1856: Melanesia Discoverer 06 Oct 2018

Day 1: Saturday 06 October 2018
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea 

Some of us were soon reminded we had arrived into the ‘The Land of the Unexpected’ when half of the Spirit of Enderby passengers, along with the Expedition Leader and a number of staff had an unexpected stopover in Port Moresby, due to the connecting flight to Madang being cancelled. The travel weary group were taken to the Gateway for a well-earned rest, eager to return very early the following morning to continue our travels.

Day 2: Sunday 07 October 2018
Madang, north east coast Papua New Guinea

Up early and ready for the next unexpected adventure, we were pleased to be boarding our flight and eventually heading to Madang to join the remainder of the Expedition Team who had arrived a day early. After breakfast in the Madang Resort, we were soon touring this tropical paradise, taking in the local museum, the majestic Coastwatcher’s Kalibobo memorial ending with a visit to the coastal village of Bilbil. Renowed for their expert pottery making skills, Bilbil elders entertained us with a superb sing sing (dance) and pottery demonstration – certainly a highlight of the journey. Lined up on the bow we farewelled Madang as the Spirit of Enderby navigated into the turquoise blue of the Bismarck Sea to commence the Melanesian Discoverer expedition. The afternoon is given over to introductions to the Expedition Team and safety briefings to prepare us for the journey through Papua New Guinea, ending in the Solomon Islands. Our welcome dinner served in the ‘Ice Culture’ restaurant set the scene for a delectable menu, soon to be replicated for the remainder of the trip.

Day 3: Monday 08 October 2018
Kopar Village, Sepik River, Papua New Guinea 

In the early morning light, our Zodiac cavalcade navigates its way into the Sepik (Sea-pik) River. Over 1,200km (700miles) in length, the Sepik is the longest river in Papua New Guinea, starting in the Victor Emmanuel ranges on the West Papuan border, it twist’s like a gigantic brown serpent moving east to the Bismarck Sea. After meandering along the river bank we enter a man-made channel, edged with spiky sago palms. Our machete welding local guide, positioned in the lead Zodiac, skillfully cleared a path with the cautious words of our fearless Expedition Leader Judd ringing in his ears ‘careful of the rubber’. Sago, the staple diet of the Sepik people, is cultivated on a regular basis to obtain flour which is used to make pancakes and pudding served with steamed fish and greens. The fibre of the trunk is ponded and washed, with the starch being gathered once it settles in the bottom of a collection canoe. Returning to the village of Kopar, we are enthusiastically welcomed into the dance arena by the master of ceremonies, Ward Councilor Kelly, complete with an iridescent orange hula skirt and loud speaker to help control the proceedings. Following a traditional welcome from the Maprik Village, a mythical dragon dance immerges to the melody of kundu (hour glass wooden) drums and ancient songs. Shrouded by freshly cut aromatic plants, a brilliant red mask is held high by athletic legs and glides effortlessly around the dance arena. Soon we were wandering through the extensive artefact market, a boulevard of traditional and contemporary spirit carvings, story boards and bilums (string bags). Before returning to the Spirit of Enderby for lunch we were taken into local homes and learnt more about the everyday life of the Sepik people, from crocodile hunting, fishing, trading and baking of shells for lime – one of the necessary ingredient for chewing bettle nut (buai) – the other being the piper vine mustard stick. This afternoon our inaugural presentation is about ‘Rites of Passage – initiation ceremonies of the Sepik’ by our regional cultural specialist, Suzanne Noakes, followed by Courtney Rayes presentation on ‘Fishy Facts & ID’. Recap this evening, and every night thereafter, highlighted the events of the day and gave an overview of what was to come.

BIRDING EXTENSION: The birders set off at 05:30 from the ship into a rapidly dawning sky and towards the mouth of the great Sepik River. As they approached clear blue oceanic waters turned brown and turbid. The Zodiac hugged the eastern bank of the river slowly making its way upstream with the ever vigilant birders scanning the tree tops and river banks for anything of interest. Groups of fruit doves shot past whilst Pinon and Collared Imperial Pigeons were a little more relaxed. Flocks of Great and Intermediate Egrets flighted out of their roost nearby, joined by Little Pied and Little Black Cormorants. Soon after dawn many birds crisscrossed the river including Blyth’s Hornbill, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo’s, and Red-cheeked Parrots. As the sun climbed and the temperature soared activity decreased and the birders returned to Kopar Village to join the remainder of the group.

© D. Brown


© D. Brown


© K. Richter

Day 4: Tuesday 09 October 2018
Manus Island, Derimbat, Papua New Guinea 

An expedition stop awaits us today, as we are shuttled ashore to Derimbat Village, situated on the north coast of Manus Island. American Anthropologist, Margaret Mead, lived on Manus before and after World War II, and gave detailed accounts in ‘Growing up in New Guinea’ and ‘New Lives for Old’. In 2001 a detention centre was built on the island as part of the Australia’s Pacific Solution to receiving illegal boat refugees. Now disbanded, the island is deciding its new path into the future. Walking through flower lined boulevards; we were greeted by local school students, and shepherded into the dance arena heralded by a conch shell. The official welcome commenced with speeches with proceedings finishing with energetic dancers – some Elvis would have gained some tips on in regards to suggestive pelvic thrusting. Keeping in line with Melanesian reciprocity – it was time for the Spirit of Enderby tribe to step up to the dance arena and display its best rendition of the ‘hookie pookie’. Thankfully celebrated a success from the locals!

Idyllic Papi Island was the perfect place to kick off snorkeling for the trip. Cruising over in the Zodiacs, you could see the coral reef stretching like a band around the island and seagrass patches littered across the sandy entrance. Snorkeling was a breeze in the shallow crystal-clear water and provided many delights. Seastars and urchins were abundant, and two banded sea kraits cruised around in the shallows. For those who ventured out to the outer reef, lionfish, anemonefish and pufferfish were spotted amongst an abundance of schooling fish. Right at the end of the snorkel a sharp-eyed passenger spotted a common seahorse clinging onto the seagrass fronds just a few meters from the shore. It was the most relaxing way to start snorkeling for the trip. 

BIRDING EXTENSION: Birding expedition days are always interesting and today was no exception. Exploring new areas brings both new challenges and new opportunities. A swathe of good looking rainforest extended back from Derimbat Village up the hill and our guides enthusiastically proclaimed that Superb Pittas could be found up there so rather than the planned river cruise we ditched the Zodiacs and set off on foot. The newly cut mud track proved harder going than expected as clay clogged our shoes and weighed us down but we continued onwards and upwards finding the endearing Meek’s Pygmy Parrot and Manus Friarbird without too much problem. After a couple of kilometres we headed off the track and into the forest. Here a narrow trail snaked through the thick understory. Manus Monarch, Bismarck Whistler, and plenty of Electus Parrots showed well whilst a Variable Dwarf Kingfisher buzzed past at high speed. The heat proved hard work and after several kilometers we finally made it back down to the beach and back to the ship where a cold shower was much appreciated. 

© K. Richter

© K. Richter

Day 5: Wednesday 10 October 2018
Mussau & Little Mussau Island, Papua New Guinea 

On arrival we were told that year 10 students were sitting their end of year exams, but were welcomed into the cool of the library by the principal. Some choosing to soak up the ambiance, others set off to join the birding or expedition team to explore the local pathways. Passing regenerated forest, we were grateful of the cool relief of a small waterfall and swimming hole that awaited us at the end of the walk. 

In the afternoon Little Mussau was peacefully waiting our arrival for our afternoon swim and snorkel. The landowner, Margaret along with her family, welcomed us to enjoy this slice of paradise. Some said the quintessential island escape. On arrival Chef Ed and Alicia had cooked up a storm with a delicious beach buffet on offer. To top it all off, our snorkel site graded gently out from the beach and harboured a diverse, colourful range of stony corals with numerous fascinating marine invertebrates. The most spectacular being the giant clams displaying their brilliant colours and impressive sizes. Covering the massive corals, christmas tree worms also dazzled with their bright colours. Schooling fish zoomed up and down the shallows providing entertainment even from the surface, and a black-tip and white-tip shark were sighted scooting around the edges. Back on board we joined Dan Brown, our resident naturalist, in the Lecture Room for an informative presentation on ‘Pacific Discoverers’.

BIRDING EXTENSION: The birders made haste up the track at Mussau towards the forest but were quickly overtaken by the waterfall walkers after numerous distractions along the trail. First up was a striking male Blue-faced Parrotfinch with its blue, green and red patterning. They quickly followed with a pair of Mussau Monarchs flicking through the tangle of vines. The birding was pretty tough going but they still managed to pick up more Bismarck Whistlers, Bismarck Black Myzomela’s, Stephans Emerald Doves and Mackinlay’s Cuckoo Doves. During the afternoon snorkelling session a stroll around Little Mussau produced a very similar mix of species including the monarchs and most surprisingly of all a couple of brief views of Russet-tailed Thrush.

© C. Rayes

Day 6: Thursday 11 October 2018
Tatau Island, Tabar Group New Ireland, Papua New Guinea 

Another expedition stop, Tatau Island was soon to offer an incredible opportunity for us to be drawn in to the cultural world of Malagan Ritual Art. New Zealand Anthropologist, Michael Gunn’s research notes that ‘malagan is dynamic, a living cultural tradition’. He continued to say that ‘Each time a malagan is made it is still the same as it was the first time because the rights to own it were directly descended from the original rights, but the malagan sculpture changes because the people who make and use it change. Things change yet stay the same, and things stay the same yet change.’ We were honoured by a special welcome by Chief Luran, refreshments of cooled coconuts and local fruits, an introduction to Malagan – series of ritual and ceremonial activities – culminating with a traditional sing sing. Soon we were free to explore Savuno Village which recently enjoyed the spoils from the nearby gold mine on Simberi Island in the form of a new clinic, roofing iron, mobile phones and timber for housing. Change is coming quickly to this remote northern village of New Ireland. 

BIRDING EXTENSION: Today at Tatau Island was a big day for the birders. With a change in logistics on this trip they were able to get ashore close to the main area, the Lilet Plateau, and not only that but they had a whole 12 hours ashore to find as much as possible. Up at 800m the air was beautifully cool and the birding superb. Over the course of the day they worked their way up through the forest, continuing along the track to explore some new areas (now sadly logged) before slowly working their way back down again. The birds came thick and fast. Highlights including sightings of New Ireland Friarbird, and the still undescribed Bismarck Flyrobin, both very rarely seen species, fourteen (!!) species of pigeon including Pied, Bar-tailed, Amboyna and Mackinlay’s Cuckoo-Doves, Black and Yellowish Imperial Pigeons, and Superb Fruit Dove, Song Parrots, tantalising glimpses of White-naped Lory. White-necked Councal, Red Myzomelas, the stunning White-backed Woodswallows, and Paradise Drongo’s. The icing on the cake came in the last ten minutes with a quick stop at the local playing field producing not only Forbes, Buff-bellied and Hunstein’s Mannikins but two fly-over Nicobar Pigeons! A perfect end to a brilliant days birding.

© K. Richter

Day 7: Friday 12 October 2018
Lambom Island, Southern New Ireland 

In the true spirit of adventure our Expedition Leader took the opportunity to explore the spectacular coastline with a Zodiac cruise to explore the small outcrop islands, home to noddy’s, turns, colourful kingfishers and other endemic bird and fish species.  

A slice of the Lambon coast proved a spectacular spot for a morning of snorkeling and beach combing. The slight current allowed for a relaxing drift from one end across to an awaiting Zodiac. The reef patches were home to many creatures of interest including countless feather stars in various colours and feather duster worms spread across the reef. Hinged shrimpfish were bobbing up and down above coral heads and pipefish were slithering their way across the bottom. Numerous hawkfish were spotted resting on the stony coral and schools of surgeon fish were patrolling the reef. One particular large stony coral was the hub for a huge variety of fish from the small damsels and blennies to larger parrotfish, tangs and wrasse. A beautiful Spanish dancer nudibranch gave an excellent display to finish off the morning. 

After an enjoyable beach snorkel we were soon transferred to Lambom Island within Lassim Bay, at the Southern Point of New Ireland. Once ashore a massive storm unleashed itself and the roofing iron of the church, which we sheltered under, lifted and signaled that spirits were in residence. Undeterred by the chaos, the local villages entertained us with an intermittent sing sing. Once the winds decreased some of us wandered through the village, home to many boarding students from the surrounding villages, others enjoyed a true immersion into village life based on an intermit chat with local women, the traditional land owners. On return to the Spirit of Enderby a dugout canoe flotilla had amassed, each jostling for space to exhibit their agile marine skills. Most spent more time bailing out the canoe rather than paddling the vessel.

Back on board, late afternoon, we join Suzanne in the Lecture Room for a presentation on Mortuary Rituals in Melanesia – from the bizarre to current ceremonies, including the New Ireland Malagan ceremony.


© D. Brown

© D. Brown

Day 8: Saturday 13 October 2018
Kokopo/Rabaul, New Britain, Papua New Guinea 

The Ring of Fire was evident this morning as we slide into Rabaul, perched on the edge of a dramatic flooded-caldera harbour, it is precariously surrounded by a number of beautiful cone-shaped volcanoes (Tovanumbatir, Kombiu, Turagunan, Tavurvur, Vulcan). In 1994 this was the site of an enormous volcanic eruption by Tavurvur and Vulcan Volcanoes that leveled most of the former capital of New Britain, Rabaul township, leaving in its wake tons of volcanic ash, which to this day is still being excavated. Although the thriving new settlement of Kokopo is supposed to replace Rabaul and provide a much safer locale for development on the Gazelle Peninsula, the pull of the old harbour remains strong, and rebuilding is sneaking back into the ruined town, once the jewel of the southwestern Pacific. Situated on New Britain Island, Rabaul was a thriving capital of German New Guinea in the late 1800s, then later placed under Australian control by a League of Nations mandate following WWI. After the Japanese invasion in WWII, the island became an important and impregnable base, laced with over 500kms of tunnels into the hills – a honeycomb of interconnecting passages and bunkers, at its height with over 100,000 Japanese troops and thousands of POWs. Allied bombing raids were incessant towards the end of the war, and the town was flattened, with over 40 ships sunk in the harbour. Our touring time onshore included a visit to the Japanese barge tunnels, Rabaul volcano observation centre – where Mr Killa, the resident volcanologist, gave an informative overview of the current state of play in regards to volcanic movements and monitoring stations; Yamamoto’s bunker, an up close and personal volcano stop, Kokopo War Museum and the main food market. 

After leaving Rabaul, we returned to isolation on an island in the Duke of York group, inhabited by a very small community. They so kindly let us pour onto their beach and explore the expansive reef flat just out front. Moorish idols, damselfish, bannerfish and butterflyfish were all prominent on the reef and sea urchins were tucked into crevices. The movement of soft corals was mesmerizing and we came across several spaghetti worms spreading their arms across the floor searching for organic matter. It was a hard site to leave behind, but on we went to Nissan. 

BIRDING EXTENSION: With a change of location for the birding the prospect of some seriously steep climbing loomed and our group dwindled to four. Off they set at 04:40 to Kokapo and onwards in their Nissan Trooper up the hill for first light. As the day started we were walking up a steep ascent of a large conical hill. The local community, keen to encourage tourism had cut steps into the hillside and planted the lower slopes with flowers, not to mention providing lots of very well placed bamboo benches for those much-needed breaks. As we climbed we found the first of our hoped for endemics; Blue-eyed Cockatoo’s and New Britain Friarbird. In the dense thicket beneath us a Red-bellied Pitta called but refused to show itself. The ascent was tough and four became three finally reaching the summit. We added Buff-faced Pygmy Parrot and great views of Eclectus Parrot not to mention the stunning panorama from the top across the lowlands. On the way back down the local guides spotted two amazing Giant Stick Insects, at ten inches (25cm) long, jet black, with orange-red antennae and almost iridescent turquoise blotches on them they were quite a sight. It was quite a welcome relief to make it down to the bottom of the hill (the descent being just as tricky due to the incline). 

Day 9: Sunday 14 October 2018
Nissan Island, Papua New Guinea 

As we entered into the Buka Channel, we sensed the day ahead was destined to be a special one given Balil village is rarely visited by expedition ships – in fact The Spirit of Enderby was the first for the year. Azure waters greeted us as we stepped on shore to be cleansed by two of the village chiefs, Blaize and Gabrielle. We were ushered into the school grounds and welcomed by the head teachers who coordinated the festive welcome complete with dancers performed by the school children. Soon we were accompanied by our local guides and wandered the village hand in hand with our new friends to explore a slice of life of this island, part of the Autonomous State of Bougainville. Some of the elder villages shared stories about how the island was a base for both American and New Zealand troops during WWII. In fact, the island was visited by Lt Richard Nixon (later on he became the President of the United States of America). Some were concerned about the rising waters and climate change. Our final farewells echoed what we had become accustomed to hearing along the trip ‘love you’. 

This afternoon while other groups were back onshore searching for birds and learning local crafts, we cruised over to another one of the green islands to explore the steep reef drop-off. We plunged into the incredibly blue water and were delighted to find a diverse array of healthy stony corals. The entire reef was alive with schooling fish and several snorkelers enjoyed close encounters with black and white-tip reef sharks. We had two great views, one of the reef wall and the other out into the blue where larger fish species could be seen cruising around. This site is something extra special and it was a hard task to get everyone out of the water.  

Before recap we joined Courtney in the presentation theatre for ‘Fascinating facts about Marine Invertebrates’. After dinner our resident doctor and historian presented part one of his talk on the WWII in the pacific arena. Part two to be presented the following night. 

BIRDING EXTENSION: For the birders there was one main target, Atoll Starling. This species tends to get outcompeted on the other island but here on Nissan Island we have been able to reliably find it. As soon as the sing-sing was over they headed off into the bush with a couple of guides. It wasn’t long before two likely looking candidates were spotted and after some patience the group were rewarded with good views of a pair of Atoll Starlings. With a little time on their hands they continued through some remarkably good forest and were surprised when a Melanesian Megapode responded to the playback. Unfortunately time did not allow us locate the bird, however we opted to come back for a second go in the afternoon. This proved a wise move and as we headed back out into the forest we slowly gathered an army of megapode searchers. After half an hour a shout filtered down the jungle grapevine that one of the guys had located a pair of Megapodes. We forced our way through the dense undergrowth to where he was standing and there, perched in a tree, just three meters off the ground was a male Melanesian Megapode! Mission accomplished. 

© C. Rayes

Day 10: Monday 15 October 2018
Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea

The Bougainville crisis was brought on by tensions of self-determination, disputes over indigenous control of land and inequality of profit distribution from the copper mine established on Bougainville in 1963. Early morning saw us pile into mini vans and journey to the derelict site of Panguna copper and gold mine – a different style of trip to what Heritage Expeditions normally offers. We climb up into the forested mountains behind the township of Arawa, reaching an elevation of 1,000 metres. This afforded us a spectacular view of a distant active volcano hidden behind a haze mask that gave the appearance of a cloud forest. Soon we were perched on the edge of Panguna copper and gold mine site, lying derelict deep in the mountains, a scar on the landscape and within the hearts of the landowners. We enjoy an excellent study tour of the mine site, visiting the deserted worker’s apartments, now shells that house schools and locals whose homes were destroyed in the conflict. An impromptu visit to the school allows us a chance to see how something remarkable can come out of adversity. Weaving our way through the apocalyptic landscape we head to the main pit; and massive tailings canal. In its day the mine was the largest open cut copper mine in the world. Now a major scrap site which countries bid for annual contracts to remove large amounts of metal, contributing to the cash crop of the island. Bougainville people associate more with Solomon Islands people than Papua New Guinea, giving rise to a referendum due to be held in the coming years on whether to secede from Papua New Guinea or stay as an Autonomous Region. Early evening we say farewell to Papua New Guinea as we cruise towards the Solomon Islands.    

BIRDING EXTENSION: Bougainville sits very much within the biogeography of the Solomon Islands so for the birders today was a big day with many new species possible. The birders took the first minibus winding their way through the checkpoints and lowland forest gardens climbing into untouched forest and finally the high point of the road at approximately 800m. From here it was a slow descent back down the road searching for any of the islands endemic, and near-endemic species. It was immediately apparent that the typhoon that had swept the island two weeks previously had had quite an impact. Canopy limbs lay on the forest floor, boughs hung limp and in places the understory had been flattened. There was clearly a knock on effect for bird life with very few pigeons, doves and larger species present this year. The birding proved hard work but species by species they started to find their targets. Midget Flowerpeckers foraged their way from flower to flower, a Cockerell’s Fantail put in a brief appearance, then things started picking up with several Red-capped Myzomela’s, and best of all a Bougainville Honeyeater (a rarely seen species), a trio of Bougainville Crows vociferously passed overhead, Oriole Whistler, Bougainville Monarch and North Melanesian Cuckooshrike all put in appearances and things were on a roll. Heading back up to the summit for a second walk down a mixed flock of Yellow and Grey-throated White-eyes also contained both Solomon’s Cuckoo-shrike and Steel-blue Flycatcher. 

After lunch they headed down to the Catholic Missionary where the sing-sing was taking place to bird around the area. Whilst birding is never as good in the hot middle part of the day they still managed to find Brown-winged Starling, some great views of Red-flanked Lorikeets and Cardinal Lorries, many Solomon’s Cockatoo’s, a small flock of Blyth’s Hornbills and ending on a real high with a flowering tree full of Lorikeets. Here, amongst the common Coconut Lorikeets was a baking Duchess Lorikeet. Tiny, vivid red, green and yellow and rare, it is normally a difficult species to see at all, let alone feeding on flowers in a roadside tree - what a way to end an amazingly productive day.

© H. Dohn

Day 11: Tuesday 16 October 2018
Sui River, Taro Town & Supizae Village Solomon Island 

The warmth of the Solomon Seas greeted us as we joined our expedition team on a magical Zodiac cruise into the mangrove canals of Choiseul Island along the Sui River, ending at the picturesque Sui waterfall. Some lucky enough to see a glimpse of the resident crocodile. At each turn the undergrowth evolved – first we learned about the complexities of the mangroves, and then experienced the dense rainforest as it spilled over the low sedimentary shoreline. Soon we burst out of the undergrowth and were confronted by a shoreline warrior welcome at Supizae. After welcome speeches and the obligatory presentations of school supplies the enthusiastic dancers emerged onto the dance arena in front of a community building sponsored by Save the Children. Our hearts melted as the tiny preschoolers gave their interpretation of local dancers. Other dances were a mix of the cultures from the Solomon Islands reaching from the north to Tikopia in the south. After our show and tell of weaving, and food preparation we were able to taste the spoils of delicious baked sweet potato and fish along with fresh fruit and delicacies of ngali nut slice and cassava and coconut rolls. Some of us stayed to explore the village others travelled the short distance to explore down town Taro, the small provincial capital of this area. The perfect day of Rainforest and Reef! 

After dinner we joined Suzanne in the presentation theatre to hear about blackbirding in the Solomon Islands – the coercion of people through trickery and kidnapping to work as labourers in the sugarcane farms in Queensland, Australia. 

Located on the edge of a channel in Choiseul with waves rolling in to one side and the deep blue to the next, we explored the wall that steadily dropped away from the reef flat. It was the most relaxing snorkel imaginable, sliding off the Zodiacs and floating across the spacious site. Fish were abundant, and the elusive porcupine and pufferfish were seen lurking between coral mounds. Down deeper large plate corals spread across the wall, with multiple tiers creating a marvelous display. Schools of surgeonfish were moving briskly across the reef, stopping to feed wherever possible. Daisy-like fern corals really captured the eye, looking as if they should be on land rather than in the blue, and brilliant soft corals were abundant. To top it all off a school of squid captured the attention of many snorkelers. 

BIRDING EXTENSION: This morning the mangroves beckoned. The eager birders hopped into the first Zodiac and shot away up the Sui River leaving the remainder of the group to follow on and subsequently overtake them! The channel snaked its way through huge mangroves with spider like roots and large buttress systems. Fallen trees added extra challenges for navigating but it was well worth the reward. Five species of kingfisher bedazzled (Beach, Melanesian, Ultramarine, Common and Little Blue) whilst the trees were full of Cardinal Lorries and Solomon’s Cockatoo’s. We found six Willie Wagtail nests at various stages of development from eggs to nearly fledged chicks and even heard another Melanesian Megapode. The non-avian highlights included a Mangrove Monitor Lizard sunning itself and a large (3m+) Saltwater Crocodile slowly swimming upstream! Whilst everyone else returned downstream and out to Supizae, the birders headed over to Taro where the airstrip yield a few Pacific Golden Plovers and a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper whilst a large mob of Lesser Frigatebirds cruised overhead.

© D. Brown

Day 12: Wednesday 17 October 2018
Kolombangara, Solomon Island

The sight of one of the highest points in the Solomon Islands archipelago greeted as we stepped out on the deck this morning to view the extinct cone volcano of Kolombonagara. We had been invited by KIBCA (Kolombangara Island Biodiversity Conservation Association), to visit the conservation area 400 metres above the sustainable forest plantation. On arrival onshore we boarded the ‘best available transport’ – two ten-ton trucks complete with slabs of wood in the back for seats, to begin our scenic drive to the ranger buildings within the conservation area. Covering an area of over 20,000 hectares (200 sq km), the conservation equates to approximately 28% of the island, making it the largest conservation area in the Solomon Islands. On the island both locals and the conservation groups are dedicated to maintain wildlife corridors along with marine protection areas. On return to the landing site we were tempted by exquisite contemporary pieces of polished wood from bowls to elaborate masks from Rinaggi and Boba village carvers. 

Rumours of a World War II plane wreck led to Expedition Leader, Judd exploring an exciting new snorkel site today. Judd negotiated with an irate landowner who was eager to share her frustrations. Soon we were all friends, sharing Facebook contacts and dipping into the sea for a special treat. 

While everyone got to enjoy the shallow reef flat out front, snorkelers were also shuttled out to the wreck site. Thanks to Kevin a plane enthusiast on board, several details of the wreck were easily identified. It so happened this wreck is a US NAVY FAF Grumman Wildcat (carrier version), which ditched in 1942. Kevin speculated that the aircraft could have suffered bullet damage possibly pursuing the Japanese north. Meanwhile on the reef, lovely soft corals and several sponges were observed, but the highlight was an anemone with deep blue tips. Several other anemones were also spotted across the reef and provided great enjoyment for all. 

After dinner aired the National Geographic’s search for ‘The Lost Fleet of Guadalcanal’ – an informative whilst solemn introduction to WWII in this area. 

BIRDING EXTENSION: Some days everything falls into place and todays birding was one of those days. The birders made it ashore as dawn was breaking and started out in the back of the trucks up the hill. The road winds its way up through the agroforestry groves and into pristine forest where a research station provides a stunning lookout over the forest. From here we could watch the to-ings and fro-ings of birds over the canopy from Blyth’s Hornbills to Pale Mountain Pigeons, Coconut Lorikeets and Fruit Doves. In the close bushes White-capped Monarchs and Solomon’s White-eyes foraged. The birders strolled down the track and into the forest where we rapidly found several Kolombangara Monarchs, a much desired species. Here too Oriole Whistler also put in an appearance as well as Steel-Blue Flycatcher. Back on the road we managed to add the Kolomobangara subspecies of Finsch’s Pygmy Parrot to the list as well as another Cockerell’s Fantail. In the dense scrub Buff-headed Coucals called with one showing briefly. 

© Heritage Expeditions

© K. Richter

Day 13: Thursday 18 October 2018
Arnavan Island, Solomon Island

The excitement was building today as a rumour had started rocketing around the ship that we would be privileged to see hawksbill turtle hatchlings being released by the local ranges. On shore the head ranger Frances introduced us to the Arnavon Community Marine Conservation project and how our support along with the surrounding villages has secured the safe nesting sites for the turtles. Hawksbills are critically endangered and unfortunately only 1 in 1000 survives, so are in serious need of protection. A surprise inclusion was a group of Micronesian dancers. These are descendants of migrants from Kiribati during the early 1960s, processed through Britain at the time of colonial power.

Following the unique opportunity watching the hatchlings start their journey to the open ocean, we also decided to take a dip off a neighbouring island. Landing on another fantastic white sand beach we then boarded Zodiacs to transfer us to the reef drop-off. The fish-life was outstanding! Schools of much larger species patrolled the reef including sweetlips, groupers and snapper, and two large porcupinefish were cruising around. Areas of staghorn coral were a wonderful sight. A turtle was spotted, but kept its distance, while a gray reef shark paid a closer visit. In some areas runners of seagrape seaweed covered the reef, creating a brilliant light green colour. We exhausted all of our snorkeling time – a fantastic way to finish snorkeling for the trip. 

The afternoon scheduled included our final recap and instructions for departure day along with a superb slideshow encapsulating our amazing time on the Melanesian Discovery. 

BIRDING EXTENSION: The main focus of this mornings visit to Arnavon was of course the Hawksbill Turtles but the islands also harbour a few good birds. After the hatching was over the birders headed for the mudflats where careful scanning revealed a great variety of waders including Terek Sandpiper, Beach Thick-knee, Curlew and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, Whimbrel, Black & Bar-tailed Godwits and Lesser Sand Plovers. Great Egrets and Pacific Reef Herons fed in the shallows whilst in the scrub Island Monarchs, Olive-backed Sunbirds and Rufous Fantail foraged. Highlight though was a juvenile Melanesian Megapode which bolted away from us as we walked slowly through the vegetation.

Day 14: Friday 19 October 2018
Honiara, Solomon Island

Early morning, we anchor in the harbour off Honiara, on the northern coast of Guadalcanal, by the Mataniko River. Honiara was a military base during World War II and is the capital of the Solomon Islands. The Solomon Islands witnessed major naval battles in this region and some would say was the starting point of turning the tide on the Japanese invasion within the Pacific War. This morning we enjoy the opportunity of touring Honiara, visiting WWII historical sites, and sights inclusive of the markets and museum before returning downtown to ready ourselves for our onward travel plans to begin the homeward journey while some returned to the ship to continue on the ‘Secrets of Melanesia’ journey through the Solomon Islands to Vanuatu.

BIRDING EXTENSION: This morning was a meeting of groups as the birders from both Melanesian expeditions merged for an avian assault on Mount Austen, Guadacanal. As light slowly crept across the sky the birders were all in place on a rough track on the edge of the forest. A shrill call shattered the silence, Woodfords Rail, a large flightless and endemic species but a seriously difficult species to see. They slowly advanced towards us calling but clearly saw us before we saw them and vanished into the tall grass unseen. Behind us a tall dead tree hosted an obliging Blyth’s Hornbill quickly followed by a stunning Yellow-bibbed Lory in its vivid red, yellow, green and black plumage. Along the track a pair of Chestnut-bellied Monarch whistled their territorial limits whilst Knob-billed Imperial Pigeons perched aloft of the tallest trees. Further into the forest we located Black-headed Myzomelas and Steel-blue Flycatcher whilst a low booming heralded the presence of the remarkable Buff-headed Coucal. After a little searching we found two of these huge and striking birds sunning themselves against the canopy. A Brahminy Kite grabbed a large lizard from the top of a tree perching in full view to devour it. A handful of Mackinlay’s Cuckoo Doves and Stephan’s Emerald Doves shot across the track and above us Solomon’s Cockatoo’s screeched from tree to tree. All in all a productive end to this new expedition.

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