By Jeanne Liebetrau and Peter Pinnock
The TV series Lost is about people lost on a Pacific island. The Solomon Islands, on the other hand, are islands in the Pacific that are lost. Solomon Islands may have been the scene of bloody battles in WW2 but much of that is lost, lying at the bottom of the ocean. It may have been the scene of a tsunami in 2007 but most of what was lost has been rebuilt. These islands are however, lost when it comes to development and technology.
Most inhabitants do not have access to electricity. Islanders have radios but only those living in main towns have cable television – there are no local networks. There are no buses or trains – dug-out canoes are the most common mode of transport. Luckily Bilikiki Cruises have the perfect vessels with which to explore this undeveloped country in comfort and style and at the same time experience the underwater wonders of a lost paradise.
The Bilikiki travels from Honiara through the Russell and Florida (Nggela) Island groups to Marovo Lagoon. Ta reef in the Russell Islands is our first encounter with undisturbed beauty. Fields of enormous cabbage corals and sea fans grow in profusion on a gentle slope. The visibility is seemingly endless and the water is sublimely warm. Even the fish appear to be in holiday mode as they nonchalantly move away from us noisy bubble-makers. Some fish merely move lethargically from one side of a sea fan to the other. There is no current to push us along so we too move at sloth speed.
It is in the Russell Islands that we dive the first of many unusual dive sites, Leru Cut being the most famous. Leru Cut is a gap slicing into an island for about 100m, only 5m wide and 15m deep. Beams of sunlight flicker through dense rainforest mystically lighting the cut entrance. I swim nervously into the chasm of darkness. My torch lights a narrow passage ahead, the sheer walls of the cut looming on either side. Blinded by the sudden light, a fish bolts, almost swimming into me. My adrenaline pumps. I surface at the end of the passage and observe a large boulder precariously balanced in the crevice above. Anxiously I turn around. The deep blue of the distant ocean is perfectly framed by the island walls. Adrenaline is instantly replaced by loads of endorphins as I move towards this captivating vista.
Mirror Pond is an underwater cave, which opens up in the middle of a rainforest. The water in the pond is so still that the rainforest reflects on the surface. My breathing disturbs this image. I hold my breath and marvel at the centre-stage production lighting. Seemingly I am in the super spotlight. I sigh with pleasure but my bubbles disturb that special effect.
Bat Cave is the last unusual dive in the Russell’s. This cave is entered via a wide underwater passage about 40m long. We have been warned not to take our DV’s out of our mouths once in the cave due to abundant bat droppings. There are no bats today but there is definitely something dripping into the water. I don’t wait to investigate! I return to the outside reef.
It is on this reef wall that we begin to find fascinating critters. Living inside bubble hard corals are orangutan crabs with crazy hippy-style orange hair.
Their colouring is no disguise against the translucent white bubbles but their hairiness certainly is. I can’t tell head from legs. I can almost hear my octogenarian mother lecturing me about hippies. Another hairy fellow is the pale mauve hairy squat lobster that lives deep within the grooves of a barrel sponge. His colour and hairiness marginally aid his disguise but really, it’s the deep cavities of the sponge that provide his protection. Also well protected by their homes are pygmy seahorses living in gorgonian sea fans. These seahorses are almost impossible to find – no thicker than a toothpick and only 1cm long with colouring and body bumps identical to that of the sea fan. They epitomise true camouflage.
During WW2 the Japanese advanced towards Australia with the intent to intercept the Allied Forces heading to the Philippines. The Allied Forces observed the Japanese building an airfield on Guadalcanal, where the capital Honiara is today. Within a few days of its completion the Allies captured the airfield. Japan tried vainly to regain control but failed, leading to their retreat back towards Rabaul in Papua New Guinea. As they moved north so too did the Allied Forces leaving nothing behind at their bases. At White Beach base a bulldozer shovelled all remaining supplies including ammunition, vehicles, cranes, crates and coke bottles into the sea. Finally the bulldozer itself was sent scuttling and then the wharfs were destroyed. This has created an interesting dive site where these war relics have become home for marine life. An octopus hides in a billy-can oblivious to the adjacent live bomb. An entire family of twin-spot gobies hovers over the sand near a pile of rotting ropes and wires. A juvenile batfish shelters under the broken pylons while an overfed lionfish lazes beneath a rusting wharf digesting his meal in peace. In the deep the huge bulldozer sits upright marking the end of the dive site and the end of an era.
Halfway between the Russell Islands and the Marovo Lagoon is Mborokua Island or ‘Mary Island’ as it’s commonly known. The fish are not so relaxed here. Small schools of big-eye kingfish swim in fighter jet formation giving me a wide berth. The diminutive school of barracuda is even more skittish as they traverse the bay between two points of Mary Island. I sense wariness from these fish. Perhaps many of their compatriots have been lost to an unscrupulous fishing industry. At the site ‘Mary Bommies’ the reef structure resembles human hands colonised by masses of pristine hard corals. The competition for survival amongst these hard corals is intense with the elkhorn coral seeming to dominate the finger bones while the staghorn is left to fill the gaps. Plate corals crust the knuckles while the table corals tend to find space at the fingertips. Enormous brain corals and encrusting corals vie for any free space. Often intriguing caves and tunnels cut through these fingers linking the adjoining finger. It’s a spectacular dive.
To be continued in issue 152.
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
Contact Bilikiki Cruises: www.bilikiki.com
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.
For more underwater images and stories visit PeterPinnock.com