Is it possible to fall in love with a dive site? Christopher Bartlett visits Loloata Island Resort in Papua New Guinea to find out
She’s bright and colourful on surface, but deep and complex the more you get to know her. Her charms are numerous and sometimes mysterious, yet she’s always easy-going and welcoming.
If she sounds like the ideal girl, it’s because she is – almost. Suzy is in fact a bommy and a dive site on the barrier reef outside Bootless Bay, Port Moresby.
I’d heard of Suzy’s charms over dinners in Paris, lunches in London, and coffee in Madrid. The few aficionados of adventure and connoisseurs of coral who’d witnessed her beauty recalled their encounters with misty, wistful eyes. I promised to myself that on my next visit to PNG I would check her out.
Sometimes legends are created from little substance, exaggerations creep in, embellishments are made. To top it off, I would be spending my 40th birthday at Loloata Island Resort. Festive expectations are often raised, anticipation runs high, and then the party goes off with a pfffft rather than a resounding pop. Would Suzy be the same?
My party plans weren’t in synch with the dive plan (although I was more than happy to just be getting back into PNG waters again). A group was in and had requested morning dives at Pumpkin Patch and Dinah’s Delight with a post-prandial potter around Lion Island. Being my first dive in five months, I missed part of Pumpkin Patch readjusting my kit, getting used to my new BCD, tuning back in with the water and my camera. I did see the Pygmy seahorse, the crocodile fish, and an olive sea snake, though with a not inconsiderable current my photos were never going to be keepers.
Dinah’s Delight, named after the wife of PNG diving pioneer Bob Halstead, was true to its name. The gorgonian fan-filled gullies were gorgeous and harboured my first ever sighting of a tasselled wobbegong shark, it’s mottled camouflage not evading the eye of our dive guide, Roy. It was an unexpected birthday treat, and I marvelled at the elaborated fronds protruding from below its bottom lip. Within the mass of tassels are branched nasal barbels and grooves that channel surrounding water to the shark’s mouth. The barbels are perfectly positioned to help these bottom-dwelling sharks detect a variety of bottom-dwelling prey such as crabs, lobsters, cephalopods, echinoderms and fishes. Wobbegongs have even been documented eating bamboo sharks of a length similar to their own. Although believed to be a rare occurrence, with a jaw structure that facilitates dislocation, a large gape, and sharp, rearward-pointing teeth, wobbegongs can grasp a relatively large prey before swallowing it whole.
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After a lobster-tail lunch back at Loloata we departed for nearby Lion Island. The island is the location of a couple of deliberately sunken fishing trawlers that host some interesting fish life, and a shallow sandy slope interspersed with patches of seagrass that hide a host of small and interesting critters. A spinecheek anemonefish posed for a birthday photo, a porcelain crab modelled perfectly for me, a luridly coloured peacock mantis shrimp poked its bright blue eyes out of its tunnel in the sand, and a shrimp bearing eggs that I had never seen before (that turned out to be a Holthuis’ shrimp) hopped around the tentacles of her host anemone. All in all, I didn’t feel like I’d missed anything at all and was most content with the underwater birthday bounty I had received.
The next morning Roy and Raga gave us our daily diving menu: End Bommy, Suzy’s Bommy, and the wreck of the MV New Marine. Three nautical miles out to sea on the outer barrier reef, End Bommy’s abundant life is fed by the tides that bring nutrients around and over it. After mooring on a pin on the main reef, we started finning across 40 metres of blue water. Before I was halfway across, I could make out the wall opposite me. It was certainly well-nourished; with gorgonian fans, pink sea whips, tubastraea and soft coral trees perched on its sides. The tide hadn’t quite started to go out, but there were still plenty of fish. Crinoids, also called feather stars, hung off gorgonians and sea whips with their limbs extended, feeding on plankton in the gentle current. The colours were beautiful.
On the way back I started sorting through the 100-odd images I’d taken, thinking that we were done, Raga led us off on a short diversion. We’d already been down for 60 minutes, so it had to be something good. And it was. The largest congregation of bubble-tip anemones I have ever seen, playing host to over a hundred dusky anemonefish. Incredible.
How was Suzy’s going to beat that? An hour later the outgoing tide was in full flow, pulling nutrients from the inshore waters out to the deep, and pulling in a lot of hungry fish. Big schools of deep-bodied and twin-striped fusiliers plunged down the walls, shimmering in the sunlight. We followed them down about 30 metres looking for pygmy seahorses in the plentiful fans.
In terms of colour, Suzy’s matched End Bommy pink for pink, whip for whip, feather star for feather star and fan for fan. There was no luck on the pygmy front, but there was so much else to take in I was glad not to be distracted from it. Raga pointed out longnose hawkfish in the fan where he sometimes found seahorses. It looked quite chuffed to me, like it’d just had a nice snack. Nearby a Harlequin sweetlips was enjoying the attentions of a cleaner wrasse.
I found it hard to pick a wide-angle shot to photograph. There were a plethora of possibilities and the best way to get a cracking image is to pick one and take it many times, varying the angle slightly, trying different settings, and seeing if a colourful fish might swim into the frame. I was a fat kid in a cake shop trying to fill my boots. At 30 metres my time at the photographic buffet was soon gone though, and I moved up the wall, conscious that I needed to save some nitrogen credit for the top of the bommy, 13 metres below the surface. Above me the dark silhouettes of hundreds of sweetlips swirled, looking for their lunch, and a large emperor darted into a pack of fusiliers. A few choice expletives of wonder passed through my mind as I marvelled.
My reverie was broken by Roy banging on his tank above me. Up at 15 metres, merrily sitting on a small shelf on the bommy, was one of a photographer’s most sought-after subjects, and a Loloata special: the lacy scorpionfish (aka Merlet’s scorpionfish, Rhinopias aphanes). Covered with skin tags that mimic the algae or soft coral and crinoids of its immediate surroundings, its colouring is a maze-like camo pattern with white spots under each eye. This decoy eye enables the predator to watch its prey without detection, lying wait, ready to spring its ambush. The first few spines of the lateral fins have evolved into a sort of articulating toe with which they hook into the substrate and pull themselves along. By flopping about the bottom, other fish will discount the movements as flotsam or a wounded fish and come in close to investigate. The two white decoy spots below the eyes are distracting enough to mislead the prey. And as the unsuspecting fish approaches to investigate, the Rhinopias carefully watches, gauges the distance, and then all at once, drops its jaws and inhales the fish so quickly it actually pulls in a mass of water, creating a strong vacuum, making it impossible for the intended prey to escape.
The Rhinopias safely captured on my SD card, I glanced at my dive computer. An ominious “1” stared back at me. Time to go shallower. I passed the throng of lined sweetlips and hovered six metres above the top of the bommy, frustrated at not being able to get close enough to snap the fish, but enchanted by the action all around. Round the other side of the bommy a large school of silvery batfish swept back and forth, also looking for a feed. The place was buzzing. Loloata’s dive site description for Suzy’s says “superlatives cannot describe this dive site”. I concurred and wanted to go back.
I would have to wait, however, as Roy and Raga had more sites to show me. The MV New Marine is a fishing trawler sunk as an artificial reef close to the resort that has swarms of juvenile barracuda patrolling around it and lionfish hanging around the winch gear. It makes for an easy afternoon dive, as does the wreck of a Boston A-20 Havoc that crashed during the Second World War, and the great muck diving site in front of Lion Island.
The signature wreck dive though has to be the MV Pacific Gas. A 65-metre long gas tanker than was sunk in 1986, her bow sits at 15 metres deep, the top of the bridge is at 25 metres, and the rudder sits on the sandy bottom down at 44 metres. Descending down the mooring line to the bow, the bridge and cabin section look massive with a diver to provide some perspective. The mast and bow have some great corals, including a small fan hosting ornate ghost pipefish; there are resident lionfish and leaffish, and barracuda are common visitors.
My pygmy seahorse photography fix had yet to be sated, so a dive at Quayle’s reef was planned during which I spent my time with two fish. A Barbigant’s pygmy seahorse and a rockmover wrasse; both difficult species to record. The latter moves around back and forth in an apparently haphazard manner as if washed by the current, and the pygmy seahorse presents a challenge due to the fact that it is both rare and tiny. At up to 25 mm tall, the knobbly, slightly pot-bellied Barbigant is the daddy of the pygmy seahorses, but the individual at Quayle’s was more like 15 mm, shy, and probably a bit ticked off by the not so hot buoyancy control of the two divers who went before me. Still, with no-one else left in the queue, I could take my time and wait for the angle I wanted, a front-on view to show the mouth. I ended up watching this fascinating creature for 20 minutes, kneeling in the sand.
Pygmy seahorses are the only fish where the male become truly pregnant, nurturing the eggs in a brood pouch for at least 10 days and the female stays with her man for the duration of gestation. Males can even get stretch marks and although not mates for life, a happy couple can re-mate within 30 minutes of the male giving birth to their young.
Having seen one of the smallest fish in the ocean, Raga thought I needed something bigger. Down on Big Drop, we paid a visit to a big Pacific goliath grouper (Epinephelus quinquefasciatus). It reaches a length of 2.5 m and can weigh as much as 360 kg and to get this big it feeds on crustaceans, other fish, octopuses and young sea turtles. Definitive study into their reproductive behaviour has yet to be conducted but it is believed that like rest of the grouper family they are protogynous hermaphrodites, where all juveniles are female, the largest female in a territory become male when the resident male dies. Being this big, the fish wasn’t fazed by our presence and sat on the bottom as we pulled up alongside. Comparing it to Raga just behind it, our fella was around two metres long, yet another very impressive find.
On the last day we returned to Suzy. I mean Suzy’s Bommy. I no longer think or her / it as a large lump of rock covered in coral. All the fish were still there, with a couple of stonefish to boot, and the corals were just as captivating. I have always been a diver who avoided “going into deco” (building up a level of nitrogen in the body that makes a safety stop compulsory), and had managed to be a good boy for over 1500 dives around the world. Suzy bewitched me and took my deco cherry. I did not want to leave her. In my mind the bommy has taken on her own persona and aura, she is an underwater goddess of marine diversity and health. Sometimes I dream about her and I get a funny feeling in my chest. I’m in love with a bommy called Suzy.
Papua New Guinea travel: PNG is three hour’s flight time north of Australia, six hours from Singapore, and has weekly and twice weekly direct flights from a range of destinations like Manila, Cebu, Bali, Sydney, Cairns, Hong Kong and Tokyo. Within PNG, the best way (and often only) way to get around is by air either with Air Niugini or Airlines of PNG. Best of PNG put together tailor-made dive trips that can also take in the best Sing-Sings (cultural festivals) on the PNG calendar, trekking up Mt Wilhelm or the Kokoda Trail, and Sepik River expeditions. www.bestofpng.com
Wining and Diving – California
The Wining and Diving series sees Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown embark on a tour to tickle the taste buds as well as to discover amazing dive sites in wine-making regions around the world. Some of the best wines are influenced by sea breezes and a coastal climate, allowing two of Nick and Caroline’s passions to be combined into one epic journey.
**Please note, Nick and Caroline are not encouraging drinking before diving! The two activities are kept well apart on each of these trips.
California has over 1000 miles of coastline to explore and it also has over 1000 wineries so it is a perfect destination for Wining and Diving! It has always been a dream of ours to tour this rugged coast that makes for an epic road trip. Our trip, done over two separate visits, would take us from Fort Bragg in the north to San Diego in the south, along over 700 miles of one of the best coastal roads in the world. We flew into San Francisco, picked up a convertible Mustang, stuffed our diving and camera gear into every available space and headed north to start the wine tasting part of this trip.
Our first stop was to a vineyard whose wine we knew and loved already – Joseph Swan located in the Russian River Valley. They make a Zinfandel that could make you weep and so we wanted to visit the taste more of their wines that do not make it to the UK market. The drive through Russian River was worth the trip alone, with giant redwoods lining the winding road, sun shining, roof down, it was perfect. We also dropped into what must be one of the most eco-friendly vineyards in the world, Inman Family Wines. Organic and solar-powered, sustainability is key. Their Endless Crush Rose is a delight for a warm day on the terrace.
Whilst the sun was shining, the wind was also blowing and so our thoughts of diving in the north were put on hold. Instead, we visited glass beach in Fort Bragg, where over many years, glass tipped onto the beach has worn down to make smooth, multi-coloured, pebbles. A beautiful site, made from what was once rubbish dumped on the beach.
Further south, in Monterey, we reached the crossover point for our trip, as we moved away from wine tasting and into diving. We had one more vineyard we wanted to visit, again one we knew from drinking with friends in our back garden, Wrath Wines. They have tasting rooms in the delightful town of Carmel just a short drive from where we would be diving the next day. They wines are rich, full of flavour and their Pinot Noir is the best we have ever sampled.
Diving the Pacific Ocean in California has always been a dream, and so we had spent many happy hours on the internet researching the best dives and we made a list of the dives we wanted to fit in. Our first was Point Lobos in Carmel by the Sea. We were welcomed to this picturesque bay by a couple of Sea Otters floating on the surface, seemingly sunbathing. Our guide, Phil, had warned us that while the sea was flat calm, the winds had made visibility less than perfect. “You should have been here last week” he said, “when we had 20 feeding Humpback Whales by the boat at the end of the dive!” Our dive saw us swim through the giant kelp, explore anemone-covered boulders and be followed by a mischievous harbor seal. It was a pretty good start.
Heading further south we stopped in Ventura to do a day trip to Anacapa Island. A rugged volcanic island a couple of hours offshore. On the boat ride over to the island we saw whales, orcas and dolphins, as we skimmed across a flat calm ocean. On the dive we marvelled at the life covering every inch of the seabed and loved the bright orange Garibaldi fish who would face up to the camera as you approached.
We continued down to Long Beach, near Los Angeles, where we dived under a working oil rig, covered in marine life. We were joined by a playful young sea lion who zoomed around the small group of divers for over an hour. We also headed out to Catalina Island to dive the kelp forest and to look for the huge Black Sea Bass that the area is famous for. Diving in Giant Kelp is a wonderful experience akin to walking through a rain forest, the fronds towering above you and block out most of the sunlight in the denser patches, and letting dramatic cathedral light through making for a very atmospheric dive.
Our final stop was near San Diego, in the beautiful town of La Jolla. The coast here is home to a colony of sea lions that seem perfectly at ease sharing their home with locals and visitor alike. You can snorkel and dive here and we did both to enjoy these enigmatic creatures from both the surface and at depth. We also snorkeled with Leopard Sharks and turtles.
California offers the traveller so much. The coastal road is stunning, with forests lining one side and the vast ocean stretching out to the horizon on the other. The cities are vibrant with excellent nightlife; great food, drink and entertainment. The vineyards have some of the finest wines anywhere in the world and the diving offers some of the very best cold-water experiences we have had. Is there anything better than Wining and Diving in California?
- For more information about Frogfish Photography click here.
- For information about visiting California click here.
Diving holidays in The Maldives
We are delighted to welcome Ruth Franklin of Secret Paradise Maldives as a Guest Blogger. Over the coming weeks she will be sharing her personal, expert knowledge of this leading dive destination…
Life beneath the surface in the Maldives is an underwater Disneyland, perfect for dive enthusiasts. The Maldives is renowned as being one of the very best diving holiday locations in the world. There’s not only an abundance of reef life here but also spectacular coloured coral and crystal clear water.
WHY CHOOSE THE MALDIVES FOR YOUR DIVING HOLIDAY?
The Maldives ticks all of the boxes when it comes to diving holidays. This tropical location boasts visibility levels of up to 40 metres, making it a great destination for advanced divers. However diving holidays in the Maldives are not just for the experienced. The shallow lagoons and channels make it the perfect location to try SCUBA diving for the very first time. Plus what better destination in the world is there to gain your SCUBA diving certifications?
The Maldives is also home to a protected UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. The presence of currents in this island nation means that open water channels are perfect for drift diving and it’s also possible to swim with gentle ocean giants like manta rays and whale sharks. Don’t forget the Maldives has year round water temperatures of 26 – 29 degrees Celsius meaning you can leave your dry suit at home!
WHAT IS THE BEST TIME OF YEAR FOR DIVING IN THE MALDIVES?
Fortunately, the diving season in the Maldives is open all year round with the calmest conditions from December through to June. As the Maldives is located in the tropics, it is susceptible to both wet and dry seasons. June to November is the south-west monsoon season, bringing with it with overcast and wet conditions, especially in June and July. During these months expect slightly less visibility and different currents, although there is still plenty of marine life on offer, as well as sunny spells. Generally reef life is more varied and visibility is better on the western side of any atoll from May to November and on the eastern side from December to April. Reef sharks, tiger sharks, hammerheads and whale sharks are found in the Maldives year round, along with manta rays and sea turtles, you just need to know where to head at the time of year you plan to dive!
MALDIVES DIVING HOLIDAY OPTIONS
There are a number of diving holiday options when it comes to Maldives. Here at Secret Paradise, we offer value for money diving holidays and tours that you will remember for a lifetime. Enjoy an all-inclusive guesthouse stay and be transferred by boat to incredible nearby dive sites, the same sites that you would dive from a resort but at half the cost! Our diving holidays are an affordable alternative to a resort stay and also allow you the flexibility of island hopping or if your budget is larger, atoll hopping to benefit from the best dive locations during your time of travel.
Liveaboards are a popular dive holiday option, allowing you to scour the waters for the ultimate dive spot each day. These days most liveaboards operate a year round schedule offering 7 night, 10 night and 14 night cruises, not only in the central atolls but to the deep south and deep north offering opportunities to discover less dived sites and pristine coral reefs.
OUR SECRET PARADISE DIVING HOLIDAYS
Here at Secret Paradise, we offer diving holiday packages in different atolls from the deep north to the Deep South and everything in between, allowing you access to what are some of the best dive sites in the world. Our diving holiday packages include Dharavandhoo, perfect if you want to encounter 100s of manta rays in Baa Atoll, Hulhumale if you need to stay close to the capital, Fuvahmulah for tiger shark encounters, Dhigurah home of the whale shark in Ari Atoll, Rasdhoo, the ideal location to spot a hammerhead and Gan in Laamu atoll, to mention just a few of our personal favourite dive locations.
Our island hopping itineraries in Male Atoll and Ari Atoll allow you to discover a range of dive sites and marine life whilst at the same time experiencing Maldives local life, tradition and culture, with or without a private dive guide.
All our dive partners are PADI affiliated dive centres and are operated by both local and European dive professionals. A personal interest is taken in promoting scuba diving in the Maldives, through education and awareness about the underwater environment here. Their objective is to encourage underwater conservation and safe diving practices.
Dives are generally conducted from the beach within an island’s inner reef for beginners or from a local dive boat, called a ‘dhoni’, for certified divers. Dive sites are chosen daily based on both the weather and current conditions as well as diver ability.
The dive teams will take you to the best dive spots and willingly introduce you to the characteristics of the underwater world of the Maldives. All offer boat dives, NITROX, night dives and a full range of PADI courses and will always ensure you get the best out of your dive. If you are learning to dive, you can do anything from completing a try dive or just the open water dive section of your PADI Open Water certification to completing the full PADI Open Water certification and more. Whatever you choose to do you can be assured of fun and safe diving with us and our partners.
Discover more of The Maldives with www.secretparadise.mv
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Explore the amazing triangle of Red Sea Reefs - The Brothers, Daedalus and Elphinstone on board the brand new liveaboard Big Blue. With an option to add on a week at Roots Red Sea before or after.
Strong currents and deep blue water are the catalysts that bring the pelagic species flocking to these reefs. The reefs themselves provide exquisite homes for a multitude of marine life. The wafting soft corals are adorned with thousands of colourful fish. The gorgonian fans and hard corals provide magnificent back drops, all being patrolled by the reef’s predatory species.
£1475 per person based on double occupancy. Soft all inclusive board basis, buffet meals with snacks, tea and coffee always available. Add a week on at Roots Red Sea Resort before or after the liveaboard for just £725pp. Flights and transfers are included. See our brochure linked above for the full itinerary.
This trip will be hosted by The Scuba Place. Come Dive with Us!
Call 020 3515 9955 or email email@example.com
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