Words and images by Jeanne Liebetrau and Peter Pinnock
Other than the hum of the engine and a gentle rock we hardly notice the Bilikiki moving soothingly overnight to Morovo Lagoon. Grass huts dot the low-lying areas of the islands. Many of the islands here are dominated by steep limestone cliffs covered in verdant green rainforest and filled with squawking red parakeets. These cliff faces continue below the surface forming incredible wall dives.
At Toatalave Island only resilient sea fans are able to find a foothold on the sheer wall. Turmoil resistant whip-corals stretch into the deep. Brave whip-coral gobies defy death as they dart along the length of these whip-corals using modified fins as suckers to hold on with. Their whip-coral shrimp neighbours hardly move as they rely on the whip-corals’ movements to deliver food.
Some islands have a ridge that slopes gently into the deep such as the one at Anemone Point. The side facing the prevailing current is covered in sea fans and whip-corals while the sheltered side has delicate hard corals and anemones. The point of the spur is where the ocean pelagics frequent. Giant barracuda, rays and grey reef sharks can be seen patrolling the deep water. As we hover near our depth limit watching this action we delight in finding seldom-seen sunshine-orange soft corals thriving in the current.
Mbulo Caves are a series of mystical caves at the foot of the towering Mbulo Island. Pristine hard coral gardens conceal the entrances to the caves. We wander from cave to cave, sometimes through a tunnel and sometimes the cave is a dead end. We exit and as we swim over the manicured garden we find an entrance to yet another cave. I lose count of the number of caves we explore. The cathedral lighting in these caves is almost a religious experience.
As part of ‘Operation Toenails’ to capture Munda Airport a battle raged at Wickham Anchorage. The Japanese lost four freighters. On the shallowest wreck huge winches with cables, small davits and an enormous boiler are rusting but still intact. They attract a multitude of fish, hermit crabs and shrimps. On the foredeck stands a field artillery gun. The two holds are empty, apparently looted by salvagers, but two spare anchors remain onboard. The stern and bow are both covered in golden black corals with a blizzard of glassies living within. Observing the divers from the marker buoy is a school of squid. Their large eyes watch our every movement as if they are protecting their home.
Tulagi in the Florida Island group was the capital of Solomons until 1942. The Florida’s also have their share of wrecks and unusual critters and dive sites. Tulagi Twin Tunnels is an underwater seamount with two volcanic vents approximately 2.5m in diameter. They lead from the surface of the seamount at 18m and unite at 35m forming a large chamber which empties out on the perimeter of the seamount between 35–42m. It’s an eerie feeling dropping down this perfectly-shaped chimney in the middle of a reef. Meanwhile the surface of the seamount is buzzing with action. The noise is phenomenal as schools of kingfish hunting in packs predate on thousands of fusiliers and snappers. Fish dive for cover in the corals and crevices; some fish even try to use our bubbles as a smokescreen as the attack relentlessly continues. An anemone is feeding and has formed itself into a ball. Its resident skunk anemonefish are frantically trying to find their way back into their sanctuary while the predators are on the prowl. A Mavis seaplane lies forlornly on a sandy slope. The Japanese lost this enormous plane when the sea plane base at Tanambogo was attacked. The Mavis is missing one engine and propeller while the adjacent propeller hangs from its mount. Part of the outer skin is missing, allowing us to see into the cavernous fuselage. Coral growth coats the remaining propellers, while ambitious anemones and their resident clownfish nest on the wing. The ribs of the tail wing are exposed forming a checkerboard for fish to swim through.
Mbike Wreck was not lost – it was deliberately scuttled just off Mbike Island. A school of batfish escort divers to the wreck at 30m. This intact wreck is teeming with photogenic dusky Nembrotha nudibranchs sporting red gills and racing red stripes down their sleek black bodies. The wheelhouse is jam-packed with glassies which are being hounded by insatiable lionfish. A mantis shrimp scrambles around shells and corals on the deck while a yellow boxfish retreats inside a doorway.
Having dived many remnants of WW2 we experience the sounds of war at Kicha Island where Kavachi, a nearby submarine volcano, erupts continuously. The noise resonates like a war zone with endless bombing and explosions. Our ribcages reverberate with the tremors yet whitetip sharks sleep on sandy patches completely undisturbed by the irregular, yet constant, rumbles. I nervously check the reef for boulders that could topple in the vibrations causing an avalanche. It is difficult to concentrate. This is a very unsettling experience on a stunning reef filled with schooling pyramid butterfly-fish.
As the Bilikiki returns to Honiara, I reflect on my journey through the Solomon Islands. I may have been lost in caves, lost in blizzards of fish, lost in blues and seen losses of war, but I am not lost for words to describe the beauty and diversity of the Solomon Islands.
Info Location: North-east of Australia, 5–12° south of equator
Day time temperature: 28–32°C
Water temperature: 28–30°C
Language: English and Pidgin English
Currency: Solomon Dollar
Getting to the Solomon Islands has never been simpler. Solomon Airlines offers regular flights departing from Brisbane and Sydney. You can fly from New Zealand with a stopover in Fiji, Brisbane or Vanuatu.