Loloata Love Affair

LOLOATA love affair

Story by Neville Coleman


Giant puffs of white cumulus cloud roll down the Astrolabe range and billow out in moody transition into a sky of infinite blue. Burning sunsets light up the entire scene, horizon to horizon; the tides ebb and flow, the seasons come and go and the coconut palm fronds rustle in the breezes echoing with tunes as ancient as life itself …

And in the midst of this, in a bay called Bootless, lies a very special island called Loloata.

In Motu language the name is made up from two words, Loloa meaning hill, and Ta meaning one. Loloata is indeed a one-hill island. The early explorers named the inlet Bootless Bay; to them, this shallow water embayment some 22 kilometres east of Port Moresby was in archaic terms ‘bootless’, useless, with no anchorage for their tall ships and therefore a place of little importance.

On the surface, Bootless Bay has its own personality, controlled by the seasons. People go about their traditional business, aided by longboats, outboard motors, nets, fishing lines and spears, and eke out their existence as hunter/gatherers and gardeners. Here and there small businesses have appeared, but for the most part life goes on much the same as it has for thousands of years.

To those few adventurers who seek its secrets, the awesome magnitude of Bootless Bay’s underwater wilderness never ceases to amaze. A few metres below the surface lies a kaleidoscopic extravaganza so magnificent that it defies description.

Adventure diving pioneer Dik Knight, manager of Loloata Island Resort, since the 1970s has been providing the means for people from around the globe to experience the wondrous underwater wildlife of Papua New Guinea. My first experience here was during the making of an English nature documentary, Nature Watch, in 1980.

I was amazed at the richness of the marine life, and began a list of species from the area. This list was d in 1981 when I went back to hold the first marine biology course for divers in Papua New Guinea, courtesy of Bob and Dinah Halstead of Tropical Diving Adventures. Although only a few were photographed, we listed hundreds of species, all under the cooperation of the Wildlife Division. Our hopes to establish Papua New Guinea’s first marine park, Tahira Marine Park didn’t eventuate, however. and through the years the idea slipped away.

My return to Bootless Bay at the request of Dik Knight in May/June 1996 on behalf of interested sponsors allowed me to take up the programme begun all those years ago. I was just as enthralled on my 1996 dives at sites like End Bommie and Lion Island as I had been in the pioneering days of the 1980s. The diving was magnificent. I dived at least twice a day. Shooting with three cameras per dive, I was able to begin the visual identification survey of the various dive sites.

From a natural science point of view, Bootless Bay is a paradise – an ecosystem which contains just about every major habitat, from mangroves to sea grass meadows, sand banks, slopes and soft bottom. There are rocky reefs, rubble banks, coral reefs, slopes and dropoffs, shallow water, deep water and oceanic water. Within these major habitats (and a thousand micro-habitats) live an amazing array of the most beautiful, bizarre and bewitching marine creatures.

The problem is that there is such a visual extravaganza that unless there has been some attention paid to learning and recognising the many different animals, the vision blurs into a mass of ‘pretty stuff’. The beginnings of the initial survey (courtesy of John Miller’s dive boat Solatai) were very encouraging.

We were shown where the famous lacy scorpionfish Rhinopias resided at End Bommie and managed to get shots of the pink/orange form. Everywhere I dived, something new turned up, though due to the whims of the weather, getting back to interesting sites was governed by the mood of the sea. During this time I ran another PADI Marine Biology workshop at the resort and gave some audiovisual presentations.

The weeks passed quickly and even with a

little help here and there, it took a lot of bottom time to produce a comprehensive photographic fauna survey. It took a lot more time to research and list all the animals of each major phyla, from sponges to fish. The list was added to, and some 580 species confirmed; several were unknown to me. This was an excellent beginning.

In 1996 I again ran marine biology courses at Loloata Island and had the opportunity to dive different sites. Dik organised two dives a day from the longboat with Steven as skipper and dive assistant, plus a deckhand to look after the boat. I dived many new dive sites and photographed another 500 species in the ensuing weeks, with some wonderful finds on the black coral reef off Lion Island. Steven found a number of exciting animals, including harlequin shrimps, giant mantis shrimps, nudibranchs and some stunning commensals, and between us we discovered a number of new species and hundreds of new records for the bay. After many weeks back in Brisbane curating the pictures and adding the photographs (once identified) and observations to the list, it numbered 1080 species.

A splendid new Reefmaster dive boat, built in Brisbane and shipped to Papua New Guinea, was already in service when I arrived. A new dive shop had been built and a dozen sets of new equipment installed. Michael Burden had provided a service to divers the like of which I had never experienced. Not only that, every dive site was now buoyed with submerged single bolt reef anchor moorings, so that coral damage from boat anchors was a thing of the past, and dive sites easily located and secured.

The Dive Loloata has a hot-water shower on board and a high priority is maintained for all camera equipment, which is washed immediately and stored under the seats out of the traffic area. Dive equipment is individually set up for each dive by the divemaster. At the end of the day or night all equipment is stripped from tanks, taken back to the island (under full security), washed and hung up to dry, ready for the next day’s dive. This service is available to every customer. After 35 years of roughing it, this was pure luxury. One just … went diving. Everything else, including hot coffee, sandwiches and fruit between dives, was an integrated part of the diving day.

The results? 51 dives later, our finds included ghost pipefish, new species of commensal shrimps, nudibranchs, short-nosed dragon fish, new crabs, hundreds of new records of sea stars, sea urchins, molluscs, ascidians and fish, as well as a grubfish which has not yet been identified. We witnessed mating squid, mass nocturnal egg-laying of spiny murex shells, coral spawning, ejaculating sea stars, previously unknown commensal associations, territorial displays, prey and predator action and courting behaviour. We found unbelievable animals, plants that mimic coral, fish that mimic flatworms, and cosmic camouflages so bizarre that believing the seeing, at times, verged on bewilderment!

Yet for all the work and endeavours, the 150 hours underwater, the 8000-plus photographs, the 1500 species so far listed on the fauna survey and the hundreds of hours cataloguing and identifying pictures and species, one thing remains clear – the Bootless Bay area with its myriad habitats and diversity has one of the richest marine macro faunas to be found anywhere.

The survey team consisted of me, Keesha Mackenzie (on her first dive trip), Barbara Harvey (experienced snorkeller and marine observer from Sydney), Michael Burden (skipper of Dive Loloata) and trainee divemaster Suzie (PNG national). Weather at this time of the year is a bit blowy but it didn’t stop us. Between us we managed around 80 hours in the water, chalking up another 300-plus species to add to the listings, along with a few new ones.

Every trip something new and exciting turns up. A highlight was establishing the presence of at least 36 species of ovulid cowries, including at least two that are undescribed and an entirely new genus discovered on this trip.

With my 1998 publication of Discover Loloata Island (a marine life guide to Papua New Guinea) illustrated by over 500 colour photographs from the bay and its environs, many of the initial results will be displayed. However, this is only a single step forward in the pursuit of knowledge. The Bootless Bay Photographic Fauna Survey will continue for as long as it takes to discover all the many secrets.

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