Ahh, Rhinopias — mere utterance of the word can set a diver’s heart aflutter. Divers seek three species in particular of these flamboyant scorpionfish: the lacy, weedy and paddle-flap (or Eschmeyer’s) scorpionfish. The first two are shaggy, psychedelic works of art. The third comes in shades reminiscent of a tween girl’s wardrobe: fuchsia, lilac, rose and orange. With elongated, upturned lips and prominent brows, they appear surprised, trying to kiss the sky.
Photographers seek Rhinopias not only for these striking photogenic characteristics, but also because they don’t move. This makes them ideal subjects. As solitary, ambush predators, Rhinopias find a spot, blend in, and snap up unsuspecting prey. They usually seek out small invertebrates and fish swimming by.
Types of Rhinopias
The lacy and weedy varieties are similar and often mistaken for each other. They both have filamentous, weedy (or lacy) appendages and kaleidoscopic body patterns. There are two easy ways to distinguish between them: habitat and their specific color patterns. The lacy scorpionfish is endemic to the Coral Sea, off the northeast coast of Australia — in Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands, and so on. The swirling network of lines on its body, combined with its lacy filaments, combine to make the lacy scorpionfish resemble a crinoid. The weedy variety, on the other hand, features a more spotted body pattern, like stains from water droplets. Divers will generally find this one further north, in the western Pacific and Indian Ocean, and as far west as the coast of east Africa. Indeed, it often inhabits the same dive sites as the less hairy, solid-colored paddle-flap variety.
Because of their sedentary ways, Rhinopias collect algae and other unwanted substances on their bodies over time. They solve this problem by periodically shedding the cuticle, their outer layer of skin.
Where and how to find them
For the most part, you’ll find Rhinopias, which max out at around nine inches (23 cm), throughout the tropical Indo-Pacific, from Mozambique to the Philippines and south to New Caledonia. They generally dwell on the bottom or a wide shelf, on near-seaward reefs between 15 and 90 feet (5 to 30 m). Lacy scorpionfish masquerade as crinoids, whereas the other two try to blend in with soft corals or weeds.
Ironically, because they are such rare finds they’re easy to spot — just ask a local dive guide. If they’ve seen one, word spreads, and because a Rhinopias’ camouflage relies on remaining in place for weeks at a time, dive guides can lead groups directly to it. In fact, I once traveled to Koh Lanta, Thailand, specifically to see my first Rhinopias because I knew it would be there. The wispy ,lavender weedy scorpionfish was almost indistinguishable from the purple and white gorgonians nearby.
Divers can spot Rhinopias at many popular Asian dive destinations. But two destinations offer near-guaranteed sightings — Lembeh Straight, off the northwest corner of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, and Milne Bay, in southeast Papua New Guinea. Other good options are the dive sites of the Indonesian islands in the Flores Sea, such as Nusa Tenggara (East and West), Komodo, Rinca and Pulau Alor.
Guest author Christina Koukkos is a New York-based freelance writer and editor. She covers scuba diving, responsible tourism, off-beat destinations, cultural travel and other topics. She’s a certified PADI dive instructor and MSDT as well as an amateur underwater (and topside) photographer. Learn more about her on her website, her blog, on Instagram or Twitter.