DURING THE 15TH AND 16TH CENTURIES, many European nations were embarking on grand maritime explorations to expand influence, empire and trade. One major objective was to find a route to the fabled spice islands described by Arab traders who were importing small but valuable cargos of mace, nutmeg and cloves overland to Europe.
Portugal, Spain, Holland and Great Britain were all involved in the quest, but it was the Dutch who eventually came to dominate the trade in the area, which is now part of Indonesia.
The VOC, or Dutch East India Company, was surely one of the first truly global corporations.
Huge fortunes were generated from the spice trade, because many people believed they offered protection from the various plagues that prevailed in Europe at the time, as well as adding flavour to food and disguising the taste of rotting meat!
The spice islands came to be known as the Molucca Islands, and the port of Ambon became one of the primary hubs for processing and distribution of spices and other valuable goods.
The sea route to and from the Moluccas was long, arduous and fraught with dangers from both the sea and unscrupulous buccaneers looking for easy prey. But the risks were worth the rewards, as the value of this natural treasure was the equivalent of the oil trade in its day.

FAST FORWARD TO THE 21ST CENTURY, and Ambon is earning a reputation for a very different commodity that is highly prized by divers and particularly underwater photographers – plenty of muck on the seabed, and the treasure trove of exotic critters consequently to be found.
While Ambon has been an attractive dive location within Indonesia for some time, the development of diving facilities and resorts was arrested by political turmoil around 2000.
The region is now stable again, and Ambon Bay in particular is becoming a must-dive destination, thanks to the reliability of seeing some unusual critters.
There are many species of scorpionfish to be found around the world, and most of them share the ability to blend in perfectly with their surroundings while waiting for unsuspecting prey.
In Ambon you will find numerous variations, including one particular small species named after the location, the Ambon scorpionfish. However, it is not this fish that represents one of the holy grails for the underwater photographer, because there is a more exotic and flamboyant species that, once seen, makes you wonder how it ever blends into the surrounding reef.
I had encountered the Rhinopias scorpionfish in Lembeh Strait, but on recent visits none were to be found. They were rumoured locally to have been collected for the aquarium trade where, not surprisingly, they would fetch a very high price.
The reports I had from Ambon and its single diving resort Maluku Divers were that the elusive Rhinopias was still prolific in the bay. I could expect to see several varieties.
I’m sure many of us have travelled far and wide on this sort of promise, only to arrive and be regaled with the tales of what was seen last week or a month ago, leaving us disappointed with our vision of success melted away!
So it was with some trepidation that we made the long haul to Ambon, prepared for disappointment but also determined to make the most of all the other weird critters on offer.

THERE ARE 48 NAMED dive-sites within Ambon Bay and they vary between true muck, reef and rubble, walls with healthy coral structures, a large wreck sunk in 1958 and also some classic reef dives just outside the entrance to the bay.
So there would be plenty to keep us engaged while we pursued the apex creature on our want list.
There are three main species of Rhinopias to be found – Rhinopias frondosa and Rhinopias aphanes, both commonly called the weedy or lacy scorpionfish, and Rhinopias eschmeyeri, also known as the paddle-flap Rhinopias.
All three are apparently seen regularly in the bay, and the local dive-guides told me of a population of more than 20 spread throughout the sites and turning up during the different seasons of the year. All three species have the same compressed body shape and facial structure, but the colour and decoration they adopt is quite different, particularly in the weedy species.
They are often found among soft corals or algaes with which they can blend easily, but occasionally they will be seen on the open seabed, moving from one location to another with an inelegant hopping motion.
In a muck environment there will always be exceptions, and one of the Rhinopias we saw was using a discarded mooring rope as cover. Despite this showing as bright purple under artificial light, the fish matched perfectly in the low light at 30m.
I thought we might spend several days searching for our quarry, but on day two I was introduced to our first paddle-flap Rhinopias, resting close to a coral head. The dive-site was named Rhino City, which I suppose should have given me a clue, but that was forgotten in my excitement.
The Rhinopias showed no concern about my close approach and even hopped towards me several times, possibly seeing its reflection in the dome port. This example seemed to have damage to its left eye, because it looked quite opaque, but this did not seem to impede its ability to snap up passing cardinalfish.
Many scorpionfish yawn occasionally to exercise their jaw muscles, and quite often after they have struck and fed.
I was pleased to capture this activity, particularly as this was the first rhino dive.

THE FOLLOWING DAY we were informed that the tide and currents were good for visiting another site that should yield the more colourful weedy Rhinopias frondosa.
All was looking good until I made my customary check of the dome-port on my descent. Disaster – drops of water!
In these situations you are torn between diving safety and your urgent desire to get the housing out of the water before the leak increases. Do you make a safety stop and watch it fill, or head straight for the surface rapidly
Trained by BSAC in the 1970s (long before safety stops) I simply reverted to following my smallest bubble, which was fortunately moving fast enough for me, and I had not been down long enough for the computer to object too much. Luck was with me, and the water ingress proved small, while a strategically placed tampon performed flawlessly.
So following this small stress-raiser I was able to return to the hunt, and was introduced to no fewer than three Rhinopias on the same dive.
The first was the deepest at 27-30m, on a piece of heavy rope well-covered in algaes and hydroids. Because of the depth the light was relatively poor, and at first I was puzzled by my guide’s big grin as he pointed at a spot on the rope.
As my eyes adjusted I could see the Rhinopias wedged in a twist in the rope and, with a bit of torch-light, realised that the colour was a splendid rich purple decorated with frilly appendages.
The position was not ideal, but I set to work and took several frames before moving to allow another photographer access. I moved up the slope to a shallower depth to wait while the other members of our group took their pictures, and amused myself with a giant frogfish while I waited.
It’s funny how you can feel almost disappointed by an equally extraordinary creature that is happily posing for you when your mind is on a different subject.
At last I saw the last of our group swim up the slope, and quickly descended to the spot. No Rhino! Time was ticking down on my computer as I frantically looked, then I noticed a small movement further down the rope. It turned out to be my Rhino waddling off towards the end of the rope.
This was actually good luck, because he was in a much better position on the rope, only now at 32m. I watched my bottom time disappear as I adjusted the ISO higher on my camera to capture some natural light.
A few more shots and I was into stops, so it was time to go, but I was happy.

I MADE MY WAY UP the slope, thinking that things couldn’t get any better, but as I reached the top in 8m, there was my guide grinning again and beckoning me to follow.
A minute or so later, I was presented with a stunning yellow frondosa patiently posing in deco depth. I had no time restrictions with this subject, and was able to observe feeding and a couple of yawns to cap off the experience.
Air was getting low at this point, and I moved into 6m to make my stops and met my guide, who checked the time on my computer.
As soon as my stop was completed he led me off again over the reef in the shallows to a spot on the reef with a dense school of cardinalfish.
Here, in only 2-3m of water, was the third Rhinopias of the dive, but this one was a paddle-flap eschmeyeri in a subtle pink/orange colour. I would have swum over it without the help of the guide, but once pointed out it looked so obvious.
I was sucking pretty hard on my regulator by the time I finished with this subject, and ascended to the surface with nothing on the gauge and almost 80 minutes on the clock – but I am not recommending this as safe diving practice to anyone else!
So in only three days I had achieved all my Rhinopias goals, and escaped a terminal flood. I still had another week on location, so was able to relax and focus on all the other fantastic marine critters that Ambon Bay has to offer.
The terrific variety here will keep even the most ardent of photographers happy, even if you don’t get to see your own holy grail subject.

ON THE LAST DAY OF DIVING, the guests were asked where they would like to dive again and I was unable to resist the desire for one last visit to the Rhinopias!
So, after a successful hunt for the Ambon Rhino, am I satisfied
Of course not! Most underwater photographers will happily photograph the same subject over and over again, striving for an improvement in the image, trying different lenses and lighting combinations or looking for a unique composition.
So I will certainly be back, if not for the Rhinopias on other unfinished business with another now famous local denizen.
Ambon hit the ichthyology headlines a few years ago with the discovery of one of the weirdest-looking frogfish ever seen. This was the Maluku or psychedelic frogfish (Histiophryne psychedelica) first seen there in 2008 and rarely again since then.
I haven’t seen one, but there is always hope for the next visit!
Not only are the subjects in Ambon plentiful, but with only one dive centre you will have the bay to yourself.
It reminds me of the early days in Lembeh Strait, when there was only one dive operator. So if you yearn for critters and value solitude, plan to go soon. It is bound to change.

GETTING THERE There are a number of routes from Europe and the USA to Ambon via Denpasar in Bali and Jakarta. Mark Webster flew with Emirates and Garuda Indonesia, both of which offer 30kg free hold allowance for divers. You can purchase a 30-day tourist visa on arrival for US$25.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION Maluku Divers, Ambon, www.muckdivingindonesia.com
WHEN TO GO Ambon can be dived most of the year but the resort is closed for part of January. European winter months are the “rainy” season, normally occasional short downpours between sunny spells with calm seas. Water temperature is 27-29°C but can drop to 20-25° in cold currents, so a 3-5mm wetsuit is advisable.
CURRENCY Change US dollars, euros or sterling locally into rupiah. Rates are often best on arrival at the airport.
HEALTH Ambon has a low malaria risk.
PRICES Flights vary between £600-750 from the UK to Indonesia, with a further £150-200 for the internal flights to Ambon. When booking internal flights online select the Indonesian home page (in English) for the best prices, particularly for Garuda Indonesia. A one-week package at Maluku Divers costs $1680.
TOURIST INFORMATION www.indonesia.travel