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by Lionel and Tally Pozzoli
For years Lionel and Tally Pozzoli have explored the earth for places that compare to Papua New Guinea and its wild menagerie of underwater diversity. But the primal force of pure adventure always harkens them back. And with each trip they are rewarded with new discoveries for their logbooks and photographs that together can only be described as the ultimate diver highlight reel.
On the back deck of the MV Chertan, we were in our wetsuits listening to Rob Vanderloos’ briefing: “Thirty feet in front of us, a little to the left we should find a seahorse. Behind us, we will definitely see Red Fire Urchins with commensal shrimp on them, maybe some ghost pipefish as well. On the other side…there are also white anemones with Tomato Anemonefish, and from there…we will find Octopus City where many octopi live and…three different ribbon eels, and the purple anemone with the orange Clown Anemonefish. Don’t forget to look in the seaweed, crinoids and soft corals, there are plenty of interesting creatures in them…” Rob wants to tell us more but we don’t want to listen. Waaaaaater, let us get into the water.
In a matter of seconds we are ready to go.
This is much better. But wait a minute. What’s this? Where are all the corals? The sand…it’s black! Is this the place? Oh yes! On the dark sand, between the scattered patches of rock, corals and seaweed, we discover a world that will stay in our memories forever.
From that moment on we were in the water, nothing could stop us. Sometimes we surfaced to change tanks or film, sometimes we stayed on the surface just to keep our computers happy. We used these short breaks for eating the delicious meals that Peo (Rob’s wife) cooked for us. This also gave us a chance to exchange notes:
“Cockatoo Waspfish? Where?”
“Oh, just next to where we saw the white frogfish.”
“You mean the one that was near the Leaf Scorpionfish?”
“No, no, the one next to the place where we saw the two ghost pipefish.”
“Anyone for dessert?”
“No thank you, we’ve got places to go, fish to see…”
On a night dive we noticed quite a few lionfish following us. That was new. But we soon found out why. When our dive lights shined on a nice looking fish it took the lionfish a few seconds to decide and then less than a second to attack and swallow. What a sight. The only problem with this was that whenever we found anything interesting, if it was the right size, looking at it for more than few seconds meant seeing it being eaten.
Later we jumped off the dive deck directly into an amazing dive site—a wonderland. We descended into a colorful forest. Sponges, seafans and a lovely combination of soft and hard corals that seemed to have been planted by a gardener of genius. Like the rest of Milne Bay, the corals here were extremely healthy—no signs of El Niño and its mischief. In the distance, we saw a huge, dark, moving cloud. We approached and entered a shoal of thousands of small, silver fish. They were moving fast. The water flashed from blue to black to silver, again and again, as they flew around us. We were completely mesmerized! Fifteen minutes later, in what I assumed to be the first stages of hypnosis, we forced ourselves to leave and explore the rest of the reef.
We even went on one very strange dive that had volcanic gas bubbles coming out of the ocean bed. The smell of sulphur accompanied a threatening bubbling sound.
There are no words to describe the amazing feeling that comes with the discovery of this incredible place with all its fascinating creatures. Many of them we had never seen before, and there were plenty that we did not even know existed. Rob explained to us that he has dived this small bay hundreds of times, and he still finds new creatures.
With an average water temperature of 80°F, this place is a diver’s dream. Plenty of hard and soft corals of all colors, large seafans, gorgonians and huge sponges decorate the black bottom. From the smallest, strangest creatures to large marine life, including reef sharks, Whale Sharks, schools of barracuda, dolphins and Dugongs, it all can be found here.
Rob has been diving in Milne Bay for the last 22 years. If a diver asks to see a yellow Rhinopias (Scorpionfish), “No problem.” Nautilus? “No problem.” Orcas? “Well, maybe.”
So much has been written and photographed about this glorious bay. Its rich endemic vegetation, the long stretch of dark sandy beach, the calm water. All in such harmony, which makes this place, without a doubt, one of the most magical spots in the world.
From the briefing we could have never guessed that the dive off Lion Island (Loloata Island) was going to be one we will never forget. Michael, our guide, told us that this was going to be what is called a muck dive—no coral reef just shallow sand, sea grass and two wrecks. In the sand and sea grass, we should expect to find some weird creatures. On the first wreck there was a cleaning station where large and small fish come to get their gills and mouths cleaned of parasites by cleaner shrimp. But, he explained, this is not a usual cleaning station.
So with this intriguing piece of information we swam directly to the wreck. One of our dive buddies put his hand next to several white-striped cleaner shrimp, and without wasting a second, they all climbed on, each one having its own area to manicure. We all took our turn while Michael repositioned himself, took the regulator out of his mouth and opened it just like any fish would do! Instantly all six shrimp hopped on, some disappearing completely inside his mouth; two cleaners stayed outside concentrating on the gums and the front teeth. When Michael needed to take a breath, he moved slightly, and the shrimp returned to their station on the wreck.
Of course, we all had a go at the underwater dental session. It would probably be the closest we would ever get to being a fish.
Loloata has become renowned as the perfect place for divers who enjoy finding and photographing a wide variety of strange small creatures, which are hard to find elsewhere. This is especially true at Suzies Bommie.
At 90 feet a large purple gorgonian hosts a spunky little tenant living in between its polyps—a purple pygmy seahorse. This type is quite large for a pygmy seahorse—one whole centimeter long. Its camouflage is perfect, so perfect that we never found it. However, the dive had just started. We saw a large moving cloud on the current-facing side of the bommie. It was only when we were practically in it that we understood what it was made of—a huge school of several species of fish. From batfish and Oriental Sweetlips to little basslets. Other than its size, what was so impressive about this school was that the different species didn’t mix, which created a layered look. They were all facing the current and showed no concern as we moved into the middle of this happy family and tried to blend in. I think if we had to do this for days at a time, like the fish, it would not have been much fun. But during the short time we did, it was simply awesome.
The people of PNG have (what might seem to us) a strange national habit-chewing betel nut. This is practiced by everyone, from young children to the elderly. Take a betel nut, some lime powder (usually made from crushed coral) and a pepper leaf. When combined and chewed in the local fashion, the mouth and teeth turn bright red. Small splotches of red saliva on the ground are a sure sign of its recent use.
A perfectly normal man in PNG will tell you that the three most important things in life are (in order of importance): the land, the pig and the woman (she is useful to have children, take care of the animals, work the land and make food).
It is calculated that there are 740 languages in PNG, a third of all the languages in the world. With this amazing basis for mutual incomprehension, it’s not surprising that there has been a long search for a common language. The result is PNG Pidgin English. It has taken words from many languages, but is mainly derived from English.
Pidgin has a very limited vocabulary and with only 1,300 words, the results are often quite funny:
Good morning – Moning
We were on our way to South Emma dive site when Max Benjamin, Walindi’s owner, asked, “Have you ever swam with Pilot Whales?”
I shook my head.
“Then get your mask and snorkel ready.”
Max carefully studied the group’s movement pattern. Soon, Max pointed out a direction for me to swim. The boat’s engines were turned off, and I swam as quietly as possible. Very soon I was in the middle of a group of about 20. They moved fast but kept a safe distance. Five curious individuals branched away to take a closer look at me. Two of the five were even more inquisitive and came as close as 12 feet. They had a good look then turned away. I was so excited that by the time I allowed myself to breath again, they had all disappeared.
After our bad luck at finding a pygmy seahorse off Loloata, we decided to try again at South Emma, for what Max called, “the real pigmy seahorse” (Hippocampus bargabanti). This species is about three millimeters long and lives on a red gorgonia. Its head is the size of a polyp! Max carries a magnifying glass just to find them. It took us only two minutes to locate our first—beginners luck! Even though we knew it was small we still found it hard to believe. It looked so fragile. Lionel managed two pictures and then looked at me with a huge smile of contentment. When he turned to take another photo he couldn’t find it again. We had to see this wonderful creature again. After 10 minutes of searching, finally we did. A few more photos were taken, and we forced ourselves to ascend.
At 25 feet we stopped our ascent. Our cameras, which were set for macro photography, had run out of film. We started looking around us and realized that we were at a beautiful dive site—large barrel sponges, bushes of Red Sea Whips and a colorful crinoid population covered the reef. In mid-water, a school of barracuda mixed with batfish allowed us to approach, almost within touching distance.
Under water, life in Kimbe Bay is supplied constantly by rich volcanic nutrients. The reefs are all in a bay, which is protected from the trade winds and giant waves. There is an amazing combination of large and small marine creatures, which can be found in shallow, clean waters. Fish life is so accustomed to divers that some species seem addicted to camera flashes. And new species of rare creatures, suitable for macro photography, are discovered all the time. Like the rest of PNG, this is a world of wonder, existing somewhere near the beginning of time and awaiting discovery.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
Mid-April to mid-June and mid-September to mid-December are the doldrums, which is the best time for diving, though diving is possible year-round.
73°F to 89°F in coastal areas; 57°F to 82°F in the Highlands. Temperatures are coolest during the Southern Hemisphere Winter.
80°F in the south (Port Moresby, Milne Bay, Tufi); 84°F in the north (Kimbe Bay, Rabaul, Kavieng, Madang, Morobe, Manus).
EXCHANGE RATE (at press time)
1.00 (USD) = 2.656 (PGK) Papua New Guinea Kina
EST + 10 hours