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Time and tide bury the Solomons' treasure

Travel

I’m in a tiny dinghy in the middle of Gizo Lagoon, on the outskirts of the Pacific Ocean, with a guy who insists I get out.

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“Dive in,” says Panda.

What, here? We’re in a desert of ocean. Our home base, Fatboys Resort in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands, is back to the west. To the south the open sea beckons.

“Right here. Go.”

It’s a powerfully sunny day, and I’ve never seen such blue water. My guide Panda promises incredible snorkelling, but he’s staying here on the boat to fix the radio (we haven’t been in touch with Fatboys for about half an hour).

I ask him what’s here. “You’ll see,” he says. “Jump!”

If something happens, and he’s incapacitated for some reason, I’m alone. But I can’t put it off any longer. I pull my mask down and plunge into the deep.

Sunbeams highlight an amazing sight on the seabed about 10 metres below: a perfectly preserved United States Hellcat fighter shot down during World War II. I can even see the bullet holes in its tail.

A manta ray drifts by, uninterested in the relic. Millennials, right?

The Solomon Islands are home to an enormous variety of sunken ships and planes from the war. The Coral Sea hosted a naval showdown between the Allies and Japan. Many vessels were lost in the fierce fighting, which halted the Japanese advance in the Pacific.

The water off Honiara, the Solomon capital, is known as Iron Bottom Sound due to the sheer amount of downed craft on the seabed.

Back on land, Panda and I cool off with a drink at the Gizo Hotel. The Hellcat is still on my mind. How did it end up there? Did the pilot survive?

And how did Panda know where it was?

“When you grow up here, you do a lot of swimming,” he tells me. “Some of my friends found it when they were swimming years ago, but I think it’s been on the radar of the wreck hunters for longer than that.”

At Bonegi Beach in west Honiara, Japanese raider Kinugawa Maru still sits where she ran ashore in November 1942. You can swim out to her, but the rough waves and jagged, rusty metal make the raider as dangerous as it ever was. If you make it out, much of the inner workings of the ship are well-preserved.

Here in Gizo, best known for its colourful produce markets, several Japanese Zero fighter planes can be seen in the harbour at low tide. It’s a little eerie and I wonder about the stories behind these vessels and their ghosts.

It’s hard to imagine that war hit this laid-back, tropical place as hard as it did, but the footprints are still here to prove it.

I later learn that the Hellcat was downed by friendly fire, which takes some of the romanticism out of the find. The plane was shot down in 1943, and it’s been here ever since.

When the bombs were dropped on Japan, the plane was here. When John F Kennedy, who survived the destruction of his PT boat and saved the lives of his crew in these very waters during the war, had his head blown off in Dallas, the plane was here. When the Solomon Islands gained independence in 1978, the plane was still here.

It’s not just failed missions and wasted lives beneath the waves, either. The Solomons, and the Western Province in particular, are home to a motley crew of multi-coloured fish and other sea life. In the waters off Munda, a town on the island of New Georgia, it can be almost impossible to see some of the wrecks for all the sea life.

Beachfront bungalows at Fatboys Resort in Gizo, Solomon Islands. Photo: Michael Wayne / AAP

It’s a bright and stunning seascape; if a hue exists, there’s a fish to match. One heroic fish takes exception to my presence – or perhaps my fluoro-yellow mask – and lunges at me. He’s tiny and harmless, but I take the hint and head ashore. The sea has spoken.

The Solomons struggle to pitch themselves to the world as a tourist destination, but war tours are usually front and centre of the offering. And divers are not disappointed – the warplanes and ships were built to last.

But it’s sad that of all the amazing sights under the water, we’re most excited to see evidence of our own brutal past.

Are we even that interested in the natural world? Several species of sea life found in the Solomons are endangered, and may not last much longer, no matter how many old vessels they can hide in.

“I tell you, man,” says Panda, gesturing to a family strolling by the waterfront outside outside the pub. “People come here for the white, sandy beaches and all that, but it’s nothing compared to what’s going on downstairs.”

He’s right. A beach is just a gateway to a forgotten world, and each of the 993 Solomon Islands is a portal.

Getting there: The Solomon Islands are around three hours’ flight time from Brisbane, the only Australian capital from which Solomon Airlines departs. If you want to head to Munda or Gizo, the other major ports of call in the Solomons, flights leave from Honiara Airport at regular intervals.

Staying there: Fatboys Resort in Gizo features snorkelling and an overwater restaurant.

Playing there: Dive Gizo hires out equipment and runs dive tours in Gizo.

For more information on the Solomons, visit www.visitsolomons.com.sb

* The writer travelled as a guest of the Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau.

-AAP

 

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