N I G E L M A R S H P H O T O G R A P H Y
U N D E R W A T E R I M A G E S A N D A R T I C L E S
LACY LUST AT LOLOATA
By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose
One gorgeous little fish has been top of our list to photograph for years – the lacy scorpionfish (Rhinopias aphanes). But these fish are very elusive, as we have discovered, having missed seeing these beautifully camouflaged fish at several dive destinations over the years; they always seem to disappear just before our visit. However, we had heard of one spot where you can almost guarantee a close encounter with a ‘lacy’- Loloata Island in Papua New Guinea.
Now Loloata Island is not some tiny remote island that it takes you three days of travel to reach, the island is in fact located off the capital city of Port Moresby, barely thirty minutes from the airport! On the northern end of the island is a wonderful laid-back dive resort owned and managed by one of the pioneers of Papua New Guinea diving, Dik Knight. Dik has been diving the waters of Papua New Guinea for over forty years and established Loloata Island Resort thirty three years ago. The resort caters for non-divers too and is a popular location for conferences or anyone not wanting to stay in the city.
The dive operation on the island is managed by Franco Tolewa, and his team operate two 10m long dive boats to around thirty dive sites in the area. Upon arrival at the resort the first thing we asked Franco was ‘are there any lacy’s about?’ Franco smiled and said we should be able to find one over the seven days we were staying.
For our first dive we headed to Suzie’s Bommie, one of the most famous dive sites off Loloata Island and a renowned spot for lacy’s. The diving off Port Moresby is very under-rated as many divers think you have to go to remote areas of Papua New Guinea to see its best, but we were impressed from the very first dive.
The visibility, once under a greenish surface layer due to it being the end of the rainy season, was around 30m and before us was a coral wall dropping from 5m to 30m. Suzie’s Bommie rises from the sand and is covered in lovely gorgonians, soft corals, sea whips and sponges. We circled the bommie, peering under every ledge looking for a lacy, but instead found abundant reef fish – rock cod, parrotfish, wrasse, butterflyfish, angelfish and many others. Reaching the top of the bommie at 12m it was swarming with thick schools of diagonal-banded sweetlips, fusiliers and trevally. We searched the top of the bommie for our elusive fish, but instead found no shortage of subjects – anemonefish, porcelain crabs, nudibranchs, crinoid clingfish, long-nose hawkfish and a pretty leaf scorpionfish. The lacy would have to wait.
Our search for a lacy continued at the next dive site, The Big Drop. Here we explored a lovely coral wall and a sandy valley home to shrimp gobies, garden eels, sea pens and an inquisitive olive sea snake. The corals were again impressive, as they were at all the sites we dived off Loloata Island; large gorgonians, bushy soft corals and colourful sponges. No lacy’s, but we did see a white tip reef shark and a snowflake moray eel.
For our final dive on day one Franco promised a lacy as we were heading to Baldwin’s Bommie. This tower of coral rises from 60m to 14m and is a brilliant dive. We did several circuits around the bommie as we rose from the depths, our eyes on the lookout for a lacy the entire time. There was no shortage of subjects for our cameras – octopus, reef stonefish, anemonefish, shrimps and another white tip reef shark. Then our guide Kity waved us over, we charged over to see what he had found, was it the lacy?
We stared at the patch of coral for a few seconds before we finally saw what Kity was pointing at, a weedy object barely 8cm long, exactly what we were after, a spectacular lacy scorpionfish. We settled in to photograph this well camouflaged fish, very glad that Kity had pointed it out otherwise we would have swam straight over it. The lacy was a pretty cream colour with darker bands patterning its skin, and also many weedy growths that helped it blend into the background. After studying and photographing it for only a minute the fish did a wonderful yawn, elongating and extending its jaw. Underwater photographers wait hours to photograph a yawning lacy and we were fortunate enough to have it yawn for us in the first minute!
We spent another five minutes photographing this amazing fish from every angle, before leaving it in peace to recover from its modelling session. Well we had our lacy scorpionfish on day one, what now? Fortunately there were plenty of other wonderful underwater attractions off Loloata Island to keep us busy.
Over the next six days we dived many other beautiful reefs, but always with an eye out for another lacy. At Lillian’s Patch we explored lovely coral gardens that were dominated by sea whips. At this site we saw moray eels, octopus, rock cod, nudibranchs, crocodilefish and three tiny Bargibant’s pygmy sea horses. We enjoyed this reef so much that we returned at night to see its nocturnal critters. Under torch light we found slipper crays, hermit crabs, coral crabs, shrimps, molluscs, leaf scorpionfish, nudibranchs and even two epaulette sharks.
Other brilliant reef dives include; End Bommie where we saw thick schools of sweetlips, The Pinnacles where a spotted eagle ray cruised by, Pumpkin Patch where we saw barracuda and Nadine’s Passage where we enjoyed a drift dive along a colourful reef wall. Another favourite was Di’s Delight, which has three large bommies covered by an amazing collection of gorgonians. We dived this site to see pygmy sea horses, but could only find one, but also saw a leopard shark, batfish and schools of sweetlips and fusiliers.
One morning Franco took us to The Finger to see a few sharks. This projection of reef is washed by strong currents that attracts sharks and pelagic visitors. The current ended up being so strong that we couldn’t reach the end of The Finger, but had to return to the mooring. Fortunately there was less current on the other side of the reef and we got to explore the wall here. Nudibranchs, hawkfish, flatworms and other small critters cling to this wall, but we found ourselves looking into the blue most of the time. Good thing we did as we saw a white tip reef shark, a spotted eagle ray, mackerel, trevally, a Maori wrasse and a curious grey reef shark. But the highlight was when a shark ray came cruising along the wall. None of our group had ever seen one of these bizarre looking rays – 2m long with a round head, shark-like tail and thorny ridges across its head. We surfaced thinking how lucky we had been to see such a rare creature, only to discover that we had missed seeing two great hammerhead sharks that had buzzed the other divers!
Beside the wonderful reef diving we also had fun exploring Port Moresby’s main muck diving site, Lion Island. At Lion Island Muck we dived over sand and sea grass to see snake eels, razorfish, mantis shrimps, upside down sea jellies, flounder, shrimp gobies, bobbit worms, lionfish, nudibranchs, flatworms and sea stars. There are also numerous anemones here home to anemonefish and shrimps. Two small boats have also been scuttled at this site and are now covered in corals and populated by reef fish.
Lion Island also has a few bigger ships to explore, the former fishing trawler MV New Marine 6 and the former tug boat MV Tuart. Both of these ships are decorated with soft corals and gorgonians and home to pipefish, pufferfish, lionfish, batfish, shrimps, nudibranchs, hawkfish, blennies and even spindle cowries. A search of the sand around these ships is also rewarding as we saw crocodilefish, gobies and a cockatoo waspfish.
These ships weren’t the only ones off Port Moresby that have been scuttled for divers to enjoy. The 25m long prawn trawler, MV Pai II, rests in 27m of water and is completely covered in corals. The ship is very colourful and photogenic, and has plenty of structure to explore, including the bridge and hold. But a highlight was all the marine life that shelters on the ship. We found lionfish, batfish, sweetlips, gropers, Maori wrasse and even a tasselled wobbegong shark resting on the deck.
Another wonderful wreck is the Pacific Gas, a 65m long gas tanker that now sits on a sandy slope, its bow at 15m and its stern at 35m. We did two dives to explore the ship, seeing lovely corals and abundant fish life; batfish, trevally, squirrelfish, lionfish, coral trout and many more. But our third dive was something very special when we descended on the ship at night.
We followed Franco to the bow and then turned off our torches. Arranged around an open hatch we could see an eerie glow, and looking into the hatch we could see hundreds of flickering green lights – flashlight fish. For five minutes we watched these amazing lights as they streamed out of the hatch and spread across the ship. A truly unforgettable experience that could never be captured by a camera, so we didn’t even try!
Before our week at Loloata Island was finished we returned to Baldwin’s Bommie for one last look at the lacy scorpionfish. We found this wonderful fish sitting on top of the bommie and then spent another fruitless hour searching for its purple coloured partner, but it had disappeared. We returned from Papua New Guinea with our lacy lust fulfilled, but we knew we would have to return to Loloata Island as we now know it has much more than just lacy’s!
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