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UNIQUE UEPI

by Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

We have dived on shipwrecks in many different places that have sunk in many different ways, but the shipwreck in front of us was the strangest we had ever seen. It was a fishing boat that somehow had come to rest on a vertical reef wall that drops into two kilometres of water! However, it wasn’t just the location that was spectacular, it was also the wrecks position as it wasn’t sitting on an even keel - no this ship was sitting vertical on the wall! This shipwreck was just one of many wonderful and unique dives we did at Uepi Island.

 

Uepi Island is located in one of the most picturesque locations you could ever image. Found in the Solomon Islands, Uepi sits on the edge of the Marovo Lagoon, the largest lagoon in the world. One side of the island faces the shallow waters of the lagoon, where dugongs are known the feed, while the other side faces the open ocean, where just metres from the shore are walls dropping into 2km of water.

 

Located at the southern end of the island, overlooking Charapoanna Passage, is the Uepi Island Resort – one of the most laid back and relaxing resorts to be found in the South Pacific. The resort is owned and managed by Australian couple Jill and Grant Kelly, with help from their son Jason and his mate Josh and fifty local staff.

 

The resort is nestled under dozens coconut palms (you are advised to stick to the paths to avoid falling coconuts) and consists of a large dining room and bar, a dive centre and the accommodation huts. Catering to a maximum of 26 guests, the comfortable beach bungalows, cabins and guesthouses are well spaced to give you plenty of privacy.

 

While some guests come to Uepi Island to do nothing more than relax or observe the abundant local wildlife, the majority come to the island to snorkel or dive. The dive centre have half a dozen dive boats, known as banana boats, and offer two dives daily at 9am and 2pm. This may not sound like much to those that go on a dive frenzy when on holidays, but this fits with the laid back atmosphere of the resort and gets you into ‘island time’. But the good news is that you can dive as long as you like; we were commonly doing eighty minute dives, which were very easy in the 29°C water. Of course they also offer regular night dives and several dive excursions where you can squeeze in several more dives.

 

AROUND UEPI

You could spend your entire holiday at Uepi Island diving the wonderful sites around the island itself. Our first dive was barely a minute boat ride from the Dive Jetty at Inside Point. This site is on the lagoon side of the island and is done as a drift dive along the Charapoanna Passage and back to the Dive Jetty.

 

We descended a wall to 30m, passing huge gorgonians and other lovely corals. The sandy slope at the base of the wall is said to be a good spot for stingrays, but all we could see were hundreds of gardens eels swaying in the current. Drifting along the wall we saw a range of reef fish, nudibranchs and many other invertebrate species. We paused at the point to watch the fish; schools of trevally, barracuda, fusiliers, snapper and batfish. These fish were also joined by half a dozen grey reef sharks cruising beyond camera range.

 

Once around the corner of the point the current picked up and we zoomed along the wall with the sharks and a school of humpheaded parrotfish. The coral growth along this wall was just beautiful; massive gorgonians, large volcano sponges, sea whips and soft corals. Getting closer to the Dive Jetty the current dropped, giving us time to photograph a friendly hawksbill turtle and also watch the patrolling grey reef sharks and black tip reef sharks that are always present in the passage. Before we reached the Dive Jetty we also found gropers, lionfish, giant clamps and several flaming file shells. This was a lovely introduction to Uepi diving.

 

Uepi’s most famous dive site is located one minute in the other direction, Uepi Point. Descending on the wall at Uepi Point we were quickly surrounded by fish – schools of trevally, barracuda, mackerel, rainbow runner, snapper and fusiliers. There were literally fish everywhere. We dropped down the wall to 30m and in the gentle current just watched all the fish and sharks glide by. Back on the wall we found no shortage of spectacular corals to photograph – rows of gorgonians, lovely whip corals, radiant soft corals and plenty of sponges. Following our guide Dilly we ascended the wall into a gully where more fish were milling about, including parrotfish, midnight snapper, butterflyfish and other reef fish. A sandy patch in this gutter was home to a large colony of garden eels and numerous shrimp gobies and their partner shrimps. We then enjoyed a slow drift back to the Dive Jetty, encountering Maori wrasse, stingrays, humpheaded parrotfish, moray eels, crocodilefish, reef sharks, triggerfish and an assortment of anemonefish.

 

Uepi Point is also a brilliant night dive and well worth having a late dinner to experience its magic. We spent over an hour and a half photographing a vast range of nocturnal critters; cuttlefish, crayfish, shrimps, coral crabs, nudibranchs, hermit crabs, flatworms, sleeping fish, moray eels, sole, scorpionfish, lionfish, cowries and many other species. But the highlight of the night dive was the incredible number of basket stars. These metre wide echinoderms were perched on every available outcrop and feeding, we must have seen several hundred.

 

There are several other wonderful dive sites right in front of the Dive Jetty; such as BOTCH or Bottom of the Channel and Shark Bommie. But another dive we enjoyed was Point to Point. We started the dive on the opposite side of the channel at Charapoanna Point, which is just as fishy and colourful as Uepi Point. Dropping down the wall to 40m we then followed Dilly off the wall and into the blue water. Swimming across the channel you had to keep an eye on your depth as the channel bottoms out at over 50m. We saw a few pelagic fish and sharks, but just swimming in the clear water between the points was an exhilarating experience.

 

On the outer side of Uepi Island are countless walls to explore. During our stay the ocean was like a pond with barely a ripple washing up on the rocky shoreline. At Kuru Kuru we cruised the wall and saw humpheaded parrotfish, snapper, trevally, lovely corals and even a dolphin. While at General Store we explored a maze of caves that cut into the wall in the shallows and encountered stingrays, barracuda and schools of parrotfish. North Log was another impressive wall where we started the dive by watching a pair of tiny pygmy sea horses. The most unique part of this site is a long sandy ledge cut into the wall, which was more like a muck diving site. Here we found nudibranchs, flatworms, stingrays, sea stars and an abundance of shrimp gobies. During a lovely dive at this site we also saw reef sharks and spotted eagle rays.

 

Hammerhead sharks are often seen on the wall off Uepi Island, with Elbow Point one of the best places to encounter these impressive sharks. We dived Elbow Point and were hopeful of seeing a hammerhead, especially as we had over 40m visibility, but had no such luck. We still enjoyed a wonderful dive admiring all the corals and encountered reef sharks, snapper, mackerel, stingrays and also a leopard shark. We surfaced from this dive to see a pod of dolphins playing nearby. From the surface they looked very strange, with rounded heads and scars all over their bodies. We managed to slip into the water with them to catch glimpses of these usual dolphins underwater, which we later discovered were rarely seen Risso’s Dolphins. Whales and dolphins are often seen in the deep water off Uepi, and in the past divers have encountered spinner dolphins, pilot whales and even killer whales.

 

BABATA EXCURSION

The Babata Trip is an all day excursion from Uepi Island to dive some of the other unique attractions in the area. The journey across Marovo Lagoon was quite spectacular, especially after we entered the smaller Nono Lagoon and followed a series of narrow and shallow man-made channels called the ‘canoe passage’. Passing small villages, beautiful islands and finally weaving through this mangrove lined channel was quite an adventure. After forty minutes we tied up under a rocky outcrop in another narrow channel and jumped into the water to explore The Sinkhole.

 

Below us was a large hole in the rocky bottom. We followed our guide Robert into the darkness, hitting the bottom at 25m. We then explored a 30m long cave that exited into a very narrow chasm. Although there wasn’t a lot of marine life to be seen on this dive, apart from a few flaming file shells, the terrain was very impressive. Ascending with half a tank, we finished the rest of our air on nearby Penguin Reef, an oceanic outcrop with spectacular walls.

 

After lunch and a brief snorkel with a pod of spinner dolphins, we headed to our next dive site, which was to be one of the most unique dives we have ever done. From the surface we could see something jutting from the reef wall, but nothing could have prepared us for the sight of the Taiyo Fishing Boat. Before us was a shipwreck, 33m long and sitting perfectly vertical on the reef wall!

 

This ship sunk about a decade ago while on its maiden voyage, the crew rumoured to be celebrating a little too much to notice the reef when they ran into it at full speed. This impact is thought to have driven the bow into the air and forced the stern underwater, allowing the ship to slide down the wall.

 

We swam over to the bow, only 2m below the surface, and looked down at the bridge and the rest of the ship below us. The ship is now covered in a light covering of corals and sponges, and home to reef fish and a passing collection of pelagic wanders. We dropped to the stern at 35m and were amazed to see the ship resting on a ledge with the wall disappearing into the darkness below, the ship could have so easily missed this ledge and ended up at the bottom 2km below.

 

Exploring the wreck we looked into a number of rooms and hatches and often found it very disorientating having the ship in such an unusual position. We even inspected the underside of the hull, but could find no hole or damage from its impact with the reef. The Taiyo is easily one of the most unique shipwrecks we have ever dived.

 

Returning to Uepi Island we had one last stop at Seghe Airport. During the Second World War many land, sea and air battles were fought in the Solomon Islands. Seghe Airport was once an American airbase and the remains of two planes can still be found off the end of the runway. We only dived one of these, an almost complete P38 Lightening Fighter Plane. Resting in 8m of water, the P38 is a wonderful dive and a unique plane, having twin fuselages and being made of aluminium. We investigated the cockpit, machine gun and engines, and also enjoyed a muck dive as the site is a good spot for nudibranchs.

 

WONDERFUL WICKHAM WRECKS

The Solomon Islands has one of the greatest collections of shipwrecks in the world, a legacy of the fierce sea battles that took place here during the war. Unfortunately most of these shipwrecks are in deep water, but only 50km from Uepi Island are four spectacular Japanese wrecks that divers can explore.

 

Wickham Harbour was used as an anchorage and base by the Japanese during the war. Located at the south western entrance to Marovo Lagoon there is little to be seen there today unless you venture underwater. It takes around an hour to travel to Wickham Harbour, which can be a bumpy ride if the conditions are choppy. Arriving at the first shipwreck our guide Dilly jumped on the bow and soon located the submerged buoy marking the ships location. We quickly geared up, eager to explore this shipwreck.

 

The first wreck we explored was the Azusa Maru, a 50m long freighter that was sunk in 1942. The wreck rests in 40m, with the deck in 32m, but its compact size meant we had just enough time to see most of its features, including a hold full of ammunition, before going into deco. With 20m visibility we had a great time exploring this ship, admiring the thick coverings of coral and the prolific fish life inhabiting the ship. But the highlight didn’t come until we started to ascend the mast, where a lantern is still fixed in place.

 

The next ship we explored was also in 40m, which severely limited our bottom time. This shipwreck currently has no name, but it is a 60m long freighter with a badly damaged stern. This ship was again covered in corals and fish, including gropers, batfish and a grey reef shark. There was plenty to see on this shipwreck, but sadly too little bottom time.

 

The final ship we dived in Wickham Harbour was also lacking a name, but was fortunately located in shallow water, only 25m deep, so allowed plenty of time to explore. This shipwreck is another freighter, around 80m long and covered in forests of black coral. As we cruised around the ship we were amazed by the numbers of fish; batfish, gropers, trevally, snapper, surgeonfish and millions of baitfish. We encountered a green turtle resting in the hold and enjoyed photographing the prop, anchors, bridge, winches and a field gun on the bow. We didn’t have time to dive the fourth shipwreck, the Iwami Maru, which is also located in 40m.

 

A week at Uepi Island went all too quickly, we were just getting into ‘island time’ when it was time to depart, but we left with many unique memories and images from this island paradise in the Solomon Islands.

 

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