Friday, November 9, 2007
Travelling throughout Milne Bay
With the last traces of civilization behind us in Alotau, we have spent the past couple of weeks sailing Eastward through the many islands that make up the province of Milne Bay. Tiny uninhabited islands and white sand beaches dot the horizon and each new anchorage is better than the last. There are over 400 islands in this province alone and we are leisurely navigating our way amongst them, trying to sail as far East as we can before laying a course back to Australia. As the days have passed by, we have continued to surpass even our own expectations. Each island we visit is friendlier than the last while the water just keeps getting clearer and clearer! We spent a couple of days anchored at a beautiful little spot called Dawson island. We were anchored in about sixty feet of water and you could look down to the sandy bottom and see the miscellaneous coral heads scattered about as well as all the fish that were passing by. One morning while sitting on the boat enjoying a cup of coffee, a local man came up and offered us some cuttle fish he had caught during the night. With everyone craving some calamari, we gladly accepted. After providing the man with a small bag of rice along with some pencils and paper for his children, he offered to clean the fish for us. While he began to pull the insides out and toss them into the sea, I resumed my position on the stern of the boat looking into the depths enjoying the variety of sea life that was swimming below. Now Bill and I must have drank too much the night before or something because typically when we clean fish, we take the guts in the dinghy and row them out to deeper water that is far away from the boat. That way we aren’t attracting sharks to the boat, getting them accustomed to a free feeding when often times the next thing that goes overboard is one of us enjoying a swim or heading out for a snorkel. Well sure enough, as I looked down, here comes a shark swimming by right underneath the boat. As I told Bill to have a look, we both realized that we were attracting them to the boat with the guts of the cuttlefish that were being flung overboard. A few minutes later, a second and then a third appeared, swimming in large circles around the bottom of the sea. After making a few passes along the bottom and realizing that the free meal they were after was not to be found, they swam off into deeper water where they might actually have to pursue their prey. Following breakfast, I jumped off the boat to explore the huge expanse of coral reefs that surrounded Dawson Island. Making my way down the coast of the island, I swam in and out of the coral that was spread out across the sand like a field of mushrooms. Around the corner of one coral head, I noticed a school of batfish hanging around the sea floor. Taking a deep breath, I ducked beneath the water and swam down to the bottom to take a closer look. As I neared the bat fish, I realized there was a small cave where light was coming through from just a short distance to the other side. Investigating the cave for a good photo opportunity to frame the batfish, I was startled to realize that I was staring into a giant eye! Almost sucking in a mouthful of water from the surprise, I was able to make out the camouflaged shape of a shark lying not four feet from my nose! Ordinarily, it is not that surprising to see a shark while out for a snorkel. This one however was different. It is what is known as a Wobegong shark. They are very well camouflaged, looking like the rocks on the bottom of the sea. While not a very dangerous shark, they have been known to bite people in the same way that they attack their pray. They don’t attack from the front, they wait until something approaches just to their side and then, with a quick jerk, they lunge to the side clamping their jaws down upon their next meal. Seeing as how the shark was an adult and around seven feet long, it is hard to imagine how in such clear water I was unable to notice him. He was as well camouflaged as any fish I had ever seen and I am definitely glad I didn‘t attempt a swim through that small cave! After annoying the shark for sometime, I noticed Yiannis swimming around nearby and called him over. “Do you want to see a shark?” I asked him. “Of course” he responded. So diving down beneath the coral again, I pointed to it’s location. While Yiannis swam down, I waited at the surface for his reaction. Emerging to the surface he came back saying “I didn’t see anything?” I told him to keep looking. Four dives later, Yiannis broke the surface of the water in a rush! His eyes were wide and spitting his snorkel out all he said is “That thing is enormous!” In the afternoon, Elina, Yiannis and I decided that we wanted to climb up to the top of the island which was covered in long grass with a just two trees sitting in isolation at it’s highest point. The man who had brought us the squid, David, offered to take us up but said that even though it is not very far, no one ever goes up there so we would have to hack out a new path on the way up. With David and I leading the way and our machetes in hand, we made our way up the side of the hill hacking through the dense jungle that blocked our path. As we emerged from the forest into the tall grass covering the top of the hill, we realized that what had looked like waist high grass from the boat was actually about eight feet tall. David asked me to cut a young tree down and pass it up to him. As he laid the stick on the grass horizontally, he pressed his foot forward, laying down enormous tracts of grass for us to walkover. A few minutes later we reached the top where we were still surrounded by grass in every direction. Not a view in sight! David however was still stepping down on the grass and clearing more space. He made his way to each edge of the peak eventually providing us with views in all directions. In every direction as far as you could see were tiny little islands surrounded by coral reefs. Looming back in the distance where this leg of our journey began we could see the sun starting to near the tops of the mountains on the mainland. It looked like an amazing place to watch the sunset but lacking any torches to guide us down, we decided to head back to the coast and enjoy the last few rays of sunshine from the deck of the boat.