Some of the most enchanting moments I have ever spent in destination dive travel have been aboard the deck of a world-class live-aboard cruising through the Solomon Islands—a leisurely surface interval sitting on a sun-drenched deck watching emerald isles slip silently astern. It doesn't get much better than this. At least not until we roll over the side of the dive dinghy. Then it gets much better, for as impressive as the Solomons Islands may be in terms of topside beauty and cultural attractions, the real attraction lies along the shallow coral reefs and shipwrecks.
Diving the Solomons
There are now two prime areas of departure for the live-aboards of the Solomons. The Bilikiki, Spirit of the Solomons, and the Solomon Sea depart Honiara for the Russell and Florida Islands, while the Solomon Islands Aggressor departs Gizo for tours to Choiseul and the Shortland Islands.
I am most familiar with the Russell and Florida Island groups, so the dive sites reviewed are from that itinerary, but there are certain commonalities no matter where you dive in the Solomons:
- The water temperature is in the 82F to 85F range year-round. Note however that the live-aboards commonly do as many as four dives per day, so even in water this warm, thermal protection is advisable. I like a 3/2mm wetsuit for this kind of water, but some more hardy souls may find a Polartec suit sufficient. The other consideration is for protection against stinging sea creatures, so for your personal comfort I strongly recommend some sort of full suit, even if it is only a Lycra skin.
- Under most sea conditions, visibility ranges from 40 to 120 feet, but there is great variability from site to site. Actually, critter photographers may find sites with marginal visibility their favorites because of the wealth of macro life found there. The waters of the Solomon Islands are nutrient-rich, hosting a diverse ecosystem, from macro life to pelagic predators. You can look over the side of the boat and essentially tell whether you should be shooting wide angle or macro on any given dive. Be prepared for anything in the Solomons.
- Reefs generally start close to the surface and drop off gradually so you can do your deeper dive first, yet still find ample compelling reef life at shallow depths for safe, interesting off-gassing. This multi-level diving is perfect for computer-assisted dive profiles.
There are also shipwrecks from World War II, particularly around Guadalcanal, as well as a few merchant ships that now serve as prolific artificial reefs. The live-aboards tend not to spend much time on the Guadalcanal wrecks, but there are several day-dive operators who serve this market. For those interested in wreck diving, plan on a couple of days at the front or back end of a live-aboard tour and base out of a hotel in Honiara.
Traveler's Health: Solomon Islands
The popular Solomon Islands live-aboard Bilikiki offers the following health advisory: "Travelers to the Solomon Islands are advised to consult with their doctor or local health unit about immunizations, vaccinations and oral preventatives for hepatitis A, malaria, polio, tetanus and typhoid." Water and food on most live-aboards and at the commercial hotels and restaurants is generally not a problem, but elsewhere, drinking water should be boiled or sterilized and all food well cooked.
You may find it convenient to obtain current information regarding health concerns and recommended immunizations for the Solomon Islands by phoning the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at (800) 311-3435 or on the web at www.cdc.gov/travel. In any case, your personal physician is your best resource for accurate information and health care recommendations.
The Solomons are extremely remote, and divers are even more remote once they're on a live-aboard at sea. The nearest recompression chamber is about 1,500 miles away in Townsville, Australia. In an emergency, a helicopter will be required to evacuate the patient to Honiara, then a KingAir turboprop equipped with a recompression chamber flies the patient to Townsville. There is a tiny L-shaped chamber on the plane where the patient lies with his head in the lap of the tender. The diameter of the tube is barely wide enough to accommodate a grown man's shoulders. Depending on head winds, the flight takes at least five hours, and if you aren't claustrophobic before you go in the chamber, you will be when you get out. The cost will be at least US$30,000. The moral: Don't get bent, and if you are going to, make sure you have insurance.
Five Great Solomons Dives
Korumolun Island. There is a mini-wall here with ledges and plateaus that host a huge variety of marine life. Lionfish and clownfish are common, as are macro creatures like mantis shrimp and cuttlefish. On our last dive here, there were two cuttlefish, a male and female. The female was laying eggs while the male served as escort. Despite a little egg-laying-interruptus caused by frenzied photographers, it was an interesting natural history vignette.
Mirror Pond at Mane Island. This site is famous for the saltwater crocodile that occasionally resides in the shallow tunnel connecting the reef face to an inner lagoon. I was one of the first photographers ever to photograph this creature. Hearing stories of snorkelers who were killed by the fearsome crocs at nearby Dismemberment Cove caused a moment of unease as I crept ever nearer this one, but it turned out to be an uneventful encounter.
Tall spur-and-groove surge channels lead offshore to a fairly vertical wall face. Elegantly intact stands of staghorn coral provide refuge for a wealth of Pacific reef critters.
Leru Cut. This site provides one of the Solomons' iconic photo-ops as morning sunlight pierces a chasm in the island. Dramatic streams of light penetrate the jungle canopy, providing for striking available light shots of divers in silhouette.
Mary Island. Properly known as Mborokua, Mary Island is notable for an underwater point that commonly hosts massive schools of barracuda and jacks. Divers can easily drop below 100 feet here, and with high-voltage pelagic action possible, this is a site that can lure unwary divers into trouble. But with a little discipline, it's easy to leave the depths to explore the coral rubble beneath the boat, for here ghost pipefish, leaffish and shrimp gobies rule.
Wreck of the Ann. The Ann is an island freighter sunk 20 years ago along a sandy slope in 30 to 102 feet of water that is now massively encrusted and home to spectacular marine life. Coral grouper, skittish on most other reef sites, pose brazenly here. Blennies, sharpnose puffers, hawkfish and grouper prowl amid the soft corals and gorgonia. Wide-angle shots along the bow, kingposts and wheelhouse provide vibrant color and dramatic texture. Even the sand slope is productive, with a great colony of garden eels, anemonefish and shrimp gobies.
Tips for Traveling to the Solomon Islands
Location. The Solomon Islands are a group of some 990 volcanic islands and coral islets spread across 1,000 miles of the tropical Pacific, about 1,250 miles northeast and across the Coral Sea from Queensland, Australia. There are six major islands—Guadalcanal, Malaita, New Georgia, Santa Isabel, Makira and Choiseul.
Population. The population of these islands is about 455,000, with 96,500 living on Guadalcanal. The capital city Honiara has a population of about 37,000. Most of the population lives in rural villages.
Language. The official language is English, though Solomon Pidgin is widely spoken. There are more than 100 native languages and dialects used within the home villages and islands of the Solomons.
Currency. Solomon Islands dollar.
Getting There. Most flights to the Solomon Islands from the U.S. originate in Los Angeles through Nadi, Fiji, and then on to the Solomons. Alternate routings may go through Honolulu via Auckland, New Zealand, or either Sydney or Brisbane in Australia. Most flights transit Honiara.
Passports and Visas. Passports are required for entry into the Solomon Islands. A visitor's permit will be issued on arrival for citizens of the United States and most Commonwealth and European countries. A return or ongoing ticket must be presented as well.
Climate. Because of their equatorial location, these islands enjoy a year-round tropical climate, moderated by a cooling sea breeze. Rainfall averages 10 inches per month on an annual basis, although January to April, the southern summer, is typically wetter and warmer with occasional squalls followed by bright sunshine. In the southern winter, May through December, expect southeasterly trade winds and mild, pleasant weather. Rainfall is usually light and infrequent. Humidity is high inland, but the weather is quite pleasant along the coast.
Meeting the People
One of the very special things about a Solomon Islands cruise is the opportunity to interact with people in the native villages. Divers on live-aboards may enjoy the rare privilege of visiting villages, schools and churches. Typically, the dive boats buy their fresh produce from the villages, and native canoes commonly approach dive vessels while at anchor. Islanders also display and sell their carvings, baskets and other handicrafts.
Carvings and Artwork: Native carvings are both unusual and artfully rendered. Produced from ebony, kerosene wood and stone, often inlaid with shell, these artworks range from moderately priced to outrageous depending on size, quality of work or expectation of remuneration based on the last tourist the seller met. Pricing will be in Solomon Island dollars, with the conversion rate suggested by the live-aboard staff. Negotiations in price are expected, but avoid aggressive haggling that may insult the artisan.
Traveler's Gifts: It has been a tradition among North American dive travelers to bring gifts for the children and villagers of the islands. Pencils, pens, notebooks, erasers, rulers and other school goods, batteries, flashlights, clothing items (especially hats and T-shirts from sports teams) are highly prized. Toothbrushes, toothpaste, combs, brushes and other personal hygiene items are also well accepted.
Toys and balloons will ingratiate you with the beautiful children of these islands and is fair compensation as a model fee. Speaking of which, the people of the Solomon Islands are extraordinarily photogenic, but you should always ask permission when photographing people and their homes. In so doing, I have never been denied access; at least that's the case in the outlying islands. The pace is more hectic in Honiara and intrusions less well tolerated.