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Oceania Milne Bay, Papua Niugini, March 10 - 20 2020 Trip Report

Escorted by: Cindi LaRaia

Milne Bay - Oceania Milne Bay, Papua Niugini, March 10 - 20 2020 Trip Report

When the world stopped.

March 10 - 20 2020 ~ Oceania Milne Bay, Papua Niugini
Escorted by: Cindi LaRaia

We finally made our way out of Papua Niugini in the nick of time, except for 2 people who plan to travel the highlands of PNG.

We left our beloved scuba diving Liveaboard the Oceania in Milne Bay Papua Niugini.

We were protected in our little bubble from the World Gone Mad!
PNG had no documented cases of the Covid-19 Coronavirus at this point!

We thoroughly enjoyed our beautiful diving with a doting crew of the local people, cruise directors and our amazing Captain Dan.

Sadly, we only had one day without cellular service. The horrors of the growing Coronavirus shocked us daily, the stock market crashing alarmingly with new record lows. Borders closing around the world. Sometimes news changing by the hour.

Seriously stunning us as we read our daily news before getting suited up to dive. Some of us wishing we could just be free of the horrific news for simply a day or 2.

Death tolls rising around the world. The news was devastating! My business tanking as either clients cancelling in fear; or flights cancelling and borders closing. My assistant trying to respond to my clients on my behalf as no email service and iffy weak cellular. Me trying to advise her via WhatsApp!

Our government offering 1200.00 per household to help with finances. What do I do with 1200.00? Not even sure if that was a rumor or true?

My guests trying to call airlines to change flights to come back to America earlier from add-on post trips in PNG and Australia. On hold for hours then calls dropped out, then cancelled!! It was ugly.

The Australian government moving the goal posts on us daily. Closing borders by the end of March for 2 months at that point.

Latest is today March 20 as we disembarked the boat, they gave us until 9:00pm to get into Australia before they closed the border. Oh my gosh.

Oceania Milne Bay, Papua Niugini, March 10 - 20 2020 Trip Report

Crazy times as we arrive Port Moresby from Alatau then find out that now they will only allow us in Australia if only transiting and no more than 8 hours! What? We arrive late evening with NO flights out!!!

So many of us trying to get to Australia before the 9pm deadline.

Air Niugini could not issue our boarding passes as the computers were locked for this!

Trying to reach the Australia high commission consulate to allow us to land!! The phones clogged and the air Niugini staff trying hard to make this happen. They took all passports, my group and the other guests trying to get to Australia; made copies to send to Canberra, the Capital of Australia. Time is ticking away. Some guests flying to Brisbane and Sydney have earlier flights than the 3 of us flying to Cairns. Yikes, you can imagine the stress level rising all around!

I tentatively make bookings for us at the Airways hotel just in case. Others were booking back up flights to Singapore, just in case while it was still open, however 3 days later.

We finally get word Australia will let us in as long as we all self-quarantine at hotels, with room service only, private shuttle or transfer. Yay!

And to think they were letting in all the cruise ships to Sydney just 2 weeks before as no other countries would take them!! What sense did that make?

Now we are waiting for the ‘special code’ from Australia to unlock the air Niugini computers to allow them to issue the boarding passes so we could check in our luggage.

The staff still had to call Canberra, calling in one by one each person’s name and passport number, so slow, crazy! The stack of passports very tall and they are hand cutting small pieces of paper to put in each passport, maybe this was their way of showing that one is done? Gotta love Papua Niugini, nothing has changed much in the 25 years since I have been travelling there!

They held the plane to Brisbane for our guests and others not Australian nationals. Yay!! Big hugs goodbye and pray they could get out of Australia the following day!

Three of us finally got on our flight to Cairns, though 45 minutes late, ugggg. We ended up landing at 7:00pm, a mere 2 hours before they closed the border to incoming flights!

Everyone had to go through customs with about 4 check points, loads of forms to fill out and seems the secret Australian police would do the rounds to be sure you were isolating!

My longtime friend Kimmy picked me up after many harrowing texts from PNG, no idea if I would make it or be stranded in PNG!

The level of exhaustion I felt was overwhelming. I had never been so happy to see her face in all my life!!

I isolated with her at the beach house for 4 nights, was supposed to be 5 nights, but of course Qantas canceling flights left and right!

Amazing since they wanted all foreigners out of the country by the end of March! I tried to change flights and most were sold out to get back to America! What?

I am trying to finish this story on the final flight back to San Francisco, barley making it to Sydney from Cairns as technical issues for 1.5 hours on the Tarmac with NO AC!! It’s bloody hot and humid in Cairns, what a way to start a 2-day journey home in the same hot clothes.

I had a short connection in Sydney and had to run like mad to get the bus to the international terminal for my flight to Honolulu. Of course, I had like 10 minutes before they would close the door and security did not like something in my carryon. Seriously? They had to tear it all apart and rerun it!

I now had 5 min to make my flight, and what about my luggage? How would it make it the long distance from domestic to International in such a short time? Would Honolulu allow me to clear customs without it?

This is the way this journey went, every step of the way! As I sweat and run my way to the gate, I see the boarding is delayed due to the catering truck broke and they needed to wait for a new one! Holy cow, maybe my bags could make it after all.

They did!! Another miracle! The trip of miracles! I am now landing shortly in San Francisco, 2 more hours after I get my bags until I can reach my bed!!!

The epic journey of journeys! As the news feeds continue to update the horrific number of cases and deaths around the world! I will be self-isolating in quarantine again now at home and able to deal with my poor guests stranded around the world as they cannot get flights anywhere as airlines cancel more and more flights and borders closing.

Dear God, help us all!

I will be dealing with all the cancellations we have been getting and praying this monster virus starts to settle down. This is unprecedented and makes me wonder if this is a pivot and correction to our world that has gone mad in so many ways.

We are now forced to sit up, take a breath, be calm and quiet, speak to one another and think about how a change of this magnitude can be a good thing!

Love to all,

Cindi LaRaia

PNG trip video by Eric Vanboer

*** Some highlights of our wonderful diving in Milne bay and the Oceania!

Of course, we are there in March, it’s meant to be the best month for the least amount of rain in Milne Bay. It rained every day! Some days more than others. We also discovered some days later why our captain decided to change our itinerary and start the trip in the opposite direction. After 2 days of having to stay in the area where the muck diving is, we learned why. Capt. Dan was dodging a cyclone!! Really?

OMG what else! He finally had to admit why we could not move to the lush coral sites just yet. Yes, he showed us on his phone the path of the cyclone, it looked scary where we had left out of Milne bay and ran south!

North of us is Tawali dive resort where 3 of our guests had spent 5nts there prior to boarding the boat. It finally went south of us, so back north we could go. We discovered at the end of the trip that Tawali sustained big waves, no damage to the resort. However, the reefs got covered in sand and what looked like lint on the black coral bushes and fans. The visibility was way down also as the water had really been messed up with the constant big waves for quite a few days.

The diving was as beautiful as I remembered it to be the last 2 times I was there, 15 and 18 yrs ago! WOW! It really goes to show how reefs that are NOT over dove and have few divers throughout the year can remain perfect specimens! The local people only hand line fish with the proof in the hand tied stones with local palm fronds are on the sea floor in some areas.

The reefs are very lush with beautiful layers of stunning hard coral, fish, and huge gardens of my favorite cabbage coral always near the surface.

In the distance just off the reefs are the usual suspects patrolling for food! Gray reef sharks, big dog tooth tuna’s, rainbow runners, trevally, an eagle ray! Near to the reefs are schools of bat fish, surgeon fish of different varieties, a million-yellow tail-blue fusiliers as well as many other species of fusiliers, I love them.

Eagle ray, Photographer:Laura DeNault - Milne Bay, Papua Niugini, March 10 - 20 2020 Trip Report

In the Observation point area, the dives were very productive with beautiful layered hard coral, cuts in and out. One dive called Bubble Bubble, offered us a beautiful long 30 minutes with WONDERPUS!! This was so magic, just watching this incredible octopus doing what they do, change shapes and colors, he was really relaxed and so were we! A very special dive!

Another site called Barbarian was just delicious! Gorgeous layered hard coral, fusilier soup, a huge school of bat fish, mating unicorn fish, perfect coral, swim throughs, very pristine! We did not see Hammerheads here like we hoped but the dive was wonderful!

I think one of the best dives of my life is here at Wampas! The sun shining down, into one of the 2 pinnacles that have a middle low area where all the fish stay by the thousands! It looks like a fishbowl!!! Loaded to the gills! After diving around both pinnacles, the boats mooring is in the remarkable shallows of maybe the largest light gold-green cabbage coral I have ever seen! Millions of little fish living in the big coral heads, it is like a safe zone, a happy place for all these fish,,,, Including us divers.

This was my Zen dive, all the ugly news forgotten. This site was the winner for me on this trip! Luckily we made 2 dives here!

Another exciting dive site called Wahoo point, near Tawali, we were treated with the resident GREAT HAMMERHEAD shark, OMG! The vis in this area was not great from the cyclone, but this BIG shark owns this reef, I think he loves to give divers a rev, he swims right over your head and you think, what? What was that??? Then he came back and no mistaking what he was!! WOW!

This was also where the beautiful large yellow-green rhinopia lives!! He got moved around from the cyclone but the DM’s with their wonderful eyes found him for us!!

Another favorite called Cobbs Cliff; more beautiful colorful hard coral and here lives the very vibrant orange, blue and purple anthias by the thousands!!!

Of course, as dives go, I just missed the 12 mobula mantas, and giant Manta that the ‘other’ dive group experienced! Boo hoo….. Happy for them however!!

rhinopia, Photographer:Laura DeNault - Milne Bay, Papua Niugini, March 10 - 20 2020 Trip Report

I had a fun dive at Cheries Reef, very close gray reef sharks, and huge dog tooth tuna, 2 hairy ghost pipe fish so beautiful and unique, white tip sharks plus all the normal groups of anthias and surgeon fish. All of a sudden, I notice (as I am still hanging around at the bottom) 3 or 4 big fish which now I realized are Cobia accompanying a HUGE Guitar type shark! They hang out on the bottom of the reef, like lemon sharks. It had a large upturned nose, a very wide body from pectoral to pectoral, with a long tall caudal fin! Very exciting!! Thank goodness Jaclyn was down there with me or no one would believe me!!! What a sighting!!!

Our last 2 dives on Sullivan’s Patches were a beautiful ending to our lovely ‘Dive Bubble’ away from the uglies around the world!

I witnessed a strange sight at the surface, a large school of Giant Jaw Mackerel were feeding, with SILVER heads shining in the sunlight which made their bodies look black, I kept swimming slowly and close by trying to sort out what they were and what they were doing! Very cool! Just when you think you have seen it all!

Our wonderful dive guide Bale found us an Epaulette shark under a fallen table coral. The hard coral here is so beautiful the way it layers down the slopes with channels of coral cuts in and out like a ribbon, so many species of hard coral created to perfection, layered in sizes, shapes and variety.

I was so happy to be back in the Milne bay region of Papua Niugini, the local people here are extremely friendly and eager to say hello and chat! We visited markets, since this area gets a fair amount of rain year-round, they can grow wonderful produce and greens! They still love their betelnut which is an integral part of this culture.

Oceania Milne Bay, Papua Niugini, March 10 - 20 2020 Trip ReportOceania Milne Bay, Papua Niugini, March 10 - 20 2020 Trip Report

Oceania - The boat has been totally gutted and redone by Dan the Captain, a man of many talents!

It is a catamaran approx. 90 ft long, wide-beamy, spacious and comfortable. The boat takes 14-16 passengers, all cabins are ensuite, 3 queen bed cabins the rest twin bedded. A nice number of drawers or closets in each room with space to put luggage under the beds.

There is a top deck, if winds are calmer, they can put up the shade cover, tables and lounges.

The salon is very comfortable with a large U-shaped sofa area, charging areas around with 2 long tables for meals. The chef and girls in the salon are super friendly and visible in the nice open plan.

The food was outstanding, always with fresh greens, excellent options, deserts and main courses. 1 glass of wine is served with dinner. It is recommended you bring your own spirits.

The dive deck offers a bin below your tank, we check our tanks for Nitrox levels, most of the dives are off the back deck which I love. 2 big sturdy ladders to climb up on. 3 dive masters on each dive with the guests. They do have a large covered rigid hull zodiac for some dive sites & pickups.

Oceania Milne Bay, Papua Niugini, March 10 - 20 2020 Trip Report

There is NO cameral room however and only a medium sized camera table in the center of the dive deck. This could be a problem with a group heavy into big u/w camera systems! Charging stations are only in the salon or in your room on the nightstand.

The dive guides are fantastic and happy to show and find all the lovely creatures that want to be found!

I loved the boat, the crew, the diving and the wonderful ‘Milne Bay bubble’ we lived in for 10nts before we had to face ‘the ugly music of the COVID-19 Pandemic’ that was traumatizing the world……

Thank you, Oceania! Capt. Dan, the crew and my wonderful guests for making this a fantastic success in this crazy unprecedented time!!

Oceania Milne Bay, Papua Niugini, March 10 - 20 2020 Trip Report