Underwater encounters – soft coral, skull caves and bioluminescent birdwatching

Skulls caves, waterfalls, bioluminescent birdwatching. Sometimes the most amazing diving is not the most memorable part of an adventure. A trip to Tawali Dive Resort in Papua New Guinea helped me discover one of my favourite dive sites in the world but it was everything else I found there that made this place unforgettable. Let’s dive in one last time.

Getting there

Just getting to Tawali is an adventure. First you fly from PNG’s capital Port Morseby to a remote town in PNG’s south east, called Alotau. From there a rambling mini bus drive takes you past villages and through jungle. You spot farms, villages and plane wrecks nestled in the bush. Two hours later you are unloaded at a small wooden dock. Suitcases are passed through the mini bus window and piled onto a boat. We head out as the last fishermen head in from the day on wooden canoes. A mass of green looms above a wooden jetty as dusk falls. This is Tawali, we’ve made it.

Soft corals and jungle skies

Over the coming days we left our mountainous new home to explore the nearby reefs. Motoring out on the dive boat we’d see flying fish leap out of the water and dart across the surface. One day we came upon a site called Deacon’s Reef. Looking up at the jungle I stepped off the boat and descended. Coral reef greeted me in every direction, colourful and alive with a rainbow of fish. Swimming along I followed our guide, so far nothing unusual here. We weaved between rocks covered in sponges and encrusting coral. I found myself in a gully, a rock wall on one side rose from the sea floor to the surface.

Looking up took my breath away. It wasn’t a wall it was the edge of the land. Above me the sunlight shimmered through the jungle, creating a sparkling green ceiling. The gully grew shallower, I was swimming upwards towards the jungle. Looking away from the land I saw a mass of vibrant colours. Soft corals in the most delicate shades of pink, yellow and orange grew in clumps. I floated at the bottom of the gully. Looking up at the soft corals, fish swam above me like birds among the reflections of the jungle. It was a disorienting, beautiful world.

Soft corals don’t grow calcium carbonate skeletons, they’re not reef builders like hard corals. Every soft coral polyp has eight tentacles instead of six, placing soft corals and sea fans in in a group called Octocorals. Some octocorals have algae in their tissues called zooxanthellae. This algae converts sunlight into food through photosynthesis, similar to terrestrial plants. Other soft corals don’t contain any zooxanthellae. They rely on underwater currents to bring their plankton food to them. These algae-free soft corals are easy to spot as they are bright shades of red, orange, pink and purple.

Surfacing from the dive, the surreal feeling persisted as we went on a shopping trip in the ocean. Local villagers had paddled out in their canoes to sell jewellery and shells. Mitch picked a necklace for me while bobbing beside the canoe.

Waterfalls and skull caves

Back at the resort that afternoon we kept exploring. A local guide, Gilbert, took us to see some caves. It was overcast but muggy in the jungle, the air felt heavy with water. Descending into the first cave we felt the temperature drop. Cool relief! As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we followed a short path deeper, down into the earth. Rounding a bend, we came upon a strange formation.

White stalactites hung from the cave ceiling. When the torch beam hit them, they sparkled as if covered in glitter. My eyes slid down to a pile of white rocks stacked up at their base. But they weren’t rocks. They were skulls. Piles and piles of human skulls filled the cave. Empty eye sockets stared blankly up at us. Some skulls had begun crystallising and also glittered. It was eerie, but beautiful. A natural tribute to ancestors. Or a hiding place of murdered enemies? Like everything in PNG you can never be quite sure.

Back in the daylight and the heat we ventured on. The sun had begun to go down and the dusk was creeping in. Following a path through the jungle we arrived at a waterfall. The forest was quiet except for the splash of water. A calming end to an action filled day. We were all silent on the boat back to the resort.

Bioluminescent bird watching

For our last day on the island we set our alarms for 3am. We were going bird watching. By 4am we were on a boat heading into the dark sea. Stars twinkled above, fading as the dawn approached. It was pitch black except for a strange light trailing the boat. Water splashing along the boat and in our wake flashed blue, like electric sparks in the black ocean. The neon blue light spread along the sides as we sped up. Bioluminescence.

Many marine organisms can produce light from a chemical reaction within their bodies. This is called bioluminescence. They do this when being attacked, trying to attract a mate or when physically disturbed, such as when a boat makes waves. Lots of animals can produce bioluminescence, including plankton, jellyfish, sea stars, fish and sharks. The one thing these species all contain is a molecule called luciferin that creates light when it reacts with oxygen.

In the predawn light we began scrambling uphill. The muddy path wound up the side of a mountain. Bugs landed on us, the mud sucked at out sandals. Our guide sped ahead, nimble in his thongs, hacking errant branches off the path with his bush knife. We trekked onwards, upwards, the day grew lighter. Finally we stopped in a small clearing at the top. Our guide looked up. We did too, not quite sure what to look for.

Finally, he pointed up. I couldn’t see anything. I stared at the green, hoping a shape would materialise. He pulled me closer and pointed again with his arm next to my head. There it was, a brown, bedraggled shape amongst the leaves. A bird of paradise. It had arrived at its morning roost to sing its mating call. But today it was silent. We all looked up, waiting. But he flew from one tree to another then left in silence to get on with his day. It was an incredible end to our trip. We headed back to the island to pack and say our goodbyes. A week of underwater and topside encounters had left us with a lifetime of memories and a vow to return.

This was the final post in the Underwater Encounters series! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about some of my favourite marine memories and this has inspired you to get out and make your own. This series was produced as part of an assignment for my Masters in Science Communication. If you have any tips, tricks or other feedback to help me improve my science communication please comment or message me. It’s time for me to abandon ship. Until next time may you have fair winds and calm seas.

7 thoughts on “Underwater encounters – soft coral, skull caves and bioluminescent birdwatching

  1. Excellent article for your Masters in Science Communication. I like how you described your water and coral sightings. But I must say, I wonder if people from PNG ever wonder that their place shares the name of an image format? Lol.
    Finally, I’ve never been much of a water person and it’s the first time I’m learning about bioluminescence and soft and hard corals. Thanks for the knowledge!

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  2. I’ve loved following your recent series of blogs for your Masters Course. Each time I have learnt something new, seen some amazing sights and travelled to parts of the world that I wouldn’t have travelled to. I have particularly enjoyed the combination of photography and science facts. By using photography, that has been of an exceptional standard, you have helped me understand more about the world around me. Good luck and look forward to another a series in the future.

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    • Hi Gaynor, thanks so much for taking the time to read all of my blog posts. It means so much to me that you’d do that while I practice my sci comm skills! Thanks for your kind words on my photography, I look forward to being out taking photos with you again soon!

      Like

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