The Solomon Islands
Marine Preserves & World War Wrecks
The Solomon Islands are east of Papua New Guinea, Northeast of Australia, or Southwest of Hawaii. No matter which direction you come from, you have to admit that this group of 992 Islands is in a remote location of the southern hemisphere. These islands are so remote, that even after Álvaro de Mendaña discovered and gave Spanish names to many of the islands in 1569, and it took two hundred years more before the first British settlement appeared on the islands. Álvaro named the island group after King Solomon as he was sure he had found alluvial deposits of gold from Solomon’s mine, while he and his men were first exploring the islands. He also must have met many indigenous populations of Melanesians whose ancestors first arrived in the islands some thirty thousand years ago. More than half the islands out here are uninhabited and most of the local populations live predominantly on only one of six main islands.
With so many islands and so few people, it isn’t surprising that many diving locations are still in the process of being discovered, explored, or in general commonly named. These sites include lost wrecks, reefs with healthy populations of pelagic fish, and abundant coral tiered slopes that gently drift down or go straight down to depth with the help of coral encrusted walls. The Solomon Islands also contain have large and small lagoons with incredible macro life, as well as many magnificent muck diving sites.
There are several dive sites that do have names, and some stand out for being unique and even world class by nature’s own design. Leru Cut is the most famous being a 12m (36ft) deep underwater canyon cut that goes into the island and ends in a pool looking up into the jungle. Mirror Pond and Mbulo Caves are similar dive sights of cave light and overhanging jungles. Cave of the Custom Shark can be entered in the forest and has many tunnels and swim throughs. Twin Tunnels are two lava tubes that run down inside a 12m (36ft) deep sea mount and open up near the base of 36m (110ft). At the base you may exit the tubes or reverse course and go back up the other tube. Inside, you will be surrounded by soft corals, hard corals, small fish such as pygmy seahorses, and invertebrates, such as octopus, cuttlefish, and small guys like squat lobsters, crabs and shrimps; it’s a photographer’s haven. For large pelagics, go to Mary Island (Mborokua) to see barracuda, sharks, and schooling fish such as trevally, big eye jacks, and bumphead parrotfish. For a faster current where you either drift dive or have to hold on to something to stay in one place to watch the mantas go by, you have to dive Devils Highway. Uepi Island borders the Morovo Lagoon which is the longest lagoon in the world, with many inner islands, some man-made, and host to many different habitats from coral reefs with nudibranchs and frogfish to sandy flats with mantis shrimp and crocodile fish.
All this should put the Solomon Islands in the top ten list if they were not so remote, but there is a complete other side to the diving here that has to be explored, and it all started back in 1942 when the allies shifted from a defensive force in the South Pacific as they embraced the “Europe First” destroy Hitler first philosophy, and were now forced to take their first offensive action to stop the Imperial Japanese military from putting an overwhelming strategic strangle hold on most shipping routes between Australia, New Zealand, and the rest of the world. The island code named “cactus” had a Japanese airfield that the allies took quickly and renamed Henderson Field, but it would take six months before the Japanese would lose their resolve and abandoned the islands. Collectively some 25,000 men died, some 15,000 men were wounded, and 1000 men captured in what would become the infamous Battle of Guadalcanal. Some 100 ships and 600 planes would be sunk, destroyed, or damaged beyond repair during the next six months. The battle of Guadalcanal forced the Imperial Japanese military to go on the defensive and give up on conquest goals for Australia, New Zealand, and they were forced to ill fatedly divert men, arms, ships, and planes from their almost completed goal of total military control over Papua New Guinea. In addition, they were forced to send convoys here only at night, and it was on one of these night missions that Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109 captained by a young John F. Kennedy was rammed and sunk in deep waters; submersible video of the remnants can be found on Youtube.
What all this means to divers is that you can’t dive all the ship and boat wrecks in the Solomon islands on a single trip. Some of the wrecks are even too deep for technical divers. Two of the most well known wrecks are the Japanese transport ships that ran aground to keep from sinking in deep water. Bonegi I is the Hirokawa Maru and Bonegi II is the Kinugawa Maru. The Searpens is an upside down ship, off Munda is the Kasi Maru and nearby is a Wildcat F4F, there’s the Douglas Dauntless bomber off Rendova. How about diving a Japanese I1 submarine from 8-30m (24-90ft) depth, or an almost intact H6K4 Kawanishi Flying Boat at 30m (90ft)? There are also Japanese supply ships off Honiara and a B-17 Bomber. These are just some of the typical military wrecks; there are others with more structural damage, partially salvaged, or in deeper water. The one wreck site that is on everyone’s list was code named “White Beach”. Here the Americans dumped, pushed, dragged, and tossed by crane all the military supplies left over after the war. This site contains coke bottles, ammunition, truck parts, jeeps, bulldozers, tractors, and a crane. The area now is home to harlequin shrimp, mandarin fish, pipe fish, gobies, archerfish, crabs, and other small invertebrates.
But wait. . . Just in case you didn’t have enough places to dive, there is also the Wreck of the Ann and a couple of fishing boats off Guadalcanal and Uepi. The Uepi fishing pier has also become a popular dive site too. To the benefit of all dive sites and to help the locals manage their oceans in perpetuity, the people of the Solomon Islands have formed several marine preserves to protect local fish resources. They have devised a Hawksbill preserve around the Arnavan Islands, as well as initiated protection for the loggerhead turtle. They even have made conservation areas from reef to ridge around Choiseul Island to protect fresh water fish; some of which have still yet to be identified.
Sure, they have rain forests to walk thru, Archeological caves to explore, skulls of former head hunters to see, water falls to view, rivers to swim, the Vilu War Museum and the American War Museum to visit, local foods and customs to experience, Markets to peruse, and new friends to make, but the best way to make the best of your stay has to be by a ten day to two week adventure by multiple island resorts and/or charter boat excursions.
To follow up, we mentioned that the Solomon islands are remote, but we don’t define remote by being a place that uses 240volt electrical outlets, or that you need to bring cash as very few places accept credit cards, or that it might take you three plane changes to reach some of the outer islands, or that you may need anti-malaria pills if you plan to be out in the evening or early mornings. What we define as remote is that you may dive off a boat for a week without seeing another dive boat, and if you think that having a remote slice of the world to yourself with little or few paparazzi is a good thing, then you just realized why Prince William and Kate Middleton enjoyed the Solomon Islands so much during their 2012 tour of Southeast Asia.