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Andrew Whitehead is about to enter Mystery Cave at Mary Island. Image by Jim Thiselton


Text by Andrew Whitehead

Photography: Andrew Whitehead and Jenny Harris

First published in Sportdiving Magazine
August/Sept 2005, Issue 111

Also published in Solomons Inflight Magazine
Issue 43


Remote, jungle-clad, uninhabited Mborokua (Mary) Island is about as far off the beaten tourist track as you can get. This extinct volcano lies west of the Russell Islands and is surrounded by deep walls with prolific marine life including barracuda, manta rays and sharks. It is one of those dive destinations that once visited it is never forgotten. Many divers arrive in the Solomon Islands at Honiara and fly on to Gizo, Munda and Uepi. Some take a boat over to Tulagi in the Florida (Nggela) Islands to dive the WWII wrecks. Others fly to the Russell Islands. Apart from local fishermen, very few people go to Mary Island. The only way for the diving tourist to get there is on a liveaboard vessel.

On my last visit to the Solomons, I went on a cruise with some friends on the luxury liveaboard MV Princess II. We departed from Honiara and headed about 100 km west to the Russell Islands where we had two days of fabulous diving. The only thing that could possibly be better than the dives in the Russells is the 300-metre wall on the lee side of Mary Island! It was too deep to anchor, so the Princess drifted close by as we dived along this stunning vertical wall. The water was so clear that you felt like you were flying. However, long-range vision was obscured by the gorgonians and huge schools of fish including barracudas and jacks. Manta rays are often seen here but I only saw four white-tipped reef sharks that disappeared very quickly! The Princess drifted along with us, so all we had to do at the end of the dive was swim a few metres away from the wall and climb up the big ladder on to the dive platform. Diving does not get much better than this!

So, is it possible to surpass a dive like that? It is possible, for along the northern edge of the Russell Islands facing New Georgia Sound (The Slot), there is a chain of small islands which are usually only visited by liveaboard vessels. These islands appear to be formed from ancient coral, have steep eroded sides, isolated villages and are covered in jungle. You can see orchids in the tops of trees 60 metres above the water level. The water is very deep right up to the shore so dives are generally conducted as drifting wall dives.

The first island that you encounter from the west is Mane Island. On the northwest corner, a creek flows through the coral and has formed coral ponds and caves in the reef wall. We called this one Simon’s Pool after the chief engineer who used to dive in it when he was a boy. Next, there is a 5-metre gap in the coral wall on Leru Island that is clearly visible from the boat. This deep cleft or crevice actually penetrates about 50 metres into the island. It is a little spooky and a torch is recommended, though not essential. At the end of the cutting, a cave veers off to the right for about another 20 metres.

Across the bay from Leru, on the main island of Pavuvu, there are a number of caves along the wall. Most of these lead to dead ends. The entrance to the Custom Cave leads to a 20-metre tunnel which narrows and goes downward then opens out into a large round chamber. There is a hole in the roof where the sunlight filters down in a shaft of light when the sun is high. After you have explored the cave, you can enjoy an exciting wall dive with a big swim-through nearby.

While on a recent holiday in the nearby Florida Islands, I arranged to do some diving with Neil Yates who operates Solomon Islands Diving in Tulagi. We went out to a GPS position that locates a submerged mooring on top of a large pinnacle in deep water. We descended the mooring line which is attached to the reef at about 12 metres near the entrance to the Twin Tunnels. These are two ancient vertical shafts quite close together on the top of this submerged mountain. We dropped down the nearest tunnel which ended in a cave full of fish at 34 metres. We explored the cave with our torches for a few minutes then ascended the other shaft back to the top of the reef. Quite an exhilarating experience, and that was only the first part of the dive!

Neil and I swam a few metres from our exit point to the edge of the reef which forms a sheer wall down into the depths. We found a good vantage point and held on to the reef because of the slight current coming up the wall. We stayed there for about 30 minutes enthralled by the fish life. Thousands of fish swarmed around us as we peered over the abyss. Like leading actors on a stage, large tuna, hump headed wrasse, and two white tipped reef sharks swam past every few minutes. Once in awhile the small fish would scatter, then a small grey whaler cruised past looking for his lunch.

Not far from Tulagi, in the north west of the Florida Islands, is the Maravagi Resort which is situated in a picturesque bay on Mangalonga (or Mana) Island. The area consists of many small islands, extensive reef systems and deep passages where there is abundant marine life. There is no dive operator there at the time of writing but the area can be visited from Tulagi.

While my wife and I were there, we hired one of the motor canoes with a driver and guide for sightseeing trips around Sandfly Island and Buena Vista Island. We visited the local school on Sandfly Island and cruised past the skull cave on Mount Panamanauvi. Our boat stopped at the half-built Roderick Bay Yacht Club and so that we could have a look at the beached wreck of the World Discoverer. The derelict ship still contains 420 tons of diesel fuel which leaks out at high tide. With a little investment it could be refloated, fuel removed, and sunk as a dive wreck nearby. It is possible that it might become as popular as the SS President Coolidge in Vanuatu and earn millions in diving tourist revenue.

The numerous sea, air and land battles in the Solomons in 1942 were basically for the control of Henderson airfield which was originally started by the Japanese near the present-day capital of Honiara. The fierce fighting resulted in the sinking of over 40 ships including battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, transports and numerous aircraft. Most of these ships are at the bottom of Iron Bottom Sound at great depth. Some of the more famous ships have recently been located and photographed by Bob Ballard. For recreational divers, there are several wrecks and aircraft that are near the coastline in shallow enough water for scuba diving.

If you are really into wreck diving, then Tulagi in the Florida (or Nggela) Islands is the place to go. These wrecks are fairly deep and usually involve decompression diving. Dives on these ships can be arranged with Neil Yates who operates Solomon Islands Diving in Tulagi. The dive shop is well fitted out with two compressors, lots of tanks, twins, ponies, good quality BCDs, regulators and tank bands.

Let’s start with a truly awesome wreck dive. The American destroyer USS Aaron Ward was sunk in 1943 by a group of Japanese bombers and sits upright on a sandy bottom at about 70 metres off Tinete Point near Tulaghi. The little town of Tulagi has a magnificent harbour and is about 35 km north of Honiara across the deep Iron Bottom Sound. I dived on the Aaron Ward on an earlier trip on MV Princess II. Because of the depth, we assembled twin tanks to provide enough air for the planned 20-minute dive and the multi-stage decompression during our ascent.

We sank rapidly down the mooring line for 50 metres before we reached the highest point over the bridge of the ship. Then we drifted over the top of the two forward 5-inch guns and out to the tilted-up bow reaching a depth of about 56 metres. We then swam back past the 20mm Oerlikons, over the torpedo tubes, rear funnel, searchlight, 40mm Bofors, aft 5-inch guns, to the severely damaged stern. Reluctant to leave but out of bottom time, we returned to the mooring and began our slow ascent.

With the intention of eventually diving on all the wrecks near Tulaghi, I asked Neil Yates to take me out to the big American fleet oiler USS Kanawha which sits upright near the entrance to Tulaghi Harbour at about 60 metres. It was built in 1914, is 476 feet long, 56 feet wide and displaced 14,500 tons. The ship was sunk in 1943 by bombs from Japanese aircraft. As a warship, it was heavily armed with guns on the bow, bridge, midships and stern.

Neil tied up to the submerged mooring and we dropped straight down to the stern of this massive old ship. The engine room has been badly shattered by bombs, salvage attempts and earthquakes, so it is rather cluttered with catwalks and other unidentifiable bits and pieces everywhere. I tried to look around and take it all in, but it was dark, deep and our bottom time was very short. Neil pointed out a huge broken piston, then we eased over to the starboard side, slid through a narrow gap in the steel frame and moved up into the accommodation area.

Out on the deck at about 48 metres, we were confronted by two 5-inch guns pointing over the stern, a large AA gun above them complete with empty shell casings and a US Army helmet in reasonable condition, and 20 mm AA guns nearby. We drifted forward past the mooring line towards the funnel and briefly examined the area in front of the sterncastle. After only 18 minutes of bottom time, it was time for the long, slow ascent to the surface.

Gizo is the capital of the Western Province of the Solomon Islands. What was once an area that was notorious for headhunting is now a major centre for tourism and primary industries. Danny and Kerri Kennedy own Adventure Sports, the longest established dive operation in Gizo. Danny took me and a group of students seven kilometres north of Gizo to the wreck of the Japanese transport Toa Maru.

Early in 1943, the Toa Maru was attacked by American dive bombers and their fighter escort while on a trip to Kolombangara Island near Gizo. The ship was carrying a cargo which included fuel, timber, trucks, bags of cement, bottles, steel girders, ammunition and a two-man tank.  With a big hole in the bow and the fuel in the stern hold on fire, it appears that the captain tried to run the ship aground. The ship is about 140m long and lies on its starboard side on a sandy bottom in sheltered Kololuka Bay.

This is a beautiful dive which can start at the sterncastle at 30 metres working your way towards the bow which lies on the reef. Swimming forward past the aft holds to the midships superstructure, you can see the engine room skylights, lifeboat davits, funnel and bridge structure. There is so much to see that several dives may be needed to explore the crew quarters, engine room, medical supply room, and bridge. Look out for the small two-man tank, tipped upside down in one of the forward holds.

Near Gizo, there are several small islands where visitors can experience the local culture. Kennedy Island is where the young Lieutenant John F. (Jack) Kennedy and the surviving crewmembers swam ashore after their boat PT109 was run down at night by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri. On Simbo Island, there are archaeological sites, skull houses, petroglyphs, tuna-worship shrines, megapode bird hatcheries, thermal areas and a sulphur lake.  The somewhat arduous 1770 m (5,800 ft) climb to Mt Rano on Kolombangara Island is reputed to be an exhilarating experience, but only for those fit enough to complete the journey!

Gareth Colman established a dive operation called Coastwatchers at the Honiara Hotel in mid 2004. Gareth is a PADI IDC staff instructor who is running courses and dive trips to the popular sites such as the Hirokawa Maru, Kinugawa Maru, Kyushu Maru, Azumasan Maru, B-17, and USS John Penn. It is not all wreck diving, because there are some beautiful reefs around Tasivarongo Point just past Bonegi Beach and at other locations along the coast.

The Japanese transport Hirokawa Maru was sunk in November 1942 quite close to the beach near Bonegi Creek which is about 8 miles (13 km) west of Honiara. It was built in 1940 and was originally about 480 feet long but the bow is now completely shattered. The ship lies on a steep slope on its port side with the stern section in reasonable condition. The superstructure has collapsed and is quite a mess of steel sheets and girders. The stern lies in 58 metres which is a little deep for recreational diving. The propellers were salvaged in the 1960’s.

My computer started beeping the 30-metre depth warning as I swam under a large obstruction. We swam past the stern holds, over the broken-off kingposts, finally to the upper part of the curved stern of the ship. We had reached 43 metres with 2 minutes of NDC (no decompression) time left. I pointed back at an up-angle and we swam back ascending along the hull as we went. Gareth took me into part of the engine room to see a large turbine and other indistinguishable pieces of machinery. There seems to be a complete break in the hull in front of the bridge and schools of rainbow runners and barracuda congregate around the high point of the wreck.

Tourist divers are returning in significant numbers to an area that has been rated as one of the top three diving destinations in the world. The dive operators in each area naturally claim that their dive sites are the best in the Solomons. Quite frankly, I find it impossible to rank them. They are all great! Each dive destination has its own pristine coral reefs, incredibly deep walls, prolific marine life, staggering visibility, WWII ships and aircraft wrecks, comfortable accommodation, local culture and interesting excursions. It is a holiday packed with adventure wherever you choose to go. The differences are really only in the details.


Scuba diving is available on liveaboard cruise vessels, or from Honiara, Tulagi, Maravagi Resort, Yandina Resort, Munda, Uepi or Gizo.



There is a good mix of wreck and reef diving along the northern coast of Guadalcanal near Honiara.
Wrecks: The American troopship USS John Penn off Lungga Point, Hirokawa Maru and Kinugawa Maru close to the beach near Bonegi Creek, Kyushu Maru and Azumasan Maru near Ruaniu, IJN Submarine I-1 off Tambea.
Aircraft: US B17 Bomber.
Special site: The cruiser USS Atlanta lies off Honiara at 130 metres, well beyond the range of recreational divers.
Dive operator: Coastwatchers Dive Centre, Honiara Hotel.
Liveaboard Vessels: MV Bilikiki
Airfield: Henderson International Airport.
Accommodation: Several hotels including the King Solomon Hotel,
Solomon Kitano Mendana Hotel, Pacific Casino Hotel, Honiara Hotel.

Florida Islands

If you are into wreck diving, then Tulagi in the Florida Islands is the place to go. These wrecks are fairly deep and usually involve decompression diving.
Wrecks: destroyer USS Aaron Ward off Tinete Point, fleet oiler USS Kanawha near the entrance to Tulaghi Harbour, corvette HMNZS Moa in Tulaghi Harbour.
Aircraft: Kawanishi H6K4s sunk at their moorings in the old Japanese flying boat base.
Special sites: Twin Tunnels. There are also a number of superb reef and wall dives nearby.
In the north west of the Florida Islands, there are many small islands, extensive reef systems and deep passages where there is abundant marine life.

Special sites:
Kovuhika Island (wall dive and Pyramid), Soghonara Island (wall dive and Crayfish Cave), Passage Rock (vertical drop-off with big fish action), Rueben’s Express (fast drift dive with big fish action).
Aircraft: US B24 Liberator Bomber.
Dive operator: Solomon Islands Diving, Tulagi.
Airfield: None. Transport by dive boat or motor canoe.
Accommodation: Vanita Divers Lodge in Tulagi, Maravagi Resort on Mangalonga Island.

Russell Islands

The Russell Islands lie about 100 km to the west of Honiara on Guadalcanal.  The town of Yandina on Mbanika Island is one of the Solomon Islands’ main deep-water ports. During WWII there were two airfields, a major American supply base, and PT-boat bases on Mbanika Island. At White Beach and Lever Point, there are artificial reefs created by dumping trucks, jeeps, tractors, bulldozers and large amounts of ammunition. Along the northern edge of the Russell Islands facing New Georgia Sound (The Slot), lie a chain of small islands with superb reef systems and sheer drop offs into the depths.
Wrecks: Coastal Trader Ann in the Sunlight Channel.
Special sites: The Cut and the Custom Cave in the West Russells, vehicle and ammunition dumps near Yandina.
Dive operator: None.
Airfield: Yandina.
Accommodation: Yandina Plantation Resort.


Munda has spectacular wall dives, pristine reefs, soft coral overhangs, and a myriad of colourful corals with pelagic fish and shark action. Dive sites include Shark Point, Custom Shark Cave on Ndokendoke Island, Tomba-Tuni (Mushroom Island), Rainbow Passage, Haepe Pinnacle, Top Shelf, Langarana Island, Aussie Point, Nusa Roviana Wall, The Big Clam, Kundu Kundu Hite, Munda Bar, Eagles Nest, Patangongo, Isuna Wall, Nguzu Head, Tasker's Wall, the American Dump.
Wrecks: Casi Maru in Mbaeroko Bay.

Aircraft: Douglas SBD Dauntless, Grumman
Wildcat, Mitsubishi "Nell" bomber.
Special sites: Custom Shark Cave on Ndokendoke Island, 4 km drop off at Shark Point.
Dive operator: Adventure Sports Gizo.
Airfield: Munda.
Accommodation: Agnes Lodge.

Marovo Lagoon

Marovo Lagoon is reputed to be the world’s largest island-enclosed lagoon. Uepi Island lies on the edge of the lagoon with the deep New Georgia Sound on its eastern side. The island is surrounded by an extensive reef with beautiful coral gardens, and 2000 metre vertical drop-offs for spectacular wall dives. Most of the dive sites are either near the edge of the island or just a short boat trip from the resort. Local dive sites include Uepi Point, Charapoana Passage, The Elbow, Elbow Caves, North Log, South Log, Langara Gardens, Divers Bay, and Landoro Gardens. A longer boat trip is required to go to Charapoana Point, Deku Dekuru, Lumalihe Passage, General Store, Babata Passage, Sinkhole, Penguin Reef.
Wrecks: Three Japanese supply ships. Aircraft: Lockheed P38 Lightning.
Dive operator: Uepi Island Resort.
Airfield: Seghe. A 40 minute trip by motor canoe to Uepi Island.
Accommodation: Uepi Island Resort.


Scuba diving is the main activity in Gizo and the dive shops offer a variety of dive courses and have equipment for rent. There are numerous dive sites including shallow lagoons and fringing reefs, dramatic vertical walls and drop-offs.
Wrecks: Toa Maru in Kololuka Bay.
Aircraft: Grumman F6F Hellcat, Chance-Vought F4U Corsair.
Special Site: Grand Central Station off Varu Island.
Dive operators: Adventure Sports Gizo, Solomons Watersports.
Airfield: Nusatupe Island, 2 km from Gizo.
Accommodation: Gizo Hotel.

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