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Preparing to dive on the Aaron Ward. Image by J Whitehead

Wreck Diving in the Solomon Islands

By Andrew Whitehead

Published in Dive Log Australasia
April 2003


We sank rapidly down the mooring line for 50 metres before we reached the highest point over the bridge of the destroyer USS Aaron Ward.  Our twin tanks provided more than enough air for our planned 20-minute dive on this famous wreck and the multi-stage decompression during our ascent.  Neil and Jenny Harris drifted out to the first of the two forward 5-inch guns.  Neil switched on his battery pack and began to video the wreck.  I followed over the top of the 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.  Out of time, we returned to the mooring and began our slow ascent.  It truly is an awesome dive!

Our main reason for visiting Tulagi in the Florida Islands was to dive on the USS Aaron Ward.  We were fortunate to meet Brian Bailey and some of his friends at the wreck site.   Selwyn Douglas, the owner of MV Princess II, invited them aboard for coffee. Before our dive, Brian gave us a comprehensive dive briefing based on his considerable experience of diving this ship.

The American Gleaves (or Bristol) Class destroyer USS Aaron Ward sits upright on a sandy bottom at about 70 metres off Tinete Point near Tulagi. The ship was commissioned as the destroyer DD-483 in 1942. The USS Aaron Ward was 348 feet long, 36 feet wide, displaced 1,839 tons and was capable of 35 knots at flank speed.  The ship was sunk in 1943 by bombs from a group of Japanese bombers. At the time of sinking, the ship was armed with four 5 inch guns, seven 20mm Oerlikons, two dual 40mm Bofors, five 21 inch torpedo tubes, and depth charge racks on either side of the stern.

For safety reasons, we planned to use twin tanks with a separate regulator and gauges on each tank, and Nitrox dive computers. We quickly bolted three sets of twin 80 cu ft alloy tanks together with stainless steel tank bands.  Our Poseidon Tech jackets are designed for this style of diving and were easily bolted onto the tank bands.  We had similar, though not identical regulator configurations. I attached my Scubapro G250 to the right tank with its tri-gauges and power inflator connected to my AIRII.  My Poseidon Jetstream went left-handed on the second tank with its own SPG.  We also hung a safety tank under the float at 5 metres as an additional air supply.

Luxury Liveaboard

Our Solomons adventure began when Selwyn Douglas, the owner of the luxury liveaboard M.V. Princess II, picked us up at Henderson airport near Honiara and took us to the secure wharf where the Princess was berthed.  The ship has six air-conditioned staterooms accommodating twelve guests.  Ema showed my wife and I to Cabin No. 3 which is downstairs from the big salon.  We left the dive gear bags in the salon and had a long hot shower in our bathroom.  Together with Neil and Jenny Harris of Absolute Scuba ‘N’ Snorkeling in Brisbane, we were to spend seven days cruising the Florida and Russell Islands on the Princess II. 

The day started around 6.00 am with a hearty breakfast of cereal, pawpaw with lime juice, mango, sweet pineapple, bananas and toast before the early morning dive.   We usually had a dive before lunch at a different site.  We had one or two dives in the afternoon (or a sleep!) and a night dive if the location was suitable. 

The Princess is equipped to handle twelve divers with a big dive deck and back-to-back wooden seats, tank holders and storage space underneath.  There are two whips and a big compressor which quickly fills the scuba tanks in place.  The dive guide gives a briefing in front of the whiteboard while the skipper is positioning the ship for the dive.  We moved down to the dive platform, put on our fins, and jumped in right on top of the entry point.

In the evening we downloaded our digital images onto Jenny’s laptop computer on a table in the salon, sent the mediocre shots to the Recycle Bin, and recharged the camera batteries. By the end of the trip, we had nearly 800 images in high-resolution form for future use.  Ema and Sophie prepared a different meal for us each night.  These included stir-fried chicken, pork chops, pepper steak, roast lamb, Wahoo steaks, and curries, always with fresh vegetables and dessert.

Florida Islands

The Nggela (or Florida) Islands are about 35 km north of Honiara across the famous Iron Bottom Sound.  Tulagi was the original capital of the Solomons but was severely damaged during WWII and was replaced by the new capital of Honiara after the war.

There are a number of wreck dive sites close to Tulagi. The American destroyer USS Aaron Ward is nearby off Tinete Point. The big American fleet oiler USS Kanawha is near the entrance to Tulaghi Harbour at 60 metres. The New Zealand corvette HMNZS Moa is in Tulaghi Harbour at 40 metres. There is a Kawanishi Flying Boat is in the old Japanese flying boat base at 30 metres.

Kawanishi Flying Boat

One night we anchored near Tenaboga Islet and located a submerged float which showed the position of a Kawanishi H6K4 flying boat (known to the Allies as a “Mavis”).  Some local men paddled up with a supply of 1940’s Coke bottles and other artefacts from the war.  After this it was definitely beer time so we decided to dive on the aircraft early the following morning.

Diving on an almost intact WWII flying boat was like stepping back in time for me. As an aircraft enthusiast in my youth, I built plastic models of many WWII combat aircraft.  During my “flying boat” era, I made every kit that I could buy including the British Short Sunderland and the US Consolidated PBY-5 or Catalina. Whereas the Kawanishi “Emily” was very similar to a Short Sunderland, the “Mavis” was a bit like a stretched Catalina.  Although the H6K4 was much bigger than a Catalina with a 40-metre wingspan, four engines and twin tails, it had the same high wing above the hull and blisters on the hull aft of the wing.

The aircraft sits upright on a sandy bottom at a depth of 30 metres.  The starboard section of the wing is missing at the starboard inner engine and the aircraft is covered in a fine layer of silt.  Although it is a tight squeeze, Neil got into the cockpit with the video camera and filmed the controls. Jenny took pictures with her digital camera and a big diving torch. We swam under the starboard engine and along the fuselage to the twin tails, then returned on the port side to see the wing float and out to the damaged port wingtip. The three remaining engines made a great photo opportunity.

World Discoverer

In between spectacular wall dives at Tanavuna Point in the Sandfly Passage, Sel took us in the skiff to have a close look at the wreck of the luxury liner World Discoverer. The ship is broached on the beach in Roderick Bay with a 46-degree list to starboard.  It still contains 420 tons of diesel fuel which leaks out at high tide.  It could easily become a maritime pollution disaster.  Alternatively, 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.

How the World Discoverer got to be in this predicament is an interesting story. It goes something like this.  Apparently, about two years ago, the ship hit a rock at the northern end of Sandfly Passage and anchored in the middle of Roderick Bay.  The ship began to list to starboard and the passengers took to the lifeboats.  The captain drove the ship ashore and broached it on the beach so that it would not slide down into deep water.  The plan was to salvage it and take it to Singapore.  For various reasons, the savage attempt was abandoned and the insurance company now owns the wreck.

Maravagi Resort

One afternoon, we dropped in at the Maravagi resort which is located on Mana Island. It is in a picturesque bay with green hills and surrounding islands.  We met a few Australians who were staying there and doing a little diving in the area.  We had some cool drinks in the restaurant which has been built over the beach.  Guests can look out the front windows onto a colourful coral reef with many fish.  We had dinner back on board and weighed anchor at 12.30am for our next stop, the Russell Islands.

Russell Islands

We headed 100 km west to the Russell Islands where we were to spend a few days enjoying a different style of diving.  The Princess took us to a great variety of diving locations including sheer coral walls, the coastal trader ‘Ann’, sea caves, a night dive near the Yandina wharf, and on an underwater mound of ammunition. That part of the cruise will be told in Dive Log next month. 

A few days later, we heard the anchor being raised at 1 am as the Princess II prepared to depart from the Russell Islands and return to the main island of Guadalcanal.  We awoke to brilliant sunshine close to a long sandy beach with the obvious remnants of a ship protruding from the shallow water.  We had anchored near Bonegi Creek to dive on the Kinugawa Maru and just around the point, the Hirokawa Maru.

Kinugawa Maru

The Japanese transport Kinugawa Maru was sunk in 1942 quite close to the beach near Bonegi Creek which is about 13 km west of Honiara.   The ship was 437 feet long with the bow emerging a few yards from the beach. Much of the ship has been removed for scrap metal so it is fairly broken up.  The propellers were salvaged in the 1960’s. 

We swam down the ship to the stern at 30 metres and examined the propeller shaft and rudder. Then we swam back up towards the bow through the various parts of the ship. We spent a delightful safety stop in the coral encrusted bow section with thousands of fish. My wife took the opportunity to snorkel with us and enjoy the abundance of coral and fish life.

Hirokawa Maru

The Japanese transport Hirokawa Maru was sunk in 1942, just around the point from the Kinugawa Maru.   It was built in 1940 and was originally 479 feet long but the bow is completely shattered.  The stern lies at 55 metres and is a little deep for recreational divers. Like “Bonegi II”, the propellers were salvaged in the 1960’s.

Jenny and I did an easy dive towards the stern and stopped at 27 metres.  Neil went further down with the video camera. The stern section is reasonably intact and in a better condition than the Kinugawa Maru making “Bonegi I” an excellent wreck dive. We swam back towards the bow, past the engine room and the bridge, and then examined the kingpost and masts.  The bow section is fairly smashed up but has good coral growth.  I recognised the remains of a hold with vertical bars like a jail that is often seen in Solomon wreck photos.

On our last day, we visited the Solomon Airlines office to confirm our departure, the Japanese and US memorials up on the hills behind Honiara, the Visitors Bureau,  the war museum near the airport, and had a pleasant lunch at the King Solomon Hotel.  Then it was back to the Princess to have a rest, dinner and a late night departure for Brisbane.

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