Cruising the Solomons

“I have to see a thing a thousand times before I see it once,” Thomas Wolfe said in You Can’t Go Home Again. While I haven’t seen the Solomon Islands a thousand times, I have been there three times in the past three decades, last in 1999, and what I saw when I visited a few months ago was indeed special. In a world where we so often see diminishing marine life and degradation of our coral reefs, I can honestly say the Solomons looked better on this trip than I had ever seen them. The visibility was better, there was more marine life, and the coral reefs seemed remarkably more pristine and expansive. It truly felt like we were not on a liveaboard dive boat for those 10 days but a time machine that whisked us away to an era when life was simpler, the seas were healthier and the scuba lifestyle was filled with discovery and wonder.

Red fish swims near red coral
Crimson seafans abound throughout the Solomon Islands.

Each day as new dive opportunities were revealed, I wondered how that could be. There were no new marine preserves with watchful rangers to ensure enhanced protection. And these islands and their surrounding seas couldn’t be magically insulated from ocean acidification and other global woes. All I could assume was that in the quarter-century the Bilikiki has been operating in these waters they had refined their itinerary to include the best sites in the range available to them. It probably helps that most of the divers who make it to such an out-of-the-way destination are experienced and recognize the need for proper buoyancy around fragile coral gardens; should an accidental transgression occur, the waters retain their restorative powers to replenish the reef.

Because the Solomon Islands are so far-flung and dispersed, only one liveaboard and a handful of land-based dive operations exist throughout its 922 islands that stretch across almost 1,100 miles of ocean. That limits the diver pressure. Perhaps most significantly, these islands are lightly populated (away from the capital city of Honiara), and what little agriculture occurs is organic by culture and necessity. Whatever reasons conspire to preserve the ecological integrity of these islands, this was a trip that awakened a joy of diving in all of us aboard — a significant accomplishment given our group of 20 well-traveled and admittedly jaded underwater-photo enthusiasts.

Purple and yellow hard corals
Pristine hard corals are a particular delight.

The Cruise

An overnight 30-mile steam from Honiara took us to the Russell Islands, a pair of volcanic islands surrounded by numerous smaller islets. Following an uneventful checkout dive for weight adjustment and, no doubt, a surreptitious diver assessment by the crew, we visited one of the most iconic dives in the Solomons, Leru Cut. Some very large sea fans and soft corals punctuated the wall there, but in comparison with the lavish decoration we would see on reefs we visited later in the tour, the obvious reason we were there was to experience the morning light filtering through a gigantic crevice in the face of the island. Diver silhouettes taken at this site have graced numerous magazine covers over the years; this is a dive definitely worth doing — if for no other reason than the photographic potential that can be realized with the collaboration of a willing and able model. For those seeking abundant marine life or a fantasy of soft corals, there are other dives.

Schools of jack and barracudas followed by diver
Massive schools of jack and barracuda are highlights of Mary Island.
A diver enters Leru Cut, one of the Solmon Islands' most iconic dive sites. There is a red light from the diver's torch
A diver enters Leru Cut, one of the Solmon Islands’ most iconic dive sites.

Our next dive, at Mirror Pond, was far more diverse. There is a swim-through tunnel that exits into an idyllic pond in the interior of the island; it’s rimmed by tropical vegetation, and it’s slick calm (hence, “mirror pond”). It was in this winding passageway many years ago that I saw my first saltwater crocodile underwater. They’re apparently still seen here on occasion. I don’t know exactly what year that was, but I know I was still shooting a Nikonos V with a 15mm lens because I remember wishing I had a bigger housing between the croc and me. Nothing particularly threatening happened, but you can’t spend much time in that part of the world without hearing stories of how ferocious “salties” can be. In Australia they kill around three or four people each year — about like great white sharks, but every great white I’d ever seen was from the safety of a sturdy cage. Still, I had to try to get the shot when I had the opportunity, so I edged ever closer, finally getting to within about 10 inches of the crocodile’s snout for a series of close-focus wide-angle photos.

This time there was no such drama, but upon exiting the crevice I was reminded how beautiful the shallow reef was in this spot. It was also unique compared with the reef structures we saw throughout the rest of the tour. Large, isolated bommies arose from a plateau the size of several football fields that dropped off along a vertical wall. Fish particularly well suited to foraging among the intricate corals, such as longsnout butterflyfish, were particularly abundant here.


The information provided on the Bilikiki website prepared me for reasonable but not extraordinary water clarity: “Visibility will range from 75 to 125 feet with occasional sites with much better visibility, and yes, you will have dives with visibility less than 75 feet.

Octopus poses vertically on a coral
A bold octopus poses willingly on a boulder coral

The Solomon Islands’ waters are very nutrient rich. They support the entire food chain, from microscopic creatures to major predators. Because of this, visibility may be less than that of some other world-famous dive sites, but for this same reason you will find a multitude of large and small critters to observe and photograph.”

Clear water is becoming a tough commodity, as evidenced by trips catering specifically to macro photography and by many destinations where the water simply isn’t as clear as it once was. I was first struck by the extreme horizontal water clarity in the Solomons upon exiting Mirror Pond, and while we would later do some dives with marginal visibility (mostly when diving inside lagoons to visit World War II wrecks), we enjoyed 80- to 120-foot visibility on average. My wife was along on this trip, which meant I had a skilled and willing subject, so I shot a lot of “wide-angle with model” photos. But nothing reveals particulate matter like the black of a wetsuit. The ultimate affirmation of water clarity may be how much time I have to spend on an image in postproduction, spotting out backscatter against black wetsuits. I spent very little time after this trip. I can only speak about the conditions when we were there, and there no doubt are seasonal variables that affect water clarity, but I was very pleased.

A highlight of Solomons diving is the sheer drama and velocity of the fish action at Mary Island (Mborokua). Comprised of two separate but adjacent reefs, Barracuda Point and Jackfish Point, this region is notable for immense schools of chevron barracuda and bigeye trevally jacks. The boat typically ties off above an underwater canyon between two reef structures, and the dinghies drop the divers toward the seaward end where the current tends to concentrate the schools of fish and sharks. Large titan triggerfish, turtles and myriad butterflyfish populate these reefs as well, but when the swell of silver passes near it’s hard not to get caught up in the visual surge. Under normal circumstances the jacks and barracuda remain nicely polarized, with masses so extreme they can fill even the widest lens. An aggressive approach from a diver will scatter them, but with a bit of current flow and a respectful distance this is a remarkable day of diving.

Marovo Lagoon

We did another evening steam, cruising ever farther to the west, and woke up to the sound of the hook dropping in the sheltered waters of Marovo Lagoon. For some reason that was the place for crocodilefish: We saw them on every dive that day, and I even captured one in the elusive yawn posture on a particularly scenic bit of coral at Anemone Point. At Mbili Shallows we found large crimson sea fans occupied by multiple longnosed hawkfish, and at George’s Spot the inhabitants tended more toward Indo-Pacific reef dwellers: coral groupers, regal angelfish and, again, the many species of butterflyfish so well adapted to this hard-coral wonderland. This was also where we briefly abandoned the pristine reefs and stellar water clarity of the outer reefs to explore some of the underwater remains of World War II in the Solomons.

World War II Artifacts

Sponge-encrusted wrecked plane
The Mavis seaplane is one of numerous World War II artifacts accessible to divers.

The Solomon Islands were a hotbed of conflagration during World War II. In the first six months of 1942 the Japanese occupied various islands, including Guadalcanal, with the intention of building naval and airbases to stage sorties throughout the South Pacific. The Allies needed to defend communications and supply lines, and so the Solomon Islands were a strategic and fiercely contested region. Many of the ships that were sunk, which included destroyers and even aircraft carriers, were lost far offshore of Guadalcanal in thousands of feet of water and are thus inaccessible to divers. But a tech-diving community has evolved there to service those situated beyond the normal sport-diving range.

There are some wrecks in relatively shallow water though. We managed to dive a few, including the Maru #2, a 300-foot Japanese freighter that sits upright at 80 feet. It’s in a rather turbid lagoon — visibility was challenging — but the wreck is interesting for its brilliant, sponge-cloaked propeller and the outrageous whip corals that decorate the superstructure. A large wheeled cannon remains situated on the bow, a stark reminder that even supply ships were equipped with some defensive capabilities, albeit meager ones. These were totally ineffectual against the aerial onslaught that sank this one.

A diver peers through the submerged wreckage of Maru #2.
A diver peers through the submerged wreckage of Maru #2.

A few days later we visited another fascinating WWII artifact, the Mavis floatplane. Resting on the 91-foot seafloor of another lagoon of marginal water clarity, the wreck features nicely encrusted propellers. It’s a challenge to capture the intricacies of the sponge encrustation and the swirls of opal sweepers without excessive backscatter, but a fisheye lens, minimal distance and an artfully aimed strobe can minimize (if not eliminate) the particulate. The cockpit is quite interesting as well, but in the predive briefing the crew asked that we not enter that area of the aircraft, which was entirely appropriate given the fragility of a plane that’s been on the seafloor for seven decades.

Kicha is another one of those Solomons dives that consistently delivers rave reviews and justifies multiple dives during the day. The filter feeders decorating the wall were impressive — so impressive that at that point in the trip I consciously decided to quit photographing the massive red sea fans. As it turned out, I gave it up in the same way I’ve given up shooting clownfish in Indonesia and blue-striped grunts in the Florida Keys, which is to say not at all. It was the shallow reef that really amazed us that day. A large resident school of batfish was for some reason extraordinarily accessible to all, and a particularly brazen octopus postured fearlessly atop a large boulder coral. It was surrounded by at least six photographers who respectfully and briefly occupied the sweet spot, taking their photos and then gently lifting off so others could do the same. We did three dives at Kicha to try to capture the diversity and quality of the site.

Local Culture

Green canoe in the foreground and a dive boat is in the background
A friendly diver joins a local Solomon Islander for a ride in a dugout canoe.

Cruises of shorter duration tend to focus on the Russell and Florida islands. Ours also included Marovo Lagoon farther to the west, and we revisited the Russells later in the tour on the way back to Honiara. This included a visit to the village on Karumalun Island. Interactions with the local villagers are an integral part of the Bilikiki experience. Local people in canoes visit the ship daily, hoping to sell produce in what is a clearly well-orchestrated symbiosis. The villages allow access to their reefs and provide fresh produce to the ship. The ship provides necessary commerce. Several times during the cruise we were invited ashore to shop for local crafts, including exquisite wood carvings, at a few designated villages.

Schools of yellow and orange fish
Schools of anthias add vibrant color to the reefs at Velvia.

At Karumalan the village chief, Raymond, escorted us to an open field where we were treated to traditional dances and songs, accompanied by the rather remarkable percussion sounds of various lengths of arrayed PVC pipe being played with what appeared to be modified flip-flops. That’s one you had to be there for — words fail to convey the talent and creativity of the musicians. Our group reciprocated with gifts we brought along for the village’s schoolchildren.

Of the many outstanding dives around Marovo Lagoon, one that really resonated was Mbulo Caves. The most iconic aspect of the dive were the cathedral shafts of light that percolated through the swim-throughs, but to me the vast fields of hard coral were even more stunning. Perfectly intact staghorn corals cascaded down the reef slope; in the shallows (15 feet and shallower) boulder corals competed with weird and wonderful antler corals to perch on any available substrate. Wash a scene like that in 150-foot visibility, and it makes for a particularly inspirational dive.

Marovo Lagoon was the westernmost point of our cruise. The return trip to Honiara provided some additional dive opportunities in the Russell and, eventually, Florida islands. In the Floridas we dived the Mavis floatplane as well as some other less distinct artifacts around Gavutu Wharf, an area of very active conflict during WWII. There were several dives of note there, including the following:

  • Twin Tunnels features two wide tunnels that plunge through the pinnacle to exit at 120 feet, while the reef above is rich with hard corals and active cleaning stations.
  • Velvia, which is named for the slide film of preference back in the day. Maybe today the site should renamed “Vibrance” in honor of the slider control in Lightroom software, and in recognition of how few photographers today have recollections that reach back to the yesteryear of film. Whatever the name, the allure of a reef rich with wide-angle opportunity remains strong.
  • Mbike Wreck was intentionally and conveniently sunk just off the dock at a small island resort and is a wonder of invertebrate life. Vibrant green and orange Nembrotha kubaryana (variable neon slugs) are absolutely everywhere on this wreck. I was conflicted about whether to dive it with a 100mm macro lens or a wide-angle — we could tell by looking over the side that the water was very clear that day. The macro won out though, and I was rewarded with not only nudibranchs and butterflyfish but also flounder and other sand-dwellers in the shallows at the end of the dive.

Popcorn Passage

While the last day of any liveaboard trip is typically devoted to repacking cameras and drying dive gear, the Bilikiki had one more surprise for us as we cruised home at sunset through the mangrove channels of the Florida Islands. Dozens of canoes with teenagers and children began appearing along the starboard side of the boat, matching our suddenly decreased speed. Our cruise directors brought up prepackaged bags of popcorn, and it was our job to toss them to the kids. Their enthusiasm ignited our joy, reminding us of how blessed we had been those past 10 days to share a bit of their world.

People on a top deck of boat throw bags of popcorn to people below in canoes
At “Popcorn Passage” a ritual has developed where guests toss wrapped bags of popcorn to the native children paddling alongside the boat.

How To Dive It

Getting There: Most travelers from North America fly from Los Angeles through Brisbane, Australia, or Fiji. Solomon Airlines is the international carrier connecting Honiara, the capital city of the Solomon Islands, to Fiji and Australia. In addition, Fiji Airways provides weekly service to and from Fiji, and Air Niugini provides service to Papua New Guinea. Virgin Airlines also has twice-weekly flights between Brisbane and Honiara.

An illustrated pop-out map of the Pacific Ocean showing the Solomon Islands

If you plan to spend any time in Australia in the course of your travel (outside the international terminal), you must have a valid passport and a visa. Many airlines are willing to apply for an electronic travel authority (ETA) on your behalf when you book travel. You should confirm this, or just do it yourself at

Travel Documents: American citizens do not need a visa to enter the Solomon Islands. Visitors must have a passport, an onward or return ticket and proof of sufficient funds. You may be denied boarding at check-in or turned around upon arrival in Honiara if your documents are not in order. Visitor permits are granted upon arrival at Honiara International Airport.

Baggage: Solomon Airlines has onerous baggage restrictions, but you may request in advance a “sporting and diving allowance” to increase your allotment to 66 pounds. You can have two bags, but they should not weigh more than 66 pounds in all. The more difficult restriction for me was the 15-pound carry-on limit. There is an agent with a digital scale on the concourse that you won’t be able to avoid; noncompliance will get you sent back to the ticket counter.

Travel Medicine: Antimalarial medication is recommended, and visitors should also ensure their vaccinations are up to date. Travelers to the Solomon Islands should consult their doctor or local clinic about immunizations or oral preventatives for hepatitis A, malaria and typhoid as well as ensuring their routine vaccinations (against polio, tetanus, etc.) are up to date. Malarone is a widely used antimalarial medication and has very few side effects. Be sure to check with your doctor for his or her recommendations. Many dive operators in this part of the world ask you to avoid Mefloquine (brand name Lariam); its side effects may be significant and can be similar to some symptoms of decompression sickness.

Aerial view of a school of dolphins playing and swimming
A school of dolphin playing in the bow wake makes for a very scenic surface interval.

© Alert Diver — Q1 Winter 2014