IN THE SOLOMONS’ CAVERNS
Mention the Solomon Islands and images of beautiful tropical reefs and World War II wrecks come to mind. But these islands are also home to some of the best caverns and swim-throughs in the Pacific
Besides her wrecks, the Solomon Islands offers some of the best diving in the world. And unlike its neighbours, Fiji and Vanuatu, which attract more visitors, the Solomons is relatively new to tourism
Located east of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands consists of six major islands and over 900 smaller ones. They span an area covering almost 30,000 square kilometres with plenty of ocean and reefs in between to explore. The Solomons first entered the world’s consciousness in the most unfortunate of ways during World War II, with the now infamous main island of Guadalcanal. This was the site of one of the biggest naval battles in history with an estimated loss of over 200 ships, 690 aircraft and countless landing barges during the bloody
In fact, the area is now called “Iron Bottom Sound” because of the immense amount of twisted metal that lies on the sea floor. Few places in the world can boast such a dense concentration of WWII wrecks, besides Truk Lagoon. While most of these wrecks are too deep to dive, there are many that lie within recreational limits – with some even breaking the surface. The Kinugawa Maru, for example, sits right on the beach with parts of its structure still visible from the surface. You can quite literally walk off the beach and do an epic WWII wreck dive!
Besides her wrecks, the Solomon Islands offers some of the best diving in the world. Unlike its neighbours, Fiji and Vanuatu, which attract more visitors, the Solomons is relatively new to tourism.
This means divers can enjoy the pristine reefs all to themselves – no fighting with other dive boats is needed here. In fact, I did not see a single other dive boat throughout the 10 days of sailing through the islands. The only other people we met were islanders: people selling fruits in their traditional canoes and curious kids freediving to say “hi” as we completed our safety stops.
The waters around the Solomons are a nice 28 degrees Celsius and surrounding some of the best reefs I have seen – big sea fans, sponges, and hard coral of every kind. There is also a nearby underwater volcano that gives off the occasional rumble – a spectacular sight indeed.
As picturesque as the Solomon Islands is for her historic wrecks and pristine reefs, the stars of the islands are the caverns and swim-throughs that surround some of them. These are easily some of the best cavern dives I have done: Made up of a labyrinth of swim-throughs, small caves and hidden pools, the caverns open up to the surface, allowing sunlight to penetrate, resulting in an amazing light show – much like those famously seen in the cenotes of Mexico.
One of the most famous sites is the Cathedral, found right at the edge of the rocky shoreline. Upon entering the water, you are immediately greeted by a beautiful coral garden. As you swim towards what seems like the edge of the wall where the island starts, you will begin to see the little openings that lead into the cathedral. Once your eyes adjust to the slight darkness, you will see before you a magicallooking cave system with sea fans and corals littered around. The swim-throughs will lead you from one cavern to another as pockets of sunlight create little beams of light, as if to show you the way. Most of the site is six to eight metres deep, so we had the luxury of exploring at our own pace, mesmerised by the display. At the end our dive, we swam back out to another coral garden which in itself is worthy of another dive. The Cathedral is a dream for any underwater photographer; just turn off the strobes and capture the amazing light show that Mother Nature offers.
Another cavern dive not to be missed in the Solomons is Leru Cut. As the name implies, it is basically a long underwater valley that seems to be “cut” into the island – as if God had taken a knife and made a narrow cut inland, filling the bottom with powder white sand to complete the look. Just like the Cathedral, the opening of Leru Cut is right at the edge of the island. The entire valley is exposed to the forest above so there is plenty of light coming in. Swimming through the valley feels like flying through a canyon – the water is so extraordinarily clear and still that you forget you are diving. At the end of the cut, there is a small cave where up to half a dozen whitetip sharks can be seen resting. From there, we surfaced to a small cavern where a forest canopy was peacefully floating on the surface above.
The trick to getting the best out of this site is timing. As the cut is narrow, there is only a small window between 11am to 1pm where the sun can shine through the forest canopy, into the cut and onto the powder white sand on the seabed. When you get this perfect light, it is probably the most beautiful and surreal underwater setting one can imagine. From a photographer’s point of view, I would advise getting a diver into the shot just to show the scale, because without it, it is almost impossible to explain how majestic the place is.
Who would have thought staring at rocks can be so magical!
Over my time spent in the Solomons, I have grown very fond of this hidden gem. Not just because of the variety that it offers in terms of diving, but also for the warmth and passion of the local people, something common amongst Pacific islanders. While it is tragic that the modern world had to invade their innocence through conflict, the passion of the Solomons still shines, both above and beneath the waves. A true hidden gem of the South Pacific indeed.
ABOVE Many of the Solomons’ wrecks are covered in healthy sponges and corals
ABOVE A diver looking up at the forest canopy floating above the Cathedral