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Text by Andrew
Photography: Andrew Whitehead and Jenny Harris
in Sportdiving Magazine
August/Sept 2005, Issue 111
Also published in Solomons
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
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
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!
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
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
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.
DIVING IN THE SOLOMONS
Scuba diving is available on liveaboard
cruise vessels, or from Honiara, Tulagi, Maravagi Resort, Yandina Resort, Munda,
Uepi or Gizo.
A QUICK GUIDE TO THE DIFFERENT REGIONS
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
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.
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
Aircraft: Kawanishi H6K4s sunk at their moorings in the old Japanese flying boat
Special sites: Twin Tunnels. There are also a number of superb reef and wall
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
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
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.
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.
Accommodation: Agnes Lodge.
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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