the double-barrel machine gun on the midship gun turret, the tail gun and the tall tail fins. We also looked inside to see wiring and other components. This wonderful plane is covered in corals and home to an interesting variety of marine life, including lionfish, rock cods and even ribbon eels.

After lunch at the Madang Resort, which serves a good variety of meals, we requested a muck site for our afternoon dive. Nathan said they have a few muck sites in the lagoon, but the best is right on their doorstep, under the Madang Resort Jetty. Leading us on this dive was Niugini Dive Adventures other instructor and keen underwater photographer Tetsuya (Tets) Nakamura.

We started the dive under the jetty, exploring the colourful pylons and silty bottom, quickly finding pufferfish, pipefish, hermit crabs, shrimp gobies and lionfish. Tets then led us through an area of coral gardens, swarming with juvenile reef fish and colonies of pretty pyjama cardinalfish. In this area was also a great deal of rubbish; bottles, tins and other junk. Not an attractive sight, but a useful home for blennies.

As we got deeper the silt changed to sand and was dotted with small coral outcrops. Here we found numerous sea stars and sea cucumbers, many of which were occupied by emperor shrimps and sea cucumber crabs. On the coral heads were a good variety of nudibranchs and small groups of razorfish. We reached our deepest part of the dive at 26m so we could inspect a small gorgonian for the resident Denise’s pygmy seahorses. Tets had recently found six of these tiny critters on this fan, but today he could only locate one that was very camera shy. Returning to the jetty we had one last surprise, a common seahorse right under the dive boat in only 2m of water.

We enjoyed this muck dive so much that we did it every afternoon, and each day it provided new surprises. On these dives we saw more common seahorses, a cockatoo waspfish, demon stingers, moray eels, oriental sea robins, stingrays, mantis shrimps, including one with eggs and several beautiful juvenile batfish.

We would have loved to have done a night dive on the first night to start looking for an epaulette, but after an early start (our flight from Port Moresby the afternoon before on Air Niugini had been cancelled, meaning a 3am wakeup call for a rescheduled 5.30am flight) we were very tired and ready for an early night.

The next morning we headed 3km offshore to dive Madang’s most famous dive site – Planet Rock. This sea mount rises from 600m to 5m and is a haven for sharks and pelagic fish. We found the top of the sea mount washed by a strong current, but once down a few metres found we could use this current to drift around the structure. We followed Nathan down to a point at 33m, on the way passing a large school of barracuda. We then peered out into the blue, hoping to see sharks. Unfortunately, none today, but they often see grey reef sharks and hammerheads. Instead we saw batfish, rainbow runners, tuna, mackerel, trevally and lots of oceanic triggerfish which appear to nest at the site. Hard corals dominate Planet Rock, with the top of the sea mount covered in staghorns and other varieties. We dived this site again on our last day and saw grey reef sharks and two large Queensland gropers.

We did encounter several sharks on our next dive at Langsom, a pretty reef inside the lagoon. Protected from ocean swells, the corals in the lagoon are stunning – large gorgonians, radiant soft corals, lovely whip corals and a variety of sponges. This site was a maze of limestone ridges, riddled with caves and ledges in depths to 26m. Investigating these caves, in the hope of finding an epaulette, we found crayfish, squirrelfish, soldierfish, a whitetip reef shark, a blue-spotted lagoon ray and a very large tawny nurse shark. This site is also home to a colony of garden eels. Plans for a night dive were shelved, as preparations had to be made for a full day trip to two very special dive sites north of Madang.

Setting off at 7am, we had a 90-minute trip north to explore these special sites, the first being the shipwreck of the FS-172. This American freight and supply ship sank in 1946 after running aground and today rests close to shore, but at the base of a wall in 33m. We had expected to find clear blue water at this site, but jumped in to find only 12m visibility, a strong current and lots of sediment in the water (possibly from heavy rain in the highlands). This combined with overcast skies, made for dark and gloomy conditions, no good for photograph, but still good enough to enjoy this 53m long shipwreck. This magic wreck, which is still mistakenly called the USS Boston, is covered in golden soft corals and a good population of reef fish. We investigated the hold, mast and several winches in our short bottom time, then drifted along the reef for the rest of our dive.

Unfortunately, the visibility was even worse at The Quarry. The wall at this site is covered is some of the best coral growth we have seen in PNG, and is also constantly patrolled by pelagic fish and sharks. We could still see now special this site would be with clear water, but the 8m visibility limited our photography aspirations.

Rather than waste time with another dive in this area, we headed back to the Madang Lagoon and dived another shipwreck, the Henry Leith. Scuttled in the 1980s, this 33m long cargo ship now rests in 20m and is covered in wonderful corals and a good population of reef fish.

After a very long day the night dive was again put on hold, but Nathan promised we would head out the next night. The following day we explored two reef sites, Banana Reef and Magic Passage. Magic Passage was easily the better dive, with beautiful corals and masses of fish.

Finally, it was time for our night dive, and the quest to find a little hooded epaulette shark. Nathan suggested we try Leper Island as it has hard corals in the shallows, and epaulettes prefer shallow water. Not knowing what to expect as neither Nathan or Tets had dived this site at night, we jumped in and hoped for the best.

We descended onto a hard coral garden in only 6m. Only a minute after descending Nathan was shaking his torch wildly. We swam over and were surprised and delighted to see a pretty little shark decorated with dark bands and white spots – finally a hooded epaulette shark. However, we barely had time for a photo before the shark disappeared into the coral.

Over the next hour we saw another five sharks, either hidden amongst the corals or quickly disappearing into the coral as soon as we got within camera range. It was good to know there is a healthy population, but we didn’t manage anymore photos, so we left the water very frustrated. Nathan was surprised how shy the sharks were, as at their old night diving site the sharks would calmly walk across the corals and continue to feed as they watched. These sharks were obviously not use to lights and noise from visiting divers.

Over the next two days we explored Pig Bay, a lovely muck site with a scuttled Cessna plane to explore and enjoyed a drift dive at Rash Passage. But the highlight was two dives at Barracuda Point. The wall at this site is covered in lovely corals, but lives up to its name with schools of barracuda on show. Joining the barracuda were schools of trevally, batfish, fusiliers, bumphead parrotfish, snapper and sweetlips. If that wasn’t enough there was also grey reef sharks, crocodilefish, mackerel, tuna and several banded sea kraits. We even saw the tail of an epaulette in one hole.

On our final night we returned for another night dive at Leper Island, this time hoping that the sharks were a little less shy. Almost immediately Nathan found a shark, but this time resting out in the open. We managed to observe and photograph this gorgeous little shark as it slowly walked across the bottom looking for prey. Over the next hour we found a dozen hooded epaulette sharks, again most were shy and hidden away, but three were out in the open. It was a brilliant night dive, also filled with cuttlefish, octopus, crabs, morays eels, shrimps and a large basket star. As we were the first to dive the site Nathan said we could come up with a name. Helen suggest the winning name in honour of its wonderful little residents – The Hood.

Our week in Madang ended all too quickly. We had come looking for hooded epaulette sharks, but found a destination with a great mix of reefs and wrecks, and one excellent muck site.

Getting There

Fly via Singapore, Manila, Jakarta, Brisbane, Cairns and Sydney. From these cities Air Niugini fly to Port Moresby, then a short internal flight to Madang. Tourist visas are available on arrival.

Accommodation

The Madang Resort is the oldest resort in PNG, but is quite modern with over 200 rooms on the waterfront.

Diving

Niugini Dive Adventures are based in the Madang Resort and offer daily boat dives, snorkel trips and dive courses.

When to go

Year round, but the raining season, December to April, can have reduced visibility of 10m to 20m. The dry season, May to September, is often considered the best time, with the visibility generally 20m to 30m. The water temperature varies from 27°C to 30°C. Hammerheads are best seen in January, August, September and December, but epaulette sharks are seen year-round.

Health

Anti-malarial medication is very important. There is a hyperbaric facility in Port Moresby. Good insurance is vital.

Money

PNG kina.