Gizo is a sleepy little town of about 1200 inhabitants on the western side of the Solomon Islands archipegalo. I thought I was heading to some kind of a tourist resort when I flew here from Brisbane, Australia, but was quickly educated otherwise after arrival. The flight from Brisbane to Honiaria by jet took about 3 hours. After Honiaria we changed to a small propeller powered plane with about 19 passengers and flew for about 1 hour towards the island of Gizo. On arriving at a desolate looking runway near Gizo we had to board a small open boat with outboard motor and boat over for about 15 minutes to the town of Gizo. Talk about an off the beaten path place!
This place is like a step back in time. It doesn't have a throbbing nightlife or door to door souvenir stands to offer but it is extremely laid back and relaxing to be here. The few stores that front the main gravel street of the town open in the morning at anywhere from 8:00 to 8:30 and close promptly at 16:30. There's no grocery store here but there is a busy public market where fresh fruit and vegetable produce and fish are sold by the locals. Fish are brought to market in the outboard motored canoes that they were caught from. The people here are Melanese but most speak very good Engish. The young children here paddle to school in canoes from neighboring islands.
I arranged for diving here at Gizo with Danny and Kerrie Kennedy of Adventure Sports Gizo. They run one of two dive operations here on Gizo Island and they seem to be the best organized. They have been here for about 14 years and know the local waters here well. They have a friendly, helpfull and very capable staff of locals to assist them in their operation. I made a walk-in deal with them for 6 days of diving including equipment and dive computer rental for the equivalent of $500 Australian (about the same as $-CDN) and it's been well worth it. Lunches were extra but these were basic and inexpensive at about $4 Australian a day yet still very tastefull and sustaining. Lunches were usually taken on a remote uninhabitted beaches of light brown corral sand surrounded by tourquoise blue waters and overhanging palm trees. Lunch breaks usually included some snorkelling over beautiful corral formations in shallow waters if one was willing to swim. Some in our boatload of divers just found a nice shady spot to relax. We did two dives a day generally with a very relaxed pace and also had a couple of quick drop in dives to shallow world war two airplane wrecks that seem to litter these waters.
The Solomon Islands saw heavy action during world war two and there are reminders of it everywhere here. One of the older buildings downtown still has the bullet holes in its walls from a strafing run of one of the fighter planes during the intense battles here. It was among these islands that elderly Japanese soldiers were found still guarding their remote posts several years after the war was over.
The seas are so warm here that its comfortable to dive in only a swim suit. I wore a lycra body suit for protection from sun and corral or jellyfish stings but others diving with my group just wore swimsuits and a light t-shirt. It was great to swim with such freedom from bulk and drag as we have in cold water. The visibility was generally quite good with a range of about 15m on the worst dive to over 50m on the clearest dive (deepest). On average the visibility was usually about 25m or more in the shallows.
One of the highlights of the diving experiences here was diving on the wreck of the Toa Maru. This was a Japanese supply ship during the second world war that was sunk by allied actions near Gizo Island. The ship lies on her starboard side with bow in shallow water and stern in deeper waters. She was sunk while carrying a full load of cargo to the Japanese positions during the war here and some of that cargo is still recognizable. This included among other things crates of live anti-aircraft shells, an armoured tank, a handfull of truck and jeep vehicles, a motor cycle with a side car, sacks of cement and mounds of bottles apparently once full of Japanese saki and beer. The ship is in surprisingly good condition and is easy to swim over, arround or inside with limited penetrations. There is a great deal of corral growth on the outer exposed surfaces. There is a big dent near the port side bow where a heavy bomb or torpedo had breached the hull. It was a little spooky and sad to explore this wreck and think of all the intense destructive activity and waste of lives that was going on when the ship was last afloat.
While diving on the Toa Maru I was reminded of the artificial reef Canadian Navy destroyer Chaudiere up at Sechelt Inlet, BC. It lays in a similar position and depth but with bow in deeper water instead of stern. The Toa Maru has bow in about 7m of water and stern in about 37m.
Other war momento's seen while diving included an allied "Hellcat" fighter plane, a Japanese Zero fighter plane, and an allied Corsair fighter plane. The "Hellcat" was in about 10m of water and was in incredably good condition despite resting in sea water for over 50 years. It looked like the plane had made a very gentle landing and just settled on the bottom without damage. the aluminum fuselage is still intact and the windshield still there in the cockpit even though it's been encrusted over with slowly growing corrals. Apparently the pilot lived to swim away. The pilot of the Corsair was not so lucky. The broken fragments of his plane are found in about 28m of water and apparently his bones are still down there among the wreckage. When I saw this wreck I didn't see any bones thankfully but could tell that the original plane was larger and more powerful than the Hellcat. One piece of the Corsairs wing protrudes from the sandy bottom and displays a couple of heavy machine gun muzzles with what look like mufflers on their protruding ends. The Japanese Zero was seen in shallow waters a stones toss from the public market in Gizo town. This wreck lies in about 3m of water and is subject to murky silty water conditions and busy boat traffic immediately above it. I only snorkelled down to it quickly but could almost sense the fanatic zeal of an Imperial Kamicazee fighter pilot making his final suicide run at his target. This Zero never hit his target though as it sits relatively undamaged in the shallow waters being slowly covered over with accumulated years of fine silt.
Sea life was seen to be prolific on most dives. A couple of dives took us to areas where the fish were so plentiful that it was hard to see the corral at times due to the thickness of the fish schools. I noticed that the fish species were very similar to those I've seen at my other dive experiences in this hemisphere (along the same latitude). There seemed to be more manta rays, sharks and barracuda seen here but less eels and turtles. The busy plethora of colourful small fish was stunning at times.
We did one deep dive excursion to over 50m in search of some large pelagics but were treated only to a couple of smaller sharks and a small manta ray. The visibility at this extreme depth opened up to over 50m. I reached 52m and was initially content to have got to there with no signs of Nitrogen Narcosis. This feeling of contentment was quickly replaced by a wave of intense anxiety and I knew I was well dosed with Narcosis. I quickly acsended 10m to about 42m depth and was okay again. The water was so clear that our dive group was spread out below me like a handful of miniatures floating in air. The small sharks we saw at depth looked less than 2m long and were difficult to size due to the great clarity of the water. No diver was willing to swim over close to get a reference dimension and it was hard to judge distance in the clear water.
We saw our largest shark, a 2.5m long bronze whaler, on an incredible drift dive where we floated at a depth of about 20m along the edge of a corral infested reef wall. The corrals were stunning in their colours and variety. The fish life was also prolific along that drift with schools of various species swirling along with the current. It seems that even in the tropics the best dives are in the current swept areas.
We came across a sea turtle during our drift that was sitting restfully on a little outcrop from the wall. It was almost as if it were taking a nap when we approached it. It perked its head up slowly, seemed to blink a couple of times and then swam off slowly to deeper waters. When we first approached it there was a yellow coloured sucker fish resting on the top of the turtles shell. When the turtle swam away the suckerfish resumed its position beneath the turtle for a free ride to the next meal place.
I could write on and on about the beauty of the sea life seen here or the mystery and sadness of the second world war wrecks. I would not hesitate to recommend for others to come here and see for themselves. Gizo, Solomon Islands, has been a great place to get away from the world for a week. I feel I could stay much longer. If I only had my sea kayak here I would dream of drifting off to one of these small unihabited islands for an indefinite period of time as long as I wasn't too far away from the scuba diving air fill station!!
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