TIME TO DIVE
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Solomon Islands :
Reefs wrecks, caves and hammerheads
Solomon Islands, where divers still can be divers.
The Solomon Islands, Guadal Canal, Gizo, Munda ...so exotic names when you are living in Europe, as I am. The Solomon Islands are situated in the South Pacific, South East of Papua New Guinea.
Jean-Marc and myself were triggered by the exotic names and the remoteness of those islands so finally we ended up in a very old, small and too hot Twin Otter plane flying from Honiara, the capital of Solomon, to Munda (island of New Georgia). It’s a scenic flight over hundreds of small islands, endless jungle, small villages, endless reefs surrounded by “50 shades of blue”. The flight ends on the small airstrip of Munda village. We discovered that the airstrip is more or less the center of Munda. It is the only paved road in the village, huts are built next to the airstrip. Locals use the “road” for cycling, walking or even as a playground for children. Luckily the engine of the old Twin Otter makes a lot of noise so locals are warned ahead of landing and leave the airstrip so the pilot can touch down safely.
As we are the only tourists aboard, Andrew from Dive Munda recognizes us the moment we step out off the plane. A weird experience…..no airport building. No luggage belt….wait a minute where do we pick up our bags?
They are already unloaded by the co-pilot on a cart next to the plane, while the other pilot is refueling the Twin Otter for the next flight. What a difference with all the strict rules, security check after security check we are used to in Europe! I realize again that we are in a very remote place.
Even the refueling is done 'manually' with a handpump!
Andrew drives us to Agness hotel, a staggering 200 m down the road. This is the shortest taxi ride ever from the airport to the hotel! After check-in we walk to the dive center, which is located on the premises of Agness hotel. Together with Andrew we check the different dive sites and plan to start diving early morning the next day. Andrew promises us WW ll wrecks (boats and airplanes), sharks, caves etc... I can’t wait to see all these underwater treasures.
During dinner we learn a little bit more about Munda. The airstrip dates back from WW ll, built by the Japanese as they were stationed in Munda. Unexploded bombs are still buried around the airstrip, at this moment an Australian team removes them as a 'real' airport terminal will be built in a couple of years.
Early morning…After a cup of coffee and a freshly baked muffin (this is the daily pre-diving routine) I am ready for diving. Jean-Marc and me are the only guests so the boat is ours! Off we go to the first dive site with the promising name "shark point".
A beautiful reef with so many fish, 8 grey sharks, 3 white tip reef sharks and a school of barracuda are the highlights of the dive. During the surface interval we rest on a white beach under coconut trees and surrounded by hermit crabs, this is paradise! After having a delicious piece of pineapple and some cookies, we help Andrew to catch some of the crown of thorns. Unfortunately they are everywhere in the shallow water of this small island. I know it is not the most appropriate way to catch them with a stick as they release their eggs but Andrews explanation that not all eggs are fertilized and a big part of the eggs will be eaten by other fish before they can develop seems reasonable to me. So we catch a big bucket full of these coral damaging starfish.
After this intermezzo we dive the 2 airplane wrecks, a P39 at 30m and a Douglas Dauntless bomber at 12m, they are both beautifully grown with corals and still pretty intact! Very cool dives with a lot of fish in and around the wrecks. Both planes crashed before being able to get to their base on the nearby island and sank on a sandy bottom. If you don’t like wrecks there’s not a lot of other things to explore during this dive but if you like wrecks and especially WW II wecks, well, this is paradise!
During the boat ride back to the hotel I enjoy the scenery as much as I enjoyed the dives. Our captain navigates between all kind of small islands covered with big exotic trees and from time to time a small village with playing children and local fishermen.
The next days we keep up the diving routine and do a lot of special dives. One of them is the “cave of the Kastom Shark”, it is a real cave, accessed via a short walk onto the island through the mangroves. The entry is a small pool filled with salt water so we are sure it is connected to the sea somewhere! Once I go down, I see a vertical shaft with a beautiful structure, there’s a guideline to help me navigate through the tunnel. I am all the way in at -35m, at this point the tunnel opens up in big chamber and I see the light at the end of the chamber. It is a fantastic view as I swim through the opening and enjoy the spectacular wall of corals.
Another special dive is the one at Aussie point, it drops off hundreds of meters deep and is renowned for hammerhead sightings! That’s what I like! We get the permission from our dive guide to do a deep dive, he stays around 30m. So Jean-Marc and me go all the way down to -55m where we encounter a huge eagle ray and a turtle eating corals but no hammerheads. Did they decide to go to another reef??
Slowly we swim up again to -25m, I almost gave up the idea of seeing a hammerhead on this dive and I start to look at smaller creatures in between the corals, when suddenly I hear the sound of a tankbanger. I turn my head…next to me I see a big hammerhead, slowly passing us by while checking me out! Wow...the hammerhead is so close and is huge! The hammerhead stays a minute or 2 around us, passing by again and then disappears into the deep.
A little bit more shallow, we see a big school of the rare bumphead wrasse, swimming around us….a dive to remember!
During the next days, we also dive the Kashi Maru, a Japanese freighter caught by US bombers in 1945 while unloading its cargo for the troops based on New Georgia island. She lies at 17m, still has a lot of artifacts inside and is easily accessible from the shore. It is a beautiful wreck, we even are allowed to penetrate the engine room and have a look around. It is accessible but very tiny and there’s a big layer of dust everywhere, luckily we have experience in wreck diving but experience or not, we need to be careful with our fins our the picture gets murky!
And so the days of diving Munda have come to an end. The last dry day, before flying back we decide to visit the local WW II museum of Mr. Barney. He walks every day into the jungle with a metal detector to search for war artifacts, abandoned guns, etc.
It is a 30minute walk through the village and through the jungle to reach his house. We are almost half way when we are surprised by an earthquake. What an awkward experience as it takes some moments before I realize what I feel. First, I thought my legs were still a bit shaky from the boat rides but then I realize that the water in a small puddle in front of me is moving….something’s not right. When I look up I see nearby palm trees and electricity poles moving. And suddenly it is quiet again, the earthquake is passed and so, we walk on. It is just everyday business down here! Later on, we are told it was magnitude 7 on the Richter scale, so pretty heavy. Locals are used to earthquakes as the Solomon Islands are situated in the Pacific Ring of Fire.
We walk on to the museum, it is quite impressive. Barney collected everything by himself, digs it out of the jungle and according to me, risks his life every day with all the unexploded bombs covering the place. His collection goes from jacket buttons, dog tags, guns, original Coca Cola bottles, old engines, razors, coins, etc. While checking out all his artifacts, I realize that thanks to the war, we are visiting Munda. The airstrip dates from WW II and without it, it is just too remote to get here!
So if you want to get away from the daily stress, travel to a remote place and you want to dive special places, maybe you should visit Munda and dive on the pristine reefs and WW II wrecks. Check out their website and get in touch with Andrew or Belinda (www.mundadive.com)
firstname.lastname@example.org TIME TO DIVE Hasselt / Leuven / Halen www.TIMETODIVE.be