For 25 years, divers from all over the world have been booking Bilikiki cruises to dive the most stunning underwater treasures of the Solomon Islands. Why many have been coming back over and over again is easy to explain, as Elio Stamm’s words and Joanna O’Shea’s pictures show.
When people ask me what it’s like to sail Solomon Islands’ pristine waters on the Bilikiki diving ship I usually say something like: “Imagine you are sitting on the deck, nibbling on crackers and cheese, watching the sun set over the bay, the ship is anchored alongside palms and a few thatched huts. In the background half a dozen locals are fishing, standing in their canoes, one of them singing a song, while on board you have a tough decision to make: Shall you go for a glass of white wine and discuss the days spectacular dives with your fellow divers or is it better to just have a Coke so that you’ll be able to go for a night dive later?”
People usually want to know more. But even this brief description of a typical pre-dinner moment gives them a good sense of what the Bilikiki experience is like. It is not by chance that divers from all over the world fly to the Solomon Islands to go on seven, ten or fourteen-day cruises with Bilikiki, and that expats living in Honiara book the three day in-between cruises months in advance to be sure to get a spot.
The Solomon Islands are a diver’s paradise, with abundant marine life, wrecks and coral walls. Bilikiki, named after one of the more distinctive shore birds in the Solomons, gives guests the chance to discover numerous underwater treasures in a short period of time and from a very comfortable base: the MV Bilikiki. The ship is 125 feet long and offers 10 fully air conditioned timber-lined deluxe cabins featuring a double bed with a single above. All cabins have private showers and toilets. With a maximum of 20 guests, there is plenty of space on board to steal a quiet moment before you join your shipmates for a chat or drink at night – that is, if you still have any energy left after your day of underwater adventure.
While you’re on board, kick back, relax and get comfortable, because guests don’t have any ‘duties’ other than diving and enjoying the experience. As soon as you come out of the water, the 11-strong, and very friendly, Solomon staff and two managers, Daniela Tombion and Csaba Erdos, help you to get out of your gear, make sure that the tank is full for the next dive and provide you with snacks.
The trusty divemasters
Csaba from Hungary and Daniela from Venezuela are also very trustworthy dive masters. Above the surface they always have a smile or a friendly word and their pre-dive briefings are precise; below the surface they make sure you don’t miss any of the best spots or sights. The couple met in Egypt where Csaba was a dive master and Daniela’s instructor, a status that Daniela would soon achieve in her own right. Two years ago, after having worked in resorts at the southern end of the Red Sea and on other dive boats, they took over the on-board management of the Bilikiki from Sam Leeson and Kellie Oldfield. Sam and Kellie are the owners of Bilikiki cruises and now manage the company from the office.
The enterprise was started by original owner Rick Belmere and his partners in 1989. The long tradition and all the know-how behind Bilikiki directly pays off for today’s guests in the form of flexible itineraries designed to take maximum advantage of the prevailing conditions and the wishes of their guests. The longer trips usually visit the Russell Islands, Mary Island, the Marovo Lagoon area and the Florida Islands. There are four dives per day plus a night dive. With in-depth knowledge of the vast array of possible dive entry points the exact sites are decided on the day.
Underwater with manta rays
Diving with manta rays close to Maravagi Resort in the Florida Islands, for example, is a dive not to miss. In only ten metres of water you can hang on to a rock and watch as groups of the elegant flat fish fly over your head – if there are strong currents; the mantas use the currents to feast on plankton that gets washed into their big mouths. No current means no mantas and so Daniela, Csaba and the Bilikiki team only suggest this particular dive when the rays are sure to be there and you actually encounter these elegant animals.
There is a lot of good diving all over the Solomon Islands, even direct walk-in access to plane and submarine wrecks from the shore. Sites like these are easily accessible even on Guadalcanal; they are as common as your daily lunch. Bilikiki, on the other hand, is like a festive dinner. Travelling by ship gives you access to special spots like the infamous Twin Tunnels in the sea in front of the Florida Islands – two natural ancient lava tubes that start on a reef at 12 to 16 metres depth and lead down to a common cavern at 35 to 40 metres, from where one exits directly in front of a splendid wall. One tunnel is wide enough to slowly descend in a horizontal position, the other one you need to conquer vertically. Both are full of sea fans and fish of every kind.
The opportunities for stunning dive experiences are seemingly endless, and back on board guests scramble out of their wetsuits to share the excitement of the day – and to eat. Diving makes people hungry. So it is good to know that the food on the Bilikiki is plentiful and of good quality. There is something for every taste on the dinner buffet, even after days at sea, as the ship replenishes its fresh fruit and vegetable supplies directly from villagers in their canoes. This cooperation has been intensified over the years with the Bilikiki crew even providing seeds to the local villagers and taking pride in this support of the local economies in remote villages.
At a cost of approximately US$4700 for a ten day trip, a Bilikiki cruise is not for the budget traveller. However, avid divers, adventurers and people who love the sea keep coming back for the diving, life-long memories and sunset drinks. And know it is worth every cent.
For more information on the Bilikiki cruises check out: www.bilikiki.com and see adjacent fact box.