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UEPI ISLAND – WELCOME TO PARADISE

by Nigel Marsh

 

There are not many dive resorts in the world were you arrive at the jetty to be greeted by a pack of patrolling reef sharks. But this is the welcome that every guest arriving at Uepi Island Resort receives, and it hasn’t changed since my last visit over twenty years ago!

 

Uepi Island Resort is a lovely secluded destination in the Solomon Islands, not the easiest place to reach, but well worth the effort. The resort was established over thirty years ago and is located on the southern end of a 100 hectare island covered in rainforest. Catering to a maximum of 26 guests, the accommodation comprises of a mixture of beach bungalows, cabins and guesthouses spread out under a grove of coconut palms. One of the first things you are told upon arrival is to stick to the paths to avoid falling coconuts, and believe me you will hear them thumping into the ground, especially if there is a bit of a breeze.

 

The resort operates at a very relaxed and laid back pace ‘island time’ and is the perfect escape from modern technology and pressures. While they do have phones, email and TV, for my week on the island I completely ignored these crutches and instead enjoyed some old fashion conversation with my fellow divers each night in the dining room and bar.

 

The dive centre only offer two dives a day at 9am and 2pm (plus regular night dives). Now this may not seem like much, but this is not rushed diving, in fact I was doing eighty to ninety minute dives most days. I soon got use to this laid-back pace, which allowed time to explore more of the island, snorkel with the sharks or just relax in a hammock and take it easy.

 

Uepi Island is located on the edge of the world’s largest lagoon, the seven hundred square kilometre Marovo Lagoon. One side of the island faces the shallow waters of the lagoon, where dugongs have been known to feed, while the other side drops into two kilometres of water! Wall diving is the name of the game and Uepi Island has many spectacular walls to explore.

 

Uepi Point is located only a minute from the dive shop, but it is one of the best dive sites in the area. Descending the wall here we stopped on an outcrop at 100ft with the wall disappearing into the darkness below. With 100ft visibility we watched a passing parade of pelagics; barracuda, trevally, mackerel, rainbow runners and the ever present grey reef sharks. It was wonderful to dive an area which still has abundant sharks.

 

The wall is festooned with a brilliant array of corals – massive gorgonians, whip corals, soft corals, sea whips and sponges. With a wide angle lens on my camera I was overwhelmed by the tapestry of colour, and framing each coral I had swarms of reef fish above to fill the rest of the frame – schools of snapper, fusiliers, batfish and surgeonfish. After exploring the outside of the wall for twenty minutes we then followed our guide Dilly up into the shallows above the wall and into a sandy gully full of reef fish and garden eels. We then enjoyed a slow drift back to the dive shop, seeing nudibranchs and other invertebrates, moray eels, gropers, stingrays, pipefish, lionfish, hump-headed parrotfish, Napoleon wrasse and many more reef sharks. Uepi Point is a sensational dive that you will want to do again and again.

 

At night Uepi Point is just incredible, one of the richest night dives I have done. The colours of the corals under torch light are even more magnificent, but it was the marine life that blew me away. On every available outcrop was a basket star, I have never seen so many on one dive, we must have seen several hundred. My camera was also working overtime to photograph all the crustaceans; shrimps, crayfish and a wide variety of crabs. During this night dive I also encountered cuttlefish, moray eels, lionfish, sole, nudibranchs, flatworms, cowries and numerous blue spotted lagoon rays.

 

Other wonderful wall dives at Uepi include Elbow Point, General Store, Kuru Kuru, Charapoana Point and North Log. At each of these sites were wonderful corals, a great collection of reef fish and invertebrates, plus the ever present pelagic fish and reef sharks. Caves are a common feature, cutting into many of these walls, and at North Log there is a unique sandy ledge under a large overhang that is like a muck diving site. Exploring this long ledge I saw hundreds of shrimp gobies, nudibranchs, two spot gobies, flatworms, sea cucumbers and the guides have also found sea moths and ghost pipefish in the past. Another small critter to look out for are pygmy sea horses, which are found on many of the fans in the area.

 

Drifting along these walls I also encountered eagle rays, stingrays, gropers and a leopard shark, but missed seeing the hammerheads and manta rays that are regular visitors. One of the unique aspects of diving off Uepi Island is the chance of encountering whales and dolphins. In the past killer whales, pilot whales and many other cetacean species have been seen in the deep water off the island. I saw one dolphin on a dive, but after surfacing from a dive at Elbow Point we could see a pod of dolphins playing nearby. We motored over and slipped into the water to catch glimpses of a group of very usual looking dolphins. Back at the resort we identified them as Risso’s dolphins, a species that is rarely seen.

 

The last time I was at Uepi, twenty years ago, I got chased out of the water by the welcome committee reef sharks, and it was good to see that there is still a good population of reef sharks at the Welcome Jetty. This dive site is one of the best in the area, getting in at the Dive Jetty you can either cruise along the wall, which drops to 100ft, or explore the bommies and sand in the channel. I found a wide variety of nudibranchs, plus pipefish, flaming file shells and a couple of cuttlefish. The wall is also home to gropers, rock cod, moray eels, anemonefish and turtles, but the reef sharks are the highlight. Patrolling the wall are over thirty grey reef and black tip reef sharks that show little fear of divers, but will come in even closer when you are on snorkel, as I was twenty years ago when chased from the water.

 

I was videoing the sharks from below when suddenly a grey reef shark charged straight at the camera. At first I thought I was lucky to capture such a dramatic shot, but when I took my eye off the viewfinder I started to worry for my safety as I had five sharks charging in at me. I kicked the sharks with my fins and fended them off with the housing, and at the same time tried to elbow my way back up the wall as I was out of breath. After repelling over a dozen attacks I finally reached the surface to find Murray, the former manager, dangling a fish frame in the water! Murray thought this would excite the sharks and bring them in closer; it certainly worked, I almost had to change my wetsuit!

 

Today you don’t need food to bring these sharks in close, as they constantly patrol up and down the wall. However, with so many sharks swarming around you it can be unnerving at times, as you never know what is going on behind your back.

 

Besides the wonderful reef dives at Uepi Island they also offer two special day trips where you get the chance to see some rust – shipwrecks. The Solomon Islands were the site of some of the fiercest land and sea battles in the Second World War, and the legacy of war still remains throughout the islands. Located 30 miles south west of Uepi Island is a former Japanese anchorage known as Wickham Harbour. Nothing is here today, except for four wonderful shipwrecks waiting to be explored.

 

I got the chance to dive three of these ships during the day trip and was very impressed by not only the ships, but also by the multitudes of marine life swarming on each wreck. The 160ft long freighter Azusa Maru rests in 130ft, with its deck at 110ft. The ship is a riot of colour, encrusted with sponges and black coral trees, and engulfed by schools of baitfish, which were being fed on by gropers, trevally and lionfish. The highlights of this compact ship were the hold full of ammunition and a lantern still in place on the mast.

 

We next dived an unknown wreck, another freighter around 200ft long and also in 130ft. This ship was again packed with corals and fish, and we were buzzed by a grey reef shark and a school of batfish. The best feature of this ship was a large bow gun now covered in featherstars.

 

The final ship we dived was the most enjoyable as it was around 260ft long and sits in 80ft, so allowed more bottom time to explore. This ship also has no name, but impressed me with the amazing amount of black coral covering the wreck. We dropped into the empty holds to find a green turtle resting in the silt, and ducking under the stern found the prop still in place and covered in nudibranchs. On the bow was a field gun and several large anchors, but the fish life was again a feature, with gropers, batfish, trevally, snapper and many more.

 

On another day trip from Uepi Island we dived one of two plane wrecks located just off Seghe Airport. The airport was an American base during the war and the remains of a Dauntless Dive Bomber and a P38 Lightening Fighter are found just off the end of the runway. We only dived the P38, which rests in 30ft, and had fun looking at the props and machine gun of this unusual twin fuselage fighter plane.

 

On this day trip we also dived The Sinkhole, a cave that starts in a narrow channel and exits on a reef wall, and also a wonderful oceanic outcrop known as Penguin Reef. But the highlight of this day trip was the wreck of a fishing boat that sits in a very unique position.

 

The Taiyo sunk about a decade ago on its maiden voyage. It is rumoured that the crew were celebrating with a few drinks and drove the ship onto the reef at full speed. The ship sunk, but not on an even keel, some how they managed to park the ship vertical on a wall that drops over one mile!

 

This would have to be the strangest shipwreck I have ever seen. The Taiyo is 110ft long and has its bow in six feet and its stern in 120ft. The ship is virtually intact, minus a few fittings, and exploring the wreck I checked out the bridge, holds and several rooms, including the toilet that still has a toilet brush floating above the bowl! A very surreal dive that I will never forget.

 

After twenty years it was wonderful to see that not much had changed at Uepi Island. The diving was still fantastic, the meals superb and the atmosphere very relaxing. But I was most happy to see that the welcome committee hadn’t lost their jobs.

 

 

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