War and Peace - Solomon Islands
They stand as a poignant legacy of the Solomon Islands wartime role, but the numerous military wrecks are also alive with fascinating marine life, as John Bantin discovers Divernet

The Solomon Islands - and particularly Guadalcanal - were the stage on which the turning-point of the Pacific War was enacted. Lying north of Australia and east of the other great landmass that includes Papua New Guinea, the islands saw some of World War Twos fiercest fighting.
The Imperial Japanese war machine had swept round the Pacific rim and was threatening the security of Australasia itself. It was here that the Americans and her allies determined to turn the tide of the war.
The conflict, which later became known as the Battle of Guadalcanal, mainly revolved around the Tokyo Express - nightly high-speed convoys of ships attempting to supply the beleaguered Japanese occupiers. So many ships were sunk that the channel between Guadalcanal and the northern islands is now called Ironbottom Sound.
At one time, more than 17,000 US marines faced 12,000 Japanese troops on the very small island of Guadalcanal, separated only by impenetrable jungle. It became a battle for air superiority. Today you can still see the remains of some of the planes - Zeros and Dauntlesses, Wildcats and B17s - lying in the undergrowth or on the seabed.

In late 1942, the idyllic beaches became scenes of carnage as the Japanese attempted to unload supplies from beached vessels, and the bombed wreckage of some of these ships is still in evidence and shallow enough, unlike most of those in Ironbottom Sound, to give access to the leisure diver.
Many of the tourists who come to the Solomons are looking for the remains of planes they flew or want to pay their respects to those who lost their lives here.
Today, the hotels of the capital Honiara are as modest as the war memorials are extravagant, but there is a technical diving centre with both nitrox and tri-mix available.
Shore dives include some of the easy-to-dive Japanese wrecks of ships and notably an American B17 bomber called Bessie Jap Smasher. Experienced divers can also arrange dives on some more difficult-to-visit wrecks like the USS John Penn.
These wrecks are not just for fans of war memorabilia. After more than 50 years they have become incredibly well-occupied artificial reefs. Diving one of these wrecks is just as exciting for those whose interests lie only in fauna.
The whole gamut of Pacific marine life can be encountered, especially on wrecks such as the Hirokawa Maru and Kinugawa Maru (known locally as Bonegi 1 and Bonegi 2), and the Kyushu Maru and Azumazan Maru (the Ruanui wrecks).

Munda and under
The Solomons are more than just Guadalcanal. In the Western Province, including the islands of New Georgia, you will find Munda. The island can be reached by small plane, landing literally in the garden of the Agnes Lodge Hotel. You can then go by boat to tropical reef walls at places like Mushroom Island and Aussie Point, as well as the inevitable war wreckage that includes Mundas own submerged Douglas Dauntless.
Dave Cooke from Lincolnshire, the local dive operator, can also take suitable candidates for an exciting cave dive. It has a vertical descent that starts in the middle of an island and works its way out on to the reef wall.
Besides the diving, dont miss a walk in the jungle with a local who will explain the peculiar uses of each and every plant. Its also worth catching a traditional headhunters dance, performed these days by exuberant little boys in war-paint and feathers.
Memories of John F Kennedys sojourn during the war have been made into a tourist attraction, albeit on a very modest scale. You can visit the island that was his patrol-boat base, and the resident owner will show you around what little of it remains.

Going Gizo
Gizo is so small that the tiny inter-island aircraft has to land on another island nearby.
In common with the other Solomon Islanders, the children here are remarkable for their blond hair, apparently the result of some dietary deficiency rather than any American legacy. Many of this islands residents are resettled from the Gilbert Islands, so they have traditions and cultures that are different from those youll encounter on the other islands.
Grand Central Station is probably the most famous dive site near Gizo. Its a wall dive subject to a strong current that brings in prolific pelagic life, including marauding requiem sharks, to interact with the reefs other inhabitants.
Again, JFKs stay here is made notable, this time by nearby Plum Pudding Island. He swam to it after his patrol boat PT109 was sunk in collision with a Japanese destroyer. Its now called Kennedy Island, but theres nothing much there except sand and a few tropical trees.
Then, of course, there is One Tree Island, so named because it has one tree! This marks another beautiful coral reef that burgeons with life.
Gizo is not short of war wrecks either. The Japanese had their bases for attacks on nearby Guadalcanal here, and there are the remains of Wild Cats and Zero fighters, what looks like a flying boat, and most notably the Toa Maru 2. This wreck is on a par with anything you could find elsewhere.
The Toa Maru 2 is a Japanese freighter that was loaded with war supplies. While it was making its way towards a supply depot for the Tokyo Express, it was spotted by American spies and subjected to a massive yet almost ineffectual bombing attack by 12 Dauntless dive-bombers escorted by Wildcat fighters from Guadalcanal.
This attack only managed to hole her above the waterline and set her alight. Meanwhile, several American aircraft were downed by Japanese Zero fighters.
The Toa Maru 2 was finally abandoned and drifted for three days before running aground and slipping back down into around 40m of water.

It now lies on its starboard side, partly submerged, with the lower part of its cargo of bombs and armaments unaffected by the fire. Divers can still discover Japanese rice bowls, oil lamps, medicines, small arms ammunition, and even a small military tank and a motorcycle and sidecar among the debris.
Diving is operated by the Gizo Hotel.

Splendid seclusion

Finally, it would be remiss not to mention Eupi Island, at the edge of Marovo Lagoon. The Eupi Island Resort was built by an Australian consortium for those who really want to get away from it all.
Here youll find a well-tended 100-hectare tropical garden set on the raised coral of the lagoons barrier reef. Its secluded bungalows have their own section of private beach and the jungle has been so sanitised that the only possible danger is being struck by a falling coconut while sunbathing.
Coconut crabs are numbered among the ongoing jungle cabaret and islanders come in on canoes to sell their traditional wood-carvings.
The island is ideal for a romantic interlude, but dont worry if things dont work out on that front. It also has a dive centre and is surrounded by 2000m-deep tropical walls on the ocean side!

The war wrecks, including aeroplanes, are little visited and can be seen alongside spectacular Pacific pelagic marine life. The island culture is largely intact. There is a small island way of life, yet with technical diving facilities.

A long way from the UK, with an 11-hour time difference to GMT. The tropical climate can be uncomfortable and brings the inevitable insects and poisonous creatures. A third of the population suffers from a virulent strain of malaria.

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GETTING THERE: BA or Virgin to LA, Air New Zealand or Air Pacific to Nadi, Solomon Airways to Guadalcanal and beyond.
DIVING DETAILS : Island Dive Services, Honiara; Solomon Sea Divers, Munda; Gizo Hotel, Gizo. Liveaboards include mv Biliki, Solomon Sea, Spirit of Solomons. Regal Diving 01353 778096. The nearest recompression chamber is at Cairns, Australia.
ACCOMMODATION: Refer to travel agent.
LANGUAGE: English and Pidgin.
MONEY: Solomon Dollars.
FOR NON-DIVERS: Rainforest and its wildlife, local culture and wood carvings, war memorials and memorabilia.
HAZARDS: Tropical sunshine and normal marine hazards. Endemic malaria - consult your doctor before you go.
COST: A 19-day itinerary, including diving and accommodation at four locations, costs from£2899.
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