Scuba diving inRabaul, New Ireland and New Hanover
- Secluded dive destinations surrounded by dramatic scenery
- Papua New Guinea’s highest density of WWII wrecks
- Experience ripping current-swept shark dives
- Discover the local cultures and fascinating modern history
Marking the boundary between the Bismarck Sea and Pacific Ocean, Rabaul, New Ireland and New Hanover are Papua New Guinea’s most remote districts. And, thanks to their seclusion, they promise an unparalleled insight into the country as it once was. From active volcanic landscapes and untamed tropical scenery to enthralling local cultures, Rabaul, New Ireland and New Hanover guarantee enriching experiences for travellers of every kind. But, most visitors who make the journey are travelling in search of the island’s warm, biodiverse waters – home to coral reefs, seldom-surfed breaks and an incredible concentration of WWII wrecks waiting to be explored.
Diving in Rabaul, New Ireland and New Hanover
Schooling FishYear round
Macro CreaturesYear round
Healthy coralsYear round
Plentiful reef lifeYear round
Formed by a partially submerged caldera, Rabaul’s large natural harbour was used as a naval base by the Japanese during WWII – but is now home to more than 60 wrecks. Manko Maru, Italy Maru, and Yamato Maru, along with the Atom and Avenger wrecks rest within Karavia Bay, or Simpson Harbour, just a short distance from Rabaul. A little further southeast, towards the town of Kokopo, lies the wreckage of a Japanese fighter plane known as Deep Malapau Zero or Mitsubishi Zero. This interesting plane wreck allows inspection of the cockpit and features an obvious row of bullet holes along its left flank.
However, two of the region’s most well-known WWII wrecks are actually found outside of the caldera, on the northern coast. One of these sites is Pete’s Bi-Plane which sits in 30-metres of water, its three-pronged front propeller intact. The other is the popular George’s Wreck. This Japanese minelayer rests on a steep slope, meaning the vessel begins in the shallows but continues to a depth of around 65-metres.
While not a relic of the WWII era, the impressive Atun Wreck lies close to the Pigeon Islands, near the entrance to the Rabaul Caldera. This intact fishing vessel was deliberately scuttled in 1983 and now rests at a maximum depth of around 20-metres, making it one of the more accessible wrecks around Rabaul.
But, wrecks aren’t the only thing on offer. Located near Watom Island, The Hump is a submerged, sea fan-smothered volcano that attracts plenty of pelagic action. Another fantastic site, known as Submarine Base, features a dramatic drop-off just a stone’s throw from the shore. Marking the edge of a submerged caldera, the wall at this site plummets over 250-metres and is covered in sponges, sea fans, and whips. And, as with most dive destinations in Papua New Guinea, there’s also a few macro hotspots as well – such as Johnnies Jetty in Kokopo which is known for plenty of frogfish and other interesting critters.
Diving New Ireland and Kavieng
Despite the island’s size, New Ireland’s scuba diving is concentrated around the town of Kavieng. From here, divers can access the island-studded channel separating New Ireland from New Hanover. Different current systems combine around this channel, as vast volumes of water pass back and forth between the Pacific Ocean and the Bismarck Sea. With up to six tides each day, the surrounding sites are continuously swept with fast-moving, nutrient-rich water, ensuring an abundance of life and plenty of pelagic action.
The northern side of the channel, around the actual town of Kavieng, opens up into the Pacific Ocean and features a selection of sloping reefs and offshore shoals. That said, wrecks are the main attraction, including the sunken remains of six WWII aircraft. Deep Pete’s Wreck is a Japanese Mitsubishi fighter which lies upside down at a depth of 40-metres, while the Catalina Wreck - the scattered debris of an Australian aircraft – is a little more accessible at a depth of 20-metres. The Der Yang is an ex-fishing vessel that was scuttled in 1988 and now rests at a depth of around 30-metres at Echuca Patch.
In the southern section of the channel, the reefs fall away more abruptly, in a series of spectacular drop-offs. Albatross Passage separates New Ireland from Manne Island and is home to one of the area's best sites. The dive focuses on a naturally-terraced amphitheatre that faces the Bismarck Sea. Gorgonians, sponges, and a selection of corals cover the walls here, providing shelter for an array of macro species, while trevally, Spanish mackerel, tuna, and barracuda enjoy the current alongside grey reef sharks.
For divers looking to really get off the beaten track, exploratory trips sail from Rabaul past the Cape of St George and up the east coast of New Ireland visiting remote Feni Islands, Lihir Islands and Tabar Group in the Pacific Ocean.
Diving New Hanover
The main reason divers venture to New Hanover is to explore several Japanese WWII wrecks in Three Island Harbour, on the island’s northern coast. The Sanko Maru lies on the southern side of Tunnung Island and rises up from a depth of 22-metres. Measuring around 120-metres long, this armed vessel is densely covered in soft corals and sea fans, offering plenty to see at accessible depths. Only a stone’s throw away, divers can explore the unique wreck of a Japanese midget submarine, complete with its periscope and twin propellers.
Wreck, reef, macro
Beginner to Advanced
April to November
5 - 40m
10 - 30m
28 - 30°C
- Air Niugini offers an extra 15kg of baggage allowance for scuba diving gear or surfboards.
- There’s plenty of WWII history above the water here too, including bunkers, gun placements, and a vast network of tunnels.
- Some of Rabaul’s wrecks – such as Hakkai Maru and Kanshin Maru – were covered in ash by the 1994 eruption and are no longer accessible to divers.
- Strong tides in the channel between New Ireland and New Hanover flush dirt and debris out of the mangroves and create poor conditions at downstream sites.
About Rabaul, New Ireland and New Hanover
The town of Rabaul sits on the shores of Simpson Harbour, within a partially submerged caldera at the northeast tip of New Britain. Surrounded by several volcanoes, this expansive bay offers plenty of natural protection and was a key naval base used by Japanese forces during WWII. After the war, Rabaul became known as an orderly and picturesque regional capital surrounded by dense rainforest and tropical gardens. But this all ended in 1994, when a volcanic eruption covered Rabaul in thick volcanic ash, turning it into the sleepy settlement it is today.
New Ireland refers to the rifle-shaped namesake island and a larger province, located at the eastern edge of the Bismarck Sea. Also known as Latangai, the main island runs perpendicular to New Britain and is over 350-kilometres long, yet less than 10-kilometres wide in places. The geography lends itself to some spectacular scenery, with a steep mountainous spine protruding from rugged rainforest which grows right up to the golden beaches. The town of Kavieng at the island’s northwestern tip is the administrative centre for New Ireland province. This town was an important strategic outpost for Japanese forces during WWII, both protecting and supporting the larger naval base in Rabaul.
New Hanover is the second largest island in New Ireland province, located roughly 40-kilometres west of Kavieng. Also known as Lavongai, this island is sparsely populated and almost entirely untamed, with just a few scattered villages and a densely forested volcanic interior.
The remote location of these destinations means many visiting divers choose to explore via liveaboard. But, if you’d rather base yourself on land, here’s some tips on travelling to Rabaul, New Ireland and New Hanover.
After the 1994 volcanic eruption, Rabaul’s airport was moved 20-kilometres along the coast to the town of Kokopo. Air Niugini operates several direct flights a day to Kokopo from Papua New Guinea’s international airport in Port Moresby, taking roughly two hours to reach their destination. Direct flights to Kokopo also depart from Hoskins in Kimbe Bay.
For visitors heading to New Ireland, Air Niugini offers weekly direct flights to Kavieng from Port Moresby, normally departing on Saturday mornings. Indirect flights via Rabaul are another option, with flights operating between Kokopo and Kavieng on most days of the week. As there is no airport on New Hanover, visitors wishing to dive this remote region will need to fly into Kavieng. From here, a boat ride lasting up to three hours is required.
Where to stay
Many of the businesses originally based in Rabaul now operate out of Kokopo in Blanche Bay, on the opposite side of the caldera. Diving and tourism are no exceptions, with the vast majority of Rabaul’s hotels, resorts, and dive centres now located in Kokopo. As a result, the settlement has transformed into a busy, bustling town with plenty to see and do. Aside from diving, activities include fishing, dolphin watching, trekking the volcanic landscape, and exploring the area’s WWII history scattered throughout the surroundings – including over 500-kilometres of tunnels.
Travelling around New Ireland is a little arduous, with a crushed coral road running for hundreds of kilometres from north to south. Thankfully, much of the scuba diving is found within easy reach of Kavieng, as well as a range of accommodation options – from hotels and guesthouses within the town itself to resorts on nearby islets. The area is internationally recognised for its interesting Malangan culture and renowned for its intricate ceremonies, elaborate masks, and beautiful carvings. Like Rabaul, Kavieng offers plenty of outdoor activities and a rich WWII history. Surf enthusiasts are also blessed with access to more than half a dozen uncrowded breaks.
Accommodation is very limited on New Hanover, with just a couple of isolated options on the surrounding islets. These lodges are typically centred around activities such as surfing or fishing.
Several scuba liveaboards also operate itineraries around these remote islands. Including several meals a day, travel between multiple local dive destinations, and plenty of underwater exploration, these vessels prove to be a popular option for dedicated divers.
Situated between 2-5° south of the equator, Rabaul, New Ireland and New Hanover are consistently warm and humid destinations. With average temperatures in the high 20s and fairly consistent rainfall, there’s never really a bad time to visit, though there are some mild seasonal variations worth noting. And conveniently, all three of these superb dive destinations follow similar weather patterns.
The rainy season typically runs from December through March, though these months are only marginally wetter than other parts of the year. During this time, additional run-off will likely limit visibility, though local guides can often still find some sites worth visiting. April to July and September to November are often thought to provide the best all-round weather and dive conditions, with a hiatus in August due to slightly stronger winds. Thankfully, water temperatures fluctuate very little, typically sitting between 28-30°C year round.
Conversely, if you’re interested in surfing, the best time to visit is between November and April, when consistent swells of one to two metres can be expected.