Matt Segal underwater photography - reports

Solomon Islands on the Bilikiki, 2005

Bilikiki liveabordThe M.V Bilikiki and its crew are one of the finest examples of what a liveaboard experience should be like. Aside from the obvious beauty of the Solomon Islands, and the pristine nature of the dive sites you visit, the constant attention and help available from the people who run the boat truly make the dive trip most memorable.

My trip started in Los Angeles. I departed from LAX with Qantas Airlines, and after a short layover in Auckland, New Zealand, arrived in Brisbane, Australia. I then stayed overnight before taking a flight from BNE to Honiara, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands.

After clearing immigration and customs, I was greeted by Bilikiki Cruises representatives who assisted me with my luggage and led me to a small bus for the passengers. Seventeen other passengers on the trip, and every one with interesting stories to tell.Common lionfish

When you travel with the Bilikiki, everything is taken care of for you, from the moment of arrival until you step onto the departing plane. Initially, all luggage is taken by the crew to your cabins, and after setting up your scuba gear, nothing more is required. The trip starts with introductions; managers, crew, and passengers all have a look around at one another. Since I was traveling by myself, I was paired with a California-native-but-now-living-in-Texas professor of biology. I was surprised at how little he had brought along - until I found out that his bags hadn't made the flight. Needless to say, he was easy to get along with.

The first dinner sets an excellent standard that is held throughout the duration of the trip. Simply put, the dining is great, and there’s always enough to eat. The menu ranges from such common items as chicken and beef, to fresh-caught fish and locally bought soft-shell crab. Between meals, there’s a multitude of snacks, from popcorn, to just-baked cookies, and a reinvigorating drink called bush lime, a mixture of lime juice, water, and sugar. This all leads to some people leaving the boat having gained a few pounds.Pair of butterflyfish

The majority of the crossings between island groups are done at night, and with the long hull, the M.V. Bilikiki felt very stable. Nighttime provides a gentle rocking that, paired with a full day of diving, does nothing but contribute to that ‘dead-tired’ sleep. Mornings start by 7 AM, with breakfast laid out and the dive briefing around 7:30 AM. After that, diving was at your own pace and discretion. Most people made around four dives each day, some more, some less. Want to skip a dive and go fishing in one of the ‘tinnies’ (skiffs)? I did with Ben, one of the crew – and caught a barracuda and three Wahoo with a hand line (we had the good fortune of finding a small pack of them). The Bilikiki is always willing to please.Multicolored soft corals

Getting ready to dive on the Bilikiki is almost too easy. Of course you have to check the Nitrox percentage of your tank (if you’re diving Nitrox), and point out which gear and camera are yours, but after that, the only thing that separates you from the blue, warm water (roughly 83°F) is a back roll from the tinnie. The camera housing is handed down to you, and your dive begins.

Ending the dive is just as easy; the tinnies follow the divers’ bubbles, and when you surface, they are right there waiting for you. No need to worry about getting back to the boat in a current or about getting lost underwater. Hot showers and towels await you back onboard, and then it’s only a matter of time before you’re back in the water.

The diving system itself is fairly relaxed - if you want a buddy, you can pair up with someone. If, as a photographer, you know you won't be doing someone any good by being their buddy, that's ok too - you can dive 'solo'. Noboby minds how long you stay down - most of my dives were well over an hour in length. The Bilikiki is very accomodating in this aspect.

The Bilikiki boats are designed almost perfectly for photographers. A spacious two-level camera table on the dive deck compliments the two large camera rinse tanks. Inside, trays are provided for the miscellaneous loose components of the setups, along with lint-free towels to dry and clean the cameras, housings, and strobes.Anemonefish

Digital has been embraced, with plenty of room for laptops as well as electrical outlets under the tables. Upstairs is a room dedicated to charging batteries and film development, although it seems the latter is used less and less. Monty and Michelle, the Aussie managers of the M.V. Bilikiki, are photographers themselves, and there’s a close understanding of the requirements and necessities for all involved in the activity.

The diving itself is nothing short of spectacular, from sites with steep walls, branching fans, and blooming soft coral, to deep water World War II wrecks, to muck dives where everyone has their heads buried in the sand, looking for that small denizen previously undiscovered. Common sightings in this area include just about everything rare – it’s merely a matter of how well you can spot the creatures. Lionfish and shrimp gobies are a common sight, along with the usual colorful fish of the tropics.

Night dives bring cuttlefish and a variety of crustacean species, along with a different look at the reef than the daylight illumination. While every dive contained a multitude of macro subjects, wide angle is a possibility as well. Each dive brought something new, and as a photographer, I was never in lack of a subject.Local Solomon Islander children

Topside, the Bilikiki crew did a great job of offering land-based excursions on occasion. On one such instance, we visited a village that had out for sale a large selection of carvings, of a variety of woods. The work is unique and in many ways beautiful, and for once, notably authentic. Buying is done by a system of bartering; ‘first price’, ‘second price’, and ‘best price’ were all overheard during the visit, with the latter dropping lower and lower as the time to depart grew closer. Some of the passengers seemed to stock up for three full holiday seasons from this one visit, and in truth, I picked up a few items myself.

On another excursion, we traveled to a village where we witnessed a ‘sing-sing’, in which members of the tribe (both men and women) performed song and dance. Everyone was entertained when the passengers joined in on one of the dances. After the song and dance, we were treated to a tour of the village.

Leaving was tough, but necessary, at the end of the trip. Other than a short plane delay leaving Honiara, the traveling was without incident. Arriving home in Los Angeles, I could only think of returning someday to the unspoiled land of the Solomons, and diving off the M.V. Bilikiki one more time...

Bilikiki passengersBilikiki crew
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