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LOVING LOLOATA

By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

With the lights of Port Moresby shimmering in the distance we started our descent. Following the mooring line we dropped into darkness until the bow of a ship came into view. We landed on the deck and moved over to a small hatch and then turned off our torches. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness we could see an unnatural glow coming from the hatch, and peering into it we could see countless tiny green lights flicking on and off – a school of hundreds of flashlight fish!

 

For the next five minutes we sat in darkness mesmerised as we watched the display of green lights. Then one brave flashlight fish came to the top of the hatch, hovered for a few seconds and suddenly swam out passed our faces. A dozen others quickly followed, so we now had a stream of flickering lights flowing from the hatch. Every time we breathed out the flow of fish would stop for a few seconds until all was silent again and then the flow of light would continue. It was one of the most amazing sights we had ever seen underwater, a sight and experience that could never be captured by a camera.

 

With the last of the flashlight fish exiting the hatch we turned around to see tiny lights spread around the ship, lighting up the winch gear like a Christmas tree and the rest of the ship with flashing fairy lights.

 

We were diving the Pacific Gas, just one of thirty dive sites off Port Moresby that can be explored from Loloata Island Resort. While Papua New Guinea is regarded as one of the best diving destinations in the world, its capital city is often over looked as one of those sites. However, Port Moresby has world class diving on its door step.

 

THE RESORT

Our base for a week of diving Port Moresby was the lovely Loloata Island Resort, established by Papua New Guinea diving pioneer Dik Knight over thirty years ago. Dik still manages the resort and is a wealth of knowledge about local dive sites and marine life. The resort consists of 23 cabins spread around the shoreline at the northern end of the island and facilities include a conference centre, shop, bar, dining room and dive centre.

 

The cabins at Loloata Island Resort are very comfortable, with wonderful views over Bootless Bay and the towering mountain ranges of the mainland. All the meals are buffet style and quite simply a feast, with a range of local produce prepared by the resort chef. The dinners on Fridays are very memorable as you are also entertained by the Tubuserea Singsing Group from a local village. They put on quite a memorable performance.

 

One of the other memorable experiences of staying on Loloata Island is the wildlife; wallabies roam the resort, as do giant Victoria crown pigeons – one of these huge birds took a liking to us and would wait by our cabin door each day. Other wildlife on the island include frogs, butterflies, birds and banded sea snakes – which come ashore at night but are very sluggish and easily avoided.

 

The dive operation on Loloata Island Resort is managed by Franco Tolewa, who has been on the island for over a decade. Franco is assisted by Roy, Kity and Henry on the two 10m long Reefmaster dive boats the resort operate. From the moment you arrive on the island you hardly touch your dive gear, except to dive, as it is setup daily and washed at the end of each day by the wonderful dive crew. As mentioned, the resort has thirty dive sites they regularly visit, but Franco informed us that there are well over fifty dive sites off Port Moresby that can be dived year round.

 

THE REEFS

As you fly into Port Moresby a string of coral reefs fringing the coastline can clearly be seen. These coral reefs offer the diver an endless variety of dive sites; including walls, bommies and coral gardens. Inside the main barrier reef are smaller reef patches, including one of our favourites Lillian’s Patch. This patch of reef rises from the sand at 30m to 8m and its reef slopes are covered in lovely gorgonians, soft corals, sponges and thick beds of sea whips. Exploring this reef we found a vast range of reef fish, nudibranchs, sea stars, molluscs and even three Bargibant’s pygmy sea horses on a fan coral. The top of the reef is a rubble bank that looks barren at first glance but pulsates with life – octopus, moray eels, crabs, shrimps and even a large crocodilefish. This site also made for a brilliant night dive. Under torch light we found slipper crays, spider crabs, hermit crabs, coral crabs, cuttlefish, leaf scorpionfish and two moray eels looking for prey. But the highlight was finding two epaulette sharks walking across the bottom on their fins.

 

At The Big Drop we explored a reef wall dropping to 40m. The corals were superb, as they were at all the sites we dived off Port Moresby. A sandy gully on the inner side of the reef was also interesting to explore as here were garden eels, sea pens, shrimp gobies, sea stars and an olive sea snake.

 

Di’s Delight was a very delightful dive. We started the dive by following Franco to see a pygmy sea horse, on the way passing a groper, white tip reef shark and a leopard shark. The main site consists of three large bommies coated in some of the largest gorgonian fans you will ever see. After exploring this maze of gorgonians we ended the dive on top of the bommies with schools of fusiliers and sweetlips swarming around us. These schools of fish seemed to be common to the tops of many of the bommies in the area as we also encountered them at End Bommie and Suzie’s Bommie.

 

Suzie’s Bommie is one of the most famous dive sites off Port Moresby. The bommie rises from 40m on its deep side and is decorated by lovely corals. As mentioned it also has schools of fusiliers and sweetlips on top, but it also has much more than that. Schools of trevally and surgeonfish swirled above us and we also saw reef sharks, Maori wrasse and gropers. The top of the bommie is 12m deep and you can spend ages photographing the critters – nudibranchs, anemonefish, hawkfish, flatworms, sea stars, porcelain crabs, gobies, blennies, crinoid clingfish and even a leaf scorpionfish.

 

There seems to be an endless supply of spectacular bommies off Port Moresby. We did wonderful dives on bommies at The Pinnacles and Pumpkin Patch, but another favourite was Baldwin’s Bommie. This bommie rises from 60m and is again coated in rich corals. While circumnavigating it we encountered white tip reef sharks, olive sea snakes and gropers, but the best was on top at 14m. Here we saw two reef stonefish, flatworms, coral cod, octopus, anemonefish and one very special fish, a lacy scorpionfish. One of the main reasons we had travelled to Loloata Island was for a chance to see a lacy scorpionfish, as Port Moresby is one of the best places in the world to see these amazing fish. When our guide Kity pointed out the fish we were glad that he did as we wouldn’t have found it ourselves as its camouflage was superb. We photographed this beautiful fish for five minutes and even managed to capture a yawn. There was also suppose to be a purple coloured lacy scorpionfish at this site, but it had disappeared just days before we arrived. Franco later informed us that the lacy scorpionfish come and go from a number of dive sites in the area.

 

One of our final reef dives was something very special at a dive site called The Finger. It didn’t start off very well, after fighting a current for ten minutes to reach a string of bommies at the end of the reef, we gave up and returned to the mooring. We were just about to return to the boat when Franco indicated to head over to the other side of the reef. We dropped over the front of the reef to find little current and a very pretty wall. Cruising the wall were pelagic fish; mackerel and trevally. Franco had said this was a sharky site and we weren’t disappointed when a white tip reef shark, then a grey reef shark buzzed us. We also saw a spotted eagle ray, but were very surprised when an odd shape appeared in the distance. At first we thought it was a hammerhead, but then we realised it was something much rarer, a shark ray. These rays are so rare that none of our group, with over 10,000 dives been us, had ever seen one. Two metres long and covered in spots and thorny ridges this creature looked very primitive as it slowly swam by. It was an amazing sight and the only annoying thing about the encounter was that we had macro lens on! Back on the boat we were on a high only to learn that the other divers had earlier been buzzed by two great hammerheads! What a dive!

 

THE MUCK

Muck diving first became popular in Papua New Guinea and there are a number of mucky sites off Loloata Island. You can dive under and around the Loloata Island Pier, but it is quite shallow and was a little murky during our visit. The most popular muck diving site is Lion Island at a site called Lion Island Muck.

 

The sandy bottom and sea grass beds at this site vary in depth from 3m to 20m and there are even two small boats here to explore, the Lady Jules and Sir Godfrey, that are covered in corals. While exploring this site we found numerous anemones that were home to some very aggressive anemonefish and numerous shrimps. Also common were mantis shrimps, shrimp gobies, flounder, razorfish, snake eels, bobbit worms, upside down sea jellies, nudibranchs, flatworms and lionfish. Our guides also informed us that they have found everything from ghost pipefish to mimic octopus here.

 

There are also two ships that have been scuttled at the island that are great fun to explore. The MV Tuart was a tug boat, while the MV New Marine 6 was a fishing trawler – both these ships are now covered in soft coral and gorgonians and home to wonderful critters. We found spindle cowries, banded pipefish, hawkfish, moray eels, shrimps, nudibranchs and on the sand around the ships crocodilefish, gobies and a cockatoo waspfish.

 

THE WRECKS

The only real Second World War relic found off Port Moresby is a Boston A20 Havoc place, which is located in 18m of water at the end of Loloata Island. The plane is almost completely intact, but doesn’t get the best visibility. While on most of the dives we did off Port Moresby we had 15m to 30m visibility, on the plane the viz. was a murky 2m. But we still had an enjoyable time inspecting the plane, looking at the props, cockpit, rear guns and tall tail structure.

 

Most of the wrecks that can be dived off Port Moresby were scuttled for divers to enjoy, most by that legend of Papua New Guinea diving Bob Halstead. The largest is the 65m long Pacific Gas, scuttled in 1986 on a sandy slope off Horseshoe Reef. You can reach 45m under the stern if you want to check out the props, but less experienced divers can stay at the bow in 15m to 20m. There is plenty of structure to explore, the bridge, holds and cabins, plus the ship is a kaleidoscope of colours, decorated by sponges, gorgonians and soft corals. While exploring the ship we encountered schools of trevally, fusiliers and snapper, and also sweetlips, coral trout, lionfish and batfish. As mentioned in the introduction, the Pacific Gas is also an unforgettable night dive. Beside the flashlight fish we also saw coral crabs, shrimps, sleeping fish and a massive basket star with its arms spread wide feeding.

 

Not far from the Pacific Gas is another brilliant wreck dive called the MV Pai II. This former 25m long prawn trawler was scuttled in 1982 and has even more coral encrusting it. We followed the mooring line down to the stern and the first thing we saw was a large tasselled wobbegong resting on the deck. As we explored the ship we found an estuary groper, Maori wrasse, lionfish, batfish, sweetlips, snapper and mangrove jacks. The ship is also home to many smaller critters; shrimps, long-nose hawkfish, nudibranchs and even a pygmy sea horse.

 

During our stay at Loloata Island Resort we met many divers that were passing through, only staying on the island for a day or so while heading off to other diving destinations in the country. Some of them hadn’t even allowed time to dive off Port Moresby, not realising that they were missing some of the best diving in Papua New Guinea.

 

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