by Mary L. Peachin with photographer by James Forte, Karen Haugen and Jackie Smaha
Jul 1998, Vol. 2 No. 10
A dangerous saltwater crocodile had been previously sighted in the underwater cave called “Mirror Pond” on Mane, one of many mangrove islands in the Russell chain in the Solomon Islands.
“We do not know the behavior of this man-eating crocodile,” stressed Scott Waring, divemaster on the Spirit of the Solomons liveaboard diveboat. “When he has been seen in the cave, he is usually lying on one of the many ledges. Waring advised us that the crocodile had previously attacked a snorkeler, but it had never bothered a scuba diver. He added “as you follow me into the 250-foot underwater passageway to the cave, please leave me plenty of room to escape!”
Waring’s wife, Diane, added, “It’s only a small croc and it isn’t always there.” Confidence bolstered, I decided that I was up to this scuba diving encounter. Perhaps, foolishly, five of us felt that there was “safety in numbers.” Those steel tanks on our backs made us feel invincible.
The five intrepid ones included divemaster Waring, James Forte, a professional underwater photographer, Zim Gervais, a videographer, Karen Haugen, a nurse, and myself. Haugen and I brought up the rear, figuring in case of an evacuation, it was “last in, first out.”
Following in single file, we threaded the twisting passage at a depth of thirty feet, carefully avoiding the stinging fire coral growing on the wall. As we approached the entrance to the underwater cave, the passage wall narrowed while still leaving an open slot extending to the surface of the ocean. The opening provided sunlight and water clarity as we navigated the passageway.
At the end of the passage the cave widened to about thirty feet in diameter. The ceiling of the cave extended above the surface of the water. Mangrove roots gripped the coral around the edges of the pond. Branches of felled trees cluttered the water, providing lots of “hiding places” for the crocodile.
Waring immediately sighted the crocodile resting on a ledge. Signaling for our attention, I looked up to see a six-foot man-eating crocodile lunge into the water, swim across the surface of the cave, then climb onto another ledge.
When I surfaced for a better view, the crocodile lunged back into the pond. Adrenaline pumping, hearts pounding, the five of us spontaneously backpedaled out of the cave, retracing our path through the passage.
The definition of Diane’s description of “small” was an image of a 12-inch aquarium-size croc. What had I been thinking? Haugen later shared, “my heart was pounding when I made that 180 and flipped out of the cave.”
Feeling secure after leaving the passageway, we continued our dive. Descending into deeper depths, we admired two Australian giant cuttlefish camouflaging their bodies to blend with the variety of colors in the magnificent coral reefs of the Solomon Sea.
The following day we returned to Mirror Pond to give the other divers, who missed our exciting encounter, the same opportunity to see the crocodile. This time the croc was not sighted. After the group has exited the passage, Forte and Gervais made another exploratory journey into Mirror Pond.
This time they found the crocodile on a ledge hidden in a back crevice. Forte said he yelled through his regulator to Gervais, “If he comes at us, hit him in the snout with your camera housing.”
Safely back aboard the Spirit, a diver told Gervais, “You don’t reach middle age by messing with a croc wide enough to have shoulders and long enough to burn diesel.”
The 125-foot liveaboard dive boat, Spirit of the Solomons, had departed on this 10-day diving trip from Honiara, Guadacanal. We first headed south to Moravo Lagoon in the New Georgia Islands. Author James Michener considered this sixty-mile lagoon, surrounded by vertical coral reef walls, as one of “the eighth wonders of the world.” Later in the week, after we dived the Russell and Florida Islands, I felt that Michener should have included all of the 922 islands of the Solomons, the third largest archipelago in the South Pacific.
Untouched soft and hard corals were home to more species of fish and “critters” than I’ve seen in twenty years of diving. Each anemone seemed to have a symbiotic relationship with a different species of clown fish. Lionfish drifted in the current with schools of neon fusiliers, batfish, bannerfish, damsel, parrotfish, and thousands of other species of fish swam in the gentle current. Blennies, manta shrimp, octopus, cuttlefish, crabs, conchs and other shells guarded the entrances of their sandy holes or crevices. Reef sharks, turtles, and occasionally, eagle rays cruised reef walls.
In the midst of this spectacular beauty lie the sunken remains of the causalities of the Battle of Guadacanal, one of the largest World War II battlegrounds in the South Pacific.
A B-24 U.S. “Liberator” bomber rested in 95 feet of water. A 50-caliber machine gun on a turret was pointed in the direction of the bomb-destroyed tail. Two of the four engines of the coral-encrusted aircraft were missing. The configuration of the flaps and remnants of a parachute, draped from the cockpit, were signs that the pilot had made a desperate attempt at a crash landing. I wondered the identity of these wartime heroes, who gave their lives for our freedom.
The local chief told us there was a sole survivor. Five Americans perished when the Japanese bombed the aircraft. Only one body was discovered on the shore near Motevdo Point on the island of Vatilau.
Passing years must heal the animosity felt toward former wartime enemies. Diving on the Hirakawa Maru Japanese freighter brought similar feelings of sadness of the wartime death and tragedy now covered by underwater beauty.
Since 1989, Bilikiki Cruises Ltd. has been operating two liveaboard diveboats, the Bilikiki and the Spirit of the Solomons, in the independent country of the Solomons. The steel-hulled boats offer air-conditioned rooms with private bath and shower.
The Spirit of the Solomons has an interesting history. The boat was originally used as a lighthouse tender in Australia. When lighthouses became automated, the boat was drydocked in Cairns, where it was used a brothel, until its purchase by Bilikiki Cruises Ltd.
In 1992, the boat was converted and renovated into a luxury liveaboard diveboat.Amenities include designer sheets, daily housekeeping, and if there is space left in the washing machine, personal laundry for dirty t-shirts. Freshly cleaned towels were provided after every dive, and there was a fresh-water shower on the dive deck.
Cuisine aboard offered the freshest of fish, fruits and vegetables delivered daily by locals in dugout canoes whereever the boat anchored. Meals were served buffet style on the top deck, providing a background with great views of the Solomon Sea and nearby islands.
Diving is made easy aboard the Spirit of the Solomons. Divers set up their gear upon arrival where it remains for the duration of the trip. After each dive, the crew refills each tank with a long-reaching air compressor hose.
Divers load into one of two 21-foot aluminum tenders or “tinnies.” The diver’s tank, buoyancy jacket and regulator attached, is lowered into the tinny by the crew and placed in custom-made holes in the tinny bench. Divers sit adjacent to their tanks. Underwater cameras are carefully placed on the carpeted bow. During the approximate ten-minute ride to a dive site, divers put on their fins and mask. When the site is reached, the crew assists the divers in putting on their jackets and tanks. At the count of three, the divers make a simultaneous backroll into the water.
Both tinny drivers follow air bubbles allowing the divers to drift the current along the coral reef. Almost magically, the cheerful drivers were waiting on our ascent, extended a ladder from the stern, and hauled us and our gear into the tinny.
A name tag system on the mothership indicates which divers are in the water and when they return. Driver Danny Koupilo was overheard saying in pidgin that he had picked up “stack-a-leg who talks a lot and man with two cameras” meaning long-legged, vivacious Haugen and professional underwater photographer Forte, who dives with two cameras so he can snap 72 shots on each dive.
The daily schedule included two morning dives, and one around 2:30 PM. We frequently were given the option of making a fourth or five dive at 5:00 PM, 6:30 PM, or after dinner. Prior to the fourth dive some of us went fishing, trolling with hand lines for tuna.
The tremendous variety of nocturnal “critters” and the gentle drift diving made for some fascinating night dives. In a single dive, we saw Synapidae sea cucumbers, without tube feet, becoming translucent as their cream-colored tentacles grazed the sandy bottom. A black-blotched ray, remoras sucking parasites on its back, circled us on one dive. Colorful crinoids were feeding as their arms waved in the current. Mantis and other shrimps, lobsters, and crabs crawled out of their crevices onto the sandy bottom. The water temperature was a comfortable 82-84F degrees.
Anchoring in the vicinity of the villages of Lutin, Mbili, and Peava, New Georgia Island, a tinny driver was sent to deliver a message requesting permission to visit. Permission was granted and we received a hearty welcome from the chief. We were also given the opportunity to purchase crafts displayed along orchid-lined paths.
There was a variety of carvings and bowls made from ebony, kerosene, and rosewood. Negotiations were standard fare and included a first and second price. Purchase did not occur without a request for additional “trade” items. AA batteries were a hot item, as were shaving razors, combs, and even a pair of socks.
One couple, Dixie and Mike Danzis from Marathon, Florida were returning for their second trip to the Solomons. They brought photographs of villagers taken several years ago. These images were excitedly received and appreciated by the villagers.
Gervais used his miniature digital video to show the children videos he had taken of them. There were crowds of kids looking at the tiny screen. Danzis was swarmed when he passed out balloons to the children.
On the island of Karumolun West in the Floridas, we enjoyed a pre-arranged sing-sing. The chief asked us to stand in a line as children came forward to place flower leis around our necks. We were then escorted to nearby benches as the men performed their war dances, the women following with their own dancing. The conclusion of the dancing included the singing of Christian hymns in English.
Our final night was spent in Honiara. The unpaved streets of this capital city have no stop signs, traffic light, or fast food chains. The people are friendly, it is safe to walk down the street.
Boarding our Air Solomon flight to Nadi, Fiji, all of us shared a very special feeling for the Solomon Islands. The scuba diving was world class, the Spirit of Solomons and its crew and operation were superb, the people of the Islands were warm and friendly, and the mangrove islands were beautiful.
The Solomons is a destination with such variety that divers can return again and again without satiation. For further information or feedback: email@example.com or http://test.peachin.com
If you go:
Transportation: The gateway to the Solomon Islands is Nadi, Fiji. Air Pacific and Air New Zealand fly from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Los Angeles with connections in Nadi, Fiji, to Solomon Airlines. Air New Zealand and Air Niuguini, via Port Moresby, also offer services from both Cairns and Brisbane. If you need to overnight in Nadi there are a number of hotels convenient to the airport or the more luxurious Sheraton Denarau Resort.
Accommodations: The Solomon Kitano Menana Hotel is an international-style hotel conveniently located to the city. $70.00US per night. The smaller LeLei hotel on the Tandai Highway is 4 km west of the city. The Tomoko restaurant offers excellent continental food.
Spirit of the Solomons offers 7 and 10 day, unlimited diving, all-inclusive trips priced at $300.00 per day.
Entry: A passport and return ticket is required for entry to the Solomons. The islands are a malaria area so check with your nearest health clinic about using the necessary precautions.