Story and photos by Kevin Davidson
“Wow, that’s a beautiful boat. Are you the owner?” I hear that a lot from folks who stroll along the marina pier. It’s nice to be mistaken for a millionaire. I tell them every time I see my reflection in the hull while I’m polishing it, I see a millionaire too.
M/Y Blue Star was once an unassuming Mediterranean boat, but now has several added features, such as a large cockpit and a bulbous bow, and has grown to 44 meters. Although not fast, she plows through the seas with the best of them as we roam the planet to the least-visited atolls and islands in search of underwater adventure.
Our favorite activity, for crew as well as the owners, is diving. In spite of my 30 years in the scuba diving industry, it is my true love – photography – that sealed the deal for my job as ship’s photographer, deck scrubber, rust remover, painter and carpenter. Working as an underwater photographer and videographer in Palau for 15 years allowed me to hone my skills and become a guide for many yachts visiting Palau.
Our mission now was to explore the Solomon Islands. We said farewell to Cairns, Australia, and four days later arrived in Honiara, the capital of this nation of islands in the South Pacific. We picked up the guests and owners there before heading out on our two-month trek. Twice a week the market is bustling with activity, so we stopped by for a look at the dazzling array of fruits and vegetables. There are as many as 19 different types of bananas grown in the Solomons, as well as peanuts, chiles, tomatoes, eggplant, tropical fruits and a plethora of greens to make some of the tastiest salads.
The Solomons comprise more than 900 islands rich in marine life. They are linked underwater by a labyrinth of coral reefs, many of which reach within inches of the surface and boast some of the healthiest hard corals that can be imagined. You don’t have to be a diver to enjoy the Solomon Islands – the beaches, shallow waters, coral reefs, and quiet, beautiful anchorages make for a worthwhile cruising destination as well.
Our owners seek solitude, and we found it in the bays and inlets there. A boat could cruise anywhere in this labyrinth of sheltered waters and find magnificent surroundings and tranquil waters. We decided to find a guide, and a little research brought us to Danny Kennedy, owner of Gizo Divers, a dive shop operating out of Gizo, on Ghizo Island. Danny has 25 years of experience in the Solomons and has guided many yachts over the years throughout the archipelago. His knowledge of the aquatic world and ability to communicate with the local people provided us with the best advice on where to dive and anchor. He also played a key role when it came to our modest diving fees by letting us know which village chiefs we were to pay them to.
Starting our explorations in Honiara, we found a rich vein of sunken ships from World War II, and several were located close enough to shore for easy diving. Close to Honiara are the Russell Islands, where we anchored near reefs we called “Land of the Giants” because species in the coral here appear huge, including larger-than-usual elephant ear sponge and barrel sponge. This anchorage is called Nono Bay, and there are several picturesque inlets and bays to explore by tender.
Next stop, we found ourselves in the New Georgia group of islands, in an area called Kolo Lagoon, where we discovered a long barrier reef that made for calm anchorage. We dived from a 33-foot Everglades boat with three Yamaha 350 hp engines. It’s very fast. I dub it the “gas station,” though it’s officially known as Baby Blue Star. The captain, the boss, myself and two mates, Richard Lima and Dave Wilke, climbed into the tender and, with engines blazing, we soon found ourselves in front of a floating emerald island named Karunjou Island. This location was memorable as the first of many pinnacle-style dive or snorkel spots we would encounter. In these areas, the coral reaches to the surface in search of sunlight. The shallow waters provide a view of the varieties of corals and show their true beauty. Reef fish darting around add to the dazzling array of colors. Diving 15 meters below the surface, we were treated to sea fans, crinoids, reef fish and a spectacular encounter with a cuttlefish.
Residents of the Solomon Islands are friendly, and the threat of danger or robbery is very low. Many came out to welcome us by canoe, bringing interesting carvings and fresh seafood for sale. I indulged in some of the best oysters and mangrove crab collected from the mangroves. We learned that the islanders appreciate gifts of rice, flour, sugar and instant coffee, as well as pencils, crayons and books for the children.
At one point during the trip, we needed to retrieve more guests. But how to do that, being so far away from any airport or Honiara? Well, it turned out that the island of Kaghau had a landing strip for small aircraft and helicopters, a mere 185 miles from Honiara. While awaiting arrival of the charter flight, we enjoyed a bird’s eye view of the waters around this coral-fringed island and kept ourselves busy identifying good diving spots. We met the local gentleman who keeps the runway clear of coconuts and operates the small airport lobby for the occasional flights that arrive. He also tends cattle that like to spend their days lounging on the beach.
The reef surrounding this island runway is home to some wonderful diving and snorkeling. We were told of a B-24 bomber plane in 15 meters of water, and after securing the approximate location, we drifted upon it. Upside down and largely intact, its machine gun mounts and large propellers poking out of the sand were clearly visible.
A majority of our time in the Solomons was spent in Gizo, the Solomon’s second largest village, located on Ghizo Island. Dive shops there have identified a collection of diverse dive sites in the area. Walls and sandy reefs are home to larger aquatic creatures. Sharks and mantas regularly patrol the waters. Our main anchorage was chosen for safety and proximity to Gizo village. It also proved to be a very short hop to one of the most prolific shipwreck dives that I have ever experienced.
Having dived for a living for more than 20 years, I have seen my share of shipwrecks. But the Japanese cargo ship Toa Maru will stand out as unique. This World War II merchant ship is in a protected lagoon close to Gizo. The Toa Maru rests on her starboard side, covering 140 meters and boasting some interesting artifacts. A small, light-armor tank rests on its side at the edge of one of the cargo holds. China, lanterns and medical supplies can be found. For wreck divers, both new and experienced, it’s an underwater playground. The large anchors can be seen and photographed. It is possible to enter through a large hole where the ship was torpedoed during the war, and come out safely on the other side. Portholes make great photo frames with a diver’s head poking through. One view that stood out to me was an abundance of coral growing in the shallower side of the starboard hull. Stacks of hard coral make their home in the 13 meters of water, and small reef fish swarmed around it like quicksilver. It was as though the ship were alive again with its new inhabitants.
Finally, for those who enjoy a touch of the macabre, a visit to Skull Island should be on the agenda. This tiny speck of island is a testament to the head-hunting history of the Solomons, and has been reserved as a resting place for fallen war heroes and tribal chiefs of a bygone era. An overturned portion of a war canoe sits atop a large rock pile with almost a dozen human skulls inside, with many other skulls resting in various other places. The proper guide and a boat ride from Gizo will get you to this fascinating enclave.
If you happen to be checking the fuel gauge, bunkering can be arranged in Noro, a town in the Western Province, approximately 25 miles from Gizo in Hawthorn Sound. Tradco shipping (email@example.com) is a reliable agent that can help with the details.
If you’re up for exploring, the Solomon Islands’ archipelago has much more to offer than I have touched upon here. Residents are friendly, and you will be amazed by the carvings and craft work. Next time you are in the South Pacific, give the Solomons a try. You won’t be disappointed.
Kevin Davidson is a photographer who specializes in underwater images and works on a research vessel. He had nearly a decade of experience on M/Y Blue Star previous to a year and a half on M/Y Qing. For more information visit www.divegizo.com.