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

Scuba Diver Australasia + Ocean Planet - - Contents - By Aaron Wong

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

Pa­cific cam­paign.

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

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