Sometime between 7.45 and 8am on 2 April 2007, the tiny island of Gizo was struck by a massive earthquake. Villagers were jolted from sleep, astonished to find the ocean before them drawing relentlessly back from the shore… coral reefs were exposed, fish left gasping. For those with an inkling of what this presaged, the instruction was clear: Run for the hills. Run for your lives!After the third wave of the tsunami slowly receded, many people were startled to find themselves not only naked, having run from their beds, but stranded and desolate. Homes were instantly destroyed, family and friends missing. The sea, life supporter here, had suddenly taken it away.Against such a tragic backdrop and only five months on, we found Gizo in a typically Solomon Islands style of recovery. The warm welcome and smiles from villagers who lost everything is irresistible and infectious. Local business carries on, the flagship Gizo market a flurry of daily monetary and social transaction. Its local business which includes diving, largely and amazingly untouched after the disastrous impact of ‘Wet Monday’.
It was 10 years since our first and only visit to the Solomons, that time exploring some of the shallow wrecks of Iron Bottom Sound. These fascinating war relics and the marine life that comes with genuinely warm water year round, had been a magnet ever since! We’d heard a lot about Gizo, more of course since the events of 2 April, so were deeply interested in how the underwater world had survived and how the different sites compared.
Well when you’re hanging off ‘Joe’s Wall’ in gin-clear visibility, it’s perfectly calm, the gauge reads 28C at 35 metres and you can’t decide whether to look at gorgonians, crinoids, lionfish, batfish or sharks first, I figure it doesn’t get any better. Our local guide had dived this site literally hundreds of times before and was still excited by a big turtle poised above a much larger gorgonian and by an amazing ‘nest’ of very young reef sharks, clustered together in a hole surrounded by spectacular hard corals.
Gizo’s two world war wrecks are the Toa Maru, a Japanese transport vessel sunk by US troops in 1943 and an
American Hellcat fighter. The Toa Maru lies on her starboard side in 37m with her bow at nearly seven metres. Her bridge was separated from the rest of the wreck by the earthquake but lies right next to it and the whole ship was clearly visible on our first dive there, largely intact. The superstructure and her four holds are open and readily explorable. Artefacts include sake bottles and cups, bags of cement, a motorbike and sidecar unit, a lone gas mask and – a jar of condoms. Her upper, port side has created a fantastic reef of its own and makes for a brilliantly colourful, slow ascent featuring vibrant anemones. The Hellcat lies in just 8-10 metres and looks much as she did when her pilot ditched close to an atoll in the mid 1940s. A large spotted moray now lives in the engine housing and it’s possible for small divers to squeeze into the cockpit. A few anemones and soft corals decorate the tiny but once powerful machine.
Diving in Gizo wouldn’t be complete without a journey along the ‘manta passage’. As we followed our guide along a deep channel only a couple of these superb gliders swam at our depth. But as soon as our bottom time expired they started to appear in formation below us. Seeing these beautiful rays swimming so gracefully in such blue water against the backdrop of the reef was a real privilege and set the scene for the rest of the very pretty dive. An endearing memory was the arrival of a new dive buddy – a persistent remora which swam ensconced within Richard’s BCD for 10 minutes before we surfaced!
All the sites we dived are at most 20-30 minutes by boat from Gizo and they’re in idyllic spots close to palm-covered atolls, including historic ‘Plum Pudding’ (Kennedy) Island. They’re the perfect place to spend a long surface interval – if not at the totally laid-back mini resort and restaurant, Fat Boys. It’s a short ride to anchor up and chill out with a coffee, cold drink, meal, swim or snorkel while you watch long boats race past or pipe fish glide by in the crystal clear waters below. On ‘Wet Monday’, before the awful tide swept beneath and through it, Fat Boys found itself as frighteningly perched as the unfortunate reef fish the tsunami uncovered.
There is no evidence there now of the drama of the event, but close by at a dive site named the ‘Yellow Corner’ it’s a different story. Its rainbow-coloured soft corals are now more predominantly purple than yellow and its sweeping reef slopes are bisected by fans of sand and rock which have oblitered former beauty. At the ‘Hot Spot’ there’s plenty of fish life, but the hard corals that must have once glorified the big bommie have been devastated.
By exploring just a few minutes out of Gizo township, the spread of island damage is obvious. Litter piles feature on sandy beaches – torn thatch lies on the ground and steps lead to nowhere. Broken clam shells and coconuts contrast with scraps of clothing and ruined crockery. Toys lie where they were washed in… and out … what’s left of bures and houses stands at crazy angles.
The life aquatic here has arguably survived more fairly than its landward equivalents.