With world class diving, beautiful landscapes and a timeless culture few people have experienced; the Solomon Islands are a hidden gem. Located east of Papua New Guinea just south of the equator, the archipelago consists of six major and about 900 smaller volcanic islands, islets and atolls. The islands are largely covered in dense rainforests and fringed with mangrove swamps and coconut palms. About 300 islands are inhabited. The population of 750,000 is mostly Melanesian, of Papuan descent. About 90,000 people live in the capital – Honiara on Guadalcanal, where you’ll find a mix of modern life and ancient traditions.
Outside of Honiara, the Solomon islands appear lost in time. Most islanders live in small rural villages, each with a customary chief. Village life remains much as it has been for centuries, largely without electricity. The people grow their own fruits and vegetables, fish by canoe, and cook over wood fires. To earn money, women sell produce and men sell their traditional wood carvings. The people are kind and friendly. Each community manages the surrounding land and sea resources under the traditional marine tenure system.
As impressive as the Solomons Islands may be in terms of topside beauty and culture, the real attraction lies in the sea. The islands are located in the eastern end of the coral triangle, the global epicenter of marine biodiversity. The reef systems here are mainly fringing reefs but also include lagoon patch reefs, atolls and barrier reef complexes. The reefs boast close to 500 coral species, a diversity second only to Raja Ampat. The variations in form and color of the corals intermixed with fish creates a paradise for underwater photographers.
The Solomon dive industry is limited. Luckily, the islands are home to one my favorite liveaboards – the Bilikiki. The renowned boat offers comfort, great food, unlimited dives and has a wonderful crew to make it happen. You can dive your heart out in style. I lived on the Bilikiki for 12 days in October. We visited the Florida Islands, Russell Islands, Mborokua Island and Marovo Lagoon. We dove dove walls, pinnacles and passes, caves and caverns and mangrove shorelines. The diverse dive sites have something for everyone and with virtually no dive operators in the area, are blissfully uncrowded. Like on previous trips, I searched the reefs by day and water column at night for compelling fish subjects.
With many of the world’s coral and fish populations in a steady state of decline, I appreciate the sight of healthy reefs more than ever. On this trip, Karumolun Reef (Russells), Kicha (Marovo Lagoon), and the Tanavuela passes (Floridas) were spectacular…
Waves, Caves and Mangroves
Several sites provided unusual wide angle opportunities…
Solomon reefs are not immune to degradation. Warming oceans, acidification, coral disease, crown-of-thorns infestations, nutrient runoff from deforestation and overfishing of grazers are the main stressors. Even lagoon reefs, that naturally experience greater environmental flux and so are considered more resilient to climate stress, are being affected. In early 2021, scientists identified widespread bleaching in Marovo Lagoon, a coral diversity hotspot. Some 18 months later, persistent periods of warm water (30C) and increasing local stressors (deforestation, overfishing) had taken their toll. We saw swaths of dead hard coral, fields of dead gorgonians covered in cyanobacteria and an overall lack of fish. Fortunately, the degraded sites were the exception, not the rule. I am hopeful steps will be taken to reduce the local stressors in Marovo Lagoon. Coral reefs have an an amazing ability to recover when given the chance🤞.
The Solomon reefs are home a whopping 1,371 recorded fish species belonging to 82 families. The most abundant families are damselfishes, fusiliers, surgeonfishes, snappers and wrasses, followed by anthias, parrotfishes and emperors. Reef fish biomass is primarily made up of snappers, parrotfishes, surgeonfishes, fusiliers and emperors, with damselfishes, drums, sharks and triggerfishes also important. The most abundant food fish are also snappers, fusiliers and surgeonfishes, followed by emperors, parrotfishes, drums, goatfishes and triggerfishes. Overfished food fish include lyretail and marbled groupers, humphead wrasses, steephead parrotfishes, emperors and sharks. The most abundant families of aquarium fishes are damselfishes, followed by wrasses, surgeonfishes, anthias, butterflyfishes and angelfishes. Close to 200 reef fish species have been exported from Solomon Islands for the aquarium trade.
Reef fish use their color patterns to hide and find one another. Colorful fish blend in better with complex backgrounds. Hence, diverse brightly colored coral areas have lots of colorful fish. I saw many beautiful reef fishes on this trip. My favorites included the blue-girdled angel, saddle grouper, white-bonnet anemonefish, oblique-lined dottyback, yellowtail damsel, leopard wrasse, dot-and-dash butterflyfish and the flasher wrasse.
Fish spawning on outer reef tops was a frequent occurrence. Most reef fish spawn at dusk. Parrotfish often spawn in the early morning. Anthias and many wrasses spawn in the mid afternoon. Two-tone wrasse spawn throughout the day.
On tropical low latitude reefs, like those in the Solomons, juvenile fish recruitment occurs all year round. Water temperature, moon phase, winds, plankton productivity, ocean currents, solar radiation, and/or rainfall patterns may play a role in when a larval fish settles on a reef. Peaks in density and species richness of new recruits typically occur seasonally, when water temperatures are highest and winds are weak; November-April in the Solomons.
I noticed lots of juvenile anthias, surgeonfish, rabbitfish, wrasses, dartfish and damsels on this October trip. My most exciting finds were the juvenile striped surgeonfish, squarespot anthias, purple anthias, regal angel, multi-barred angel, brushtail tang, and foxface and coral rabbitfish and newly settled midnight snappers. Overall, density and diversity of juvenile fish was lower than my previous November trip.
The typical reef fish has a two part life cycle that involves a dispersing, planktonic larval stage in the water column followed by a juvenile and adult stage on the reef. Fish larvae typically grow up over deep water where they learn to swim, hunt, and avoid predators as they mature through various stages. When ready to settle; they use the sun, currents, and the reef’s sounds and smells to find their new home. They make their final approach at night, most often under the added darkness of the new moon – because the reef has many larval predators.
Many reef fish larvae are attracted to light as they near settlement. After dusk, I suspended a bright light in the water column near the reef to lure in the tiny fishes. Despite the full moon, I managed to identify larvae from 29 different families on this trip. Larval pipefish, squirrelfish, damsels, dartfish, cardinalfish and blennies were most common. Butterflyfish and surgeonfish were most speciose. The larval crocodile fish and conger eel were first encounters for me. Many of the recruits already had substantial color and were just about to settle, presumably on the nearby habitat…
A few noteworthy spineless critters made an appearance during my nighttime excursions…
A number of squids and schools of flagtails and silversides came in to feast on the larvae. A sea snake even made an appearance one night…
Denley D, Metaxas A, Scheibling R (2020) Subregional variation in cover and diversity of hard coral (Scleractinia) in the Western Province, Solomon Islands following an unprecedented global bleaching event. PLoS ONE 15(11): e0242153. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0242153
Green, A., P. Ramohia, M. Ginigele and T. Leve, E. 2006. Fisheries Resources: Coral Reef Fishes. In: Green, A., P. Lokani, W. Atu, P. Ramohia, P. Thomas and J. Almany (eds.) 2006. Solomon Islands Marine Assessment: Technical report of survey conducted May 13 to June 17, 2004. TNC Pacific Island Countries Report No. 1/06.
“Widespread Bleaching Spotted in Solomon Islands Coral Reefs”. Wildlife Conservation Society. 5 March 2021. Online report.
Enjoyed this photo report? Feel free to share it.