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Aussies Invade Tulaghi
Reef Diving in the Solomon Islands
in Dive Log Australasia
The set of twin 88s made me negatively
buoyant as I plummeted straight down the mooring line until I reached the engine
room skylights at the stern of the USS Kanawha. Neil Yates and I had a
brief “Is everything OK?” conversation in sign language, then he led the way
down through a big hole to have a quick look at the reciprocating steam engines.
Surrounded by a shattered engine room and forcing my brain to work under the
effect of nitrogen narcosis, I was pleased to see that my new torch worked well
at 55 metres!
I recently spent a week working in Honiara
and made sure that I had the weekend free to enjoy one of the best diving
locations in the world. Before I left for the Solomons, I had arranged with Neil
Yates, who owns and operates Solomon Islands Diving, to spend the weekend in
Tulaghi, in the Florida Islands. The trip across Iron Bottom Sound can be a bit
wet, so I dressed for a boat ride and wheeled my gear bag around to the Point
Cruz Yacht Club at 8 am on Saturday morning.
A weekend in Tulaghi seems to be a popular
idea because there were a dozen like-minded people having coffee at the yacht
club while Neil and his crew loaded two boats with our bags. Most of these folk
were Australians who were part of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon
Islands (RAMSI), and were looking forward to an adventurous weekend away from
their work in Honiara.
It was an exhilarating one-hour ride to
Tulaghi over choppy water that is around 700 metres deep and is the resting
place for over 40 ships including Allied and Japanese battleships, cruisers,
destroyers and freighters. If you are into wreck diving, then Tulaghi is the
place to go. Tulagi (the town) is situated on Tulaghi Island and was the
original capital of the Solomons before WWII. It was a good choice for the
capital because the island helps to form a magnificent natural harbour. Close by
lie the American destroyer USS Aaron Ward, USS Kanawha, the New
Zealand corvette HMNZS Moa, and four Kawanishi H6K4 flying boats.
We moved into shared rooms at the Vanita
Motel which is next to the dive shop within the same wire fenced compound. The
divers headed for the shop and Neil quickly organised them for a reef dive at
Double Island. The dive shop is well fitted out with two compressors, lots of
tanks, twins, ponies, good quality BCDs, regs and tank bands. The group headed
off in the 7.5 metre Orca dive boat “Vuselela”, while I stayed behind to set up
my gear for a deep dive on the Kanawha after lunch.
The big American fleet oiler AO-1 USS
Kanawha sits upright near the entrance to Tulaghi Harbour at about 60 metres
(200 ft). 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.
Because of the limited bottom time, dives are conducted from the submerged
mooring lines on either the bow or the stern. As this ship is an old tanker
design, it is well worthwhile studying historical photographs of the ship to get
an idea of its layout (www.navsource.org).
In preparation for this dive, I bolted my
Poseidon Tech BCD to a pair of alloy 88s which were joined together by an
isolation manifold. I then fitted my Scubapro reg to the right tank, and my
Poseidon Jetstream left-handed on the left tank. A polypropylene suit was all
that was needed in the 28-degree water, and with the sheer weight of the tanks,
lead weights were entirely unnecessary.
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.
We climbed hand over hand up the mooring
line with a deep stop at 18 metres. During the 22 minutes of decompression, we
used a 40 per cent Nitrox mix to flush the Nitrogen from our tissues. As an
additional safety precaution, there were two oxygen regulators on long hoses
which dropped down from a big bottle on board the dive boat. On the surface, we
handed all the gear to Dillon in the boat, climbed aboard and hydrated ourselves
with a litre of tank water. Although we did not need to use the safety equipment
that had been put in place before the dive, it was reassuring to know that I was
diving with a very professional operator.
The big group of Aussie divers went out
again for another reef dive while I set about dismantling and washing my gear.
In order to avoid gear problems from salt corrosion, I always take 120 ml of
SALT-X Concentrate on these trips. I added the SALT-X to 8 litres of water in a
bucket, soaked my regulators, power inflator, gauges, reel, torch and knife for
a few minutes to remove any accumulated salt, and then hung them up to dry.
SALT-X can be used repeatedly and some of the other divers took the opportunity
to try this excellent product.
We enjoyed pre-dinner drinks in the patio
garden at Vanita’s followed by a buffet-style dinner in the restaurant. The
dinner conversation ranged from wrecks, WWII, caves, buried treasure, to sharks,
fish, and the famous Twin Tunnels that we were to dive on Sunday morning. One of
the resident geologists pointed out that they are actually naturally formed
‘shafts’ in the coral reef, not lava tubes or tunnels at all.
While I was tucking into banana pancakes,
cereal and fruit from the breakfast buffet, Neil Yates arrived to inform us that
those who wanted to dive the Twin Tunnels had better be at the dive shop by
8.30. This hardly caused a ripple as people continued to eat everything on the
table. There is one good thing about a ‘Continental’ breakfast before going
diving. You can eat as much of this cold food as you can manage or until the
supply runs out, whichever comes first. Everyone would agree that Annette and
her staff looked after us very well for the two days we were there.
I arrived at the dive shop on time to find
that the crew had already assembled my gear and loaded it on the boat. On this
trip we went out past the Kanawha to a submerged mooring on top of a large
pinnacle in deep water. The mooring line is attached to the reef at about 12
metres near the entrance to one of the vertical shafts. The second shaft is
close by, making the Twin Tunnels look like two holes in a bowling ball. We
dropped down the nearest tunnel which ended in a cave full of red Soldierfish at
34 metres. We explored the cave with our torches for a few minutes then exited
through a large opening in the reef wall. This vertical wall explodes with fish
life when there is a slight current running. We then ascended the wall and
explored the reef along the edge of the abyss.
Visiting the Solomons
Solomon Airlines flies from Brisbane to
Honiara on most week days using a Boeing 737-300 which they lease from Air
Vanuatu. The main port of entry into the Solomon Islands is at Henderson Airport
on the island of Guadalcanal, approximately 10 minutes drive from the capital of
Honiara. The town is situated on the northern coastline and includes a small,
picturesque seaport at Point Cruz. Scuba diving is available from Honiara,
Tulagi, Munda, Uepi or Gizo, and also on liveaboard cruise vessels based in
On this trip I stayed at the Solomon Kitano Mendana Hotel
which is set amongst tropical gardens right on the beach.
The hotel is about two minutes from Honiara's
government and business offices, and next door to the Point Cruz Yacht Club. I
had a beach room complete with balcony and a glorious view of Point Cruz, Iron
Bottom Sound, and the Florida Islands on the horizon. All rooms are
air-conditioned, come with full tea and coffee making facilities, fridge, direct
dial telephones and TV. My room had a
queen-size bed and a single bed.
Wednesday is the day when a local group perform traditional
island dancing in the courtyard after dinner. On these nights, the Mendana puts
on a seafood buffet in the large air-conditioned Capitana Restaurant.
Since the hotel is Japanese-owned, the delicacies included
sushi and sashimi. I enjoyed a drink in the afternoon at the
Raratana Terrace Cafe with stunning sea views and
cooling sea breezes. The hotel also has a tour desk, gift shop, cashier, safe
deposit facilities, large car park and a guest laundry.
There is a swimming pool near the Raratana Terrace Cafe with outdoor lounges and
umbrellas, and a panoramic view of Iron Bottom Sound.
There is no doubt in my mind that the
Solomon Islands are one of the best diving locations in the world. If you are
looking for an adventurous holiday, then try spending some time in Tulaghi with
Neil Yates of Solomon Islands Diving. I am sure that you will find that he is a
very professional operator. Annette and her staff at the Vanita Motel will look
after you very well during your stay in Tulagi.
The author is an experienced recreational
diver, a financial systems consultant, technical writer and webmaster.
Solomon Islands Diving /
Tulagi Dive, PO Box 1798, Honiara, Solomon Islands. Ph: (677) 32131/ 32052/
Vanita Motel, Tulagi, Central Province, Solomon Islands. Phone: 677 32052
Solomon Airlines, Mendana Avenue, Honiara, Solomon Islands. Ph: (677) 20031 Fax:
(677) 20232, Email via
Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau, Mendana Ave, Honiara, Solomon Islands. Ph:
(677) 22442 Fax: (677) 23986
King Solomon Hotel, Hibiscus Ave, Honiara, Solomon Islands. Ph: 677 21205, Fax:
Solomon Kitano Mendana Hotel, Honiara, Solomon Islands. Ph: 677 20071 Fax: 677
The SALT-X range of products are available directly from Salt-X Australasia, Ph:
(07) 3824 5115 or order on the website
Further information about diving in the Solomon Islands and the author’s contact
details can be found in his website
Details about the dive sites around Tulagi
are available on the Solomon Islands Diving website
Historical photos and details about the USS Kanawha can be found at
Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau
Solomon Airlines website
www.solomonairlines.com.au for information on places to stay, and links to
many other related websites.
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