Journal archives for November 2014

November 30, 2014

Scuba diving in the Solomon Islands

I’m back from a scuba diving trip to the Solomon Islands aboard the Bilikiki. Jody went with me on this trip organized by Josh & Liz of Undersea Productions. Twenty of us from the U.S., Australia and New Zealand converged on this island nation north east of Australia in the south Pacific Ocean. We spent 14 days on the boat, my longest dive trip to date.

First, an airline saga. We booked our flights months ahead on Fiji Airways through Los Angeles and Fiji. Then we heard from the dive operator that there was a dispute between Fiji and the Solomon Islands and they had cancelled all direct flights between the two nations. I contacted Fiji Airways, who rebooked us through Brisbane Australia with a rather tight connection. When we started the trip, we discovered that we couldn’t check our luggage all the way through; we would have to claim and re-check in Brisbane. The connection was clearly too short to be able to do that. However, we talked Fiji Airways into rebooking us on Qantas direct from Los Angeles to Brisbane (bypassing Fiji) so that we would be able to make the connection. We were promised that they would re-tag our luggage already in the system to be on our new flight.

When we got to Brisbane, our scuba gear bags were there, but my underwater camera housing was not.  After waiting for the missing luggage, then filing the lost luggage paperwork, we had to run to catch the flight to Honiara, the capital and international airport for the Solomon Islands.  On arrival in Honiara, we gave the information about our luggage claim to the Bilikiki representative, expecting that it would show up in a day or two and he would arrange to get it to the boat.  We changed the boat itinerary to spend the first few days diving near Honiara so that we could collect the luggage.  When it hadn’t shown up by day 3, we headed further north, and I became resigned to not having a camera for the trip.  A few people loaned me point-and-shoot cameras for some dives, though I had disappointing results with unfamiliar, less capable cameras.  Then on the afternoon of day 6, we heard that the luggage is now in Honiara.  I was faced with a predicament.  They could put my bag on a commercial flight to an island north of us and have it brought out by speed boat, but cargo is unreliable and often takes several days, and the speedboat will be busy for the next three days ferrying election officials around for the national elections the next day.  So I opted to spend the money to have it flown out by helicopter, and on the morning of day 7 of the 14 day trip I finally was able to use my camera diving.  We still do not know if I will be able to get insurance to pay for any of the helicopter expense, almost as much as the rest of the cruise cost.

The Bilikiki is a steel-hulled live-aboard, a little older and not as luxurious as some of the other live-aboards I’ve been on, but larger with more room. They take 20 guests in 10 cabins, each with en-suite bath. The cruise directors were Daniella, from Venezuela, and Csaba, from Hungary. The 12 crew were all native Solomon Islanders and very helpful and friendly. Camera preparation was on one of the tables in the salon. Buffet meals were served from the other tables, and we ate outside on the covered area of the main deck. Our daily schedule started with hot breakfast, then a dive, a snack which usually included fresh-baked cookies, a second dive, lunch, a third dive, a snack with a salty treat, a fourth dive, then dinner. Most evenings a night dive was offered after dinner. All meals included much fresh produce. They bought additional produce from villagers throughout the trip so we had a variety of fruit and vegetables.

Diving is from two aluminum tenders called “tinnies”. There was usually one dive guide in the water with us on each dive. We dived a wide variety of sites. In addition to walls and slopes, we dived a couple of sea mounts, shallow mucky areas, and wrecks both modern and from World War II. The Upright Wreck is a Japanese tuna fishing boat that hit a reef on its maiden voyage a decade ago and ended up vertical with the stern 20 feet from the surface and the bow down at 110 feet; very disorienting to see it stuck to the wall like that. At White Beach, we saw barges, bulldozers, trucks, and ammunition dumped by the Americans as they retreated from the Japanese in WWII. The top of this site was in the mangroves where we saw Archerfish and Estuarine Halfbeaks. At Mary Island we dived exposed points where large schools of Bigeye Trevally, Rainbow Runners and Barracuda gathered and Dogtooth Tuna, Grey Reef Sharks, Blacktip Sharks, and Kingfish paraded by. A sunken fishing boat at Mbike (“em-BEE-kay”) was encrusted with marine life and swarming with fish. After watching these, we crossed a sand plain with nudibranchs, razorfish, garden eels, and other life to a vibrant shallow reef.

The Solomons are in the coral triangle and show great diversity.  We saw nine different species of anemonefish, including Clownfish.  We saw fish as small as 1/4 inch pygmy seahorses, and as large as 12 foot wide Manta Rays and 5 foot Bumphead Parrotfish.  At one site Josh and I dived down to 125 feet to find a Black and White Butterflyfish.  At another site in wave-swept shallows we watched Red-spotted Blennies peer out of their holes.  In silty shallows we saw Signal Gobies.  Most sites had clouds of purple and orange Anthias above them, and plankton eating Fusiliers, Unicornfish and Pyramid Butterflyfish beyond them.  On a night dive we saw a large school of flashlight fish blinking at us in a cave.  The first half of the trip, without my camera, I had great difficulty identifying small fish which I have trouble seeing in sufficient detail.  Later, I was able to photograph the small gobies, blennies, cardinals and others and logged about 530 species for the trip.  More than 50 of these were new fish to me.  

There were also many other creatures to see. Colorful nudibranchs were common. Large sea cucumbers were on every dive site, including the red and white striped Candycane Sea Cucumber. Nearly transparent dancing cleaner shrimp were on many anemones, and peppermint shrimp could be lured out of their crevices to clean fingernails or teeth. We saw several octopuses, though they were usually shy and would retreat to a hole to watch us. Several large cuttlefish were seen, flashing various colors and patterns on their bodies. On a night dive we saw a sculpted slipper lobster and another night large sea hares.

In the Florida Islands there were many many small thimble jellyfish at the surface. These brown one inch jellies probably were not the source, but many of us ended up with jellyfish stings one day. My wetsuit left little exposed skin, but I ended up with them on wrists and neck. They itched and were annoying for a couple of days, then faded. Some people were bothered by them much more, and many on the boat were trying various combinations of the available drugs on the boat to treat them. Benadryl seemed to help. I liked hydrocortisone cream, and some used tea tree oil lotion.

The Solomons are home to Saltwater Crocodiles. While they can be dangerous, they are shy and rarely seen, and easily avoided by submerging again rather than staying at the surface if one is seen nearby. One morning we were told of a crocodile near our anchorage, and many of us got into one of the tinnies to cruise over and take a look. We saw it sunning on a log. Josh wanted to shoot video of it in the water, but it very quickly disappeared when he attempted to swim towards it.

We also saw birds from the boat. Many anchorages were very close to shore where we had a view of the forest. The all white Solomons Cockatoos were easy to pick out as they moved among the trees. Small groups of dark red Cardinal Lories frequently flew over us between islands, announcing their presence with their squacks. At one site we saw several large Blyth’s Hornbills flying and eating fruit in the trees. Island Imperial Pigeons were common most places we went. Several species of terns were often flying above the water. Brahminy Kites and Solomons Sea Eagles soared overhead. At the end of one dive, surfacing near the shore, I saw an odd bird standing in the grass; I later identified this as a Beach Thick-knee, or Bilikiki in the local language and the namesake of our dive boat.

Many places we went villagers would paddle out to our boat in small wooden canoes. While they often were attempting to sell produce, some brought wood carvings as well. At four different villages we went ashore to shop for wood carvings. Many villagers do beautiful work, in various woods including black hard ebony. We bought a few pieces, including an inlaid ebony “Spirt of Solomons” walking stick decorated with various sea creatures.

Overall it was a good trip, and I will certainly go back some day. I did every daytime dive offered, and about half of the night dives, getting in 54 while aboard the Bilikiki. I only took 3,500 photos during that time, and have some of the highlights posted at https://www.flickr.com/photos/14233971@N04/sets/72157649522858512/

Posted on November 30, 2014 20:25 by maractwin maractwin | 3 comments | Leave a comment

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