Two divers; a father and son team, both daring and expert, pushing each other to test their limits. After diving to a depth of 80m to treasure-hunt a WWII German U-Boat wreck, both divers made horrible mistakes and succumbed to the bends, and promptly died agonising deaths.
True story, the story of Chris & Chrissy Rouse, a story I was reading whilst on a father-son dive trip, living on a boat in the Solomon Islands. Good inspiration, I guess, for a dangerous sport?
I was on a “liveaboard” cruise for ten days, with 13 others (aside from Dad & I), and 8 crew, aboard the Solomon Star, a fairly decent sized catamaran, although getting on in years.
The book I was reading was another diver’s; it had been seemingly passed around the whole population of the boat, together with the advice of “just read chapter 10, the last dive,” which was also the name of the book. About halfway through the trip I was reading it, between dives on deck. The alarming details of this devestating last dive I supose both shocked me into appreciating the dangers of the sport on a more emotional level; it also seemed to be a turning point in my dive career, after that I was interested in diving on a much deeper level. After this point in the trip, my diving improved considerably. Although, that perhaps could have been put down to the astonishing natural beauty of the reefs, caves and islands of the Solomon Islands.
My Dad has been a diver for 20-odd years, a significant chunk of my life (I will be 28 in a few months, although I try to avoid the thought).
The trip was organised & executed by a company called Solomon Islands Dive Expeditions, owned by a Canadian based Canadian/Australian company. It was run by a young South African lady by the name of Belinda, although she seemed to have spent lots of time in Australia, Canada & the UK, as well as seemingly countless other obscure places such as the Solomon Islands, due to her dive career.
Belinda is obviously an absolute expert diver in any sense of the word. My Dad has stellar air consumption rates that to me seem legendary, but Belinda was even better.
Running the boat alongside Belinda was the captain, Jack. In the bowels of the ship were the engineers Thomas and Abba, in the kitchen were Kenz & his Protoje Robbie, and on deck were Joe and Nate, the local divemaster who had more than three thousand dives under his belt and who discovered many of the phenomenal spots we dived at.
A standard day aboard the Solomon Star went as follows:
- 6am – Wake up (elective). Light breakfast of fruits, toast, cereals, Solomon Gold local coffee. Dive brief, whilst sun rises over the water.
- 7am – First dive. Jump from dive platform at the stern in groups to avoid drifting from each other, as the boat is usually unanchored and moving slightly. Dive for forty-five minutes – one hour. Be amazed.
- 8am – Wake up if first dive skipped. Eat large breakfast, with choice of gargantuan cheese, bacon and onion omelette, scambled eggs, poached eggs, fried eggs, pancakes, sausages, bacon. A lot of energy is used whilst diving; I had six eggs one morning for my second breakfast.
- 8am – 10am – Chill. Talk about diving. Read. Write. Sketch scenery. Take photos. Sleep. Sunbake before it gets too hot.
- 10am – Dive number two. We may be in a different pot now. Similar to instructions under dive number 1.
- 11am – 1pm – Chill, in a similar manner as before. Most likely nap. Snacks.
- 1pm – Lunch. A banquet usually. Fish, rice, stir fry, or maybe burritos, sometimes burgers.
- 2pm – Dive number three.
- 3pm – 4pm – Chill. Snacks. High likelihood of nap.
- 4pm – 5pm – Dive number four. Less likely.
- 5pm – 6pm or 7pm – Chill. If no more diving, then the drinks will flow.
- 7pm – Night dive, dive number five, elective. Unlikely. More likely to be drinking spiced rum, or asleep. Chance of socialising and photo competition of the day. Night dive equipped with fluorescent torches & special goggles to observe bioluminescence.
- 8pm – Dinner. Huge. Usually fish, rice, beef, chicken, salads, etc. Sometimes steaks.
- 9pm – Drinking tends to end. Most people retire early, even me, to a deep, deep, exhausted slumber to the rocking of the boat.
- Sometime at night noisily the anchor is raised, noisily the engine starts. Noisily the waves smash the bow where our berth was, but surprisingly I could sleep through most of this & the rocking of the boat, usually for 3 or 4 hours as we motored to another island.
I had never spent more than a few hours on a boat before, and was going straight to a ten day liveaboard, so I was filled with some small measure of trepidation. It turned out to be misplaced. The Solomon Star is a big boat, equipped for diving. It’s main deck is open air at the rear (stern), a platform to kit up for diving. Inside is an air conditioned oasis, with communal dining tables & lounges, Just forward of this in the centre of the boat is the kitchen. At the front lie two twin cabins. Below this deck, there is a four bunk room occupying each bow of the catamaran. In the middle were two more; and at the rear, the enginer rooms.
Above the main deck is another open area with seating, and then the bridge, with staff cabins adjoining. A washer, dryer and big freezer are on this level too.
At the bow of the main deck is also an open air area, which is a good place to stand as the ship cruises along, dolphins racing in front, as happened multiple times in Marovo Lagoon, “largest lagoon in the world”. Twenty plus dolphins, all racing each other, just metres in front of the bows, jumping, criss crossing, generally living life.
Our bunk room was about the size of your typical sunroom. Four people could not occupy the standing floorspace. Built into the wedge of the bow, there were two bunks on either side that met in the middle & gave me about 5cm spare length, and I’m not tall. A few cupboards, and a small bathroom with toilet, sink & shower at the rear of the cabin. So, it was small, but I don’t think it was ever uncomfortable. It was for sleeping, really, and one gets so tired diving.
I never had any issues with sea sickness or “sea legs,” thankfully. Others took tablets and I couldn’t help but wonder if they did more harm than good. I had plenty of of sunscreen so I never got burnt, but the sun was damn hot.
I never got sick of the company, although it is hard to find alone time on a relatively small (or any sized) boat.
Perhaps I was being a little dramatic with my “ten days on a boat” thing. We did get off, on a few occasions. Once was on a remote uninhabited island, Mary Island. Lindsay and I had the tender drop us to the island, a volcanic / coral island with sharp, jagged ex-coral for rocks, covered in nearly impenetrable tropical jungle. We walked around for a bit, tried to find a way through the bush and didn’t get far, before the heat made us turn back for the boat.
Another time was at a very small village on a small island in the Florida Islands. The boat had negotiated a small payment for all of us to visit the village. We met with Chief George and someone who seemed to be his right hand man. They welcomed us, but I feel like they felt a bit suspicious of us, or something like that. They took some time to warm up is what I’m saying, but warm up they did.
The village had about 400 occupants. About a quarter had shown up to greet us, mostly children under the age of ten, with huge smiles, boundless energy and wide open eyes when they looked as us. A lot of the kids had natural blond afro hair, which looked incredibly cool.
The people were not assembled just to meet us, I must add. About ten young men of the village had a traditional music and dance performance in store for us, with pan flutes, and large percussive tubular instruments made of PVC pipes. They use paddles made of old thongs, to hit the tube openings and sound the notes. The music they made was magical. I even got up and had a go at the thong-tube instrument thing – harder than it looked. Brian of our party then gave the kids, via Chief George, gifts of books & soccer balls, which were immediate hits.
Chief George took us on a brief tour of the village – namely the open air shack that was the school, and the concrete building that was the colourful Church of Melanesia. George’s son and his friend accompanied us on all of this, at first shy but gradually increasing in energy & smiles, which seemed to make Chief George happy as well.
We soon left the village, and I was glad to have been. As I said before; although there may be superficial differences in lifestyle and “wealth,” all of the villagers seemed genuinely happy, which is better than a lot of us cityfolk can claim.
We also stopped at a “port” in Tulagi, where the ship underwent refuelling, restocking, maintenance etc. The “port” was just a small shipyard on a paradisical tropical island. There were WWII wrecks deep in the harbour & the rusting hulks of Cargo Ships lining the shore. We got off here, for five minutes or so.
We also got off at another stop; this one unplanned, an eco resort on Gatokae Island, Marovo Lagoon. A pump in the engine room had broken and we were stranded, literally, on this remote tropical island. Luckily the villagers had an open air, local timber construction lodge that managed to fit us all in overnight. It was really quite cool sleeping in the cabin, under a mozzie net with the open windows (no glass) letting in the sounds of the sea lapping at the shore. I had a cold midnight shower here which was just right – it was hot.
I suppose I will get to the actual diving now. I did 29 dives in 9 days. The average depth being 23 metres, the average water temperature being 28 degrees. I only needed boardies and a rashshirt to dive in, no westuits here.
We dove on reef walls that drop away on the sides to the blurry deep, coral gardens filled with thousands of fish of hundreds of species, and monstrous arrangements of corals. We dived through caverns, lava sinkholes, in strong currents, at night, at dusk, in the morning, on WWII dumping grounds, sunken ships and even a sunken sea plane.
The most unique & amazing dives were about 30km away from Kavachi Volcano, an active volcano (underwater) that periodically forms an island that gets eroded into the sea again. Being under water when an underwater volcano is erupting nearby is something else. The water is filled with the sound of loud constant rumbling, interrupted by periodic booms that were defeating, and rattled your chest cavity. You could feel the water shake around you. Sometimes the booms would continue for up to 30 seconds. During these times my Dad & I would look at each other with worry, no doubt thinking that the next boom would be “the one” that triggers a tsunami that would be the end of us. We made sure to avoid overhanging rocks near this volcano.
In terms of awe and beauty, “The Cathedral” and other such caves and cavern complexes in Marovo Lagoon were incredible. The Cathedral is a large cavern cut by erosion into the side of an island, through a reef. After swimming through about 50m of caves, you are rewarded by an openwater section where the light streams down from above at an angle, illuminating a central spot, as if it were a heavenly signal. Attached to The Cathedral is a network of caves & open water areas just like this that seem to go on forever. The light in these places was purely magical. These were probably my favourite dives.
Another favourite was “Cuda Point,” off uninhabited Mary Island. A strong current sweeps around this point, making it a great spot to attach yourself to the reef by a hook & just watch what goes on at 30m. Big fish like to hang out in places like these, and I saw a huge school of Barracuda here, as well as a few white tip reef sharks. Some other divers saw a magestic Manta Ray. I only saw it for a split second from on deck the boat, as it leaped of the water – an apparently very rare sight indeed. Nearby I also spotted a giant Hawksbill Turtle, floating peavefully around me.
Other highlight dives were the wreckage from World War Two. The Solomon Islands was a key battleground in WWII, being occupied by both USA & The Empire of Japan, and was the site of many of the pacific theatre’s fiercest battles. We dove on a sunken WWII Japanese seaplane that was absolutely huge, a sight to behold, at around 30m deep. We also saw a few sunken supply ships and an old wharf where excess war materials were dumped, creating a weirdly beautiful underwater habitat for the creatures that lived there.
So, the diving was great. Best I’ve ever done, not that I have done much. But do you know what was greater? The people we saw and met and the places we passed through. Every morning we would awaken to a new tropical paradise with little if any signs of civilisation. Every evening the sky would glow orange & red over the horizon & illuminate the dense jungles around us.
In these places, the local villager would paddle out to our ship in their handmade dugout canoes. Sometimes there would be a family of 5, sometimes a boy as young as 5 by himself. They never wanted anything but to say hello. Sometimes they would sell us the delicious fish they had bought. They were always smiling & would always wave back.
I think at the end of the day, my favourite part of the trip was seeing how happy these people were, and seeing up close the simple lives they lead. I’m not saying that they live perfect lives free from negativity; just that we don’t, we really don’t, need what we have in order to be happy. And I got to experience all this with my Dad. That was great too.
The end of the trip came far too soon, with a long overnight open ocean trip back to Honiara, the capital of the Solomons. As we approached, I could smell the classic South Pacific smell of burning Coconut husks as a giant blood red moon rose over the horizon, like a scene from a Miyazaki film.
Honiara itself is hot, dusty, bustling, broken, underdeveloped and interesting. It is definitely not a tourist destination, which is why I like it. The people smile and say good morning as you pass though, so I quite liked it. In fact, I’m looking forward to returning to Honiara, Marovo Lagoon, The Florida Island, The Russell Islands. It’s a beautiful country.