Conflict Islands: An oasis in the ocean


John Borthwick steps ashore on Conflict Islands, where turtles swim in the jungle-frames turquoise lagoon in the far east of Papua New Guinea.

Conflict Islands

A P&O cruise ship visits the Conflict Islands. Credit: John Borthwick

‘I’m an accidental conservationist,’ says Ian Gowrie-Smith as he scans a pure white sandbar that stretches into a near-turquoise lagoon. Framed by jungle, this tropical tableau seems so improbably perfect that I might be looking at a screen-saver.

We’re on Panasesa Island in the remote Conflict Islands. Green sea turtles swim protected in this 10-kilometre wide lagoon, as do their hawksbill cousins, with the young of both species nurtured at the island’s hatchery. They’re among an extraordinary array of tropical marine species – up to one-third the world’s total – found in the atoll’s waters. Where are these Edenic islands? And why the bellicose name?

Think of the easternmost tip of Papua New Guinea, then mind-travel another 150 kilometres south-east. You’ll come to the 21-island Conflict Group, the remnants of an ancient volcanic caldera that sits between the Solomon and Coral seas, and barely appears on the map.

Despite its name – bestowed by the British ship, HMS Conflict that first surveyed the islands in 1880 – this unpeopled and unplundered atoll feels like the least conflicted place on Earth. Gowrie-Smith, 71, a tall, quiet, London-based Australian businessman bought the freehold islands ‘sight unseen’ 15 years ago.

The 100-hectare atoll was uninhabited and its old coconut plantation on the main island, Panasesa, was long abandoned. ‘My spell-checker can’t handle the name,’ Gowrie-Smith jokes as we wander the triangular island.

Panasesa is frequently ‘corrected’ to Panacea – ‘a remedy for all ills or difficulties’ – which seems the perfect tag for this zone of retreat from a tumultuous world. We’re ambling along sandy paths shaded by tall pandanus palms and a high, dense canopy.

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‘Their families staff the facilities that cater to the visitors from some 14 cruise ships that call here each year.’

At times we step around freshly dug turtle-egg nests that have been marked off so that daytrippers from my visiting cruise ship can avoid them. Gowrie-Smith, who sees his role as island custodian, admits that he didn’t arrive as a conservationist but soon became one. The turning point was seeing the lagoon being stripped of trepang (sea cucumbers) and its sharks being de-finned for the Asian export market.

As an alternative to these unsustainable ravages he has employed former fishermen from local islands as rangers. Meanwhile, their families staff the facilities that cater to the visitors from some 14 cruise ships that call here each year.

Supporting the local community

With limited accommodation, Panasesa isn’t a resort but it has hosted some 40,000 cruise passengers in recent years. Dance troupes travel here from the neighbouring Engineer Islands to welcome passengers as they land, after which the visitors head for the beach chairs, bar and food stands, or to the paddleboards, kayaks and glass-bottom boats, all operated by local folk.

I head a few hundred metres offshore to a dive platform from where I can snorkel along a reef drop-off that’s encrusted with vivid, pristine corals. The menagerie of fish that flit past me through these protected waters is simply brilliant.

Gowrie-Smith’s pet project, the Conflict Islands Conservation Initiative, with resident researchers, also nurtures charismatic marine species such as turtles, rays and sharks. Onshore again, he shows me a gallery of intricately handcrafted bowls and carvings from the nearby Trobriand Islands. Delicately inlaid with mother-of-pearl or carved from ebony wood, these pieces – admittedly pricey – are superior to most works that we had earlier for sale in the Trobriands.

Further on, the island’s turtle hatchery, jointly supported by P&O Cruises, houses 10 large tanks where hatchlings vulnerable to predator attack are relocated until they’re ready for release. Visitors can sponsor a green or hawsbill turtle and even take part in returning an eagerly wringgling ninja to the sea.

This is an excerpt of the story ‘An oasis in the ocean’, which was published in the March-April 2020 edition of Paradise, the in-flight magazine of Air Niugini. Republished with permission.

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