Solomon Islands trip July 7-17, 2018
When I arrived at Nadi airport for my flight to Honiara, I was told all seats were sold out and a group of us would have to either go late or fly to Brisbane then arrive the next day. I calmly explained that if I wasn’t on this flight, I would miss getting on a boat for a 10-day trip so the trip would be for naught. Fortunately a business class seat was found a half-hour prior to departure and I made the planned pickup and meeting in Honiara. Our group met at a café on the waterfront and was ferried to the Taka, our boat for the “Best of Solomons” 10-day trip.
The boat wasn’t full so I was given my own room down below, where the 2-bunk-bed room had no ensuite toilet/sink but adequate shelf space for a single. There were 5 bathroom/showers on the main/dive deck so any midnight run required a walk upstairs and out to the dive deck. On the dive deck, which adjoined the dining room and lounge, each was given a station and numbered tank plus a gear box, which remained for the week. Those using Nitrox had marked tanks. The camera table was small compared to other boats I’ve been on and had no power outlets – charging was done in the dining room. In the dining area, breakfast was made to order but lunch and dinner were usually buffet style, with an occasional served meal. Food was plentiful and generally excellent, all non-carbonated or non-alcoholic drinks were free, and an honor system kept track of those for purchase – beer, sodas, wine, etc. Having alcohol meant no more diving that day. Only the first two chicken meals and first fish meal were overcooked, but after those all were delicious. Generally, small breakfast was offered at 6a, dive briefing at 7a, breakfast at 9a, 2nd dive briefing at 10a, lunch at 11:30a, 3rd briefing at 1:30p, snacks at 3:30p, 4th briefing at 4:30p, dinner at 6:30p. If we did a night dive, this was altered with dinner afterward and usually skipping the fourth day dive. Hot chocolate after night dives was welcomed by all. Weather or extreme current forced cancellation of two dive plans.
The deck above main deck housed six double occupancy suites, each with an ensuite bathroom/shower. Above that was the sun deck with several hammocks for relaxation. The upper rooms had control for air-conditioning, whereas below-main deck rooms had to deal with that area’s setting, which was cool for me. Fortunately each bunk had a nice blanket that kept me warm. Water temperature was generally 83-84F (28C) with a rare thermocline chilling us.
Dive day 1 concentrated on shipwrecks and plane wrecks in Iron Bottom Sound in the Florida Is group. Vis was bad and even macro photography yielded plenty of backscatter. The stories of fighting between US and Japan were riveting and sad. We watched a Nat Geo show on Robert Ballard finding wrecks and reuniting former enemies, which was quite moving. A problem I had, that was remedied by engineer Rob, was that the battery cover on my air-integrated dive computer developed a crack that fried two batteries before I discovered the cause. Rob put epoxy over the crack overnight and saved the computer, which fortunately was constructed so that water could not enter the inside through the battery compartment. I had to rent a SPG for two dives while the cover underwent repair, as I had a spare wrist computer.
Dive day 2 gave us much clearer water and lots of macro subjects. Nudis, cuttlefish, shrimp and an octopus were all photographed. As dusk descended, large schools of fish gathered close to shore in the shallows. These dives were not deep so dive times over an hour were often recorded.
We moved to White Beach in the Russell Islands group for day 3. First dive was where the US Army dumped any vehicles, ammo and material that they didn’t want to bring back, so it’s a large junkyard with some live ammo and bombs still there. In the shallows, the mangroves sheltered archer fish and orbicular cardinal fish. My guide Carmen pointed out the smallest mantis shrimp I’ve seen, maybe 3mm across hiding in a hole in coral. Due to visibility, I did mostly macro photos, and found plenty of subjects thanks to Carmen. In the Florida Islands we found several cuttlefish, orangutan crab, emperor shrimp on a crown of thorns star, colorful nudibranchs, crabeye gobis, various shrimp and crabs, including a colorful tiny crab living in a former Christmas-tree worm hole. Of course, while set up with a 105mm lens, a school of barracuda cruised by along with a black tip shark, a gray reef shark and a dogtooth tuna. Once I set up for wide-angle, at Mary’s Island we came upon a school of jacks and another of barracuda. This dive had fair current and a white tip shark cruised by. We dove the same location a second time but current and surge changed the scenery – no more schools of fish. We moved that night to Morovo Lagoon, which we were told is the largest lagoon in the world.
The sites there had beautiful hard coral gardens, huge sea fans down deeper, various solo sharks and our first encounter with a bumphead wrasse. Some said they heard a rumble from a nearby volcano, but I didn’t. A site called labyrinth had numerous shallow swim-throughs with some having sunbeams streaming down from the overhead openings. Outside is a lovely coral garden. Deeper at Mbili Passage I found some odd-shaped barrel sponges – one looked like a saxophone – and a healthy green coral garden. The next two dives were shallower and explored more caverns/swim-throughs with sunbeams illuminating several caverns. Outside in the shallows I found a cooperative pair of blue-streaked gobies plus a juvenile Moorish idol that didn’t flee right away.
We returned to the Russell Islands where our first dive plan was aborted due to current and we spent most time hunting in the shallows. We found a banana nudi with babies around it the size of rice kernels. Visiting a dive called Bat Cave, we emerged from the shallow entrance into a cavern with bats hanging above and guano floating on the surface, so we kept our regulators in our mouths. Diving Mane Bay wall (mah’-nay) we found two pygmy cuttlefish, colorful flatworms and nudis. Leru Cut is a several-meters-wide crack in an island with open overhead that provides memorable wide angle views from inside.
We moved to Florida Islands again where Carmen found a 1cm Cryptic squat lobster on a small yellowish hard coral that I had to ask her twice to point it out, it was so well camouflaged. In a coral head she pointed out a 2cm blue-eye crab among other inhabitants. That night we steamed back to Honiara, Guadalcanal and dove two wrecks the next morning, our last dives of the trip. Vis was bad and only a few macro subjects were available. These ships were beached by the Japanese at WW2’s end, so the bows were quite shallow while the sterns went down below 30m. The most notable thermocline occurred on the first dive, from which I quickly exited.
The dive operation was smooth and well run by cruise director Adam and his fiancée Carmen, The crew helped in many jobs outside of their appointed duties, entries, exits, washing our gear and drying our cameras after each dive. Dive entries varied from site to site – some from the dive platform, some leaping from the side and some from dive tenders (when the big boat couldn’t get near, I assume). Cameras were handled carefully. For the “live drops” from the side, tenders met us with cameras near the descent point. One note about this boat is that it is the noisiest boat I’ve been on when anchor drops and returns occur or when the hydraulics are used. The lounge/dining area is well stocked with books and videos. We enjoyed several episodes of Blue Planet 2 and other dive videos. Otherwise we utilized the lounge for reading or catching a nap. We also visited two villages along the way, buying beautiful carvings at one and getting entertained by the residents with dress, song and music at the second.