The shallow site didn’t look like much. Our liveaboard had tied up at a rustic Mangalonga Island resort in the northwest Florida Islands — sitting high in the water, 100-foot Taka seemed impossibly massive and modern by comparison. But our Aussie divemaster, Mossy, was practically quivering.
“There’s every tiny thing in the coral here,” he said, briefing us on the site called Maravagi. He promised “a Magic 8 Ball of critters,” wonders seen here once, “then never seen again.”
We plop off the back of Taka’s dive deck and right away, we get it. The viz is like glass, revealing schools of oxeye scad flashing in the sun, along with anemonefish galore — Clark’s, clown, dusky and more — rising and falling in anemones flung out across the sand like frontier towns dotting a Western desert. Three giant clams sit in picturesque arrangement; Mossy holds my hand over a valve as one closes. Whoosh! A strong jet shoots out, and I squeal like a little girl. A group of striped catfish flows by, moving like a single, multibrained organism. Along the seawall, we spy a foot-tall intermediate pinnate batfish, less-intensely black than its juvenile self but still a stunner. “I thought you weren’t impressed,” Mossy says later. “You just stared.”
Truthfully, I was mesmerized. Contrast Maravagi and Ghavutu Wharf, the dive we did just before it, and you appreciate why the Solomons are catnip to photographers — the range of subjects is astounding.
Little remains of the wharf, a crumbling concrete pier used by the Japanese when they seized nearby Tulagi in May 1942. After the war, U.S. soldiers dumped materiel into the shallows. (“Don’t touch the armaments,” we’re warned — many are live.) Today Ghavutu is a fantastic muck dive that includes the remains of a 30-foot fishing boat, pieces of a small Japanese plane, and a larger overturned transport, all near a lively little reef full of spiraling foliose corals and purplish elephant ear sponges.
The slope beneath the wharf is littered with riveted and armored debris. Under a beam, our divemaster, John — a champion critter-spotter — finds a wriggly, jet-black juvenile pinnate spade sh the size of a thimble, with a shocking orange outline the exact shade of the encrusting sponges covering the pilings nearby.
The Solomons would be an amazing destination if only for its Indonesia-like roll call of critters, but when you throw in the history and wrecks, often at the same sites, you wonder why more divers aren’t beating a path here.
SOLOMONS, TAKA-STYLE Watching Savo Island slide by from Taka’s covered, open-air lounge on a lazy afternoon with a Solbrew lager in hand, it’s hard to grasp the terror and carnage that reigned here 75 years ago, when American and Japanese forces fought numerous battles from May to November 1942 that helped turn the course of the war in the Allies’ favor. Solomon Islanders remain proud of the part they played, largely as scouts and porters; they also remain welcoming to Americans, as I notice in long conversations with the islanders among Taka’s dozen crew and staff.
That comfortable feeling extends to Taka itself. Rugged and built for explo- ration, the 13-year-old ship has a huge interior salon with no windows — better for high seas — but a live Web cam on the bow beams to a big-screen TV over communal dining tables. Briefings are done in the salon, out of wind and weather, with site maps shown on an- other big-screen TV. Three overstuffed couches are great for viewing movies or documentaries like Nat Geo’s The Lost Fleet of Guadalcanal. The aromas wafting from the open galley will keep your mouth watering; shy Chef Kenzo spoils us with dishes from spicy Asian tuna salad to bangers and scrambled eggs, beef and chicken kebabs, creamy corn and potato salad, and ice cream almost every night.
Taka’s recently renovated cabins range from spacious top-deck suites to singles and dorm-style rooms below. The five dive-deck heads and showers seem oddly excessive at first; they are the shared facilities for lower cabins and crew. There was rarely a wait, and unlimited hot water owed like a cataract — I never got into my cabin shower at all.
BEST DIVE EVER The curse of the liveaboard life: After a few days, you get used to this. You try not to think that it has to end. But you never really leave a place like the Solomons — you’re taking home memories of perhaps the best diving of your life, at sites like Karumolun Point in the Russell Islands group, west of Guadalcanal and the Florida Islands.
The fun starts with the briefing: Prepare for reef hooks and a live drop, two experiences common in the Solomons, where currents can be strong and unpredictable, and moorings are few.
We suit up and step off the starboard side amidships, single file, and are quickly whisked away from Taka like candies dropped on a conveyor belt. Descending around 80 feet to a plateau along the sheer wall, we find five or six blacktip sharks, which quickly become nine, 10, 15, 18, then 20-plus. As I’m filming the sharks, a huge school of medium-size jacks streaks over my shoulder and right into the shot. Then a school of young barracuda storms along the edge of the wall where fields upon fields of coral begin, dense thickets of staghorn with vertical, mushroomlike outcroppings, coral high-rises jutting above the undersea city below. Still at the edge of the wall, the world’s friendliest hawksbill turtle comes by, with a wise and kindly look that’s at once ancient and childlike. Heading up-slope, we find ourselves in a shallow, fish- filled coral bowl with unlimited viz and swim- throughs all around, like gaps in a maze hedge — some are false starts, blocked by diver-size sea fans, but many are passable, allowing us to weave in and out of the arena. It’s the world’s longest, most fun safety stop — everything you want in a dive site, with a cherry tomato clownfish on top.
WHEN TO GO Located close to the equator, the Solomons have a year-round tropical climate with temps ranging from the high 60s in the evening to mid-80s during the day. High season is dry season, April to November.
GETTING THERE Virgin Australia, Fiji Airways and Solomon Airlines are recommended; travel to the Solomons generally requires a stop in Australia or Fiji.
DIVE CONDITIONS Reefs in the Solomons start close to the surface and often slope to steep walls, offering many profiles in a single dive site. Water temps range from 82 to 85 degrees F. Hardier divers will find a swimsuit sufficient, but for intensive days of multiple dives, a 3 mm fullsuit with a vest or light hood does the trick. Visibility of more than 100 feet is common o out islands; wreck dives in or near harbors are much murkier. Diving is done from both the mothership and two large, skillfully handled RIBs.
OPERATOR Taka is a steel monohull ship owned and operated by Solomon Islands Dive Expeditions. The three-deck, 100-foot vessel with a 26-foot beam has 12 cabins — including upper- deck rooms with individual baths and air conditioning, lower-deck berths with shared bath, and a quad- share cabin — that can carry up to 24 guests along with a crew of 12.
TRAVELER’S TIP Go for Cabin 6: This upper-deck portside cabin is roomy and offers natural light, good storage, a small work table, and privacy. Cabin 4 is a good choice also.
PRICE TAG An upper-deck en-suite cabin starts at $3,639 per person double- occupancy for a seven-night cruise, not including alcoholic drinks, nitrox, gear rentals and a $25 per day “marine kastom fee.” The fee assists local villages — which maintain traditional tenure over their reefs — who welcome divers in their waters.
WWII 75TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATIONS
On August 7 — recognized as Solomon Islands Veterans Day — ships from the United States, New Zealand and Australian navies, all nations that saw combat in the desperate battles fought in the Solomon Islands in 1942 and ’43, are expected in port at Honiara, the Solomons’ capital, on the big island of Guadalcanal. Wreath-laying ceremonies are planned over the wrecks of warships lying o shore in the infamous Ironbottom Sound, so named for the plethora of warships, some divable, that litters its depths. A dawn service is planned at the United States War Memorial on a hill above Honiara.
To learn more about planned anniversary events, go to visitsolomons.com.sb.