The Rhinopias is Missing!
To say that Papua New Guinea is rich in marine life is to say that Bill Gates has a bit put by, and the island of Loloata lives up to its billing. It also has its own special pride and joy to show off to divers, the lacy scorpionfish. But could John Bantin find one Could he...

WE ARRIVED BY WAY OF A SMALL ALUMINIUM CANOE. Once the noisy outboard motor had been killed and we were able to hear ourselves speak again, the girl from Southampton turned to our young native guide, admiring his dreadlocks.
     In - Eng-land, she over-pronounced, I - am - hair - dress - er. You - know. Hair She demonstrated combing her hair, followed by exaggerated movements which I took to be using scissors. I - am - hair - dress - er.
     The native guide looked bemused. The girls husband (me - BMW - salesman) helped her from the boat, shrugged, and waded to the island.
     I looked at our boatman, feeling slightly embarrassed. Where in England are you from he asked.
     London, I replied. He smiled.
     When I lived in London, I lived in Bexley Heath, he offered. I smiled back.
     Why do I recount this story Because appearances can be deceptive. Just because a man dresses like a local does not mean he cannot travel just like you. The islands north of Australia are full of people who have strong links with the UK.
     Are you planning a trip to Papua New Guinea Its a very large area and has extensive high-quality diving, but if youre going, its a sure thing that youll be making first landfall in Port Moresby, the capital.
     Port Moresby has recently acquired something of a reputation. Its a reputation for lawlessness, with gangs of criminals shooting up the place. They call them rascals. So Port Moresby is probably not a good place to stay.
     However, from the high point that is the dining deck at the airport hotel, you can see the tiny island of Loloata, one of three in Bootless Inlet. The islands name means one hill. Its not a big island but it is a great refuge from what could be an ugly world and its amazing what a difference a short boat trip can make.
     Papua New Guinea is full of native people who lead simple, traditional lives, together with expatriate Brits and Aussies who seem to have got most of the white-collar jobs. Loloata is used by a lot of these expatriates as a haven of normality at the weekends.
     No canoes here. Loloata uses a sophisticated little ferry boat to link it to the mainland. It also has strong connections with Britain. Like Adam from Hull who, with his Dutch girlfriend Ninke, runs the dive centre. Then theres Dave, the maintenance manager. He is the archetypal Australian, with his wide-brimmed hat and shorts and socks and boots and pipe. The place is managed by Dik Knight. He has an Australian accent too.
     Loloata is an all-inclusive resort. Apart from eating, drinking and chewing the fat, and watching a singsing performed by young people from the nearby village on a Friday night, there is little other fun to be had on this tiny island - unless you call avoiding Monty the marauding tree kangaroo fun.
     He was locked up and in disgrace while I was there. I was informed that this was as a punishment for some unspeakable offence he had committed with the unco-operative Japanese consuls wife.
     The many wallabies and the goura pigeons (they really are pigeons, although they look a bit like peacocks) were left to wander freely - as freely as the sea-snake I met meandering up my bungalow steps one evening.
     Loloata has great scuba-diving. Its quite tidal around the island. One moment youre sitting on the dining-veranda with waves crashing against the low retaining wall, and the next it seems that you could almost walk across to the mainland.
     The dive boats are loaded by means of a long jetty - but dont be worried. You dont have to do it yourself.
     Youll find your equipment mysteriously rigged and waiting for you when you board, and it gets a freshwater rinse after every dive excursion too.
     Loloata has something of a name among those who like the smaller things of life. I spent one dive with Carl at nearby Lion Island, examining the tiny shrimps that choose to live on the underside of sea cucumbers.
     This part of the country escaped the fierce battles of the Pacific War and there are few wartime wrecks nearby. The mv Pai II was an 85ft ocean-going trawler. It sits upright in about 27m close to Horseshoe Reef, where it has lain for 20 years, attracting a massive amount of reef life. It has two main areas of interest - the wheelhouse and the massive mast that was formerly used for hauling nets.
     The mast is covered in sponges, corals and hard green tubastria. Its interior is full of glassfish and their predators, as well as long-nosed hawkfish, scurrying about like sparrows over the rusty metal. No gorgonia for them.
     I hovered within the cavity of the mast, holding my breath and trying to get a shot upwards into glassfish and redmouth groupers. My ear grew hot. One of Guidos video lights was pressed up against it. Guido is an Italian video-master who was visiting at the time.
     Discretion being the better part of valour, I decided to abdicate my position to him and switched my attention to the wheelhouse. There, I stalked a bumphead parrotfish at a cleaning station.
     Again my ear grew hot. It was Guido. Wherever I pointed my camera, he seemed to want to photograph exactly the same thing. Again I left him to it and returned to my original position in the mast. Again my ear was roasted.
     I wish he had either told me before the dive that I was the subject of his video sequence or that he had turned off the light that he was pressing against my head. I ended up dodging around the wreck half-demented, my ear burning!
     The mv Pacific Gas, or Nanayo Maru as it was originally called, is larger and sank in 1986. It was a bulk gas-carrier and lies more than half a mile north of, and at an angle to, Horseshoe Reef, its propeller at 45m and its prow at 16m. The foremast makes a useful route towards the surface.
     I watched bemused as most of my companions, armed with 2:1 macro cameras, examined the minutia of life that inhabits the wreck. A female loggerhead turtle, the size of a wardrobe, hovered round their heads looking for a place to put down. Again, I watched Guido, working his way up the mast with his video camera and lights, making frito misto as he went.
     Reef dive-sites include those with names such as Pumpkin Patch, the Pinnacles and Dianas Delight. The latter site has lots of swim-throughs and masses of colourful gorgonia.
     The End Bommie is a small bommie at the end of the reef, joined by a low saddle of coral. This is a place where you are almost guaranteed to see the lacy scorpionfish or Rhinopias aphanes, an animal almost unique to the area and a must sighting for any visiting diver.
     I was told that they like to sit proudly atop the hard corals.
     I made several visits to End Bommie. I saw stonefish. I saw little whitetip reef sharks hiding under corals. I saw the resident hawksbill turtle. I saw a big cuttlefish. I saw jacks hunting anthias.
     I saw a banded seasnake. I saw a well-camouflaged octopus. What I did not see was a rhinopias.
     Never mind, well try another day, I was told. One will be there tomorrow, I promise. We went back three times but Im afraid I never saw a rhinopias. The rhinopias was missing.
     Suzies Bommie was named after a passenger on a liveaboard. Its an isolated bommie that rises 30m from the sandy seabed to within 13m from the surface, some way outside the sunken barrier reef.
     It needs an act of faith on your part the first time you swim out from the reef through midwater until you find it. But finding it is like finding something very special indeed.
     While most of the sites around Loloata offer a search for tiny life-forms such as the pygmy seahorse, the ghost pipefish, the colourful nudibranch and even the larger lacy scorpionfish, Suzies Bommie is a place of excess.
     There is no need for searching, its all there, right in your face. I saw great schools of oriental sweetlips, of spotted sweetlips, of Goldmans sweetlips, of brown sweetlips.
     There are prides of lionfish there, brigades of fusiliers, aggregations of jacks, phalanxes of Spanish mackerel.
     Why are there so many fish I cannot say. Obviously it is a place that has escaped the attentions of those who hunt fish for a living.
     I am told that this is a place to see scalloped hammerheads and, although I saw none during my two visits there, I can well believe it.
     I did see a wobbegong or carpet shark but, kismet, I was out of film as usual.
     I did not see a rhinopias there. The rhinopias was missing. But, rhinopias or not, I have to say that Suzies Bommie was still outstanding.

oriental sweetlips at Suzies Bommie
lionfish at that site
welcome to Loloata
the mast on the same wreck
schooling jacks on the Pacific Gas
a cuttlefish on End Bommie
This is what was missing for John Bantin - a rhinopias
typical pinnacles
the masthead light on the Pacific Gas
a goura pigeon
a wallaby
a good night out at the singsing


GETTING THERE: John Bantin travelled to Singapore and then on to Port Moresby with Air Niugini. Be aware that weight restrictions apply when travelling via Singapore and excess baggage charges can be considerable.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION : Loloata Island Resort is about 15 minutes from the airport at Port Moresby (00 675 325 8590, There are two dive boats, one for 10 divers, the other able to take five. Accommodation is in 22 elevated beachfront units.
MONEY : US dollars and local kina. All major credit cards.
WHEN TO GO: Any time. In the water a 5mm full suit is recommended. Topside, shorts and T-shirts are adequate but a plastic raincoat is useful.
HEALTH : Malaria can be a problem. Doxycycline is recommended for divers.
LANGUAGE : Pidgin and English.
COST: A typical seven-day trip costs£1495 and includes full-board accommodation, transfers and diving. Entry tax and airport departure fee costs another $40. If you need to hire diving equipment on site, book it in advance. Call Scuba Safaris 01342 851196,

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