Return to White Island

Ali and I were happy that another weekend had finally arrived, particularly since we had worked both Saturday and Sunday of the past weekend, traveling to Arawa and conducting partner assessments. It was our first opportunity to take a break in nine straight days, and we needed a little down time.

Originally, we had hoped to get out and see more of Bougainville (or the water around it). During the program launch the other week, we had met a local tourism director named Philip who told us that he was working to develop more interest in Bougainville as a tourist destination. While there is clearly a lot of work to be done to increase security and develop tourism infrastructure, Papua New Guinea (and the Autonomous Region of Bougainville) has a lot of natural assets that already appeal to divers and hikers, and there is already somewhat of a local tourist industry. During our brief conversation, Philip told us about some good snorkeling opportunities in the area, describing a particularly interesting site somewhere south of Buka. Apparently, during World War II a plane had gone down close to shore, landing in the water belly-up —he called it an “upside-down O.” I don’t know much about WWII airplane models, but after a brief Internet search, my guess is that it may be one of the O-model American reconnaissance planes (a Curtiss or a Douglas). He told us that the wreck is now covered in barnacles and coral, making it a fantastic place for seeing local fishes and other sea life. It sounds like an amazing site!

When Saturday arrived, Ali and I inquired with Carol, our guest house owner, about nearby snorkeling options to try to set something up, particularly if we could get to the “O.” Unfortunately, we were disappointed to learn that it would be difficult for us to access local snorkeling options safely. Most snorkeling and dive sites are about a 1-hour drive or 45-minute boat ride away from Buka town, and locals who go to those sites make individual travel arrangements with local taxis or banana boats. As foreigners, there wasn’t a trusted driver or guide with whom we could make arrangements to travel out safely. Currently, the infrastructure doesn’t exist to encourage regular trips to snorkeling sites, particularly for non-locals. We were sad to miss out on the opportunity to see the underwater airplane or go snorkeling, but Ali and I felt it was more important to follow our safety guidelines and stick closer to known territory and trusted drivers and guides.

So, instead we arranged to return to White Island to swim and relax in the sun for a few hours. Ali and I were amused, though, because as we were making arrangements with Carol early Saturday morning, she sounded a little surprised that we wanted to go, asking, “Don’t you think it’s a little too cold to go swimming?” That morning, the temperature had dropped from the usual hot and humid 80-90 degree range to somewhere in the mid-70s. The sky was also somewhat overcast and threatening to rain, but that’s not unusual as storms blow up every day – one minute it is bright and sunny, and the next minute storm showers are coming through. But we thought it was funny that 70-degree weather, which was a warm but a blessed relief from the relentless heat of other afternoons, seems a bit chilly to local residents.

This time, the trip out to the island was a little different! Maria joined us again for the trip, to chaperone and help ensure our safety, and Carol arranged for one of the guest house security guards to drive us to the island and back using their banana boat. This time when we drove out, it was low tide and a quiet, beautiful morning. Rather than the usual windy chop, the water in Buka Passage was perfectly calm and there were very few boats out—the water was so calm, that it felt like we were traveling across a lake.

As we boated across the water, Dionne, the driver, drove slowly, because there were a lot of sandbars and large rocks underneath the water. The ground would rise suddenly from a deep channel to a sandbar, and he had to carefully maneuver the boat to keep it to the deeper channels.

As we slowly traveled outward, Ali and I were able to look down around the sides of the boat into the crystal clear, turquoise water— the water was so clear that it was hard to judge the depth. After we passed out of the deepest parts of the channel, the passage was shallower and looked to be only about 8-10 feet deep, although it could easily have been deeper. The lack of chop meant that when we passed through the shallower areas, we could see coral, algae, grasses, anemones, and fish! Although the coral was mostly brownish, we occasionally saw a purple or blue coral formation, and we saw fish ranging from small clear and brownish fish, to striped and bright yellow or bright blue fish. At one point, I even saw a small shark swimming lazily along the bottom.

We had the island all to ourselves...mostly
We had the island all to ourselves…mostly

Once we made it to White Island, we were pleased to find that we were the only ones there this time—no noisy partiers. We were later joined by two fishermen, who didn’t seem to do much fishing on the island. Instead, they sat for a long time on a downed coconut tree and swapping fish stories with each other while smoking a pipe. Two women also floated by on a canoe, and they stayed in the lagoon to fish from their canoe. We didn’t see many fish close to the island, but a few times we saw fish jumping out of the water further away. Some of the large, silvery fish resembled flying fish, making six to eight leaps at a time and traveling across the water like a skipping stone for about 10-20 feet before going back under the surface.

The leftover evidence of someone's clambake
The leftover evidence of someone’s clambake

On the island, we hunted for shells and collected a large variety—we found more of the “five fingers” shells as well as fat puffy sand dollars, spotted cone-shaped shells, and huge white clamshells with wavy surfaces. There were lots of starfish in the water, but they were not brightly colored. I had fun picking them up and letting them crawl across my hand with their tiny little feet before putting them back. We found a lot of shells that still had “occupants,” and sometimes the hermit crabs huddled in their shells while we looked at them while others poked themselves as far out as they could so they could get a good look back at us!

We also enjoyed swimming in the crystal clear water—there are sections of the island’s coastline that are grassy, sections that are covered with mangroves, and then sections that are better for swimming because they have very little grass or coral. The water was the perfect temperature for swimming—not too warm and not too cold, although occasionally a warm or cold current would pass through. I joked with Ali that if we come back to PNG, we’ll have to remember to bring blow-up rings and pool noodles so we could rest on something in the water.

While swimming, we watched rainstorms blow up in the distance on both sides. This time, there was no thunder or lightning, just dark clouds and lots of rain. The rain created an opaque curtain, blocking out the sky or the landscape in the distance, blurring out distant Buka town on one side and the high altitude mountains on Bougainville mainland on the other. But happily for us, on White Island it stayed sunny except for a very brief sprinkling.

After just a couple of hours, it was time to go back. We were glad for the chance to swim and enjoy the beach for a little while, and I’m glad we got to see White Island one last time.

Update: Ali and I had a good time shell collecting, and we gathered a few very interesting spotted, cone-shaped shells as well as other varieties. Imagine our surprise and shock when we saw this notice in a display at the Australian Museum in Sydney:

Eek! We each have several of the shells that appear in the case. Thank goodness we were checking to make sure to collect empty shells, but we were also unaware of the danger of picking them up at all. So glad we didn’t end up getting hurt.

One thought on “Return to White Island

  1. Definitely looking forward to some of these photos once you get back stateside! Too bad you couldn’t see the downed plane, but you sound like you did alright.


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