THE WINNER -- and STILL CHAMPION!
By Carl Roessler
Click on picture below for enlargement!
Each of us has been to places that linger in the memory, defying the passage of time.
Of course, we can't help wondering after years have passed whether to trust our memories of those places. Have we glossed over their imperfections, burnished their strengths? Was the water really that clear, the number of fish that staggering, the sharks that aggressive?
Fate above all has a sense of humor, so we sometimes find ourselves revisiting a scene of past glory, face to face years later with the vision from our dreams. There are, I must confess, some that I now avoid, because they have seen their day. Like aging movie stars, they have fame but have lost their powers, their ability to entrance is now merely a sad caricature. Somehow it hurts to revisit them, for I remember how they were.
Yes, it happens to famous dive sites, too.
Ah, but even Fate leaves some sacred ground, places where even the most well-traveled and jaded of us say "Yes!" This is the way it was! You can go home again!
Why is it so comforting to find that an old favorite remains pristine and unsullied? Because in a world of tumult and relentless change there simply must be eternal verities, cosmic constants by which we measure who we are and what our world is becoming.
I know such a place. I was lucky enough to be there when it was first found. I even had the temerity to put my name on it. It was so special that I wanted it to be mine, all mine!! When I came back aboard Golden Dawn after that fateful dive, I went to owner Craig De Wit and said "Get out the chart. I'm putting my name on this one!" Craig was as excited as I was, so he pulled out his chart and the fateful entry was made. Carl's Ultimate Reef it became, and shall ever be.
Craig now tells passengers that I made seven dives that first day in 1993. Honestly I don't remember. I only know that I was in the water every moment I could be. It was simply so good that I have long put off returning for fear that somehow it would not be as I remembered it.
This gem among dive sites lies nearly one hundred miles southwest of Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. Here, a large atoll rises nearly to the surface from electric blue depths of up to 3000 feet. The name of this earthly paradise is Eastern Fields, in an area which for descriptive purposes I have long called New Guinea's Coral Sea.
Eastern Fields has an over all area of some 150 square miles. Its outer ramparts are riddled with passes, tunnels, arches and other openings through which flow countless millions of gallons of tidal water each day.
These torrents of nutrient-bearing ocean water nourish teeming multitudes of reef-dwellers, from color-drenched corals to dancing fairy basslets, from carpets of blazing soft coral colonies to prowling sharks and schools of silvery pelagics. Eastern Fields has literally dozens of major dive sites and perhaps hundreds of minor ones.
Of these, one site stands out so clearly that everyone who has experienced it marvels at its riches. Carl's Ultimate is a massive undersea ridge perhaps 300 yards in length, rising nearly to the surface from a depth of more than 200 feet. It is simply alight with color, with fans, crinoids, soft corals, siphonophores and other invertebrates hosting myriad lionfish, huge groupers, giant puffers and swarms of dazzling tropical reef fish.
In the blue water above all that, hosts of barracuda, jacks, bannerfish, rainbow runners, fusiliers and other schooling fish act as background to turtles, sharks and other passing pelagics.
The classic way to dive Carl's is on an incoming tide, when the ocean's blue torrents come right onto the northern prow of the structure. The entire edifice is ablaze with huge soft corals and fans, with a fabulous view out into the passing floods from a cave gallery at 80 feet. You can go down the prow to the base at 150 feet or out onto the broad plain below. From there you look back up the colossal ridge face to see unnumbered fish churning above you all the way to the surface.
Then all you need is to move to the left or right and let the current take you on the grand tour, from one end of the vast monolith to the other. Along the way it all sweeps past you in an unfolding panorama that has the sweep and power only nature's cosmic canvas can portray.
Since I spent two six-dive days there recently, I have now explored Carl's Ultimate more than 20 times in a total of three days; I'll let you judge whether I like it or not.
Note the tiny diver far above us in the center of the picture!
One problem, of course, is that at places such as Carl's, you always are missing more than you are seeing. So many spectaculars are churning around the colossal mass of the monolith that you literally can't be everywhere at once to see it all. You only know that when you return to Golden Dawn someone will have seen something that tops what you've seen. That, naturally, demands that you reload your camera and rush right back in for another dive!
But I'm tired!, your body whines.
"No time," you say. "Have to get back in. We'll eat later."
I don't want to eat later. I want to eat now!
"Be quiet and put the clammy wet suit back on!"
Do I have to?
So it goes.
During my recent cruise to Eastern Fields, Craig also proudly rolled out several new dive sites that were pretty competitive in any league. If Carl's Ultimate is pure diamond, these others are surely sapphires, rubies and emeralds.
One is aptly named Point P, the P standing for Pelagic and the pelagics in question being big sharks. Those who have dived with me know that I have a deep and abiding affection for these gray, inscrutable sentinels. My life-long affair with the great white sharks has now gone on for 22 years, and while Point P didn't include any great white sharks it had a very respectable big silvertip that easily dwarfed the other sharks at the point.
Most people have never thought of considering a huge silvertip shark as a poetic image, except perhaps as a metaphor for a larger world of violence. However, the first sight of this magnificent, graceful female was a thing of pure beauty.
To begin the dive, I drifted down from Golden Dawn, landing on a sparse bottom purposely chosen as a shark-feeding arena. Hanging down from the boat was a heavy chain with a number of fish wired to it as bait. Craig has thought about shark-feeding extensively, and has come up with a method which keeps the sharks in the area, doesn't frustrate them and doesn't harm them. They feed at bait a few feet off the bottom, so they don't thrash around and hurt themselves on the coral. The chain itself hangs free, not touching the coral bottom either, so the bait is always right under the boat, in a natural arena.
When I reached the bottom I (naturally) stood right next to the hanging chain. Why? That's where the action would be! When the massive silvertip came into view, I had a moment when I questioned the wisdom of my choice, but what the heck, the pictures come first, don't they?
At the time she first appeared, there were a half-dozen smaller sharks in the area, already beginning to buzz the bait. For a moment I just watched her. Off in the distance, just coming into view and obviously scenting the bait. For a moment I found myself quite literally stopped in awe. My, goodness, WHAT WAS THAT? Back and forth she went, slowly, working out for herself what we were doing, as she slowly worked in closer and closer. The smaller sharks were already snapping off chunks of bait, but I was hardly watching. This was my target, my dream girl, coming in for a hand-to-hand encounter.
When the big silvertip swept in to feed, the smaller sharks checked out in a hurry. In the splendid visibility, that silvertip was like a steamroller sweeping down a highway, get on board or become part of the road! I had to use all of my bag of tricks to be positioned properly, and a couple of her passes almost did make me part of the asphalt. Even today, I can rerun some of those visual sequences, and I think they will always be there, in my permanent memory, a vision of power, grace, confidence and mastery. What a privilege it was to see one of nature's most perfect designs at the height of her powers. I always say a little thank you to whenever gods conjure moments like these. Doesn't hurt, and they have been very generous to me over the years.
Of course, I'm only human and perpetually dissatisfied, so at the start of every cruise I catch myself saying under my breath my little, "One more time!"
Another sheer sparkler was "The Great Wall of China," easily the most brilliantly-hued shallow reef of the trip. Shallow canyons through the outer wall produced intense feeding for an astonishing variety of corals and reef fish, punctuated by a beefy Queensland grouper that seemed all mouth.
"The Great Northern Passage" boasted a multitude of Heniochus bannerfish,who thoroughly engulfed me in a cloud of sleekly striped bodies.
After all of these and more such as A Shaw Thing and Izaak Walloon's Bommie, our days dwindled down. We asked Craig how he thought he could keep up this parade of amazing dives. Each time he would flash an enigmatic grin and say, "Oh, I have a few more surprises."
Indeed he did.
I had thought that my 12 dives during the two days at Carl's would stand unchallenged, but on the final day I did six more!
Let's see. Would you like the animals alphabetically or chronologically? Try this list: FIVE DIFFERENT RHINOPIAS SCORPIONFISH, percula clownfish, tomato clownfish in bleached anemones, Red-and-yellow cleaner shrimp, a pygmy scorpionfish, yellow nudibranch, sleeping cat shark, sea snake, cuttlefish, crocodilefish, did I forget any?
Reason enough, I'd say!
Was this cruise to New Guinea's Coral Sea unique in some way? Actually, it was not at all unusual, which is why I recommend it so highly.
For those of you who seek this kind of adventure and would like to learn more, there is contact information to reach me in a nearby sidebar. I am happy to help divers to better understand the choices they face in evaluating diving vacations any time. After all, if the marine creatures I've described are as exciting to you as they are to me, you owe yourself an adventure at Eastern Fields aboard Golden Dawn.
Let me tell you about the time when I crawled down the wall and came face to face with. . .
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