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HONIARA, A WRECK DIVERS HEAVEN

text and photos by Nigel Marsh

 

Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, overlooks a picturesque body of water known as Ironbottom Sound. Located between Guadalcanal, Savo Island and Florida Island, this deep stretch of water was once called Savo Sound, but was renamed Ironbottom Sound after the massive loss of ships and planes in the area during World War II. While most of these ships and planes disappeared into deep water, enough sank at divable depths to make Honiara a wreck divers heaven.

 

Before the war Honiara didn’t exist, with the capital on nearby Tulagi. But when the Japanese invaded in May 1942 they bombed Tulagi and decided it was too small for their military needs. Instead they built an airfield and a base on Guadalcanal, in what is now downtown Honiara. This key military base would allow them to attack Australia and also invade New Caledonia and Fiji.

 

However, things didn’t go to plan for the Japanese, as Allied Forces, led by the USA, captured the airfield in a surprise attack on the 7 August 1942. The fighting around Guadalcanal continued for six months, before the Allied Forces finally prevailed. The battle for Guadalcanal was a key turning point of World War II, stopping the Japanese and forcing them to retreat. But it came at a heavy cost, with the loss of ships, planes and countless lives.

 

Today Honiara is a busy port town and a great place to start your travels and dive adventures in the Solomon Islands. I first visited Honiara in 1990, and it has changed a lot since then. My most recent visit was in October 2018, invited by Tourism Solomons to visit the island nation for a new tourism campaign. The week-long tour was to take in Gizo, Munda and Honiara.

 

Arriving in Honiara the biggest change I observed was the number of new hotels. Accommodation choices were a little limited in the 1990s, but not now. During my trip I stayed at three very nice hotels – the Coral Sea Resort, the Heritage Park Hotel and the Solomon Kitano Mendana Hotel. It was hard to choose a favourite as they are all on the waterfront, had comfortable and spacious air-conditioned rooms, great restaurants and excellent facilities.

 

Two days of diving had been arranged as part of the itinerary with Tulagi Dive. Located at the Point Cruz Yacht Club, Tulagi Dive is owned and operated by expat Aussie Troy Shelley. They offer dive courses and daily dives to the wrecks off Honiara and the reefs and wrecks off nearby Tulagi. They can also cater for tec divers that wish to explore the deeper wrecks in Ironbottom Sound and help to manage the recompression chamber in Honiara. One of the beauties of diving Honiara is the accessibility of the wrecks, as most can be dived from the shore.

 

With the Tulagi Dive truck loaded with dive gear, we headed 30 minutes west to our first dive site, the Hirokawa Maru, also known as Bonegi 1. Built in 1940, the Hirokawa Maru was a 155m long Japanese military transport ship carrying supplies to the Japanese troops on Guadalcanal. On the 15 November 1942, the ship was in a convoy when attacked by US planes and shore based artillery. Mortally wounded, the captain ran the ship aground so the supplies wouldn’t be lost. The ship now lies on its port side on a sandy slope in depths from 3m to 50m.

 

Pulling up under the trees next to a beautiful beach, we quickly geared up so we could jump into the inviting blue water. Following our guide we were soon over a colourful coral reef, but a closer look revealed that the corals were growing on a metal base, the former bow area of the ship. Once beyond 10m the ship started to take shape as we passed cargo holds, kingposts and other features. Reaching 40m we stopped our descent with the ship disappearing into the distance in the 20m visibility. Here we investigated another cargo hold before our slow return to the shallows.

 

The Hirokawa Maru is a wonderful wreck, but I think the standout feature are the spectacular corals that decorate the hull – lovely soft corals, gorgonians, whip corals, barrel sponges, black coral trees and sea whips. The shipwreck is also home to a good variety of reef fish and invertebrates.

 

Moving only a kilometre to the next beach, our second dive was on another Japanese military transport ship, the Kinugawa Maru or Bonegi 2. Attacked and sunk on the same day as the Hirokawa Maru, this 133m long ship now rests in depths from 2m to 26m. This ship is much more broken up, and the bow section is completely gone, but we still explored the holds, engine and prop area. Once more the corals were fabulous, and the fish life was great, with schools of snappers, fusiliers, sweetlips and batfish. We even saw two mobula rays circling the wreck.

 

The next day Tulagi Dive organised two more shore dives to sites I have always wanted to explore. The first site took around 90 minutes to reach, but it was well worth the bumpy ride as it is not everyday that you get to dive a Japanese submarine.

 

The 98m long Japanese I1 Submarine was built in 1924 and sunk on the 29 January 1943 by two New Zealand minesweepers, HMNZS Moa and Kiwi. The ships shelled and rammed the submarine, leaving it stranded on a reef. Unfortunately salvaged divers in the 1960s blew the submarine apart, and today it rests in depths from 10m to 30m.

 

It is a bit of a surface swim to reach the submarine, but a great reward. Although the submarine is broken apart and missing its conning tower, there is still plenty to see and you can swim through several intact sections of the hull. Inside the hull are pipes, air tanks and the engine. The stern section of the submarine is more intact, but the prop is missing. Home to reef fish and covered in corals, the Japanese I1 Submarine is a very unique dive site.

 

Halfway between the submarine and the Bonegi wrecks is another unique Honiara dive site, a B-17 Bomber. The Boeing B-17E Bomber or Flying Fortress had four engines, a nine man crew, a 31m wing span and a length of 23m. Capable of carrying a 2760kg payload and with a range over 5000km, the Flying Fortress was the most successful bomber used by the US military during the war.

 

The B-17 Bomber off Honiara was attacked by Japanese Zeros on 24 September 1942 while on a bombing mission to the Shortland Islands. The plane was too damaged to reach Honiara, and ditched near the shore. Unfortunately the crew were either killed in the crash or later killed by the Japanese.

 

This huge plane now rests in 10 to 19m on a silty slope and is an impressive dive. We spent almost an hour investigating every nook and cranny of the plane. While the tail section is missing and the nose section is broken apart, it was still wonderful to see the engines, the machine gun turret, the huge wings, the cockpit controls and to explore the fuselage. Decorated by corals and swarming with fish, this wonderful plane is also a potential muck site, with garden eels, sea slugs and other critters to be seen.

 

Other wrecks off Honiara include the Japanese transport ship Kyusya Maru, which is also dived from the shore, while accessible by boat are the Japanese freighter Azumason Maru, the USA Coast Guard liberty ship USS Serpens and the USA attack transport ship USS John Penn.

 

Honiara’s attractions are not limited to its wonderful wrecks, and while you can explore markets and villages it is the war history of the Solomon Islands that is the major attraction. Joining Travel Solomons we travel east and west of Honiara to explore battle sites, monuments and museums. The best were two open air museums, which are privately owned.

 

At the Tetera Beach World War II Museum we saw over a dozen Landing Vehicle Tracked (LVT) abandoned after the war. These amphibious landing craft were used to land troops and supplies. Even more impressive is the Vilu War Museum, where you can see and touch planes, cannons and other weapons of war either salvaged from the jungle or left behind by the troops. Collected by local resident Fred Kona, it is an incredible collection of artefacts that shouldn’t be missed.

 

Honiara is often overlooked by divers heading to other dive destinations in the Solomon Islands, but the capital is a great dive destination for anyone into wrecks or the history of World War II.

 

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