The Solomon Islands is one of our favorite destinations. Over the last few years we've been going there twice a year. This time we booked 2 trips back to back for a total of 24 days of diving, with unfortunately 1 day in between in Honiara.
Whenever we do a trip at the other side of the world, we try to spend about 7 days en route to get used to the huge time difference. We flew from Amsterdam to Singapore, where we got off to spend a few days there. Singapore is a pretty city with plenty of fun things to do so we can usually amuse ourselves for a few days. Our last time in the Solomon Islands we had gotten a bit cold, so we decided to have a 5mm wetsuit made in Singapore. The maker came recommended by the owner of Wakatobi, and he did live up to the promise. Within 24 hours after we called him we had 2 custom made 5mm wetsuits. Bring on the "cold" water.
The next destination was Sydney. We went there to visit a friend who had migrated to Australia. Two days later we flew to Brisbane, where we spent another 2 days just lounging around, doing some shopping and going to the cinema. Besides adjusting to the time difference, we also like to take these extra days to handle problems that might occur like delayed flights, lost luggage, and so on. Luckily no such problems happened this time and we were off for our last leg of the journey from Brisbane to Honiara in the Solomon Islands. After a quick flight we were met by people from The Bilikiki and were brought to the ship.
The first of our two trips was actually a charter organized by Chris Newbert, the well known photographer. We had been on one of his trips before, and by accident we ended up on his trip again. When we asked the owners for 2 back to back 14/12 day trips, this was the only available option, and we were just filling up some extra room on his chartered trip. We didnít mind of course as Chris is an artist and being on his trips is always a learning experience. Another great benefit of being on a photography charter is that you end up doing repetitive dives to the same sites, allowing you to revisit photo subjects you or someone else may have found.
The Bilikiki has plenty of space for all the photography gear that all of us had. Chris and his wife Deda alone brought 6 cameras; another person brought 5, and most brought at least 2. Julie and I had a total of 4 cameras, a D2X which was seeing its maiden voyage, an F100, a D100, and a Nikonos V. And still it all fit. The arrival day is spent setting up all this gear, no diving is done on the first day.
The first diving day we went to a site called Tanavula for the first 3 dives. It has 2 dive sites, and divers could pick either one. The first dive of every trip Julie and I never take a camera, but instead use it to check our gear, our weights and buoyancy. Julie decided to dive the second dive without a camera too, since her new mask was fogging up despite vigorous toothpaste brushing. The next 2 dives, including the night dive, were on a site called Velvia (because so much Velvia film has been shot there). Itís a favorite site of many photographers and it didnít disappoint as we saw a somewhat rare Warty Frogfish. There were supposed to be more Frogfish around but we couldn't find them.
The next day we spent most of the day at the Wreck of the Ann. Itís wreck that's been sunk there to provide an house reef for a resort that was supposed to be built there but never was. It's nice for both macro and wide angle and Julie used it to try out her new 17-35mm lens which she bought just before we left. She took a nice photo of me freediving and posing in front of a sea star. A group of local kids were all over us and I started taking photos of them diving in groups posing in front of my lens; something they obviously had done many times before.
The third day went by quick, with 2 dives at Mane, where we spotted a harlequin ghost pipefish, and 2 dives at Karamolun. But it was all in anticipation of the 4th day at Mary Island, another favorite of many photographers. At Mary Island you have a chance to see large schools of barracudas and jacks, the occasional shark, including hammerheads, maybe even a manta ray. Unfortunately the magic didnít happen as there was almost no current and the visibility was very poor. We think this may have been because of the unusually high water temperature, which was about 84 degrees Fahrenheit. We never had to use our newly made 5mm wetsuits, since we were never cold in our 3mms. We actually shot quite a bit of macro at this predominantly wide angle site, and one of the highlights was the appearance of an unnamed species of pygmy seahorse that the managers Monty and Michelle had found for the first time in the Solomon Islands this year. That night we headed to Morovo Lagoon, leaving the Russell Islands behind.
Next on the schedule was Wickham Island, our favorite dive site in the Solomon Islands. Normally dive times are at 8:00, 11:00, 14:00, 17:00 and 20:00 but Wickham is an open deck diving day meaning you can dive whenever you want. The nice thing about Wickham is that it combines nice wide angle walls and reefs with amazing macro. This time we found a pair of harlequin ghost pipefish, a pair of robust ghost pipefish, all sorts of shrimp including 2 species of mantis shrimp, soft coral crabs, and we did some over/under shots. We didnít find as many nudibranches and other critters than in past trips which we again attribute to the unusually warm water.
Once youíre in a daily rhythm, the days start to blend together. We did a few days of diving where we mostly stayed on one site, giving the photographers a chance to return to a nice photo subject. Normally the Bilikiki doesnít do this, the boat moves to another site for almost every dive but if you charter the boat they'll follow whatever schedule you prefer. First we did Lumalihe, where we found a pink leaf fish amongst other things. The next day was Lionfish point which turned out to be a very nice wide angle/scenic site. Then we dove Karanjou, a passage you can dive on either side. Here Monty found a beautiful coral whip xeno crab. Julie was shooting with her favorite 105mm X 2TC combo which proved to be a challenge for the crab. I had changed from my normal 105mm setup to a 60mm+2x TC and I actually liked it better. It gives you more possibilities including higher magnification and I didnít notice any image degradation due to the extra TC glass. During the rest of the trip I used either the 60+2x TC or my 10.5mm wide angle lens.
By now we were on the 9th diving day, December 1st. We did 2 dives at Cave Point, which is a really nice wide angle site as long as you go below 80 feet. I had my first encounter with Hammerhead Sharks there, which made my day. After those dives came Redemption and Totalave, both nice dives but not spectacular. That night we did a night dive at a site called Georgeís Nightspot. We always do this night dive because it usually produces something interesting. This time was no different. We saw some turtles, an eagle ray (yes, during a night dive), and a school of flashlight fish, an awesome sight if you turn your lights off and another first for me. I took some pictures of sleeping parrot fish detail.
The 10th day we did a few repeat dives on Cave Point to see if the current had picked up a bit opening the soft corals. Luckily it did so this time it was even better than the previous time. Then we went back to Wickham where we spent the rest of the day, getting ready to return from Morovo Lagoon towards the Russell Islands.
Before heading back to the Russell Islands we decided to make another stop at Maryís Island to see if the current had improved. It did a bit, and the Jacks and Barracudes were out, but unfortunately the water was extremely murky. We didnít get to shoot much wide angle here. We did end up staying the whole day again and both Julie and I had a lot of fun with macro in the beautiful hard coral gardens right under the boat.
We had now come to the last 2 days of the trip. The first dive of the day was at Mane again. Nothing really amazing turned up, although again, almost every dive here is quite beautiful in itself. The second dive we went to was Leru Cut, which is a cut inside the rock creating a cave where the sun can penetrate through an opening in the top. Again, luck wasnít with us and the murky water combined with clouds didnít create the effect we had hoped for and seen on previous trips. After 2 nice afternoon dives at Karamolun we were getting ready for the last day of diving.
The last day was at Anahu. This is really 3 dive sites, and you can choose which site you want to dive. We always pick the rubble/sand area which harbors lots of pipefish, gobies, blennies, mantis shrimp and so on. A nice few dives to end this first trip with.
Diving with Chris Newbertís group was nice. Most people are very adept photographers, and Chris himself is an artist. Diving the same site several times in a row, sometimes even for a full day, probably doesnít appeal to everyone, but for a photographer it is heaven. You get several chances to take a shot of a specific subject, and if someone else found something interesting, you have the possibility to take a few shots yourself. Almost all of the photographers in Chrisí group are shooting film. Although my wife is a film photographer, Iíve changed from slide to digital shooting a D2X, and I felt a little out of place. You donít get the same level of respect; on the contrary, you get the feeling that you are a digital demon, here with only 1 goal: to photoshop all your "bad" images to make them somewhat presentable. But it is how it is, and I tried not to let it get to me too much. It was still a really nice trip, especially since a lot of the guests were relatively young instead of retirees. Being 35 myself itís nice being around people your own age on a liveaboard for a change.
At this point, weíre only halfway through our trip. Normally the Bilikiki does same-day turnaround, but this time there was a day in between for some ship maintenance. Julie and I checked into the local Mendana hotel, which is ok if all youíre going to do is stay 1 day. We visited the local market, some stores, and walked around town (which takes all but 10 minutes), but mostly we just slept to catch up. That evening we were invited by Monty and Michelle, who've become friends of ours over the years, for a dinner at a lovely restaurant.
The second trip only had 11 people out of 20 including us. The trip started out pretty much the same as the previous one. We visited Tanavula and Velvia on the first day, then Karamolun, Leru cut, Custom Cave, and Mirror Pond on the second day.
At Mirror Pond there was a small chance to see a salt water crocodile, since itís been seen there 4 or 5 times in the last 6 years. As we went into the cave suddenly we were eye to eye with a decent size croc, about 8 foot long, looking as if it could really hurt you if it wanted to. It took a bit of testing, but we managed to be able to approach it to within 6 feet. Still, Iíve seen enough Ďmost stupid human anticsí on tv (ďHey mom, take my picture with that bearĒ) to know you should be very careful with wild animals. Finally it started to move and we backed away real fast.
After this we did Wickham Island, which this time included two wrecks since we had two german magazine writers that really r e a l l y wanted wreck dives. Most of us didnít join them though and just did the reef/rubble at Wickham itself.
Now all the diving started to sort of blur together. This was rudely changed a few days later, as almost at the end of a dive my Subal housing's leak alarm went off. I was pretty sure it couldnít be anything serious as o-rings donít just start leaking by themselves at the end of a dive. I made my way up slowly, did a proper safety stop, and got back on board where I found absolutely no water in my housing. Just to be sure I used a hair blower to dry everything out. Some dives after that it happened again, but this time I actually did find a drop of water exactly on the leak detector. I never figured out where it came from (well, besides Ďthe oceaní). Leak detectors rock, and I didn't have a problem since.
On the 13th we did two somewhat interesting wrecks, again for the magazine writers. There are two airplanes next to each other, one in about 30 feet, the other in about 50 feet. Itís a P38 and a Douglas SBD 24. The P38 is quite nice; it has a lot of growth on it and lots of fish which makes for some nice wide angle photography. Unfortunately I made a silly mistake with a D2X setting (I had reprogrammed a button the previous dive and forgot to set it back) and all my images were out of focus. The next day my main goal was to recreate two specific images Iíd seen before; one of a very shallow soft coral with trees in the background, the other of a wire coral with a diver in the background. I never found the right soft coral, so I did some fans instead. It worked out ok but not spectacular. The wire coral shots turned out nice enough though.
That same day Julie found a pygmy sea horse on a totally different fan than itís usually on. This made for a nice contrast. Whatís interesting is that it looked like a mix between a denise and a bargibanti. We figured it must have been ejected from another fan nearby and the next dive I found a fan only 6 feet or so away with at least 6 denise pygmy sea horses on it. They looked slightly different from the other one though and we wondered if pygmy sea horses can change their appearance based on their habitat. If so, that could mean the denise and the bargibanti are actually the same species.
At a site called Totalave Julie found another first. On some black coral she accidentally discovered a saw blade shrimp. Weíve never found or seen one before, let alone photographed one. It was way out in the open so we had to cooperate to get a shot of it; I was hovering, and she held on to me. The managers of the Bilikiki hadnít seen one of those before either. Cool stuff!
On the way back to the Russell Islands we parked for the day at Maryís Island. On the first dive we saw Mantas, and all in all this day was better than the previous trip to Mary's. Especially interesting was an encounter I had with a Remora. It had probably lost its shark, and figured I was a nice replacement. Almost the whole dive it stayed with me, which was actually quite annoying. I've had Remoras on me before, but this one decided to check me out completely and was constantly buzzing around my head. Eventually it even landed right on top of my head. Unfortunately that same day Julie flooded one of our Sea & Sea YS90DX strobes. It wasnít anything she could have helped as it flooded in a non-user maintained o ring. After the dive we took it apart, cleaned it out with fresh water, and let it dry for a while. Amazingly a few hours later it worked again. The joy was shortlived as the next day it started to behave erratically. Still, quite amazing it even partly survived this full internal flood. Luckily we brought two spare strobes.
Next on the schedule was Moustache Reef (it was right under their noses the whole time, har har). There was quite a bit of current, so I decided to stay close to the reef. I noticed a cleaning station so I parked myself there and see if something nice would show up. Almost immediately a small grouper showed up and opened wide to allow a cleaner fish to come in. I'd never witnessed that before, so I was quite excited. The pictures I took turned out really nice which made me even more happy.
After this great dive we did the Wreck of the Ann again, which didn't really work out due to the bad visibility. It's really amazing how one year the visibility is endless, and the next it's so bad you can barely see the boat. The rest of the day was spent at a site called 'Whitebeach' which is a military dumpsite from the second world war. You can find discarded trucks, jeeps, barges, ammunition, etc. But I was after something else entirely. Since my previous hunt for a shallow soft coral didn't work out, I was going to try again as the mangroves here can provide a nice background. Monty helped me look, and he found a nice one for me. I'm quite fond of the image.
We're now only two days away from the end of the trip which is when the end-of-trip blues start to set in. But we tried to not let it get to us too much. At a site called 'Twin Tunnels' (two vertical tunnels you can swim in to) we found some nice Hairy Squat Lobsters. Then we did another airplane at a site called Mavis. It was a huge plane, but we never got to explore it since right at the start Michelle, inspired by our previous find, located a black coral with about a dozen saw blade shrimps. She was quite happy with that find. We stayed there the whole dive, and since it's at 90 feet we both went into serious deco. But nothing a 15 minute safety stop couldn't fix.
Julie's (lack of) air consumption is amazing. I actually think she has gills somewhere. This became apparant that afternoon at a site called Tulagi Switzer. It was a dusk dive, and Julie was after mating Dragonets. While all of us had returned already, Julie was still out there happily snapping pictures. When night set in Monty became a little worried and went to see where she was. Of course there was no problem, she was just waiting for them to perform and got some nice shots.
The last day we spent at Anuha again. We didn't find anything really special, but as I said before, it's a nice site to end this amazing trip. As per our custom we said goodbye to all the fish and ended our last dive.
The second trip turned out to be completely different from the first. We switched sites a lot, which isn't really what we prefer to do. But we understand that non-photographers prefer to see more sites, so we didn't mind too much. What we did mind was one of the guests. During these types of trips the guests are almost always really nice. But every trip has a first, and this time we ended up with someone that seemed to denigrate everything that the boat had to offer. He complained about the diving, about the food, about the fellow guests, and on the last day I saw another first as Julie told the guy in no simple words to cut it out. Afterwards she really regretted it, but it did help; we heard no more complaining.
There really is nothing to complain about when diving the Bilikiki. The managers Monty and Michelle are wonderful, as are the rest of the crew members. The food is consistently good and fresh. The diving is among the best of the region, which is why we come back here so often. As I write this trip report, we've already got two trips booked on the Bilikiki in 2006 and 2007. We like it that much...