Trip Report – Munda – Solomon Islands – September 2016

Munda, Solomon Islands – 23rd to 30th September 2016   

Based in the village of Munda, nestled on the premises of the beautiful and tranquil Agnes Gateway Hotel, on the southern coast of New Georgia Island in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands, an area renowned for its peaceful beauty and friendly people as well as its amazing reefs and incredible biodiversity. Munda boasts an airstrip with daily connections, stunning, serene and romantic scenery, amazing WWII history, a vibrant local culture and of course, world class diving!

The diving in Munda is very special and magical – possibly some of the best sites in the world.  Spectacular walls drop off to over 600 meters. Grey, Blacktip and Whitetip Reef sharks routinely patrol, as do Hammerheads. Eagle rays, Dogtooth Tuna, Barracuda and other pelagics are also common. Encounters with any of the species of big sharks and rays are always exciting, and divers who prefer macro subjects will be enthralled by the smaller critters such as Pygmy Seahorses, varieties of Anemone fish, Spiny Lobsters and Fiery Dartfish.

 

Discovering ‘Sol-Time’ – Diving Munda, Solomon Islands – September 2016

Day 1

Began with the dawn, meeting at the Brisbane international at 5:55am for check-in. Fridays are very busy, so we were a bit late departing, but a good flight had us in Honiara on time. Our Honiara – Munda flight was somewhat delayed, so we became quite familiar with the Honiara Domestic terminal. A smooth flight dodging around a tropical storm landed us in Munda less than an hour later.

Walking a short distance to Agnes Gateway Lodge, we settled into the rooms and a sundowner as we got to know each other a bit better. A big group due to leave the next day serenaded up with Karaoke for quite some time, but we headed off to count sheep after a long day of transit.

Day 2

As our divers are fairly used to waking and diving early, we seemed to surprise the SIDE team this morning by being ready to kit up earlier than the meet time! We will have to slow down a bit to get used to ‘Solomon Island Time’. Malla, our snorkeller/non-diver began exploring Munda today, with a local day trip to Vona Vona Lagoon and Skull Island along with the local war museum with Barney, who has been collecting relics and artefacts for years.

The diver team joining divers Bryan & Andrew, skippers Tasker & Gardi. To head off to their first site, a drift from Pata-GogoA good spot for a checkout dive, as most of us needed to acclimatise from 7mm winter wetsuits in Brisbane, to little or no wetsuit here in 30degree water!! Masses of hard stony boulder coral on a sloping wall with clear 25m plus visibility. Easy dive with no current, spotted an eagle ray and a shark or two. Incredibly relaxing! Surface interval on a nearby island had us indulging on local awesome bananas, pink grapefruit and yummy coconut Tasker broke open for us. Dive 2 at Haipei Reefwas brilliant, with flourishing corals all the way down the wall, 30plus visibility, and loads of fish in the shallows. More Reef sharks again, cruising along the drop off, past lovely gorgonian fans. Returning to shore, the SIDE team sent us off to lunch while prepping the boats for us to dive again in the afternoon.  Chilling by the sea, beautiful views, not to hard to deal with.

Tank on the BarAt some stage many years ago, it seems as though a rather large vessel, has dumped 2 tanks over the side of the vessel in the hope of lightening it up to cross safely. Hoping to see these tanks and perhaps discover anything more not yet seen, we descended through at first green surface, to have the visibility open up at about 20m. Cruising along the bar, we could see HUGE gorgonian fans and elephant ear sponges  below us at about 35m, with loads of snapper darting around. The current started to increase, and while approaching the first tank at 30m, it became quite strong – completely unexpected – no current at all for the first 20m of depth! We had a circuit of the first tank, discovered more massive fans, schools of barracuda and huge volcano sponges!!.We started to move off to the second tank in shallower depths, but found a combination of low RBT and a surprise ‘downwelling’ was a good reason to call off the dive a bit earlier than expected.  We slowly ascended and to the merriment of all except Brett, tried to tell him that a small golden trevally had taken refuge in his shadow, following him to the surface. Luckily we had photographic evidence, and he finally did see they little guy, after being certain we were poking fun at him and pointing at random nothingness behind him! Back to base and it looks like all of us have become quite sun-kissed even on the first day.  Sunscreen has been passed around, but we set off in search of more just in case at the local stores in ‘Downtown Munda’.

The locals have no need for sunscreen however so we did return empty-handed, but laden with nibbles and water. Dinner (big portions – even the starters are big!) over (the fish is excellent!) We were roped into games of UNO but our youngest divers Jess and Kym, who the proceeded to…. Not Win. Load to laughter and off to bed. Bring on Day 3!!

Day 3

Bright and not so early, we met the crew at 8am ready and rearing to go with the full complement of divers and our snorkeller. Dive 1 took us to Shark Point, a steep drop off, with the chance to catch sight of many pelagics, sharks and a very popular spot for nesting triggerfish. The peach-face version were still a bit protective, nipping at both Andrew and Di’s fins! While we were diving Malla and her snorkeller guide discovered the joys and colours in the shallows, with the masses of smaller fishlife.

Heading back to Kulu kulu Island for our surface interval, with a break in the shade, although most of us spent most of it frolicking in the shallows! We left Malla and Grenier at the isle to snorkel at the reef, and for our next 2 short dives visited the ‘Dauntless Bomber’– watch the heart warming story of the pilot who was shot down in this bomber, whom 70 years later, on the anniversary of its crash, dived down to visit it. Amazing stuff. This bomber sits in 12m and has a friendly family of lionfish at the prop, which are great to photobomb! The second aircraft is the Airacobra, sitting in 27 clear metres of water on a sandy floor. Only recently discovered, it still holds all the gunner ammunition ready to fire. Many other wrecks have had this ‘salvaged’ in the past. Shipwrecks on the seafloor are one thing – ships are part of the sea. But seeing an aircraft underwater with sealife on it is – yes beautiful – but can be very confronting.

Heading back to Kulu Kulu Island, we picked up Malla & Grenier, who were still having a great time exploring when we arrived. Home for lunch, and a few divers took the afternoon opportunity to discover the other side of Shark Point – Eagles Nest. Something to see at all depths, with sharks deeper, awesome gorgonian fans catching food in the current, and a fantastic sight of watching mass spawning of surgeonfish in the shallows. Winder long dive in the afternoon sunlight. Sundowners watching the local picaninnies throw themselves off the jetty, dinner (big meals making us quite sleepy!), and we put our tired bodies to bed, looking forward to some more war history tomorrow!

Interesting sidenote.

Everyone is sporting some red/pink faces & leg patches.

It is 11pm – temperature is 31degrees and feeling quite comfortable… Could we be acclimatising?

Day 4

At the dive shop ready to go again early, enjoying tea, coffee and muffins. Today is the day Malla will be trying scuba in the ocean for the first time, as Discover Scuba Diving. Quite possibly she is now spoilt forever, after descending through the top freshwater layer, and completing her small skills set, we finned over to the wreck of the Kashi-Maru – which was bombed from the air while unloading trucks and parts in WWII. Situated right next to shore, parts of her still protrude from the water, while underneath, soft & hard corals encrust her stern & bow, while parts * ammunition still lie in her now blown open hold. We introduced Malla to Nemo (well, actually a tomato/spine-cheek anemonefish), found rabbit & soldierfish and loads of damselfish.

After a quick surface interval with watermelon, coconut and those wonderful bananas, we headed off to look at the massive gun emplacements still in place in Kula Gulf Lagoon. 5 of these guns pointed to the cove entrance – of which 4 are still here today. We checked out two and got the goose-pimples of the past thinking of the 4-5 man team that would have loaded, primed, aimed, fired and reloaded these monsters. 

After heading off we pulled up at the Wildcat – which Tasker helped actually remove the body of the pilot still inside when it was found. No small feat considering it is upside down! Clearwater and this wildcat just sitting where she crashed, surrounded by the most amazing coral I’ve ever seen. As we left the plane wreck , we continued along the ‘Alice in Wonderland’Reef, which was simply amazing. This dive is not about the fish – not many at 28m, but lots of smaller ones at 7-10m). Simply huge, pristine plate corals, 3-4 metres across, healthy staghorn coral everywhere, and massive pale green Elephant ear sponges in-between. A truly spectacular dive. A cruisey afternoon of rest until the night dive later on – a few of the team wandered up the local ‘highway’ to famous ‘Barney’s Museum’.

Barney found his first item in 2002, and peaking his interest, slowly started to collect any and all war memorabilia/artefacts from the islands. He is the ‘go-to’ man that locals will contact when any item (or even human remainS!) are found, will determine their origin. If an artefact, and can be moved, it will make it’s way to his museum. If it happens to be a body, Barney assists to identity the nationality and contact the correct authorities who will then organise to collect and ‘bring them home/give them peace).Barney is a wealth of knowledge, with a story for every item in his museum. Wandering back with our minds full of the remembrances of war, we caught the afternoon downpour, and retuned to base quite soggy.

Day 5

A little slower to get started today, as most of us got a really good sleep in last night after the afternoon rained cooled everything off. A longer boat ride today to get out to Aussie Point another amazing drop off packed with gorgonians, clear water and some sharks and an EagleRay swinging by to visit. Right on the point itself the rains deposited  some fresh water run off from the volcanic rocks which proves rather painful to Di’s eyes – but cleared up with a freshwater rinse. Apparently it also creates a slight stinging sensation on bare skin to some sensitive people also.

A great surface interval on a small mangrove point, with another fresh coconut provided by Tasker, and some cool ‘missiles’ created from giant pandanus palm leaves. Then off to the Cave of the Kastom Shark’ for Andrew, Brett, Pete, Di & SIDE Andrew. Only a few metres from shore, the freshwater grotto allowed all of us to squueze in before descending one by one down the fissure in the volcanic rock. Andrew, following the guideline, led us to the first chamber, through the squeeze and to the cathedral, of which outside waited Bill, Jessica, Kim, Peter & Brian, awaiting our arrival. Great timing and lots of good footage as we passed through the entrance/exit. We then drifted along Langaranga Wall, inspecting all the gorgonians for any pygmy seahorses. 

Malla & Greneier had a great time snorkelling while we were busy below. Back to base for an excellent lunch of chilli ginger fish, and a few of us lit out for an exploration in a tidal channel where MantaRays had reportedly been seen. Throwing ourselves overboard, Di managed to gain the first injury of the trip, impaling on a metal canopy clip, but kept on diving, hoping the bleeding wouldn’t be excessive. The channel has an interesting type of visibility – clear water, but with organic matter suspended – so if you looked at the matter the viz looked to be only 5m, but if you looked past, was about 10-15m. One of our first visitors was a nice reef whaler, rather inquisitive.  After this we spotted loads of bright blue Elephant ear sponge – oddly this is not something expected in this area.Also lots of encrusting coral growing into a vase shape – also called ‘lettuce coral’ in some places.

After spotting 2 rather large and tough-boy crayfish (one wanted a fight with Di’s videocamera) we were approached by a school (maybe 30) of Big barracuda. Who were REALLY curious, and didn’t leave us for about 10minutes. Di was in her element, filming these guys as they rushed in, rushed passed, spooked out y bubbles, and eyeballed us in general. After the dive Tasker had spotted a Mantaray on the surface so we raced over and tried to slip into the water close by. After a few failed attempts, Brett managed to launch into the water right at the correct time and spot a massive Oceanic Mantaray, which barrel-rolled and headed away from Brett-the weird looking fish. As a new dive site, it has now been christened,‘Pregnant Elephant’– which has a story behind it – but will stay with those on the trip.

At the end of the day Tasker dropped us in to check out the Japanese ‘Nell Bomber‘ in only 5m of water it is affected by low visibility, but is a very interesting, and large twin engine aircraft.  An awesome night, ending with dinner, chinwagging with Andrew, Tasker and the Agnes Lodge manager. Epic Day. Perfect Day.

Day 6 – Last day diving.

Some starters were a little late to kick off today,.. Malla headed to Gizo for the day to check out the country’s capital. Our divers mosey’d up to the shop, indulging in our last muffin and coffee, before the groups split for the dives. Andrew, Andrew and Di to meet ‘The Corsair’ – an amazingly intact aircraft lying in 54m of water. A very quick dive, without any decompression owing, had us having a great look at this craft, having been on the seafloor for 3/4 century. After this short interlude, we cruised off to Bigo Bigo’ – “So good we named it twice!”, Where the other divers were already in the water for their first dive today. We slipped into the shallows to cruise around the amazing array of corals – branching, encrusting, staghorn, plate & boulder filling your eyes wherever we looked. Clear water, bright sunlight,… So good that everyone ignored the food on the surface interval and went snorkelling instead!!

Moving further to the North we fell in at ‘Marlons Crack‘, and slid along another drop-off into the blue depths, complete with Sharks, Mackerel, curious Barracuda and 2 very interested eagle rays coming in for a gander at us. Anemonefish and their hosts simply everywhere, and everyone using their air so well we all nailed 60minute dives. After another filling lunch we eft a few diver behind to rest and ventured off to ‘Barrys Breakfast’– so named as poor gent by the name of Barry lost the contents of his stomach here at some time in the past.

While this site had the lowest visibility seen on any of our dives (about 15m, although after having 40+m all week it felt like 5!!), the fishlife was the highest. Triggerfish, Barracuda, Schools of fusilier, anemonefish everywhere, a forest of sea-whips with their gobies, Our divers cruised against a slight current and enjoyed different bottom times from 35-60minutes.Relaxing for the afternoon and another lovely dinner, we trundled off to bed, looking to tomorrows itinerary.

Day 7

No diving today to off-gas before tomorrows flights, so Belinda from Dive Munda had organised for us to go to Hopei island for a relax with a more traditional Kastom Lunch. We snorkelled in the shallows, finding the ‘True’ Clownfish, loads of boulder corals, xmas tree worms, lionfish, pipefish, seastars and even 2 crown of thorns! Cruising back into shore, Esther from Agnes Lodge had cooked us up beautiful fish on the coals – so fresh they had been swimming that morning! Sweet potato, green bananas cooked in coconut cream(this was so good!) and fresh bush lime juice. Stuffed and replete, a few of us wandered off to look at the old buildings on the island (from a time in the past when Agnes Lodge had a private getaway here) and explore the shoreline. Such a beautiful location, with one of the worlds best ‘Loo with a view’ Ive ever seen.

After returning back to base we had a quick shower, gathering up the donations & goodies we bought for the local hospital.

Ahi & Brian organised a truck & we piled in, driving to the far end of the airstrip to the Hospital. We met the Chaplain, a one-armed figure of generosity & care who was happy to distribute the clothes fairly to the most needy. We met with Andrew the head nurse, whom Di had gathered a box for first-aid related supplies & oxygen mask etc, hoping they would be of use. After that it was kids time. Aged between 1 and about 12, the kiddies and their families we saw were pretty ill and lethargic in the afternoon heat. Very very shy until we learned that this was possibly the first time they had seen another skin colour than their own, as they probably came in from remote islands where they couldn’t get the needed care. A little lass in Standard 4 was sick with fever & dysentery, Di hopes when she is better the bundle of books, pens & pencils will help her at school. Malla found the brother of a very ill little lad was looking to play, and so spent most of the time rolling a ball with him. Such a cute little man! We all hoped that a visit from some crazy people and a few toys help them while away the time while they heal.

 

Although planning to have a bigger night to say farewell, we hung out with the Assistant manager of Agnes Lodge, enjoying a few cups of Kava, and toddled off to bed.

Day 8 – Farewell!

Our flight was actually bought forward today, so after stamping logbooks, getting signatures and lots of last goodbyes (and buying souvenirs), we wandered up to the Munda Airport, stopping off to get the last of our awesome ice-creams for this trip – seriously need to find out if these are bought into Australia – heavenly! Our Dash-8 arrived, with Malla & Di scoring a seat in first class (well – seat 1A & 1B anyway!) for the return to Honiara. Here we farewelled Andrew, who was staying in Honiara for a weeks diving at Tulagi Dive on the massive, and deep – Aaron Ward. Our stopover in Honiara was more comfortable this time, as after checking everything in, there is an Air-conditioned cafe/bar/souvenir shop right next to departures.

A slightly bumpy trip home, with a strong tailwind and we arrived slightly earlier than expected.

What a fantastic trip – I think everyone would definitely do it again – we look forward to upgrading to the new accommodation next time I think, or the bungalows next to the dive shop! Di, Malla & Bill are already making lists of things to take (for the hospital and perhaps also for the dive shop – some hammocks!) and I think Brett wants to go back with a tow-fish/sonar to help discover more wrecks! Whenever it may be, we will return!

Thanks again to all who came along:

Malla, Bill, Peter, Jess & Kim, Brett & Andy K

The Dive Munda & Agnes Lodge Teams:

Belinda, Ahi, Andrew, Brian, Tasker, Gardi, Grenier, Joe, Esther, Lorna 

And all the other crew I have forgotten to name – my apologies!

Big thanks also to Barney and his awesome museum!