Into Indonesia and IDC

It’s been a while, but I haven’t forgotten about my blog, I have just been super busy and/or slack πŸ™‚ Since I last posted, I have become PADI dive instructor and have spent most of this year in Indonesia diving in Bali, Komodo and Raja Ampat. This post is about that journey…

I have been diving since 1992 – yes you read that right, that’s 23 years – and kept the flame alive with annual diving trips to exotic locations all over the world, including Australia (naturally), Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Samoa, Cook Islands, Belize, Red Sea, Maldives and Indonesia. But it wasn’t until I first dived Komodo (off the western coast of Flores, eastern Indonesia) that I was inspired to turn the passion into a profession.

My first trip to Komodo was in April-May 2013 and by August that year I was back to take my Divemaster (the first rung of the professional diving ladder). In February 2014 I moved to Honiara to work as a volunteer, but after 10 months there I was back to Indonesia to dive some more and to take my PADI instructor development course (IDC). Man that was hard work; here are some photos of the IDC, instructor exam and Master SCUBA Diver Trainer course that followed (photos courtesy Crystal Divers and Felicia Lindgren).

So that’s my dive instructor journey in a nutshell… I will put up a post of my Raja Ampat and Komodo adventures very soon.

Thanks for reading!
Lxx

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Ia man! – Awareness Part 2

OK, OK, dear readers I know I’ve been really bad this time. I am overdue on writing this blog post by ummm 5 months… In my defence, I have been sooooo busy since I did the trip that is the subject of this post – what with wrapping up my life in Solo, attending the World Parks Congress in Sydney, a whirlwind trip to Canberra and unpacking/reorganising/repacking to move to another country (in a record 5 days), then moving to said country with all that it entails… phew! Then in January I took the course to become a SCUBA diving instructor (only 1 month or so of my life) and in February squeezed in a trip to see family overseas. Do I have your forgiveness now? I do hope so πŸ™‚

So, moving right along, this post follows on from my previous one (Awareness Part 1), in which your faithful correspondent – along with Ministry colleagues – took part in a program to raise awareness about protected areas in Isabel and Choiseul provinces as well as Wagina and the Arnavon Islands, Solomon Islands. The second phase of our awareness program involved communities in Marovo Lagoon, Roviana Lagoon, Tetepare Island and Western Province (New Georgia and Ghizo). My itinerary went something like this: Seghe-Chea-Tetepare-Munda-Kolombangara-Munda-Gizo-Sepo Island-Saeraghi-Honiara. If you can’t remember where all these places are, you can refer to this map from an earlier post, and below is a more detailed map of the Marovo Lagoon area.

Map of Marovo Lagoon, Solomon Islands, showing New Georgia and Tetepare Island, courtesy http://www.siartc.org.sb

Awareness program

Over about a two week period we met with communities, community leaders, individual families, conservation organisations, rangers and scientists. At each proposed site we did a preliminary visual assessment, including on snorkel, to get an idea of conservation value. It was really useful to see first-hand what various communities wanted to protect and hear about the reasons behind it, as well as to compare sites.

It was also a rare opportunity for communities and individuals to talk face-to-face to Ministry staff about other issues and concerns they are facing (unregulated logging, pollution and poaching amongst them) and to find out what they can do about it. It was clear that many communities and traditional owners don’t know what their legal rights are and despite the great work of the Landholder Advocacy Legal Support Unit of the Solomon Islands Public Solicitor’s Office (LALSU), there are many communities falling through the gaps and LALSU doesn’t have the capacity to address these.

Here is the photographic record of our journey…

A big thanks to Salome Topo and the staff at Worldwide Fund for Nature‘s Gizo office, who kindly helped us out with our meetings on Ghizo (the island, not the town).

A note on a few off-the-beaten-path gems…

I was so excited to get the opportunity to travel to Tetepare Island on this trip, and it truly is a spectacular sight. In the end we only had a heart-breakingly brief day and a half there, but it was enough to leave me salivating for more… Tetepare is the largest unlogged island in the Pacific, and it has a wonderful bunch of passionate rangers, community leaders and biologists working hard to keep it that way. We were lucky to meet the rangers and caretakers, as well as John and Katherine Read, who have played a huge part in driving the conservation of the island until now.

On Tetepare, me and my Ministry collagues with Tetepare rangers and seagrass girls

On Tetepare Island, me and my Ministry colleagues with Tetepare rangers and seagrass girls (photo courtesy MECDM)

Educational posters in English and Pidgin, Tetepare Island (photo courtesy MECDM)

Educational posters in English and Pidgin, Tetepare Island (photo courtesy MECDM)

This reef is regularly surveyed, along with other areas, to feed into the Tetepare Island Management Plan (photo courtesy MECDM)

This reef is regularly surveyed, along with other areas, to feed into the Tetepare Island Management Plan (photo courtesy MECDM)

If you’d like to learn more about Tetepare, and/or how you can visit, their website is very informative. You can read about the fight to save Tetepare in John and Katherine’s book, “The Last Wild Island: Saving Tetepare“.

Another group of communities working hard to conserve and manage their resources sustainably is those on Kolombangara Island, through the Kolombangara Island Biodiversity Conservation Association (KIBCA). You can support their work by visiting the Imbu Rano Lodge, which we visited as guests of KIBCA. Sadly our schedule didn’t allow us to stay overnight but it is a great place to get back to nature and hike the high mountains of Solomon Islands.

Imbu Rano Lodge, Kolombanggara

Imbu Rano Lodge, Kolombangara

The view from the verandah at the Imbu Rano Lodge to the high peaks of Kolombanggara is spectactular (untouched virgin forests), even in the mist

The view from the verandah at the Imbu Rano Lodge to the high peaks of Kolombangara is spectactular (untouched virgin forests), even in the mist

Diving

Thankfully it wasn’t all work and I managed to fit in a few dives as well πŸ˜‰ While hanging around Seghe I met Lisa Choquette for the first time and checked out Solomon Dive Adventures‘ new operation near Chea (Marovo Lagoon). Later, while loitering in Munda, I squeezed in a few cheeky dives with Jen and Graeme at Dive Munda. Diving in both places was outstanding and my hosts could not have been more accommodating, fun and knowledgeable. Both are highly recommended!

Marovo Lagoon

The indomitable Lisa Choquette, at Kahaini

The indomitable Lisa Choquette, at Kahaini

Lisa is mad keen about fish (and as a fishy person that made me very happy!) and she happily took me for a snorkel around the tiny island of Kahaini where SDA is now based to show off what it has to offer.

All I can say is WOW. I don’t remember ever seeing such diversity in such a small area. There are six different habitat types and such an astounding number of different varieties of organisms that I thought my head was going to start spinning – I didn’t know where to look next… and don’t get me started on the dive sites!

Suffice it to say that if you are the sort of person who doesn’t like 5-star resorts and wants to identify all the critters you’ve seen after every dive, you need to meet Lisa. For the record, my first dive with her started like this:

And my last dive ended with this:

Munda

Sharks, amazing healthy coral gardens, walls, sharks, rays, bumphead parrotfish, tuna, Napolean (Maori) wrasse, nudibranchs, barracuda and did I mention the sharks? Destination diving at its best – really. I was very impressed by my dives at Munda. If anyone is interested in which sites I dived I will dig out my logbook but it definitely included Shark Point and Cave of the Kastom Shark. Let my video speak for itself. Sadly the hammerhead I saw on my first dive was too shy so I didn’t get him/her on video, but here are the rest of the best bits.

It was a huge trip and I was pretty exhausted after all those hours in tiny tinnies and all the heavy Solomon Islands food, but I feel very privileged to have been able to see parts of the Sollies that others don’t have access to. That and my amazing counterpart Agnetha, and the rest of my team at MECDM, without whom my time in country wouldn’t have been what it was.

Mi tangiu tumas fo evrisamting an mi barava missim iufala evriwan brata an sista blo mi lo Solo xx

And ending with a gratuitous money shot – from a fabulously relaxing afternoon of snorkelling, crayfish and soothing music at Fatboys Resort, a short boat ride from Gizo.

Always a tough way to spend an afternoon - Fatboys Resort and Restaurant

Always a tough way to spend an afternoon – Fatboys Resort and Restaurant, near Gizo

The running joke in our office - we are all totally addicted to Bongos (for the Aussies, they are as close as you can get to Cheezels in Solo) (photo courtesy MECDM)

The running joke in our office – we are all totally addicted to Bongos (for the Aussies, they are as close as you can get to Cheezels in Solo) (photo courtesy MECDM)

Suffer in your jocks!

Lxx

Diving around H-town

It’s been some time since my last post – apologies for that, I am still alive and kicking! Life has been going on as usual and I have been busy at work. I have managed to find time for a bit more diving though, so I think it is time I reported on some of the sites to be dived around Honiara. Mostly that is where I have been diving, though I squeezed in a short trip to Komodo (Indonesia) and one to the Russells with Bilikiki in the past month as well. Maybe I need to do a few diving posts πŸ™‚ Apologies also for the lack of underwater photos – I plan to update this post with photos as I take more.

So, to the topic at hand – diving in and around Honiara (aka “H-town”). The diving, almost without exception, is wreck diving. There are a LOT of wrecks in the waters off Guadalcanal, thanks to a little WWII skirmish known as the Battle of Guadalcanal. In a nutshell, the Allied Forces launched a surprise attack on Japanese forces occupying the Solomon Islands and within six months or so it all went to custard for the Empire of Japan. This was a pivotal strategic victory that led to Japan’s surrender and the end of WWII. History buffs can read more about the campaign here and here.

Early morning dives are the best! This is at Bonegi 1 (B1)

Early morning dives are the best! This is at Bonegi I (B1)

The wrecks themselves? Well I have only done a handful of the many, many wrecks in Ironbottom Sound (why do you think it’s called that?). You can get an idea of the numbers by looking at this map (though it is not entirely accurate). For context, below is a map of the Solomon Islands.

Map of the Solomon Islands

Map of the Solomon Islands (courtesy http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net)

It is a tech diver’s (and, let’s face it – bloke’s) paradise here, with many of the wrecks sitting in more than 50m of water, some intact and able to be penetrated, and some still with cargo (e.g. motorcycles, tanks, jeeps) on board. The key accessible ones close to Honiara are the ones I have included here. For anyone looking for more historical detail on the commonly-dived wrecks, this is a great resource.

Bonegi I/B1 Hirokawu Maru

A Japanese transport ship that was attacked by American dive-bombers and sank in November 1942
(depth 3–57m, location 12.5km west of Honiara, measured from the yacht club)

The beach at B1

This is the most-dived wreck near Honiara, probably because openwater divers as well as experienced and tech divers can all discover its charms. I’ve been shallow and deep on this wreck, and have done some limited penetration at around 46m toward the stern. I’m no authority on wrecks and don’t know all the cool terminology to use, but it was interesting to go inside. There were some big grouper and sweetlips hanging out in there, and soft corals and sponges growing on the inside, but I still prefer diving the top 15m because of the fish and coral life on that part of the wreck.

There are many lionfish to be found on B1 (Courtesy R. Duckworth)

You can always find nudibranchs, many species of anemone fish on and around the wreck in shallower waters (I once counted 14 different species), and there are often big schools of snappers, drummers, fusiliers and trevally hanging out around the masts. I’ve also seen octopus, crown-of-thorns starfish, crayfish and juvenile lionfishes.

Look carefully and you can find all kinds of cool stuff, like this nudibranch, on B1 (Courtesy R. Duckworth)

Look carefully and you can find all kinds of cool stuff, like this nudibranch, on B1 (Courtesy R. Duckworth)

Bonegi II/B2 Kinugawa Maru

A Japanese transport ship that sank with Bonegi I
(depth 0–28m, location 12km west of Honiara right next to B1)

B2 from the Bonegi beach - it is the only one to break the surface (Courtesy R. Duckworth)

B2 from the Bonegi beach – it is the only one to break the surface (Courtesy R. Duckworth)

I have dived this very little because of consistently bad visibility. It has suffered over the years from earthquakes and other various things that have caused parts of it to collapse. It is now leaking oil as well, so I fear it won’t last much longer in its current condition. But, when you can see enough to dive it, it is worth doing.

The wreck at B2, shortly after the April floods (Courtesy R. Duckworth)

The wreck at B2, shortly after the April floods (Courtesy R. Duckworth)

Orange anemone fish at B2 (Courtesy R. Duckworth)

Orange anemone fish at B2 (Courtesy R. Duckworth)

The wreck is resting on sand and starts very shallow water (as you can see from the above photo, the top of it is actually out of the water) and goes down to around 28m. There are a few swim-throughs in the shallow parts and heaps of soft and hard coral growth all over the hull.

Bonegi III/B3 Kyusyu Maru, Azumasan Maru and Sasako Maru

A trio of Japanese cargo ships, locally known as Ruaniu, beached and bombed side by side in October 1942
(depth 7–47m, 39–80m and 58–85m respectively; location 17km west of Honiara)

The Beach at Bonegi 3 (B3)

The Beach at Bonegi III (B3)

The vessels have settled just off the beach, in close proximity to each other. I have dived the shallower two of these wrecks, which are frequently plagued by poor visibility (including because of lots of plankton). However, both can be penetrated and both have very nice underwater life. Because of the plankton there are a lot of feeding fishes, feather stars and soft corals.

Diving the shallower of the three transport ships at B3, Ruaniu (Courtesy R. Duckworth)

Diving the shallower of the three transport ships at B3, Ruaniu (Courtesy R. Duckworth)

There are some beautiful fan corals on B3 (Courtesy R. Duckworth)

There are some beautiful fan corals on B3 (Courtesy R. Duckworth)

B-17 Flying Fortress

Lying on a sandy bottom close to shore, this American B17E Bomber was shot down in September 1942
(depth 14–17m, location 24.5km west of Honiara)

The gun turret of the B-17, encrusted with growth but still easily recognisable

The gun turret of the B-17, encrusted with growth but still easily recognisable

The wreck is generally intact, with only its tail missing (thanks to a botched salvage operation) and a broken wing. Until recently you could even sit in the cockpit, though apparently someone did so a little too vigorously and broke it. It’s still a very cool wreck to dive though; it’s a super easy shallow muck dive, you can see the whole plane at all times, and there are heaps of little critters all over the place. It’s actually my favourite of all the local dives I’ve done here – I’ve seen sweetlips and snappers, nudibranchs, pipefishes, clouds of glassfishes here, and stingrays in the sand.

Five-lined snapper school around the turret and gun barrel

Five-lined snapper school around the turret and gun barrel

One of the B-17's engines, with propeller

One of the B-17’s engines, with propeller

The B-17's cockpit, still mostly intact

The B-17’s cockpit, still mostly intact

It seems obvious to say, but these wrecks are changing all the time in response to their environment. Just in the past 6 months the B-17 has been further covered in silt. For an idea of how it used to look, see this blog with photos taken in 1992.

Submarine I-1

A J1 type Japanese submarine, beached and sunk in January 1943 west of Visale Beach
(depth 3–28m, location 40km west of Honiara at Veura)

The sub is out there!

She lies at a 90-degree angle to the reef with her stern on the sand at 28m and is a good 20-minute swim from the beach, so save your air and take your snorkel if you intend to dive her. This wreck has an interesting history, which explains why there are big hunks of metal all over the reef adjacent to the wreck.

The “front” of the submarine

Apparently some fool of an Australian tried to blow her up 40 years ago to get access to valuable metals, not realising there were still live torpedoes inside. The resulting carnage is what you see today, and it also fired a table-sized piece of shrapnel into the local village. That being said, it is a very nice dive. The remainder of the sub is recognisable and you can penetrate a good part of it. There are several large air tanks (not torpedoes!) inside and a lot of life in, on and around it. The nearby reef is really nice and healthy. Last time I dived it we had loads of fish schooling around, and I saw several tiger cowries and anemone fishes. I’ve also seen bumphead parrot fish here and large snappers and sweetlips hiding in and under the wreck. Others have seen manta rays here and there are a lot of nudibranchs in the nearby reef, so try not to rush back once you’ve dived the wreck.

The submarine hull - the front part has been blown apart but the back is mostly intact

The submarine hull – the front part has been blown apart but the back is mostly intact

Most of the submarine can be penetrated

No, they're not torpedoes, just air tanks!

No, they’re not torpedoes, just air tanks! (I-1 Submarine)

I also found some crazy clown fishes on my way back from the sub…

After all this diving, you’ll probably be ravenous. Luckily you can grab some KFC on your way back to Honiara (that would be “Kakambona Fried Chicken”). They also do fish and local freshwater prawns, served with cassava and rice on a banana leaf-lined palm leaf plate. Mmmmmm.

The delicious Kakambona Fried Chicken (KFC)

Getting into the KFC post-dive at Kakambona Beach

The view isn’t bad either, just don’t look too closely at the dogs.

Kakambona Beach

And that’s all from me for now folks… stay tuned for more diving adventures – next stop, Komodo!

Lxx

After the rain

It’s now been three weeks since the devastating floods in Honiara and life is starting to get back to some semblance of normality. There is plenty of work still to be done, and assistance still needed, but things are slowly improving.

As I mentioned in my last post I have not been involved much in the recovery efforts. The extent of my involvement has been getting out in a banana boat before Easter with ministry colleagues to assess the extent of erosion, sedimentation and debris caused by the heavy rains across northern Guadalcanal.

Travelling by banana boat to assess the damage caused by Cyclone Ita

Travelling by banana boat to assess the damage caused by Cyclone Ita

I was surprised to find that the damage was not all that bad, particularly in the west. I was expecting much more debris after the tidal surges and rains, but it was relatively limited.

Erosion has caused land slips and trees to be uprooted, north-western Guadalcanal

Erosion has caused land slips and trees to be uprooted, north-western Guadalcanal

Some areas have a lot of timber debris following the storms, north-western Guadalcanal

Some areas have a lot of timber debris following the storms, north-western Guadalcanal

Close to town there were much greater impacts – a lot of logs, trees and other timber debris in front of the Heritage Hotel and Kokonut Cafe; a huge plume of dirty water from the Mataniko River and more serious erosion east of the river mouth at Renandi.

The sea at the mouth of the Mananiko River is still pretty dirty

The sea at the mouth of the Mataniko River is still pretty dirty

I know many of my fellow volunteers are working extremely hard, and are doing some great work here with the clean-up efforts, but for me it is back to business as usual. To that end, and to lighten the mood a bit from my previous post, I am going to focus the rest of this update on my Easter dive trip to the Russell Islands and Mary Island (aka gloating).

Bilikiki trip report

Thanks to my mate Cath, I had booked my berth within weeks of arriving in country and it was really lovely to get out of town and be spoiled for a change. We vollies don’t often get to experience the finer things the Solomons has to offer, so I enjoyed every minute and it was worth every penny.

Sunrise in the Russell Islands

Sunrise in the Russell Islands

The MV Bilikiki (named after a local sea bird) is a dive boat out of Honiara that offers luxury 7-14 day live-aboard trips exploring the Floridas, Russells, Mary Island and Marovo Lagoon. They also offer occasional highly sought-after weekend trips to Honiara locals. For our Easter long weekend we left Honiara on Good Friday evening and returned on the evening of Easter Monday, and were offered five dives a day for the first two days and three dives on the final day. The Bilikiki comes with all the trimmings – hot freshwater showers on the dive deck, air-conditioned rooms with comfy beds and blankies as well as en suite bathrooms with hot water showers, great food, fantastic staff and the diving isn’t bad either.

Our diving schedule for the day

Our first day was spent in the Russell Islands diving at Kovilok Bay, Leru Cut, Custom Cave and Mirror Pond during the day as well as a night dive (which I didn’t do). I took the opportunity to experiment with my new(ish) underwater camera and strobe – bought last year for my trip to Komodo and only used twice before – so I finally have some photos to share. I forgot my red filter though, so the wide angle shots are a bit blue…

Pink anemone fish hiding in its host anemone, Russell Islands

The highlight of Day 1 for me was Leru Cut, a volcanic passage with a sandy bottom terminating in a cavern. My strobe wasn’t much use in the dark, so my photos aren’t great but you get the idea.

Diving the Leru Cut, Russell Islands

Diving the Leru Cut, Russell Islands

Outside the cut was a different story – a new species of anemone fish (check out the bonnet) and some beautiful gorgonian fans, complete with pygmy sea horse. Wonderful healthy reef with staka fish as well.

Bonnet anemone fish, Russell Islands

Bonnet anemone fish, Russell Islands

Gorgonian fan with feather star, Russell Islands

Gorgonian fan with feather star, Russell Islands

After a great day of diving (and in between dives as well), the crew fed us fabulous food – starting with sunset canapΓ©s on the upper deck and ending with divine chocolate tart. I don’t even like chocolate, but I forced it down to be polite. There’s nothing worse than a sobbing chef, so I sacrificed myself for the greater good. I would have taken a photo of it, but it didn’t last long enough. Sorry.

Sunset canapΓ©s on the top deck of the Bilikiki

Sunset canapΓ©s on the top deck of the Bilikiki

After dinner we weighed anchor and steamed to Mborokua (Mary) Island , an uninhabited (and virtually inaccessible) volcanic island covered in jungle located just west of the Russells.

The wild and beautiful Mborokua (Mary) Island

The wild and beautiful Mborokua (Mary) Island

On Day 2 we dived Barracuda Point, Jackfish Point, Mary Bommies and back to Barracuda Point, with a night dive just under the boat (again, not done by me!). This was my first experience of diving in close proximity to an active volcano. I was super excited to be back in the water – so at first I thought I was having heart palpitations – but it turned out to just be a bit of seismic activity. There were some pretty loud rumbles and strong vibrations! As well as the excitement of the volcano, the reefs at Mary Island are packed full of spectacularly healthy hard corals.

Mary Island has fantastically healthy hard coral gardens

Mary Island has fantastically healthy hard coral gardens

I’m told there are usually a lot more pelagics than we saw, but perhaps they were on holiday. The best I could do was some trevally and barracuda.

School of barracuda at the aptly named Barracuda Point, Mary Island

School of barracuda at the aptly named Barracuda Point, Mary Island

That night we headed back east and woke up in the Russells again. Our last three dives were at Rainbow Reef, Fonagho Island and Lolaghan Island, and I was in love. Rainbow Reef was spectacular. Komodo-esque even. It is a sea mount, just like Castle Rock in the Komodo National Park, and was our first dive of the day so still a bit dark, but wow – it was pumping. Beautiful healthy reef, a bit of wall (I love a wall), heaps of fish feeding in the current and staka small stuff as well.

Fishes and plankton aplenty at Rainbow Reef, Russell Islands

Fishes and plankton aplenty at Rainbow Reef, Russell Islands

Even the safety stop was interesting – we saw (and felt, not so much fun) some big plankton near the surface, along with a school of teeny tiny cuttlefish. Totally awesome.

Baby cuttlefish at the surface, Russell Islands. Cute huh?

Baby cuttlefish at the surface, Russell Islands. Cute huh?

But it wasn’t all about the diving. In between dives we didn’t just stuff our faces, we also met some of the locals.

Local villagers tie up in their canoes to sell us fresh fruit and veges, Russell Islands

Local villagers tie up in their canoes to sell us fresh fruit and veges, Russell Islands

And enjoyed the view from the upper deck.

Above the water the Russell Islands are equally attractive

Above the water the Russell Islands are equally attractive

Sunset over Guadalcanal

Sunset over Guadalcanal

We also stuffed our faces πŸ˜‰

Thanks for reading!

Lxx

Bilikiki Cruises is supporting Red Cross Relief & Recovery efforts in the Solomon Islands. For every donation over AUD50 you can go into the draw to win a 7 night live-aboard dive trip.Β