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Diving Papua New Guinea's Eastern Fields atoll


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#1 echeng

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Posted 22 December 2009 - 12:31 AM


Many seasoned scuba divers have heard about the Eastern Fields of Papua New Guinea, but only a handful will be able to tell you how to get there and what sort of diving you might expect to find there. Most, however, will probably tell you that they've heard great things about it. The Eastern Fields are shrouded in a mystique that is hard to describe; it even affected me -- prior to booking back-to-back charters aboard the M/V Golden Dawn, I didn't even know where exactly where the Eastern Fields were in relation to Port Moresby.

Eastern Fields is a large atoll roughly 450 nautical miles wide. Its closest point is 90 nautical miles from the capital city, Port Moresby, which is a city in the middle of accelerating growth and change. A natural gas project is underway there, and the lack of local lodging and infrastructure has resulted in massive inflation. While Papuans in torn attire buy beetle-nut from local road-side markets, ex-pats check into hotels that cost $400 / night. Those who want to stay for longer periods rent small apartments in the middle of town, which cost more than $1000 / week. Flights to Port Moresby are incredibly expensive. My ticket from San Francisco cost $2,600 round-trip. $1,000 of it was to get to my transit country, Fiji, and $1,600 covered airfare on a little Fokker 100 to Port Moresby via Honiara.

Amongst the craziness surrounding the energy boom are the few adventurous divers who arrive to dive the lush reefs of Papua New Guinea. Despite the relatively high airfare, everyone was relieved that we "only" had to fly to Port Moresby. The typical routes divers take in search of healthy underwater reef life almost always involve local flights that land on grassy airstrips. Unfortunately, this sort of travel is required; areas with developed infrastructure almost always have already depleted their marine resources, destroying local ecosystems.

Captain Craig de Wit of the M/V Golden Dawn has exploring the reefs of the Eastern Fields for over 20 years and has been showing international divers the wonders of its reefs since 1993. At the moment, he is the only captain that continues to brings guests there. There is no land in the Eastern Fields, which means that in-depth knowledge of the local reef system is required when a boat needs to hide from bad weather. The Golden Dawn is relatively small for a live-aboard dive vessel. She has 5 passenger cabins which accommodate 10 divers comfortably. There is plenty of room for everything except underwater camera gear, which is stowed under tables in the salon. Seasoned divers will be used to such amenities, but travelers looking for luxury should not apply.

I loved the casual diving schedule, which is what Wetpixel always requests of the dive operators we choose for our expeditions. Whenever possible, we dove from an open dive deck with Golden Dawn moored to the dive site. If it was not possible to dive directly from Golden Dawn, zodiacs shuttled divers to and from drop and pickup points. This means that each diver was able to dive as much or as little as he or she wanted, with or without Craig or Jimmy (a guide on crew). Some divers will be uncomfortable without having a dive operator tell them exactly when and where they need to be in the water, but most underwater photographers will love the flexibility of such a system.

It is hard to describe the lushness of the reefs of the Eastern Fields. At nearly every dive site we visited, the entire food chain was clearly visible, from small reef critters all the way up the chain to huge dogtooth tuna (alas, sharks are pretty much gone, taken by shark finners). My photos from this trip are focused on wide-angle macro, but I've put plenty of video footage from the reefs into the group slideshow. Video is really the best way to get a sense of what to expect in the Eastern Fields.

Here's an excerpt from my journal describing my favorite dive site in the Eastern Fields:

"We’ve been parked for two days at site in the Eastern Fields Atoll of Papua New Guinea called “Carl’s Ultimate,” and I am not sure I’ll be able to dive again anywhere else. Most of Carl’s Ultimate is shallow, but a point extends out and drops off into the deep; along the slope and wall is one of the richest coral reefs I’ve ever seen. A dense collection of sea fans, soft corals, and other reef animals line the entire reef slope from 35 meters to 5 meters in depth, providing underwater photographers with an unlimited number of wide-angle and macro subjects. Anthias and small fish cluster above the coral just below a tangle of parrotfish, wrasses, lionfish, trumpetfish, snappers and angelfish, while jacks, barracuda, and dogtooth tuna hunt from the blue. Jacks hunt the reef with all sorts of partners: barracuda, snappers, Napoleon wrasses, trumpetfish, and others. Three large potato cods hang out in a cave at 30 meters and are so friendly that they allow divers to pet them. The big groupers are incredibly picturesque as they meander amongst colorful soft corals and schools of bannerfish and jacks.

"There are small and rare animals as well: pygmy seahorses, Rhinopias, intricately-patterned wrasses, Phyllodesmium nudibranches — and we’re not even really looking for macro subjects (yet).

"The reef is fantastic all the time, but when the current picks up, diving Carl’s Ultimate becomes an altogether different experience. The reef almost literally explodes with life. Millions of magenta slender anthias (Luzonichthys waitei) appear from nowhere and swim up-current over staghorn coral in dense lines by the tens of thousands. They are the lifeblood of the reef, thick piscine rivulets ever streaming and branching and merging. When the current becomes too strong, the purple nuggets shoot up into the water column and drift back, flashing this way and that way as they feed on plankton and other nutrients. Every once in awhile, a predatory squadron of jacks shoots into a rivulet, creating an streaking explosion of purple fish.

"I have never seen anything like it."


While I was on the boat, Craig certified me on KISS rebreathers. I completed 12 rebreather dives (11 with camera). By the end of the trip, I was enjoying 2.5 hour dives. I love the KISS!

If you like the photos in this album, contact Craig de Wit of the M/V Golden Dawn at http://www.mvgoldend...tern_fields.htm

Wetpixel will likely be running a return expedition at some point in the future. Keep track of Wetpixel expeditions at http://wetpixel.com/expeditions

My underwater photo gear:

Canon 5D Mark II in Seacam underwater housing
2 x Ikelite DS-125 strobes

Canon 50D in INON X2 underwater housing with UFL-MR130 EFS60 Micro Semi-Fisheye Relay Lens
2 x INON S2000 strobes

Lenses: Canon 15mm fisheye, Canon 16-35/2.8L, Canon 60mm EF-S macro, Canon 100mm macro (Mark I).

---
Group slideshows are coming—they’re uploading now, and will probably take another 12-18 hours to finish…

Front page post: http://wetpixel.com/...n-fields-atoll/

Posted Image
Eric Cheng dives the INON UFL-MR130 EFS60 Micro Semi-Fisheye Relay Lens in PNG (photo: Frank Baensch)


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#2 Rothi

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Posted 22 December 2009 - 12:55 AM

Thanks for that great report an some really breathtaking pics.

After our Raja Ampat experience were looking for another unique place and the Eastern Fileds look like such a place!

Regards

Markus

Edited by Rothi, 22 December 2009 - 02:03 AM.

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#3 adamhanlon

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Posted 22 December 2009 - 01:17 AM

Looks amazing-what an amazing trip!

I'd like to hear more about your experiences with the KISS-I'm looking tentativly at getting one and would value your experiences with it.

The Eastern Fields is (now) on the list!

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#4 loftus

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Posted 22 December 2009 - 03:05 AM

Those reefs are spectacular, thanks for the report Eric. The lack of sharks is made even more sad in contrast.
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#5 Scubamoose

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Posted 22 December 2009 - 05:50 AM

The macro work is outstanding Eric!
Specially the shots from innside the corals, like Alex has allready pointed out on another thread :lol:

Thanks alot for sharing

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#6 echeng

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Posted 22 December 2009 - 10:05 AM

EDIT: Group slideshows have been taken down due to a request from one of the participants. Sorry!
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#7 echeng

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Posted 22 December 2009 - 10:26 AM

Tony Wu has started posting photos from the trip as well:

http://www.tonywublo...h-surprise.html
http://www.tonywublo...new-guinea.html
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#8 Walt Stearns

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Posted 22 December 2009 - 10:49 AM

Hi Eric, on a side note, interesting to hear you certified on a Sport KISS rebreather. I take it you liked it. Lawrence Groth just recently got certified on the KISS as well.

#9 echeng

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Posted 22 December 2009 - 05:41 PM

Walt - I loved my time on the KISS and will probably get one at some point. I can't imagine using a fully-automated rebreather and am perfectly content to drive it manually. The KISS was so simple + easy -- no fuss!
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#10 philsokol

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Posted 22 December 2009 - 05:59 PM

Ditto to everything Eric said. The diving was great and the group even better! Since the slide show's down (and with it my chance for singing stardom), here are a few more pics:

Jack ball with barracuda, "Point P"
PNG_Eastern_Fields_1209_1.jpg

Hard coral garden, "Point P"
PNG_Eastern_Fields_1209_2.jpg

Purple anthias and fan, "Mo"
PNG_Eastern_Fields_1209_3.jpg
While there were often clouds of these guys, this was just a taste of what was to come at Carl's!

Julian Cohen and the "Friendly" Grouper, "Carl's Ultimate"
PNG_Eastern_Fields_1209_4.jpg
These guys were more than friendly - they'd harass you, molest you and even a gentle nudge with the camera didn't deter them. They'd come right back to you as if to say, "Is that all you got, tough guy?" Each of us in turn was "groped by the grouper"!

Reefscape, "Carl's Ultimate"
PNG_Eastern_Fields_1209_5.jpg

Hunting Lionfish, "Carl's Ultimate"
PNG_Eastern_Fields_1209_6.jpg

"Thick piscine rivulets ever streaming and branching and merging..."
PNG_Eastern_Fields_1209_7.jpg
The flow of the anthias when the current was up reminded me of millions of blood cells streaming through the veins. This of course if you could hold on long enough to watch or catch the show as you flew past. Unbelievable!

Even all the pics and Erics's erudite description cannot adequately describe this spectacular site. The most amazing reef I've ever seen!

Thanks Eric, Tony, Capt. Craig, the Golden Dawn crew and the rest of the group for a fantastic trip!

Phil

P.S. More pics (even a little macro!) at http://gallery.me.com/philsokol#100190

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#11 MikeVeitch

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Posted 22 December 2009 - 06:36 PM

great report and pics fellas.

Eric: what were Tony and yourself using for lights for the 5D video?

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#12 james

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Posted 22 December 2009 - 07:47 PM

Wow - it looks like heaven on earth. Fantastic report and photos.

Cheers
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#13 wagsy

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Posted 22 December 2009 - 08:17 PM

Wow we are all Jealous.... :)
Nice job, hey those KISS units do look cool.
How much are they?
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#14 Rothi

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Posted 23 December 2009 - 12:42 AM

Phil, these pics are really awesome!

Wow, im a bit jealous! The reefs look healthier than in Raja Ampat!

Unbelieveable.

Cheers

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#15 yahsemtough

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Posted 28 December 2009 - 03:13 AM

Looks great. I think the places to go list grew by one more.

Cheers

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#16 fishfinder

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Posted 28 December 2009 - 09:31 PM

Stunning photos, Phil! I can't believe all that traveling you have done this year! What a life! I see you managed another squat lobster photo. How cool! I still don't see any San Diego photos though. You missed the Humbolt squid we had here earlier this year. I was lucky enough to dive with them although I am a big ole loser and did not bring my camera on the dive :)

Marianne

#17 segal3

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Posted 02 January 2010 - 11:14 PM

(Direct gallery link if you prefer to skip the text: Eastern Fields, Papua New Guinea)

Eastern Fields is one of the best wide angle locations I have dived, flush with dense schools of juvenile reef fish through adult pelagics. The Wetpixel group was sure there could be a good amount of critters, as well, but we so rarely decided to use our macro lenses. Gorgeously healthy reefs featured some superb thermoclines during the daily current fluctuations; in the rare spot that wasn't covered by living coral or fish, the current blows past your head with the roar of a strong wind, and endless anthias fight upstream in the breeze. Friendly potato cod pose for pictures at 120 ft, and a very unique wreck contains hundreds of flashlight fish that burst forth from a bulkhead as darkness falls.

Posted Image
These bannerfish at first mistook the tiny exhaled bubbles from my regulator for food, chasing after and gulping them down. They soon realized the bubbles were not the plankton they desired ;).

Posted Image
Reef sharks were curious and cooperative, approaching divers repeatedly to investigate the strangers encroaching on their territory.

Posted Image
Algaes, corals, sponges, fans, fish. What more to ask for?

Posted Image
Self-portrait with a large potato cod

I've yet to caption anything, but I managed to piece together a gallery from the expedition (new recent record for me, seeing as how I'm still two years behind on some trips): Eastern Fields, Papua New Guinea.

Special thanks to Eric Cheng, Tony Wu, and Craig de Wit for the organization of the expedition!
Matt Segal - carbonos scuba