Tiffany Carroll experiences a watery reawakening in the seas of the Solomon Islands where improbably the underwater scenery gets more spectacular by the day. She’s already packing for the return visit.
The best moments in life are unexpected pleasures. From a Sunday afternoon with friends that turns into a Sunday night, to finding a fantastic café, meeting a new friend or, in my case, falling in love with diving again.
Let me start by saying I’m a fair-weather diver, I spent three years diving the amazing SS President Coolidge in Santo, Vanuatu, but if the vis wasn’t perfect, if the seas weren’t calm, if the sky wasn’t blue, I wasn’t going.
So an invitation to dive with the Solomon Islands live-aboard Bilikiki was greeted with a bit of a ‘meh’ attitude from me.
You see, I thought I’d seen it all. Clown fish, anemone, barracuda, black tip reef sharks (hey, I’d seen four), a turtle (yes, just one), a grouper (he was 200kg, so that’s something) and a moray eel.
My friend Angela sold the trip to me however – ‘It’s more of an eating and drinking cruise than a dive cruise,’ she said.
I was in.
The MV Bilikiki is a 125-foot long ship, comfortably accommodating 20 passengers in private air-conditioned rooms all with ensuites.
We arrived at the Honiara Yacht Club at around 1730 on a Friday and were loaded into a dinghy and taken to the ship. After seeing our rooms all 16 passengers were invited to the top deck for drinks and nibbles.
From the moment we board (cheese and biscuits, nuts and dips) to dinner (lasagna, salad and an amazing lime cheese cake) there is food, glorious food.
The informal evening gave me an opportunity to chat to my fellow passengers – several of whom were non-divers, others decked out in every bit of dive gear imaginable from computers to reef hooks, cameras to torches. 1000 dives and pumped Then I met Pam; a long-term expat who told me it was her 75th trip on the Bilikiki.
I’m sorry – 75th?
“Yeah, I just love it.” No sh#t Pam!
Pam would be the first up each morning, keen as mustard to get in the water. She’s done over 1000 dives in the Solomon Islands and is as excited as a school kid each time she comes back from a dive.
That was amazing, she says. Lots of little this and large that.
This time the trip is full of mainly Honiara residents – teachers, NGO and construction workers. For many, this is not their first trip – for all, it will not be their last.
We’re all envious of Pam’s enthusiasm, but as one of the teachers on board says, the Bilikiki is also a rest and relaxation cruise with a bit of diving thrown in.
My first dive early Saturday morning is at Petrol Point. The reef is full of colour, with bright purple gorgonian fans, anemone, starfish, sea cucumber, baby barracuda, triggerfish, clown fish and then the good stuff. Black tip reef sharks and spotted eagle rays.
And not just one or two – this is more of a soup than a reef with more fish than I have ever seen. At one point I am gently waving the fish away from me so I can see beyond the reef.
The next dive is Passage Rock, where there are more sharks, yellow fin tuna, Spanish mackerel and strong currents. I’m glad for the all-weathered divers around me and the ‘reef hook’ which keeps me stable as we watch peak hour traffic in the form of thousands of fish swimming by the reef.
At lunch I notice Daniella, the Bilikiki’s on board manager looking at the ocean tentatively. I think she must be bored with this life – daily diving, talking to divers, answering the same questions all-the-time.
“It’s vegetarian pizza.” … “It’s a spotted eagle ray.” …“I’m from Venezuela.”
But she’s not bored – she’s checking for currents and the chance of seeing manta rays.
“Okay guys – if the currents are right, we might go earlier, so I’ll just yell ‘now’ and you come diving.”
Pam is already geared up and waiting before Daniella has finished saying “okay guys”.
Daniella’s excited for us and clearly loves her job. In fact all the crew is the same. They rush to the back deck after each dive asking if we loved it. I can’t imagine they’ve ever heard ‘no’.
The after-lunch lull sees some weary divers head beneath deck for a sleep, others lounge in the galley, some are reading.
It is a beautiful day, the view of gorgeous local kids paddling in traditional canoes on the shallow waters, the occasional fish breeching and blue skies makes it near impossible for me to resist grabbing a book and lazing on the deck for the afternoon.
“And that’s okay too,” says Daniella. “We’ve got two more dives this afternoon.”
But I’m here to dive so for the third time today I must gear up and get excited.
After a night of more glorious food and a couple of drinks we rise early, some of us a little under the weather for our first dive of the day. It is 0600 and I cannot believe I am up and ready and happy about it.
I’d never heard of the Twin Tunnels dive in the Florida Islands but judging by the excited locals on the back deck, I’m in for something special.
Oh. My. God!
As Ange says to me ‘it was busier than a Chinese beach down there’.
The twin tunnels are two lava tubes that drop down to around 35 metres, bringing you out to the deep blue. It’s a little confronting for me but by the time I ascend to 20 metres I’m completely in awe of the sea. It’s Finding Nemo and the East Australian Current here with literally thousands of fish swimming through. Everything from yellow fin tuna to barracuda and black tip reef sharks.
I’m not sure if I’m slightly narced (for non divers that’s nitrogen narcosis – ed) or super excited, but I swear I hear Dory singing ‘just keep swimming, just keep swimming.’ I’m laughing with joy and high fiving my friend Sharon (not an easy task underwater) and want to stay here forever. Every time I see a shark I giggle with nervous excitement. They don’t even notice me, too busy catching a current and getting on with their business.
Back on deck I realise I’ve caught the diving bug again. I want to stay in my wetsuit and wish the surface time would fly by. I don’t even want to look at today’s afternoon tea offering (home made short bread and chocolate coconut cookies). I just want to dive.
A couple of drift dives offer more sharks, more tuna, more anemone, and more bright healthy coral than I thought possible. Everything is super sized in the Solomon Islands, from the coral bombies to the clown fish. The reef is pristine and I think how very lucky I am to be experiencing one of nature’s wonders. Fairytale finale Our final dive would, as expected in a fairytale, be the best. We’re all pretty exhausted but don’t want to miss out so gear up for the final time and drop in to the ocean.
The Solomons has saved the best ‘til last. Giant rays, eagle rays, turtles, sharks, sharks and more sharks, tuna, barracuda, eels, you name it, and it was there. Again I’m laughing under water – I cannot stop. Everywhere you look there is another massive fish or ray. I use so much air from laughing I reluctantly have to cut the dive short. At our 5 metre safety stop another ray casually swims by and I think to myself this is a dream – it cannot be this good.
We surface and burst out laughing again, I have never experienced such joy in a ‘hobby’. We are fighting for conversation, Ange and I reliving the dive.
“And the turtle – oh my God.” … “How about that ray? It had to be three or four metres.” … “I lost count at about 20 sharks.” … “And did you see the moray eel?” … “Do you think everyone else saw what we did?” …“When are we coming back?”
The brilliant thing about the Bilikiki is you don’t have to be a diver. Snorkelers, fishermen and non-water lovers are all welcome. The scenery each day is stunning and the opportunity to meet local Solomon Islanders through village visits or simply by hanging over the deck as they paddle up to the ship are just as amazing.
Ange was right – it’s more than a dive cruise. It is adventure, relaxation and indulgence. And if you’re really lucky, a reawakening.
Fact File The MV Bilikiki offers 7, 10 and 14 night cruises. Packages start at $US3290 and include accommodation, airport transfers, all meals and snacks, weight belts, tanks and air fills and unlimited diving.
To book visit www.bilikiki.com