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THE SECRET TREASURES OF WICKHAM HARBOUR

by Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

The Solomon Islands was the scene of many fierce naval battles during the Second World War. Countless ships, planes and lives were lost on both the allied and Japanese sides. Many of these ships were sunk in deep water never to be seen again, but a few settled in water shallow enough for divers to explore, including four little known shipwrecks in Wickham Harbour.

 

Until a recent trip to Uepi Island Resort, we knew little about the shipwrecks in Wickham Harbour or even knew where Wickham Harbour was located. But consulting a map discovered that Wickham Harbour is located at the south western end of Marovo Lagoon, the largest and one of the most beautiful lagoons in the world.

 

During a week at the wonderful Uepi Island Resort we dived the colourful local reefs that are packed with marine life, encountering reef sharks, barracuda, gropers, stingrays, trevally and even dolphins. But after five days of diving these wonderful reefs we were offered the chance to see some rust, shipwrecks, so jumped at the chance to explore the wrecks of Wickham Harbour.

 

The trip to Wickham Harbour takes around one hour, but the scenery on this journey is quite spectacular. Crossing from one side of Marovo Lagoon to the other we passed countless palm tree studded islands, numerous small villages and had wonderful views of the cloud covered mountains on Vangunu Island. Arriving at Wickham Harbour we discovered that there wasn’t really a harbour, also no port facilities or even a wharf, in fact there is nothing there at all today. However, during the war the Japanese used the area as an anchorage and had a small base nearby. Our guide, Dilly, jumped onto the bow and with keen eyes soon spotted the submerged buoy that marked the site of the first wreck.

 

We all quickly geared up and followed Dilly into the water. The visibility was around 20m, but the bottom was a long way below at 40m. We followed the mooring line to the mast, which is covered in beautiful black corals. Below us we could see the outline of the ship, the 50m long Japanese freighter Azusa Maru.

 

We hit the deck at 32m and at this depth we knew we didn’t have a lot of time to photograph the ship. We headed to the bow, passing winches and the forward hold. The bow, like the rest of the ship, was very colourful, covered in sponges, soft corals and black coral trees. After a quick look around the bow we headed towards the stern, but first dropped down into the rear hold to see the ships cargo of ammunition.

 

Swimming around this compact shipwreck one of the things that most impressed us was the marine life, the ship was swarming with millions of baitfish, and feeding on them were trevally, gropers and lionfish. All too soon our bottom time was up and it was time to ascend, but not before we paused to admire a lantern still attached to the mast. All shipwrecks in the Solomon Islands are protected, so divers are asked not to touch or remove anything so that others can enjoy this colourful part of the nation’s history.

 

Our next dive was on an unidentified shipwreck, another Japanese freighter around 60m long. The stern of this ship has been blown apart; it was hard to tell if this happened when the ship was sunk by bombers or by later salvage divers. This ship also rests in 40m of water, which limited our bottom time, but we still had time to do a quick circuit of the ship and were most impressed by the bow gun covered in featherstars. This ship was also home to amazing numbers of fish, including a school of batfish that swam around us as we ascended the mast.

 

After lunch on a nearby deserted island, we explored a third shipwreck resting in only 25m of water. The name of this wreck is also a mystery, but it appears to be another freighter around 80m long. This ship is covered in a forest of black coral trees, we have never seen so many. We first headed to the stern and dropped down to see the prop, still in place. Swimming along the side of the ship we could see many places where the hull has been damaged when hit by bombs. We then descended into the cavernous hold, which had no cargo but was being used as a bed by a resting green turtle.

 

Exploring the bow there were two large anchors on the deck and a field gun which still had wheels in place. Dilly then showed us that parts of the timber decking still remain. This wreck was again a magnet for marine life, home to trevally, gropers and reef fish.

 

Forty minutes disappeared all too quickly on this fascinating shipwreck and we were reluctant to ascend. We didn’t get time to explore the fourth shipwreck, the Iwami Maru, but will have to do that ship next time we visit Uepi Island Resort and again explore the wonderful shipwrecks of Wickham Harbour.

 

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