Passionate about the marine environment, Chris Ellis and Sandrina Postorino – owners of 35-metre Beluga – love having the Great Barrier Reef on their doorstep, but in search of further adventure they decided to head more than 1,000 nautical miles to the remote cruising grounds of the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. Sophia Wilson met the pair and their captain, Peter Lacey, to share the surprises they discovered above and below the surface.
“Chris and I have different interests,” says Postorino. “For me, it’s scuba diving, snorkelling and free diving; for Chris, it’s fishing.” However, having purchased the yacht in 2015, Ellis was keen to test the custom Moonen’s explorer capabilities outside of Australian waters. “We wanted to go to some of the places that we knew other domestic boats couldn’t get to,” he says.
After some debate the couple planned a trip to the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. “They are both famous for having amazing diving, both in terms of wrecks and also in terms of fish life and coral. For me, that was the main attraction,” says Postorino, who is a PADI Divemaster. Looking at a map, the Solomon Islands look deceptively close to Australia, but in reality, more than 1,000 nautical miles of Pacific Ocean separates them. “It’s one of those areas that you always hear about and read about, but it’s very difficult to get to,” she adds.
The duo, who are based in Sydney, decided to send Beluga ahead and fly in with friends. “There are only two ports in the Solomon Islands where you can clear customs and immigration. One is the capital, Honiara, so that’s where Beluga headed for,” explains Ellis. “Honiara was a little bit depressing and we had been advised not to spend much time there. We literally jumped off a plane, went straight to the port and headed north.”
Once they got away from the capital the islands’ dive sites quickly lived up to their hype. “The highlights for me were definitely the wrecks,” says Postorino. “The fish life was also great though. The water visibility is really good and there is lots of untouched coral.”
Beluga’s captain, Peter Lacey, was the engineer on board the yacht at the time of the trip, and as a Divemaster was equally impressed by the quality of the diving. “I’m lucky that I have dived a lot of the Great Barrier Reef over the past 30 years, so I am a bit spoiled and hard to impress. However, what I saw was definitely equal to the Great Barrier Reef,” he says.
One of Postorino’s favourite sites was the wreck of Taiyo in the Nono Lagoon. The 35-metre fishing boat ran aground after hitting the reef and a failed rescued attempt caused it to sink vertically over the reef’s edge, with the bow just a metre or so below the lagoon’s surface. “Taiyo was an absolutely spectacular dive site. It was great for scuba diving, free diving and photography,” she says. As well as the wrecks, the islands’ topography also enhanced the experience. “It is quite hard to explain, but the ends of the islands are very steep so as you dive along in some places you can swim right into the [inland] forest. It’s quite unique,” she adds. This was the case at the Leru Cut on Leru Island, which allowed them to swim into the island, and The Cathedral on Mbulo Island, where the group emerged into a forest at the end of the dive.
The diving ticked all the boxes for Postorino, but Ellis’s fishing exploits were not quite as groundbreaking. “The fishing was a little bit average, but I loved the interaction with the locals,” he says. “We would anchor somewhere in the bay, probably a kilometre or two from land, and every morning when we woke up there would be 20 to 30 dugout canoes from the local villages. They don’t want handouts, everybody comes to trade.” Pre-warned that this would be the case, they had stocked the boat with educational materials, such as pencils and crayons, as well as footballs, chisels and sandpaper to barter with. “It was quite an experience trading goods for carvings, shells or lobster and fresh fish,”he adds.
The couple loved interacting with the communities, but soon found that it had been a good idea to employ a local guide for the trip. “The people that live on the land assume that they own the water as well,” explains Ellis. “Typically, a local chief will paddle out, or have someone else paddle him out, and will ask you for your overnight accommodation cost. The challenge was working out who the actual chief was as you quite often had five or six guys claiming to be.” Ellis relied on the guide to help find the right person to pay. “It was fairly amusing. I think the guide quite easily pays for himself.”
They also found that the guide helped to spread the word that Beluga would be visiting. “They don’t have telephones or email, but they have their own ways of communicating,” explains Postorino. “If you have a guide who knows the locals, then he can actually send a message to let them know which day you are coming and they prepare things. A couple of them put on markets for us. We also had coconut-opening competitions and football matches.”
After their time in the Solomon Islands, Postorino and Ellis stayed on board while Beluga made her way across the Solomon Sea to Papua New Guinea, and they weren’t treated to the smoothest of crossings. “We were going through probably four metres of swell but the yacht’s designed for that sort of thing, it’s more than comfortable in those conditions,” says Ellis. However, Beluga was towing Minke, a 12-metre express-style sports cruiser, and they temporarily lost it in the rough conditions. “We recovered it within half an hour, but it was not the greatest place to be towing a boat,” says Ellis. “We learned from that and won’t be doing it again.”
Beluga and Minke safely made it to Alotau in Milne Bay on the south-eastern tip of the country, where they opted to fly out immigration and customs officers to clear the yacht into Papua New Guinea. “It sounds a little bit extravagant, but it is actually a lot less costly than having to go all the way back into one of the major towns where you can regularly clear immigration,” says Ellis. This fitted with the yacht’s itinerary, which was focused on exploring the untouched archipelago and islands of the south-east coast. “The further you move away from that New Guinea coast the better it gets,” says Captain Lacey. “The more you get away from the land, the cleaner the water is, and it’s fished less so the marine life is in abundance.”
The water clarity and marine life led to more great diving, including an aircraft wreck off of Basilaki Island. “It was a small plane that been shot down in the Second World War and it’s quite shallow, less than three metres,” says Postorino. “It was really different to normal wrecks, as we could snorkel to it and it was pretty spectacular.” Captain Lacey also made the most of the opportunities to join them in the water when he could. “When you add things like the wrecks and planes it is a real bonus,” he says. “You can only see so much coral and fish.”
During the trip, the crew (who included a chef and first mate who were also Divemasters) were able to sample some of what was on offer, something that Captain Lacey believes is crucial to keeping a happy boat in the more remote destinations. “There is a very young and active crew, and everyone is a diver that I can think of,” he says. “The owners are very generous and if there is a spare tank and chance for someone to join, they will always invite a crew member.”
Similarly to the Solomon Islands, Ellis found that the attractions above the water were actually of greater interest than fishing. One of his most interesting memories from the trip was visiting a skull cave on Nuakata Island. “Cannibalism was practiced for a long time in Papua New Guinea and arguably it might still be,” says Ellis. “We visited this cave with our guide and there was a mound of about 100 to 200 human skulls. They all looked like they had been attacked from the front by someone with a large blunt instrument. It was pretty morbid – it’s not something you see every day in Australia.”
The remote Conflict Islands, which sit a further 25 nautical miles south-east from Nuakata Island, were a favourite with everyone on board. This was partly due to the Conflict Islands Conservation Initiative, which runs a turtle hatchery and rescue station. As part of the programme it monitors hatchlings and holds the weak and injured in a nursery until they are strong enough to be released. “They invited us to release some of the hatchlings from a boat into the deep water,” says Postorino. “Of course, there’s still lots of other dangers once the turtles actually go into the water, but it was quite an unbelievable experience.” The crew also got involved in the release. “It was quite a moment for all of us really to go and release those turtles; hopefully those little fellas are still going,” adds Lacey.
Reflecting on the trip, Ellis and Postorino were delighted with how Beluga coped with her first foray outside of Australian waters during their period of ownership, and as a result they have already returned once and completed another trip to the even more remote Coral Sea Islands. Now serving as captain, Lacey can’t speak highly enough of the yacht’s credentials. “The vessel has been really well thought through,” he says. “As captain and having worked on the boat as engineer it just gives you a lot of confidence. When you do leave the shore, you can’t control everything that happens, but you know you’re in a really well-equipped vessel.”
As well as being a useful test run for the yacht, the trip also proved to be a turning point for how these owners plan trips with friends. “One thing that we’ve become better at is catering to different interests,” says Postorino. “The first few trips that we did were just scuba diving and fishing, but we’ve now also had more people on board who don’t do either of those. We have become quite good at how we divide up the chase boats and tenders, so we can cater to everyone’s interests, including snorkelling and exploring islands on foot.” The couple believe that Papua New Guinea is the perfect destination for this multi-dimensional approach and having already returned once are keen to head back again. “We have only seen a very small part of Papua New Guinea and there are so many other areas,” says Postorino. “Even the places we did visit we probably only saw one or two per cent of them. There is so much more to discover.”