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BEYOND UEPI

By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

Uepi Island, in the Solomon Islands, has long been famous for its beautiful reef dives. Located on the edge of the largest lagoon in the world, Marovo Lagoon, one side of Uepi Island faces the shallow waters of the lagoon while the other side drops into deep water and offers divers spectacular walls, corals, caves and marine life. However, as much as we enjoyed the reefs surrounding the island, on a recent trip we went beyond Uepi to explore some of the other underwater attractions offered at this island paradise.

 

Uepi Island Resort is a wonderful place to relax for a week or longer. The resort is very low key and nestled amongst the palm trees and one of the first things you are told when you arrive on the island is to watch for falling coconuts! The resort accommodates a maximum of 26 guests in six bungalows, two units and two guest rooms. The resort also has a large dining area, bar and dive shop.

 

You know the diving is going to be great as soon as you arrive at the welcome jetty, as not only are the managers there to greet you, but also a dozen reef sharks! The diving around Uepi Island is simply spectacular – sheer walls, colourful corals, caves, reef fish, pelagic fish and numerous invertebrates. Diving sites like Uepi Point, Inside Point, The Elbow, General Store, North Log and Charapoana Point we encountered numerous reef sharks, eagle rays, gropers, humphead parrotfish, pygmy sea horses, turtles, Maori wrasse, trevally, barracuda, stingrays, moray eels and the list could go on and on. We missed seeing the hammerhead sharks which often cruise these walls, but instead saw pods of spinner dolphins and very rare Risso's dolphins.

 

Uepi Island offers very laid back diving, but they don’t compromise on safety. Only two dives are offered each day, at 9am and 2pm, but you get to stay down as long as you like, so instead of limiting your dives to forty minutes so they can squeeze in four dives a day, we were doing eighty to ninety minute dives in the warm 28°C water. They also offer regular night dives to Uepi Point which are not to be missed; we saw countless basket stars, cuttlefish, crabs, shrimps, cowries, soles, crocodilefish, moray eels, crayfish, stingrays and many other species.

 

But to spice things up the resort also offers two great day trips beyond Uepi to explore other parts of the incredible Marovo Lagoon. The first is the Babata Trip, where you get to do four to five dives. Departing at eight, we headed west for forty minutes across the lagoon, passing numerous islands and many small villages. We then followed a series of shallow mangrove lined channels, known as the canoe passage, until we arrived at a narrow channel leading to the open ocean. Here we tied up under an overhanging rock ledge and quickly geared up.

 

Once in the water we followed our guide Robert into the darkness below, we were about to descend into The Sinkhole. The surface water was a little green, but once submerged the water cleared and we could see a large black hole carved into the rock. We followed Robert down into the darkness, hitting the bottom at 25m. Looking up we could see trees overhanging the hole, very surreal. Robert then led us through the dark cave.

 

Shining our torches about we could see that the walls of the cave were coloured by sponges and sea whips, but there were few fish to be seen, apart from some squirrelfish. The cave seemed to be about 30m long, then suddenly we could see light again, we were now in a very narrow chasm with the bottom dropping away. The wall here was more decorated with gorgonians, thorny oysters and even a few flashing file shells. We followed Robert until the chasm ended and we were on a wall with no visible bottom.

 

Our next dive was on an oceanic outcrop called Penguin Reef. This reef drops from the surface into very deep water and cruising the wall we found gorgonians, sponges, sea whips and lovely coral gardens. We encountered a couple of reef sharks, plus trevally, fusiliers and numerous anemonefish.

 

After lunch on a picturesque deserted island, we next dived a shipwreck, one of the most unusual we have ever seen. The Taiyo fishing boat rests in 2m to 35m, now that may not sound very special until you realise that the ship is only 33m long and it sits vertical on a wall! The ship ran aground on its maiden voyage, about a decade ago, and somehow ended up resting vertical on a wall that disappears into one kilometre of water. We had a lot of fun exploring this ship, which is already coloured by sponges and corals. It is possible to penetrate the ship, but we were more interested in photographing the outside of this amazing wreck.

 

Our next stop was Seghe Airport, where you arrive to transfer to Uepi Island. Just off the end of the runway are two plane wrecks, of World War II vintage. We were hoping to dive both, but the visibility on the Dauntless Dive Bomber looked poor, so we only dived the P38 Lightening Fighter plane. This plane rests in 8m, and although we only had 6m visibility we still had an enjoyable time exploring the basically intact plane. The P38 has twin fuselage and was made from aluminium, which is still shiny even today. Covered in sponges and corals, this plane wreck was a fascinating dive into history.

 

The other day trip from Uepi Island is also a trip into history, exploring the shipwrecks of Wickham Harbour. Located south west of the island, it takes around one hour to reach Wickham Harbour, which was used as an anchorage by the Japanese during World War II and it is now the resting place of at least four ships.

 

The first wreck we dived was the Azusa Maru, a 50m long freighter that sits in 40m of water. In 20m visibility we followed our guide Dilly onto the ship, descending a mooring line to a mast covered in corals. The deck is in 32m, so our bottom time was limited, only allowing a quick circuit around this compact shipwreck, checking out the hold full of ammunition, and the bridge, cabins and winches. The wreck is covered in coral and a haven for fish, swarming with baitfish, and also home to gropers, rock cod and lionfish. But a highlight was a lantern still attached to the mast, which we photographed on our ascent.

 

The next ship we explored was also in 40m, meaning an even shorter bottom time. This was another freighter, around 60m long, but its name remains a mystery. The stern section of this ship was been blown apart, but the highlight was again the corals and fish, plus an impressive bow gun covered in featherstars. We got buzzed by a grey reef shark while exploring this ship and ended the dive surrounded by batfish.

 

After lunch we explored another mystery ship, another freighter around 80m long that rests in 25m, giving us a decent bottom time. This wreck was just wonderful, covered in black coral trees and other corals; it was also overflowing with fish – baitfish, gropers, trevally and many others. We swam under the stern to see the prop and rudder and then dropped into the cargo holds to find a green turtle resting in the silt. At the bow were two large anchors and surprisingly a field gun with tyres. This was a brilliant dive with so much to see. We didn’t get to dive the fourth ship, the Iwami Maru, as it rests in 40m and by now we were full of bubbles.

 

We had a wonderful time at Uepi Island Resort, enjoying all the spectacular local reefs, but our fondest memories of the trip will always be the reefs and wrecks we explored beyond Uepi!

 

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