There are some dive trips you dream about for years before you take them, and some liveaboards so famous that it seems like you’ve already sailed. Diving the Solomon Islands onboard the Bilikiki was just such an experience for me. The boat was the first liveaboard in the Solomons, operating here since 1989. Its melodious name comes from one of the islands’ most distinctive birds, the “Beach Thick Knee,” or as locals call it — the Bilikiki bird.
Though I never see its namesake bird on land, I’m beyond excited as we approach the Bilikiki from the harbor in Honiara, the Solomon Islands’ capital. I’m about to embark on a 10-night trip that will visit the Florida Islands, the Russell Islands, the isolated Mary (Mborokua) Island, and the world-famous Marovo Lagoon. And I can’t wait to board.
Before its rebirth as a dive boat in 1989, the steel-hulled 125-foot (38 m) long Bilikiki plied these waters first as a fishing boat and then a cargo ship. The dive boat refit looks to be top-notch as I board on the spacious dive deck, which can accommodate 20 divers and plenty of gear. There will be plenty of time to get my stuff set up later. First it’s time for a brief tour of the boat and to meet the other guests and crew.
There are three levels, with all the cabins below. The salon, kitchen, eating area and dive deck are on the middle level. A deck up top features plenty of chaise lounges for catching some sun as well as a small photo room. The salon is decorated simply but comfortably, with big blue sofas and pillows hugging one wall. A wet bar and camera table occupy the other side of the room.
In the covered eating area outside all my fellow cruisers wait, as eager as I am to get underway. There’s a big group traveling with a dive shop in Hawaii, including my roommate (who’s actually Scottish). A few more folks from the U.S. and another Scottish couple round out the group. Pro tip: If you’re ever on a dive boat with three Scots, don’t try too hard to understand them when they speak to each other, especially after a few cocktails. Just nod and smile.
There are 14 crewmembers on the boat, including our chef Wilson, who’s been working the galley for 24 years. Dive guides Tina Gauer and Oli Burle have been on the boat since July 2016, and take turns conducting dive briefings. We’ve each got a station with under-seat storage and tanks are filled in place. Happily, this means you must set up your gear only once.
“The punishment for not using the name-tag board is three tablespoons of vegemite,” Tina says, walking us through safety procedures. Needless to say, we’re all vigilant about marking ourselves on or off the boat all week. There are four dives each day and one each night. Tina, Oli, and Andy, a Solomon Islands native who’s working on his divemaster certification while I’m there, take turns guiding the dives.
After our initial boat briefing, we head downstairs to check out our cabins. My roommate (and newly assigned dive buddy) and I have one of two cabins with twin beds rather than a double. Our en-suite bathroom’s not large, but it’ll suffice for the week, and we have no problem stowing all our stuff with storage under the beds, on a shelf above the bed, and in a compact closet. After getting comfortable, we head up to the dive deck for our first briefing.
Diving the Solomons
“I can guarantee you one thing,” Tina says, “you will always be diving alone on the sites.”
Bilikiki regularly dives between 40 and 50 sites on a 10-day trip, depending on weather, guest abilities and requests, and dive guides’ knowledge of the day’s best sites. And since there’s only one other dedicated liveaboard in the Solomons, Tina’s right: on our trip, we’ll never encounter another diver. Diving takes place from two tenders, which the crew adorably calls “tinnies,” since they’re little metal boats. As it’s time to dive, either Tina or Oli call out, “tinny one, ready to board!” Trips to dive sites are short, with none lasting more than five or 10 minutes.
Since the Solomons anchors the bottom eastern point of the Coral Triangle, we’re spoiled for choice. Walls? Check. Fields of coral? Check. Drifts? Check. Sharks and rays? Macro? Check, check and check. We sail west out of Honiara, stopping first at the Russell Islands. I’ll cover the top dive sites in a forthcoming article, but suffice it to say, we are not let down.
After our check dive, our next stop is Leru Cut in the Russell Islands, which is just as its name implies. This narrow cut is much like an underwater slot canyon, seemingly cleaving Leru Island in two. We enter single file, careful to keep our fins off the bottom. Light streams in from above, giving the canyon an ethereal feel. At the end, we surface to see sheer walls covered in jungle vines, and on the way back out, we see clouds of butterflyfish, angelfish and parrotfish waiting in the blue.
The week progresses with one fantastic dive after another. At Ben’s Point on the uninhabited Mary Island, we can hear the boom of a nearby volcano rumbling underwater every few minutes. At Kicha Island in Marovo Lagoon, we have a smorgasbord: first we hook in and watch reef sharks hunting in the current, then sweep along a wall covered in swirling jacks, snapper and groupers. We end with almost 40 minutes in one of the most beautiful shallow coral gardens I’ve ever seen.
On the way back to Honiara, we stop for the second time in the Russell Islands at White Beach, called the “million-dollar dump” because it’s the final resting place of so much WWII materiel, including trucks, a crane, a Caterpillar, and ammunition. In the 73 years it’s been underwater, the rusting wrecks have become perfect homes for lots of macro critters, but just seeing all the history on the seafloor is spectacular. And finally, we take a spin on Devil’s Highway, an adrenaline-charged drift dive over the edge of a coral wall where we wait, tucked out of the current’s wrath, and watch manta after manta glide by, feeding in the current.
Time for Dinner
It would be remiss not to mention the food onboard Bilikiki. Like any liveaboard worth its salt, the mantra onboard is eat, sleep, and dive, and Wilson keeps us well-fed all week. When the Bilikiki began sailing in the late 1980s, they had a hard time keeping enough fresh produce on board. So, in a stroke of genius, the cruise directors provided the local villages along the boat’s route with seeds to plant a variety of fruits and vegetables. When it’s ready for harvest, the villagers sell back the fully grown produce to the boat as it sails. This keeps the guests in fresh bananas, salad, pineapple, greens, etc., and villagers eat the rest themselves. Each season the villages are supplied with new seeds, and the cruise director negotiates the produce sale.
After 10 nights on board and dozens of dives, my dream of diving the Solomon Islands on Bilikiki has finally come true. And unlike many long-anticipated adventures, my time onboard manages to not only fulfill all my pre-trip fantasies of deserted islands and teeming dive sites, but to exceed them.
With 10 cabins, the boat can accommodate 20 guests. Cruises run from seven to 14 nights; longer itineraries like ours visit Marovo Lagoon.
How to get there:
The Bilikiki sails from Honiara, the Solomons’ capital city. Getting there from the United States will usually require a stopover in Australia.
Qantas operates daily flights to Brisbane from LAX, landing at around 6 a.m. Depending on when you land, you can catch a Solomon Airlines flight to Honiara the same morning at 10 a.m.. Note that they only depart from Brisbane on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Flights back to Brisbane are scheduled for Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday. You can also fly to Honiara from LAX via Nadi, Fiji, on Fiji Airways.
When to go:
The diving is great in the Solomon Islands year-round, so when to go is a matter of personal preference. Just a few degrees below the Equator, the air temperature is consistently warm and humid year-round. Expect a bit of rain, averaging between eight and 12 inches per month. Water temperatures are fairly consistent as well, ranging from around 82 to 87 F (28 to 30 C). You should be fine in a 3- to 5 mm full wetsuit. The boat is in dry dock for maintenance and crew vacations from mid-January to early March to coincide with the rainiest season.
What to bring:
You’re diving in a remote location, so make sure your DAN or other dive insurance is up-to-date. Nitrox is your best bet on the boat with so many repetitive dives, so don’t forget your cert card. It does cost a bit extra, but it’s well worth it. Although there’s a stock of rental gear onboard the Bilikiki, it’s best to bring all your own, as well as a few spare parts just in case. And finally, bring a bit of cash (USD) on the cruise for souvenirs. You’ll stop at a few local villages during the week to peruse intricate wood carvings and you’ll need cash at the end of the week to settle your tab with the cruise directors, who pay the village chief on your behalf.
Where to stay:
You may need to spend one night in Honiara before boarding the Bilikiki and perhaps one after the cruise as well. There are a few good, central options, including The Heritage Park, The Solomon Kitano Mendana and the Coral Sea Resort, the island’s newest hotel. Each has at least one good restaurant as well.
Special thanks to Solomon Islands Tourism, the MV Bilikiki, and photographer Matt Smith. Join him in 2018 on a 10-day photo safari on the Bilikiki.