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GIZO – DIVERS PARADISE

by Nigel Marsh

 

In the early hours of the morning on August 3 1943, a very dramatic incident occurred near the Solomon Island’s town of Gizo that would change the course of world history. The world was at war and an American PT boat was on patrol to observe Japanese shipping movements when it suddenly collided with a Japanese destroyer. The PT boat was cut in half; two of the crew were killed instantly, while the rest of the crew were thrown into the water. With the destroyer disappearing into the darkness the eleven survivors spent fifteen hours in the water, finally swimming to a nearby island, led by their commander, a man named John Kennedy, or more famously known as JFK.

 

Kennedy and his men were rescued after a week of avoiding Japanese patrols. After the war Kennedy entered politics and the rest of his life is well documented history. Today most tourists arriving in Gizo would know who JFK is, but few would know anything about his close call with death near the town. In fact, most tourist coming to Gizo are more interesting in meeting another Kennedy, Danny Kennedy and his wife Kerrie of Dive Gizo, as Gizo is one of the premier scuba diving locations in the Solomon Islands, with the area surrounded by wonderful coral reefs and numerous wrecks from World War II.

 

Gizo is the third largest town in the Solomon Islands and the provincial centre of the Western Province. The town maybe small, but it has a lot of character, and has changed little since Danny built up his pioneer dive operation in 1985. Danny was naturally drawn by the spectacular diving in the area, and so are many hundreds of other visiting divers each year.

 

Gizo’s number one dive site is the Toa Maru, a 136m long Japanese transport ship that lies on its starboard side in depths from 37m to 15m. It takes quite a few divers to see all this colourful shipwreck has to offer. The holds contain fuel drums, timber planks, bags of cement, ammunition, bottles of saki and even two miniature tanks. Divers can also see a motorbike strapped to the mast, trucks, anti-aircraft guns, the anchors and swim through the torpedo hole that sunk the ship. Inside the ship divers can follow a guide and tour the galley, engine room and endless passageways.

 

Danny has been diving and exploring the Toa Maru for so long that he has uncovered many fragile and unusual objects; like gasmasks, morphine ampoules, a Japanese newspaper, a trumpet and numerous small bottles and jars. The ships hull is heavily encrusted with corals and is populated with countless reef fish; including lionfish, coral trout, trevally and gropers.

 

While the wreck of a more recent Japanese fishing trawler is also regularly dived, Gizo also has a number of very unique World War II plane wrecks. In Gizo Harbour, in only 9m of water, are the remains of a Japanese Zero fighter plane. The plane maybe broken in two, but it is a fascinating dive and home to numerous lionfish. Also broken up nearby is a Corsair fighter plane. This plane was shot down and crashed into the sea, settling in 27m of water. In the cockpit area Danny has found gauges, instruments and the bones of the unfortunate pilot.

 

The most popular plane wreck is an American Hellcat fighter plane that was ditched by its pilot after being accidentally shot down by another American plane. The plane now rests in a lagoon in 10m and is completely intact. Divers can sit in the cockpit, read the gauges and the navigation charts and also inspect the machine guns and the engine. This plane is so popular with underwater photographers that it is one of the most photographed plane wrecks in the world.

 

Flying into Gizo you soon see why it is so popular with divers; dozens of palm tree studded islands lie scattered below you and each is surrounded by a fringing coral reef in clear blue water. Dive Gizo have an unlimited supply of coral reefs to explore and are still finding new hot spots all the time.

 

Plum Pudding Island, where JFK and his crew sheltered, is surrounded by lovely coral gardens, but its best site is a drop-off which plunges into 50m. This colourful wall is adorned with gorgonian fans, sea whips, volcano sponges and lovely soft corals. Hidden amongst the corals are hawkfish, pipefish, clown anemonefish, rock cods and beautiful sea slugs called nudibranchs. Off the wall cruise barracuda, trevally, rainbow runners, batfish and reef sharks.

 

At other reefs in the area divers will encounter a wonderful range of reef fish, stingrays, eagle rays, turtles, sea snakes and even manta rays at certain times of the year. My favourite dive site is called Grand Central Station, so named because it can be just as busy as the famous train station. Located on the corner of Njari Island, where the reef drops into deep water, this spot is at its best when a current is running. The wall itself is a tapestry of colour, covered in a new growth of colourful corals, but most divers are too busy watching all the fish to notice this. Swarming off the wall are schools of barracuda, fusiliers, mackerel, trevally, tuna, reef sharks, eagle rays and even dolphins at times. There are so many fish species found at this site that in 2002 Dr Gerry Allen recorded 279 fish species in one dive, making it one of the richest ecosystems on the planet. After the excitement of the wall divers can then explore the shallow coral gardens here and see giant clams, clownfish and some colourful sea cucumbers.

 

Between dives, or for the non-divers, Dive Gizo also operates a number of local tours. You can visit nearby Melanesian and Gilbertese villages to see a more traditional way of life and purchase carvings. There are also countless uninhabited islands to explore where you can snorkel, beach comb and bird watch or just pretend that you are Robinson Crusoe. There are relics from the war to be seen, and for those with energy to burn you can trek through rainforest to the rim of the dormant Kolombangara volcano. However, one of the most interesting tours is a visit to Skull Island, where a shrine, built of coral and the skulls of chiefs and warriors, can be seen, a remanent of the days of headhunting.

 

But the days of headhunting are long gone and today visitors to Gizo will find some of the friendliest people on earth above the water, and some of the friendliest fish on earth below the water.

 

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