By CLIFFORD FAIPARIK
EXPLORING Panasesa Island in Milne Bay is like glancing through glossy international tourism advertisements of exotic resorts in tropical Maldives in the Indian Ocean or the Borabora in our own Pacific.
Rather than fantasising about such havens beyond our international boundaries and being captivated in deep thought while glancing through glossy magazines or surfing websites promoting international tourist destinations, only this time you really are exploring such a natural wonder right in our forgotten backyard on the Conflict Group of islands in Samarai-Murua. The 64 hectares of this tropical island is surrounded by the blue lagoon with coral reefs, turquoise waves washing over the sandy edge of the white beach, with the constant breeze from the trade winds, swaying coconuts and other trees, and the sun soaking up the island .
I was mistakenly marooned on this resort island with Transport Minister William Samb and Tourism, Art and Culture Minister Isi Henry Leonard on Monday, June 28. We were supposed to refuel only at the island resort to go to Jomard Passage and return to Port Moresby on the same day. However upon arrival we discovered that the dinghy that was supposed to drop of the fuel drum for the helicopter continue the trip had not arrived.
Due to poor communication since there was no mobile network coverage, we were misinformed that the dinghy with the fuel would arrive on the day we arrived. So while waiting for the dinghy, we explored the island resort with the general manager Edward Cardwell and his wife Hayley Versace who treated us with the same hospitality accorded all tourists that drop in to the island and offered us breakfast.
And it was an experience of a life time of sun, sand and fun as we walked along the sandy beach, and then walked the 2km of the sandbank that rose during low tide between the neighbouring Irai Island and Panasesa.
We searched for sea shells and I got a large clam shell and scuttle fish bones. We swam in the cool lagoon, slept in hammocks drinking coconuts (kulau) while allowing the cool fresh trade winds to soak us. It was an idyllic scenario as we listened to the wind whispering to us through the swaying coconut tress and the waves lazily splashing on the beaches. It was as if nature was telling us that the Pacific Ocean and the Conflict Group of Islands were happy for our visit.
The island is owned by Australian millionaire Ian Gowrie-Smith who bought it off in 2016 to set up a resort and a marine conservation site.
Apart from offering tourism, the resort also runs a turtle conservation project which is known as The Conflict Islands Conservation Initiative managed by Versace who is also a marine biologist and zoologist.
“This conservation is also been set up to do awareness and to manage the turtles and other marine resources so that villagers can harvest them so that we know how the resources are harvested sustainably and not to finish everything in the next five years. And that is a possibility for the hawksbill turtle and we will not see them any more after five years,” says Versace.
She has set up a programme whereby volunteers all over the world pay small fees and come here to work with turtles.
“Most are students from universities in Australia or around the world. And so for the last three years, these fees help our conservation operation programmes. We also have about 12 turtle local rangers in Panapompom, Panaeati, Misima, Kwaraiwa and Engineer Group. And they go out every night to find turtles nesting. And they bring the eggs to our hatchery. We have 100 turtle nests in our hatchery here and it is a safe place for saving them from attack from predators like lizards, and harsh weather conditions like erosion and high tides.
“At the same time we make awareness for the islanders to take ownership of the turtles and protect them.”
Once the eggs hatch, they release the baby turtles into the sea. Weak ones are kept for about a month till they are strong and are released later. Sadly only one in every 1,000 young turtles will reach the breeding age of 30 and that’s if they are not killed by birds or sharks.
Meanwhile the head local ranger Steven Amos from Panaeati Island said that they carried out awareness on the islands and occasionally faced opposition especially from older people who didn’t really care about sustainable management.
“And so we do awareness with children in schools and they go and do awareness to their parents.”
Amos said that over the last four years they had released 45, 000 turtles from the hatchery.
“During the 2020/2021 nesting season from October through to April our community conservation rangers were able to release 13,675 hatchlings to the wild, 7,442 of them green turtles and 6,230 hawksbill turtles. Our rangers also tagged and collected data on 119 nesting females.
By CLIFFORD FAIPARIK