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November 05, 2017

Flying Into Fire, Literally!

A short flight on Air Tahiti Nui airlines brought us to this picturesque little outpost. There we stayed at the home of James, a local fisherman my partner had known for years. More discussions and some meals later, including a very colorful parrotfish dinner, we were off to explore the local waters the next day.


My journey to the South Pacific had begun and was more than fulfilling my expectations.

During my tour of Walt Smith’s facility I saw divers bring in some rare deepwater colonies of unusual Acanthastrea and Echinophyllia corals like I had never seen before. At another facility I saw the process of how live rock is collected and prepared for shipment to become the foundation of our reef aquariums. Fiji live rock has been the staple of our hobby since its earliest days and probably responsible for the popularity of the hobby in its infancy. The color and shapes of this rock is truly beautiful. The rock is collected from pieces of the reef that fall off during storms and native workers hand collect these pieces by walking out to the shallow sites with a small canoe in tow that they fill with the raw rock. The rock is brought to a warehouse where larger pieces of sponge are removed and the rock is put into small piles that are continuously sprayed with saltwater over a period of days to remove any dead and decaying material before it is weighed, packed into boxes, and prepared for export. The rock is still very much alive and teaming with life. It’s a fascinating process to watch as hundreds of pounds are processed daily. Small reef fishes were brought in by other native divers in small plastic bottles and other random containers and their catch was bought by the exporters and housed and treated in their massive fish systems. The aquarium export industry in Fiji is well established and a fine tuned machine. I would soon learn that is not the case in the Solomon Islands!

Later that night as I was about to board my plane to the Solomons word spread that rioting and looting has broken out on the streets of Honiara. Speculation and rumors were rampant about the situation, but the flight was still scheduled and I was going to be along for the ride, I hadn’t come this far to turn back now!

In the late 1990s tensions had begun to flare between feuding factions from various islnds around Guadalcanal. A subsequent takeover of the government by radicals plunged the island nation into years of instability. The New Zealand and Australian governments and their military had restored some calm by 2003 and by 2005 the country seemed on its way to rebuilding.

"In a ritual sacrifice to the gods, James, our companion and guide in the area, dove down and ripped a large maxima clam from the rocks and brought it to the surface where he proceeded to ceremoniously open it and eat it raw. "

Before the overthrow there had been a Tridacna clam farm on Guadalcanal along with modern raids and bridges to remote areas of the island. Afterward the clam farm had been destroyed and lawlessness was rampant to the point that westerners left and there was little if any outside investment in the area. In recent years the tensions had subsided while foreign military presence lessened. A local I spoke with said things were better than they had been in 20 years, but that was soon to change!

The current unrest was due to unpopular results from recent elections and accusations of widespread voting irregularities and outside influence. The newly elected Prime Minister was sworn in the day before my arrival at Honiara and the buildings ablaze I saw from the window of the plane as we were landing at night were the result of building resentments. The flight into fire was scary, the ride from the airport to the hotel was eerie, and armed military troops filled the streets and the once-developing Chinatown district was completely engulfed in flames that were spreading to nearby homes and businesses. My taxi was stopped at several checkpoints because we were out after the 6pm curfew and we were questioned about the reason for our presences.

Upon arriving at the hotel we were in a safe location, but there was no electricity due to the approaching fire. Once in my room I hoped the worst was over, but in the middle of the night I was awoken by loud banging and shouting. It seems an opposition party politician had taken refuge in a room adjacent to me and the military police were ramming down his door. They quickly escorted him away. My dream of visiting the tranquil reefs of the tropical South Pacific was as elusive as ever!

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