Spearheading the Solomons

By Clarke Gayford.

What an otherworldly experience it must have been for Solomon Islanders at the outbreak of the Second World War. To go from eking out a simple yet bountiful existence in their pristine part of the Pacific, to suddenly being caught up in one of the most tactically significant battles between the flexing might of Japan and the United States.Solomons_005

How strange it must have been to have two foreign countries fighting each other on your own home soil. The equivalent of living in New Zealand while, say, Chile and Australia went to war with each other as we tried to go about our everyday lives.

The toll it took was enormous, the history and left-behind relics now forever part of the Solomon’s landscape. Over 2,300 downed aircraft, some still yet to be discovered, and over 100 watercraft lost, some never to be found. All destroyed in and around the archipelago’s 900+ islands.

Fast forward to today and the result is that it now has some of the best wreck diving in the world. A feature to be celebrated, but one that has masked its other vastly untapped potential; that of a spear-fishing destination.

So with this in mind we bypassed the wreck diving potential of Honiara and Guadalcanal and headed by small twin-engine Otter 300km up-country to a place called Munda.

As exploring tourists we often crave this experience – to go and feel the environment of somewhere completely different, be it different weather, landscapes, water, peoples or culture. Well, for me, Munda ticked all these boxes and then some. Our accommodation’s entrance was home to the biggest market of the region, and watching whole families paddle in by canoe to trade caught and grown items, with not a fizzy drink, lolly or modern product in sight was a refreshingly fantastic sight.

So, what was the diving like? In a word, hot. All aspects of hot – even the water went to 33°C on one dive. Sizzling hot.

Solomons_3Our accommodation at Agnes Gateway Hotel is also home to Dive Munda, run by the effervescent Belinda and her professional team. Despite being set up for bubble blowers, she was more than accommodating of our requests to venture out to the reef’s edge for a snoop.

After a short boat ride, we were dropped off on a long reef wall that ran parallel with a deep channel. This is the perfect recipe to get into some action and the waters off the Roviana Lagoon did not disappoint. Drifting down the wall past a myriad of fish gave way to open ocean and at this point became a remarkable congregation area.

Solomons_007If you’ve dived in the tropics you’ll know that to be surrounded by both a large school of trevally and a huge school of barracuda all at the same time is remarkable. All this while down below me, in water that was easily 40–50m of visibility, swam snapper (the tropical kind), large coral trout, and at one point in close proximity I counted seven large Napoleon wrasse amongst a literal sea of reef fish. And sharks, let’s talk about the sharks.

They say they are a sign of a healthy ocean; well, this area had clearly taken its vitamins. Black tips, white tips, grey reefs and whalers all inhabiting different levels of the water strata before me. Despite no one recalling anyone ever spearing in this area, these sharks seemed to know exactly what I was there for. At one point I lined up a good-sized blue fin trevally, but my shooting line caught on release so only the tip touched the fish loosening a few scales. Now normally this wouldn’t have been a big deal, but to the sharks, it was as if I’d just poked my head into a packed bar and yelled “FREE BEER!”… in Hamilton.

They burst into life, flicking all around me, but keeping their distance. We moved off a bit, but when a school of barracuda came in soon after, I dived down to meet them, shooting a medium-sized fish in mid-water. Back roared the sharks, but this time they had a target – which was still firmly attached to my spear. In a frantic effort to avoid them, the barracuda turned and swam straight up and into me, creating a few tense moments as I reached down and turned on my shark shield.

The difference these shields make is remarkable, and I highly recommend one for any spearo going into these sort of waters. Flicking it on, they backed off instantly, allowing me enough time to secure the fish with no problems.

Solomons_2However, after not being quick enough and losing the next fish to sharks, we turned the rest of the dive into one of look-but-don’t-touch, as we seemed to have attracted quite a fan base. Something which, once you put fear aside, in clear waters like this is an exhilarating spectacle.

Again the filming schedule for my new series Fish of the Day meant I simply didn’t have nearly enough time in this area. But when on a single dive you can see all the fish I’ve already mentioned, and in the same area also green jobfish, giant trevally and Spanish mackerel (all prized spearfishing targets) you know that it has huge potential for further exploration.

There’re are also several wrecks nearby, including a downed Douglas SBD-4 Dauntless dive bomber in just 12m of water. It landed in the same lagoon where US President JFK once hid his PT-109 patrol boat. Shallow enough to explore on breath, it’s another incredible experience to have underwater in this history-filled region.

Belinda at Dive Munda is really receptive to the idea of hosting more spearfishers, particularly kiwis – and who knows, you could well be the first person to ever try and spear some of these absolutely vast areas of reef that remain unexplored. A paradise for the adventurous awaits.