Cousteau country: scuba diving in Papua New Guinea | Travel

The moments before a dive are often awkward. I waddle across the stern of the boat, laden with heavy gear, my feet stupid with rubbery fins. A swell threatens to topple me. A lone eagle, seeking amusement, soars across from the jungled volcanic shore of New Britain, one of Papua New Guinea’s outlying islands. Then I step out towards the sea.

PNG map

The transformation is immediate and electrifying: all sense of blundering clumsiness is banished – well, most of it at least. I can see fish below and an edge to the coral, beyond which all is darkness. Most of all I am breathing, and continue to do so as I sink gently towards that reef, through a shoal of barracuda, a scattering of graceful angelfish and stern-faced giant trevallies. And then I hover, a metre above the fantastic array of colour and life: knobbly gaping blue sponges as big as Ali Baba’s jars, vast skeletal forms of Gorgonian fans, a clown triggerfish with bee-stung yellow lips and harlequin decoration. No experience available to humans is quite like this. You enter a realm in which you have no place, a realm more weird and wonderful, I suspect, than anything in outer space.

Kevin Rushby taking the plunge in Kimbe Bay

The idea of swimming for extended periods below the surface may have become normalised, but it is a recent phenomenon, and largely came about through the efforts of one man: Jacques-Yves Cousteau. From the 1940s, he co-developed the aqualung, pioneered underwater photography, kick-started underwater archaeology, discovered thousands of precious sub-sea sites and witnessed scenes no human being ever had1. Most of all, he inspired a love of the oceanic world in millions of people, and a desire to see that world protected. He was a titan. If he had sprouted wings and discovered flight, he could not have done more to open up a new dimension to humanity. Now a new film, The Odyssey, released on 18 August in the UK, will tell the tale of the man’s astonishing…

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