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  • 2001-04 Secret Gardens
    by Chris Newbert

    My first awareness of the Solomon Islands came when I was very young, from watching World War II movies on television. Bad actors in heroic roles fought bravely for victory on Guadalcanal. I had the vaguest comprehension back then of what the war was about, and it would be years before I realized Guadalcanal was an island within the Solomon Islands, rather than some kind of waterway, as in the Panama Canal or Suez Canal.


    The Solomon Islands remained this distant, black and white memory until well past my college years, after I began taking underwater photographs for a living. I encountered some images from the Solomon Islands, taken by legendary underwater photographer Douglas Faulkner, and a new kind of interest in this remote place germinated.

    But still some time would pass before, some 12 years ago, I received and accepted an invitation to inspect a boat about to commence live-aboard dive operations in the Solomons, based out of Guadalcanal. When the plane landed, it was apparent to me that not all that much had changed in the four and a half decades since the war. The airfield and tower were the very ones built by U.S. Marines. During our ride to the boat, we crossed a bridge constructed to carry tanks and jeeps and fighting men across a river separating hostile forces. I would soon meet wizened islanders with snow white hair who served as crucially important coast watchers during the war, reporting the movements of Japanese ships and aircraft to the American forces. They never tired of retelling stories of their exploits, and the villagers seemed never to tire of listening to them. To this day, the jungles hold the tangled remains of downed warplanes, and the shoreline is littered with rusting hulks of half-submerged warships. Surrounded as they are by these decaying artifacts and vivid memories, for the Solomon Islanders, World War II is still part of their daily lives.

    If variety is the spice of life, the reefs of the Solomons provide a piquant banquet of selections for the diver and photographer. Plunging walls are washed with warm, clear water and veneered with rainbows of soft corals. Giant, spreading seafans, shallow water hard coral gardens feature not dozens, but hundreds of species of coral unacquainted with boat anchors. Submerged open ocean reefs are circled by pelagic hunters, labyrinthine tunnels, mammoth caves and critter engorged muck dives.

    Our cameras have recorded Killer Whales, Sperm Whales, Pilot Whales, sharks, Manta Rays, Eagle Rays and stingrays. Shimmering vortexes of barracuda have engulfed us, while schools of jacks formed dense canopies overhead. Fields of seafans exceeding 10 to 15 feet each are easily found, while 400-pound tridacna open their colorful mantles to the sun. A number of lucky—certainly surprised—photographers have returned with stunning images of Saltwater Crocodiles.

    For those with an eye for smaller treasures, the Solomons will provide a rich bounty. We have personally photographed over 130 different species of nudibranch and flatworms, many yet undescribed to science. There are some dozen species of anemone fish found here, among the more than 2,000 species of fish inhabiting these waters. Blue-ringed Octopus and Mimic Octopus reward the patient observer, while cuttlefish seem to appear, then disappear in the blink of an eye. Many types of ghost pipefish, including Harlequin Ghost Pipefish and the extremely rare Irish Setter Ghost Pipefish, hide among the crinoids and wire corals carpeting the reefs. Scorpionfish, Leaf Scorpionfish, stonefish and frogfish nestle motionless among the corals, rocks and sponges, waiting patiently for unsuspecting prey. Brilliantly hued Dragonets, including Mandarinfish, hop about the bottom or within the coral thicket by day and at dusk, emerge into the open to engage in their energetic courtship rituals. Macabre Caledonian Stingers drag themselves along sandy bottoms on webless fin spines that act like feet and look like chicken claws. Lionfish spread their ornate plumage as they swim in seemingly slow motion, sometimes forming schools of nine or 10. Emerging cautiously from their subterranean, carefully constructed dens, Mantis Shrimp scan the surrounding reef for danger with their bulging insect-like eyes perched on the ends of movable stalks. Gobies of many descriptions stand at attention in front of their burrows, while nearly blind shrimp busy themselves with the thankless task of excavating the sand.

    Indeed, describing the diving and marine life wonders of the Solomons becomes an exercise in futility, for the sum is greater than the parts, and the parts are nearly unlimited.

    Special thanks to the Bilikiki.
    For more information on the Solomon Islands, visit www.skin-diver.com.