PAPUA NEW GUINEA MILNE BAY'S "MV CHERTAN" "LIVEABOARD EXTRAORDINAIRE"
In an instant, my dived out, brain dead body forgot about the three previous mind-blowing SCUBA dives it had done that day. Within three minutes I was kitting up on the back deck checking my surface interval against bottom times and mentally running down equipment and camera checks, adrenalin pumping... Hairy ghost pipefishes are the absolute rarest of the rare even in their Milne Bay homeland and the opportunity to see and photograph one, let alone two, might be once in a lifetime event and I did not want to miss the chance. Anchored out here in the middle of everything surrounded by submerged reefs, we were exposed to the elements and that day it was blowing a steady 20 knots so the wind chop in the water was enough to make small boat entry adventurous.
The MV Chertan Dive Liveaboard crew handled me and my cameras in the skilled proficient way the entire operation is famous for and we bounced our way out to the site. Not having been in the Samarai area for 20 years I could only remember the big islands, the reefs were lost in the obscurity of time. It seemed incredulous to me Rob just said "out there" with a wave of his hand and and in a couple of minutes the motor cut out and we were there. At this stage, I remember thinking... How could these guys possibly remember where the hairy pipefish were in these rock and roll chopped up surface conditions? I couldn't even see the reeflet alone pick out any geography. At best, I was mentally prepared for disappointment at the end of a wild goose chase. "Ye of little faith" Mr. Neville. Rob van der Loos is the keenest, most "critter" motivated livaboard host you have encountered in many years. Not only does he take exceptional still photographs with his Nexus camera housing close up system BUT his macro videos are the highest quality, with brilliant natural history sequences one can only dream about. After the best diving ever he can hardly wait to develop film and see results and he has been doing it around these waters for 20 years. He knows every reef like the back of his hand exactly where he is anchoring and the underwater geography adjacent to the anchor and position of the boat.
HAIRY GHOST PIPEFISH I followed Rob and Molly (the best cook and "critter" finder in the business) down to the saddle between the reefs and there in a small crevice in the side of the coral were two beautiful hairy ghost pipefishes, a big red female and a smaller blue-coloured male. The red filamentous algae these fish are thought to mimic was all around in small patches. While Rob was videoing and taking stills I searched the immediate vicinity looking for blue filamentous algae but without success. When Rob had finished photographing, I took a turn and managed to get a few shots of the two together with my 105 lensed Nikon F4 in a Nexus housing and then ran off half a roll on the smaller male with my 28mm close up Nikonos III. The fish appeared unfazed by all the attention with no signe of stress or panic in their eyes. Even when separated they kept visual contact and immediately we left they went straight back to their hole on the reef. They knew exactly where they were.
INCREDIBLE SENSE OF DIRECTION The first time I experienced the ability of ghost pipefish to orientate to each other I was totally "blown away"One year I found a pair at 25 meters on the underside of a wreck near the propeller in a small sprig of black coral. Because it was silty and I had trouble focussing upside down amongst my exhaust bubbles I moved the female up into the shallows to the front of the wreck (at least 40 meters away) to get some shots. While taking the shots it seemed apparent that the ghost pipefish was intent on swimming back towards the rear of the wreck. I followed the fish, not daring to think what I was thinking. The female ghost pipefish swam strongly back along the exact path I had taken, down and along the entire side of the wreck and straight into the propeller cavity. That a 65mm with at best a wheat grain sized brain and pinhead eyes could negotiate that entire wreck in such unerring fashion further increased my wonder of nature and fish in general.
SEARCH AND RECOVERY Wherever we went the excitement never dwindled, every dive site was sensational with a wealth of beautiful and bizarre creatures found at every site. Working as I have been for a year on my newest production "2002 Sea Shells" my main reason for being in Milne Bay was to update my knowledge and obtain shots on some of Molly and Rob's recent discoveries of egg and spindle cowries. Researching the Ovulidae family for over 30 years I had one of the most comprehensive indexes in the world and my plan was to publish my findings and discoveries in "2002 Sea Shells" allowing for a display of over 300 pictures, the world's largest Ovulid photo gallery in colour. Molly's eagle eyes found a species I had never seen before and it appears new to science. One can understand why it may have remained a secret for so long; a full-sized adult is only 5mm in size BUT the mantle pattern is unique and like no other. We found 10 species all together allowing me to substantiate the range of several contested species and check on the authenticity of others.
THE BOAT Purpose built "MV Chertan" is immaculate. Everything works! From the spacious on-deck shower/toilet with excellent flushing mechanisms to the important stuff, like engines, generators, compressors and air-conditioning. Yes! I take my diving seriously and I happan to appreciate a professionally run operation where the boat, crew, skipper and cook do an excellent job with professional skills and a smile. What's more, I don't mind at least giving a job well done the credit due and in this case, it was well earned! "Many thanks Rob, Maleta (Molly), Cherie and the crew, Luke, Robin, Clark, Willie and Steven, it was great!" Damn it! I was so busy having a good time diving I forgot to get a picture of the boat!