|SOLOMON ISLANDS, AUG 2004 - UEPI ISLAND RESORT, MAROVO LAGOON|
The Uepi Island Resort
Flight to Seghe, over Marovo Lagoon
Uepi Island is located on Marovo Lagoon, which is reputedly the longest lagoon in the world. The island itself is a barrier reef island covered by rainforest, and is about 2.5km long and 600m wide. Aside from the resort and a few sandy paths snaking around, the island is undeveloped and is as remote a place as you're likely to find.
Bungalow #1, at Uepi Island Resort
The resort features six standalone bungalows, two "dual unit" bungalows, and two guestrooms. All bungalows and units are spacious, featuring full bathrooms, kitchen areas, screened windows, 24-hour electricity, and shaded decks with hammocks and patio furniture. There is no hot water, but the given the temperature of a typical day in the Solomons, it is probably not necessary. Each of the bungalows has plenty of space around it, which can mean quite a walk if you happen to be placed in one far away from the central lodge. Being far away means you get plenty of privacy, but if you are visiting Uepi as a diver or underwater photographer, the walk can be a bit of a hassle.
Like all very remote locations, getting to Uepi can be an adventure in itself. Visitors must fly to Seghe from Honiara, and then take a small, powered canoe approximately 12km across the lagoon. The Seghe airstrip is small and grassy, with no where to sit when you arrive. However, Uepi Resort is building their own building there, so this may change in the near future. The "canoe" ride is wet, with no shade, so you should pack trashbags for your bags and bring a waterproof jacket, hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen. Uepi Resort does have a covered boat, and if you're lucky, you might be able to convince them to use it to bring you back to the airport when you leave.
View of Marovo lagoon from my bungalow
The resort is centered around an open-air lodge, where sit-down dinners every night make you feel like you're part of the family. Owners Grant and Jill (and often, their sons) are always around if you need anything, and it is a pleasure to be able to sit around chatting with them about their 20 years in the Solomon Islands while staring at shark fins cutting small Vs across the shallow reef. The place really does feel homey -- which can be a mixed blessing, depending on your temperament. I found that if you ask for anything, it is taken care of, but no one will figure out your needs for you. As an underwater photographer with lots of gear, this made diving the local waters harder than it could have been.
Uepi features many island activities including snorkeling, swimming, canoeing + kayaking expeditions, picnics, fishing, guided walks, scuba diving, and various cultural activities. Because I went to the resort as an underwater photographer, I'll focus the rest of this report on the scuba diving around the island.
Scuba Diving at Uepi Island Resort
Large brain coral at Deku Dekuru
The dive sites around Uepi Island Resort are excellent. The seaward edge of the island drops off to 2000m in depth, which makes the marine life in local waters unpredictable. In fact, Jill told us about a dive where she took a student down to Uepi Point and a juvenile orca swam up for a look! Speaking of Uepi Point, it was my favorite dive in the area. It juts out underwater on the close side of Charapoana Passage, one of the few deep-water passages into Marovo Lagoon. As soon as we dropped on top of the point for the first time, a squadron of reef sharks swam by to investigate us as we descended to about 90'. From their behavior it was immediately clear that these sharks are fed regularly, and in further conversations with Jill I noted that she speaks about the local reef shark gang with something like motherly love. Anway, back to Uepi Point: a typical dive involves descending down to between 90-100' and waiting in the current at the point to see if large pelagics swim by. After 15 minutes or so, divers work their way back up the point and either drift along the wall back to the dive shop's pier, or enter a protected, shallow sandy area to hang out with schools of fish and fields of garden eels.
A black-tip shark swims in shallow water
Another one of my favorite dive sites is a site called Deku Dekuru, which features dramatic cuts into the island with views of trees through the shallow surface and colorful hard coral gardens in two feet of water. Uepi Island offers trips to many sites I enjoyed a lot. I can't say that the sites are necessarily "better" than sites dived by the Bilikiki, but I have always liked good house reefs because you can go back to the same spot as many times as you'd like.
Grant and Jill also offer a shark feed, and have been feeding the local sharks for many, many years. The feed takes place off of the "Welcome Jetty," which is so named because it's where you are welcomed when you arrive at the resort. It's an informal feed: divers and snorkelers hang out on the rocks below the pier, and Grant, Jill, and sons chuck fish bits off of the jetty. Small reef sharks arrive at the scene immediately and make quite a scene, hitting the bait so hard that they sometimes throw their bodies right out of the water. There were probably thirty small black-tip and white-tip reef sharks participating in the feed. Directly behind the wall is a shallow hard coral garden, and if you manage to time the feed with late-afternoon sunlight, the light rays will dance around spectacularly while sharks swim in literally inches of water. If you find yourself bored with feeding sharks, you will find that the boulders are full of various nudibranch species. Those moments are still extremely sharp in my memory.
Garden eel in the shallows by Uepi Point
The hours between diving can be spent soaking up the remoteness of the island by relaxing alone, or by participating in various land excursions that are simply a request away.
Grant and Jill are also actively involved in conservation in their local reefs. For example, while I was there they had on hand a bunch of seahorses that were purchased from local villages to prevent their sale to Chinese fishing vessels (in traditional Chinese medicine, dried seahorses are believe to be an aphrodisiac and a cure for impotence). They constructed a pen in the seagrass just in front of the resort, where they were to be kept until they could decide what to do with them. Grant told me that has been an increase in commercial fishing activity in local waters, and one of the local village chiefs reported that whereas they used to just go out and fish for tuna, they now buy it in a can. So visit now -- the waters around the Solomon Islands still have a pristine feel to them, but sooner or later I'm sure commercial fishing will take its toll.
To enjoy Uepi Island Resort, you have to have the right expectations. I have to be honest here: the island resort is run like it is a place for backpackers to hang out, and the pricing model for excursions and diving is even organized in the same sort of a la carte manner. The dive shop is staffed, but dive guides aren't very enthusiastic and don't go out of their way to offer help in the same way a full-service resort might give you. And dive facilities are meager: the boats aren't kept in very good condition (I was afraid to put my camera down because there was an oily film on the bottom of one of the boats), rinse buckets for gear aren't available unless you ask for them, and there is nowhere to store and maintain camera gear except your own bungalow, which can be a long hike away from the dive shop. Be careful when you board boats and use ladders on the various jetties. During my few days there, one of the ladders broke (causing bruising on the guy who climbed up it), and I slipped on the surface of the metal boat and narrowly avoided serious injury. It's also difficult to do more than a few dives a day. You might be able to get three in, if you worked them out with Grant and Jill before-hand, and it was unclear to me whether grabbing a tank and doing a shore dive would count as a full-price boat dive. If you plan on doing a lot of diving while you are at Uepi Island, be sure to clarify these things before you go.
The employees put on quite a show!
Having said all of that, nearly everyone I spoke to at the resort was having a great time. People go to Uepi to get away from everything, and I can't imagine a place where I'd feel more isolated from the daily grind of normal life. Grant and Jill welcome visitors as honorary family members, and the local diving is very good. I often wonder why the dive facilities at Uepi aren't renovated to support divers who need more comfort, unfortunately including underwater photographers and their need for camera facilities. I can only speculate that the existing support draws the kind of people Grant and Jill enjoy hosting. After all, living out in the middle of the Solomon Islands is a lifestyle decision, and there is no reason to ruin that lifestyle by attracting the wrong sorts of people. If you're looking for an escape unlike any other you're likely to find, Uepi Island Resort is well worth a visit.
To book a trip to Uepi Island Resort, contact Jenny at Reef & Rainforest.
Images from Uepi Island Resort (click images for more)
Uepi Journal (excerpts copied out of my notes)
24 August 2004
Uepi (pronounced "oo-pee") reminds me of the backpackers' accomodation James Wiseman and I stayed at while we were at Nananu-i-ra in Fiji. Upon disembarking from a very similar plane that landed in a similar-looking mud-field airstrip, we (Olga, Stephen, a German guy named Michael, and me) were shuttled across a fair bit of water to Uepi, after stopping briefly to pick up some vegetables from a nearby village. At that village was the skull of a recently-killed salt-water crocodile that had been spotted and killed in the mangroves. The boat ride took probably half-an-hour or so, and we sat there being sprayed by salt water while baking in the sun. The resort owns the entire island of Uepi, which is shaped roughly like a hammerhead shark missing half of its caudal fin. It's nearly seven o'clock, and the sun has already descended below the horizon. I'm surrounded by the greenish glow of fluorescent lighting, and unfortunate way to light things -- but probably necessary given the fuel-for-electricity arrangement here. A coconut just released itself from its tree and splashed into the water in front of me (the water's edge is about twenty feet away).
Dive 1 - Uepi Point, 1745 hrs - Resort manager Grant took us out for our first dive here at Uepi. A very short boat ride led us to Uepi Point, which is a pendulum reef with a point that gets enough current to host thousands of rainbow runners and schools of jacks, snappers, and a few grouper. There are a lot of grey reef sharks here hanging out in the current, but these behave differently than any other reef shark I've seen in the solomons thus far. In fact, they are so curious that they behave like sharks that are accustomed to being fed. While I was buried in my efforts to photograph the deeper purple variety of fire dart gobies, the three other divers suddenly became very excited because they saw wither a whale shark (according to Olga & Stephen) or a great hammerhead (according to Grant). Either way, it was pretty exciting. Also, a lone spotted eagle ray swooped in for some acrobatic loops before disappearing into the shallows. After about 30 minutes we floated through a narrow sand channel ip into a coral garden and sandy area full of macro life and friendly fish. Garden eels allowed close photography even with a 100mm lens, and snappers and groupers were up for some close visits as well. Also here were some huge lobsters, moray eels, nudibrances, and much more. It was beautiful: the water was relatively clear, and the setting sun cast dancing ribbons of light down upon us. This time of the day is my favorite time to be in the water.
We've met the people that are staying here:
Grant + Jill - the managers
I was feeling a little... unsure of what I am doing here earlier in the day. It's going to be touch to get even three dives a day in, and each dive involves schlepping my heavy camera down a path to the dive area. I'm not sure I want to leave all of my lenses and accessories out in the open somewhere -- and it's not clear whether there is anywhere appropriate, anyway. The diving facilities are sparse and run down, but the diving so far has been excellent. For example, upon returning from the dive -- which costs $64 AUS or so, no one was there to greet us, I couldn't find any towels, there was no rinse tank for my camera, and I had no idea what to do with my gear. It's not that the staff isn't accommodating -- it's that you have to ask for even the most basic things that should be standard at most diving facilities.
25 August 2004
Dive 2 - Elbow Point, 0900 hrs - No current = no fish. Water was a bit murky, but the presence of the sun gave the dive a pleasant feel to it, especially since my last 35 dives were spent in near darkness. ;) We dropped in on a dogtooth tuna (pretty large!) circling in the shadows, and then spent some time looking out into the blue before giving up and turning our attentions back to the reef. Highlights: a yellow leaf scorpionsifh, a black + orange clingfish in a black crinoid, an eel with both its head and tail sticking out under an overhang, some nice nudibranches and flatworks, and a curious hawksbill turtle that completely ignored us divers until my strobes went off (it freaked out).
I had some horrible dreams last night. I dreamt that it started to rain, and that I woke up to my things being drenched with water -- batteries, chargers, cameras, etc. In my dream I asked Grant to come fix the windows, which don't close completely because some of the glass rectangles aren't seated straight in their tracks, but for some reason he wouldn't fix them. I guess the dream was some sort of magnified version of some of the concerns I have been having.
Dive 3 - Charopiana Point, 2400 hrs - Charopoana Drift is the other side of the passage just in front of the dive center. We had an incoming tide, so we were dropped off around the point and drifted into the channel and along the wall, where large sponges, soft corals, and gorgonians dotted the relatively barren slope. Interesting terrain, but not as much life as the other side of the channel. Annoying -- and possibly dangerous -- because when we surfaced there was no panga to be seen. Our dive guide had to whistle and yell before someone at the dive center jumped into the boat to come get us.
Dive 3 Extension - Shark Feed - The Uepi shark dive takes place off of the "Welcome Jetty." Divers giant stride off of the jenny, establish their positions on the shallow area of the reef wall -- next to some of the largest giant clams I've ever seen -- and hang out while Jill throws a few chunks of fish into the water nearby. About twenty-five or so sharks turned up (grey reef sharks and black tips) ranging in size from small 2' juveniles to 6' adults. Done for just a few divers, this shark feed is one of the best I've seen. There is no unsightly trashcan banging around, no clutter of a string of 20 divers, and no annoying large fish competing for scraps. The water is also very clear and it's easy to get close to sharks with only the blue as a backdrop. If you turn around, you see sharks up in the shallows in only a foot or two of water; the light dances magically on the fire coral and sharks are lit up in dramatic, warm light as they swim through the ribbons of late-afternoon sunlight.
26 August 2004
Dive 4 - Billy Ghizo Point, 0900 hrs - Drove through hard rain and wind to the dive site and dropped into the water near the point after anchoring in a little inlet. Three spotted eagle rays danced around in the deep at around 130-140' down. Tons of common chromodoris sp. nudibranches and a few denise pygmy sea horses.
2300 hrs - Dinner and a movie - -just like at home, sort of. :) Wes, Jason, and Ocean put on a college frat-boy movie called "Jan Wilder - Party Liason" or something. When it was over, I couldn't help but wonder what effect movies like that have on the local Solomon Islanders who watch it. It certainly must give them a strange sense of what America is like and create strange expectations about how local life compares. Of course, it's possible that the Australians who own the resort have some strange ideas of America as well... ;)
Ocean commented today at dinner that I have the "best" American accent she's ever heard. Olga said the same thing a few days ago. They clarified and remarked that the accent is soft and "not annoying" like the "twangy" accents they usually hear from Americans. Ocean was also pretty fascinated in my mannerisms because she had never had a close encounter with an Asian person who didn't have an Asian accent. She asked, in a soft voice, "are you part Asian?" She wasn't quite sure what to think of me, I think, and also thought I was between twenty and twenty-two years old -- which I'll take as a compliment. :)
27 August 2004
Dive 5 - Inside Point, 0900 hrs - Inside Point is just around Uepi Island to the right, off of the Welcome Jetty (in front of the dining area). The sandy area at 30+ meters in depth hosts many garden eels. We drifted along for a bit before reaching the point, where a school of barracuda circled above. Our dive guide, "Deliver," showed me where three flashing file shells (Ctenoides ales) were flashing away under a little overhang. I spent the next thirty minutes or so photographing them; I wasn't sure whether the flashing would reflect light properly, so I started out shooting at open apertures at ISO 800 and worked my way up to ISO 100 at f13. I learned later that the shell rolls its inner lip to expose some sort of reflective pigment, so the "flashing" area photographs fine with strobes. On the way back to the jetty I saw lots of nudibranches, lionfish, black-tip sharks, giant clams, and... that's about it. On the way back in, Stephen got his Nikonos framer a bit too close to the mantle of a clam, and just as my eyebrows started to furrow in concern, the clam clamped down on it and wouldn't let go! I snapped some photos (I was laughing, too), and then swam over and got the thing out for him. :)
1300 hrs - too much dive talk going on. I need a break!
Dive 6 - Uepi Point, 1400 hrs - Took the 180mm macro lens down and buddied up with Ocean. Shot a mean close-up of a garden eel, whch I was pretty excited about (it took forever to creep up on the thing). Also followed around a rather large juvenile rockmover wrasse.
28 August 2004
Dive 7 - Deku Dekuru, 0900 hrs - Deku Dekuru is a series of three caves and tunnels, all of which loop up into the forest canopy in its narrow channels of light. The sun rays filtering into the caves were beautiful. The second swim-through has a dramatic Acropora sp. coral growing at the surface, and as the water level moves up and down with the surge some of the plates -- and their resident blue damsels -- reflect off of the surface of the water, with a flickering green forest canopy towering above. I spent more of my time in this cave and surfaced after 75 minutes before going into the third "dark" cave, which the rest of the group had gone into.
Six more guests arrived yesterday, and the three kayakers (the Italian couple + Carmen) have also returned after being thrown around in rough seas for a few days. ;)
I'm sitting on a bench overlooking a shoreline dotted with palm trees, and it's great. There's a healthy breeze preventing overwhelming heat, and I feel totally relaxed. My field of view is dominated by blues, greens, and the warm gray slashes of tree trunks.
Dive 8 - Uepi Point, 1400 hrs - Fun wide-angle! Schools of fish that don't move even when you swim right up to them. How novel. :) The surge slammed me into a bit of Acropora. Luckily, none of it broke off, but it did rip a hole in my wetsuit. Bah. It's old, anyway.
Dive 9 - North Log, 0900 hrs - Nice wal! We started the dive in a small cave/swim-through. Upon exiting, we continued along the wall, which has numerous overhangs and nice topography. I think the wall should be renamed "Clingfish Wall" because there were so many clingfish inhabiting the various crinoids we looked into. Also present in the crinoids were various shrimp and squat lobsters. The coral life wasn't very lush, but the dramatic topography more than made up for it. I spotted two nudibranches mating, too.
30 August 2004
It poured rain last night and part of the morning. I took the mornin goff from diving and worked on critter identification instead. There is so much compter work that goes with organizing digital photos; I get from people all the time: "what's your favorite organization program? photoshop?" Argh. That question -- with the second part -- doesn't even make sense. I usually give a vague answer clarifying the difference between viewing, editing, and asset management, but it's hard to explain more if one is starting from scratch. I sometimes don't mind answering questions at length, but if I'm not traveling as part of a workshop, I sometimes retreat to my cabin instead.
I saw Himes and some other carvers from Teline Village today. They -- and others -- are assembled inte carvers' hut showing off their carvings. There is some good stuff here.
A hint, for future visitors: bring things like dive masks to trade for carvings. The local carvers really like dive masks. :)
1 Sept 2004
Finally, on my way back to the States! I spent yesterday travelling from Uepi to Seghe by boat -- a very salty and windy trip, but this time we had trash bags and a covered boat -- and then flying from Seghe to Honiara to Brisbane. I really wanted to stop by Borders Books in Brisbane to pick up something to read for the flight back, but unfortunately it closed half and hour before I got there. Instead, I bought a combo chicken wrap at a Mediterranean food stand not far from the bookstore and walked back to the Holiday Inn on Roma St. to spend the evening watching episodes of random TV shots on my computer (and, I've started working on the website I'll be putting up when I return home). Speaking of returning home, I'm not quite sure how I will get through the next week with all the things I have to do. I should probably make a list. :)
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