DIVING IN THE SOLOMON ISLANDS
There’s not a lot to do in the Solomon Islands if you’re not a diver or world war 2 history buff. Over 900 islands spread throughout its archipelago with infrequent and/or expensive transport make traveling a challenge.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is the coral reefs and tropical isles of this country are stunning. If you are looking for turquoise blue waters with one of the highest concentrations of marine life in the world, you’ll find it here. If you want to escape to an island and live like a castaway on Gilligan’s Island, you’re in luck. Guadalcanal is the location of the international airport and is one of the less beautiful islands, but its aptly named lead bottom sound is strewn with WW2 shipwrecks, submarines and planes. There’s even a couple of shipwrecks near the beach that can be easily visited without a boat or diving gear. The Vilu WW2 museum is a collection of left behind military equipment and wrecked planes. Even its airport is a leftover US military base called Henderson Airfield. The island is mostly populated on its coasts and little is known about its inaccessible center. Most visitors arrive to Honiara, stay a couple days, then make their way to the Western District.
I wanted to do at least one epic dive on my visit but found it quite difficult to set up a dive both in Honiara and Munda. Places that were reportedly open on Google looked like they’d been shuttered for months. Blame COVID or island time, it still boiled down to not being able to dive. One company answered the phone and agreed to help me immediately: Dan Kennedy from Gizo Dives.
Gizo is in the western district and requires a 90 minute flight to reach its turquoise shores. There’s a weekly ferry, but it has a bad safety record and if you miss its departure, you’ll be stuck for at least another 7 days. I booked a flight with a Solomon airlines and a stay on Imagination island, a private island with a scattering of huts and a bar/restaurant. The room was very basic, but the clear water and aquatic life surrounding the island was epic. There’s not much to do on the island; you have to use your “imagination” (groan) but it’s perfect for getting off the grid completely and does offer boat service to other islands.
Dan explained to me since tourists were still fairly non-existent, he could arrange a private dive with a dive master and an extra staff person to get me to a couple of great locations. I was particularly interested in visiting the Toa Marua, a Japanese supply world war 2 ship that’s listed as one of the greatest wreck dives in the world.
The dive shop set me up with all the gear and we headed out to the lagoon. There’s lots of little uninhabited islets. The water was a little rough.
My first dive was a place called “The Hot Spot”, a reef well known in the diving world for its abundance of sea life. A tsunami in 2007 killed a lot of the coral, but most of the fish still showed up. It was impressive. My buoyancy was a little off due to me not having enough lead weights in my belt to keep me from floating and the entry from the boat was very rough. Everything was all fixable.
We took a lunch break and visited the Toa Maru.
It’s 1943. The US was trying to cut off the Japanese in the very waters where I’m staying. JFK was almost killed when his ship got bombed, but he survived and the Japanese were surprised by the American’s quick response to Pearl Harbor. They set up bases in the nearby islands but the Americans weren’t going to let them win. The Japanese Toa Maru was a supply ship full of ammo and 2 person tanks. The crew didn’t expect an American torpedo to rip through the front of the hull. They tried to get away, but the damage was done. The Toa Maru was sinking.
80 years later, encrusted in coral is a aquatic dreamscape. it’s my favorite wreck dive EVER. It might be the best dive I’ve ever been on. It was scary, creepy, amazing … like a haunted house where there’s a surprise around every corner. All I could think as I swam through the creepy murky parts of the ship is that James Cameron knows this world. I felt like I was visiting an alien spacecraft. If you saw Aliens, you might remember the otherworldly unsettling setting of the ship. The Abyss nailed it too. It’a impossible for me to capture the experience of being there in words, but Cameron shows an underwater world better than anyone in his films and maybe you can imagine what it must be like.
We picked up Japanese sake bottles, looked through chests of personal effects, touched the cannons that had never fired. It was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had.
As we swam through the hull of the ship, through chambers claimed by the sea, i realized the ship had been transformed into an organic world of life. Everything that lived there claimed the ship as its universe, the sponges, clams, nudibranchs, the sharks and anemones. I’m not sure if it was spiritual or just creepy as hell, but wow, what an adventure! To exit the ship, we swam out of the very hole that had sunk the Toa Maru.
As our oxygen tanks got depleted we made it back to the surface and talked about the place below where time had stopped in 80 years ago and a new reef began.