mrkuhl - Bluewater Dive Travel



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Solomon Islands


Diving the Wild West with Bluewater Travel

In Fiji, people refer to the Solomon Islands as “the Wild West.“ Malaria is endemic, and there’s a history of unrest, political and tribal. Headhunting was practiced here as recently as the early 20th century. The tourist trade is still in its infancy. Only about 8,000 tourists visit each year. Most of them go to Gizo island in the Western Provinces, about an hour-and-a-half flight from the capital.
But the dearth of tourists and development also means that the dive sites here are mostly in pristine condition, especially if you get away from the main islands. In the Solomons, there's the added benefit of many, many undiscovered dive sites. We were able to explore sites no one had ever visited before. The Solomons have always been high on my diving short list and I booked a week on the Islands' newest liveaboard dive boat.
The liveaboard was a purpose-built dive boat originally out of Cairns, Australia. New owners moved it to the Solomons at the beginning of 2016. Designed for the high-occupancy rates on the Great Barrier Reef, the boat holds as many as 30 divers. On our seven-day cruise there were only five.
I like liveaboards-lots of dives at sites that are usually unreachable by day boats (with dive sites, higher traffic usually means damage to the reef and less to see). Sure, they’re expensive, but for some locations (like the Galapagos and the Solomons) they are really the only way to see the best locations.
As a solo diver, the worst part about liveaboards is having to share a small cabin with a stranger. Luckily, here, as in the Galapagos the year before, the boats weren't full, so I was able to have a cabin to myself without paying a premium.

I flew from Fiji to Honiara, the capital of the Solomon’s is a scruffy port town with little in the way of amenities for the traveler. It grew up around Henderson Field after the war, when the British moved the capital from the old colonial center in Tulagi across the bay to take advantage of the infrastructure left by the Americans. So there’s no old colonial architecture, few restaurants, and the hotels mostly cater to business travelers.

I arrived a few days before the dive trip, hoping to tour some of the World War II battlefields. I was surprised to find that unlike most cities, Honiara has no travel agencies offering tours to the local attractions. It isn’t that there aren’t any, just that there no demand to visit them. There’s no WWII museum in the capital, and no memorials other than a few dusty plaques mounted on an obscure wall in the airport, crowded between large advertising signs.

After much work, I was able to find a guide to show me around the main sites: Tenaru River, Henderson Field, Bloody Ridge, and the wreck of the Kinugawa Maru.

About a dozen kilometers out of Honiara, I visited an idyllic beach where I snorkeled through the wreckage of the Kinugawa Maru, a Japanese transport beached after being bombed by American planes during the Battle of Tassafaronga. What's left of the ship is overgrown with beautiful corals and home to thousands of brilliantly-colored fish.
The beach is a favorite weekend picnic site for the locals. Again, there are no markers or memorials. Just the gentle waves and the memories rusting away into the sand.
After hanging out in Honiara for a couple days, it was time to go scuba diving. I met my fellow divers on the dock in Honiara at sunset and took a skiff out to Taka. Our small band included a couple from Taiwan and a retired firefighter and his wife from California.

We met the crew: Captain Dan the mad Brit, Divemaster Mossy the crazy Aussie, his fellow divemaster Lacey, local guide Action Jackson, and their support team. They were all great: friendly, helpful and all clearly having a good time. Dan and Mossy especially were a hoot. They kept us entertained the whole trip.
Leaving the industrial grime of Honiara harbor with its rusted hulks and floating trash, we motored into a night filled with stars and no light pollution except from the boat's navigation lights. The southern constellations and the Milky Way were intensely bright and clear.

And the next morning we awoke in another world. There's nothing like a South Pacific dawn. And there were plenty more of those to come. Not to mention the spectacular sunsets.
For seven days we cruised through the small islands of the Solomons chain (there are over 900 of them). We visited the Russell Islands and the Floridas, then sailed out to remote, uninhabited Mary Island.

I never get tired of the colors: the rich azure of the deep channels contrasting with the limpid turquoise of the shallow reefs and the vivid greens of the tropical vegetation. It is a place of stunning beauty. The only other boats were the locals in their canoes. In the whole week, we saw only one other motorized vessel.

Most of the islands are volcanic rock fringed by a reef that goes from the waterline down to 50-60 feet, then drops off abruptly hundreds or even thousands of feet. The shallow reefs are rich with corals and fish. The visibility almost always good, but near Mary Island it was incredible--at least 200 feet.
The coral is profuse and colorful, even more so than in Fiji. We saw a few sharks and rays, but most of the action was on the reef--nudibranchs, cuttlefish, turtles, seahorses, and so much more. Unfortunately, the plague of crown-of-thorns starfish is beginning to appear here. At some of the sites, we saw dozens of them chewing on the reef, leaving swathes of dead coral in their wake.

We did 25 dives on the cruise. One of the most memorable was the Bat Cave. The islands are riddled with caves carved by the waves. At this site, you enter via a swim-through, then surface in a cave filled with roosting bats. There is a hole in the roof of the cave where sunlight comes though (as well as bats). We were warned to keep to the sides of the cave and keep our regulators in our mouths to avoid falling guano. 

Three dives of the best dives were on some very shallow reefs. Some of the most spectacular sights were in five to six feet of water, including lush corals and a couple close encounters with some curious cuttlefish.

The reefs are owned by the local villages that front them. Jackson, a local who has been guiding for dive boats in the area for many years, knew all the villagers and negotiated the fees we paid to dive on their reefs. The village spokesman and his whole family would come out to welcome us and collect their money.

At other times we were visited by locals eager to sell their produce or fish. We scored lots of delicious bananas and papayas.
Even the little kids had their own canoes. We would often see small children rowing on their own seemingly far from any habitation.

Once the diving was finished, we visited a village in the Florida Islands. it was truly an idyllic setting. The village children gathered in a tree to watch us arrive. As we stepped out of the boat, we were greeted by women in native garb and given leis and fresh, cold coconuts with stalks of ginger for a straw. Then the women sang and danced for us. They put on a whole show including traditional songs and dances, hymns, and a special goodbye song to end the performance.

It was a lovely end to an incredible dive trip.

Visited on 06/2020 - Submitted on 06/08/2020
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