Last year I was sensible. A cheap and cheerful package holiday to dive the Egyptian Red Sea on a liveaboard. Just me, and twenty one other equally sensible divers, each of us chasing our own little piece of underwater heaven. We moored over the wreck of the Thistlegorm with two other boats, and sensibly dropped everyone overboard at the same time, as if recreating a scene from 'Thunderball'.
Which is why twelve months on I find myself zinging over a mirror flat sea in a banana boat towards Three Island Harbour. The tiny staging post of Kavieng is lost somewhere over my shoulder, along with my sensibility, as we slalom seemingly suspended islands and race the flying fish. This is straight out of the pages of the Boy's Own Adventure stories I grew up with. I'm Allan Quatermain, I'm Henry Morton Stanley, I'm Indiana Jones - well, no I'm not. I'm just a big kid in a hat
Clem turns, flashing his trademark smile. He offers a fist of dwarf bananas, and a bag containing fish cooked in batter from the kai bar in town. I wash down the decadent breakfast-to-go with a can of lemonade, lick my fingers and check my watch. It's not even 8am.
Before I met Clement Anton two days ago, when he was just a name scribbled sideways in my notebook, I imagined him as a crusty expat perpetually perched on a bar stool. How wrong can you be? Clem is a young Papuan entrepreneur who used to work the New Ireland liveaboards, a position he was offered on account of his gleaming guest-friendly smile, having abstained from chewing the betel nut that turns the local's gums blood red.
Now his own boss, he has his sights set on turning his home, Tunnung Island, the middle islet of Three Island Harbour, into an intimate resort.
We rendezvous with Clem's fishing boat. He acts as a middle man for the local islanders, buying their catch of fish, lobster, and sea cucumber, then transporting it to the fishery in town twice weekly. Last night his boat returned with the eight tanks and weights I've hired from the dive shop in Kavieng. There's no compressor or dive shop on Clem's island home.
Carefully we transfer the cylinders into our banana boat, then turn towards our destination, opposite the large island of New Hanover, which Clem refers to as the mainland. He has a house there where his kids stay during the week to attend school. They paddle their canoes back home at weekends. On the approach we slow to a crawl, passing over the wreck of the Japanese Navy transport, Sanko Maru, visible from the surface. It's a big wreck I estimate to be over a hundred metres long.
Tunnung Island is of course idyllic. The stereotypical South Pacific getaway. Slowly we navigate our passage through the shallow rocks and lush sea grass before the boat slides up onto the pewter sand, making one of the best sounds you're ever likely to hear, and the perfect acoustic accompaniment to one of the best sights I'm ever likely to see.
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Four stilted beach bungalows sit under dappled shade amongst the palms just off the beach, with a long house for the kitchen and dining area set to one side. There's a separate bathroom block to the rear of the plot, with a manual flush toilet, a water butt for showers and a clam shell wash basin. Basic, but brilliant. Lush foliage rings the camp. My initial reaction is that I would have kicked myself all the way home had I chosen to stay for one night instead of two.
Within half an hour I've had the guided tour of the facilities, sorted my kit and suited up. We take the short hop back to the wreck, leaving Clem's electrician, bought with us from Kavieng, to fix a ceiling fan in my room.
Clem doesn't have a dive computer, so I lend him my spare.
"When I heard you were coming I bought myself some second hand equipment, because you are the first diver I've ever had to stay."
This really is an exploratory trip - for both of us.
The Sanko Maru lies on her starboard side flush with the seabed at 22 meters. First contact with the wreck is at only 6 meters, making it pretty much a perfect dive even with a basic scuba certification. The deck is festooned with a myriad of coral, but my priority is to the sea bed and the rope Clem has laid out across the sand to guide us to the mini submarine.
Although the mini sub was reported sunk by US bombers, Japanese sources said the craft had in fact been scuttled by the crew after the attacks, and this version of events is supported by her pristine condition nearly seventy years on. The vessel sits upright on the sand with 430 mm diameter twin torpedo tubes at the bow, (empty), conning tower, open hatch, periscope and propellors at the stern. There are no human remains inside, and the sub lies covered with a smattering of coral growth.
Weighing in at some 46 tonnes, it seems likely that the mini sub was either towed to its area of operations, or piggy backed on a conventional submarine, ship derricks being unlikely to support its weight.
To me it's now a beautiful surreal toy and the ultimate underwater gadget, like something out of James Bond, not to mention a unique entry in my logbook.
The visibility is no more than 8 metres, and the average here is only 15, which explains why when divers salvaged the propellor and everything else of value from the Sanko Maru in 1971, they didn't find the mini sub, which was eventually discovered by Kevin Baldwin from the Telita liveaboard in 1987.
After finning along the submarine we return to the surface passing up over the masts of the freighter, and although I don't want to wish my time away, I can't wait for darkness to fall, because my research tells me it's best to 'see' the Sanko Maru at night.