Sail into a world that few have ever experienced; idyllic islands and isolated villages where unique time-honoured traditions and elaborately costumed dancers welcome us into their world. Sail from Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, to discover the beauty of the outer Solomon Islands and on to Vanuatu. Relax as our ship glides into secluded bays, and takes us to remote oceanic islands where the art of traditional navigation lives today.
On Santa Isabel, the rhythms of life continue little changed, with daily life centred around the village and family. Malaita is culturally rich, the traditional currency, Malaitan shell money, is still made on the island and is used as a dowry, and worn as a status symbol.
Vanuatu has produced a kaleidoscope of cultures, and more than 100 indigenous languages. With over 80 habitable islands, islanders have closely guarded their own cultures and languages. Our expedition embraces some of these cultures and languages, as well as a window into one of the happiest places on the planet.
On our journey you will also have the opportunity to experience some of the greatest underwater encounters in the world, with an abundance of marine life and coral gardens drawing you in to explore a magical underwater world. During frequent snorkel excursions throughout the expedition, everybody will have the opportunity to appreciate the beauty beneath the waves.
For birders, this itinerary offers once-in-a-lifetime species on remote islands where few have been before, and endemic birdlife such as the Solomon Sea Eagle, or the Vanikoro White-eye, may be seen. The birding potential is exceptional, and to allow birders to maximise the opportunities on the expedition there is an optional, specialised birding programme with customised excursions.
A picture postcard paradise awaits as we uncover the ‘Secrets of Melanesia'.
Pre/Post cruise transfers, one night hotel accommodation in a twin share room (incl. dinner/breakfast), all on board ship accommodation with meals and all shore excursions and activities excluding optional specialised birding programme. Programme of lectures by noted naturalists.
All items of a personal nature, laundry, drinks, gratuities. International/domestic flights, visas, extensions and travel insurance.
Birding Supplement $450 pp
(All prices are per person in USD)
Our ship - The Spirit of Enderby:
The Spirit of Enderby is a fully ice-strengthened expedition vessel, built in 1984 for polar and oceanographic research and is perfect for Expedition Travel.
She carries just 50 passengers and was refurbished in March 2013 to provide comfortable accommodation in twin share cabins approximately half of which have private facilities. All cabins have outside windows or portholes and ample storage space.
On board there is a recently updated combined bar/library lounge area and a dedicated lecture room (March 2018). The cuisine is excellent and is prepared by top NZ and Australian chefs.
The real focus and emphasis of every expedition is getting you ashore as often as possible for as long as possible with maximum safety and comfort. Our Expeditions are accompanied by some of the most experienced naturalists and guides, who have devoted a lifetime to field research in the areas that we visit. The ship is crewed by a very enthusiastic and most experienced Russian Captain and crew.
The name Spirit of Enderby honours the work and the vision of the Enderby Brothers of London. The Enderby Captains were at the forefront of Antarctic exploration for almost 40 years in the early 1800s. It also celebrates Enderby Island, arguably the greatest Subantarctic Island in the world.
Classification: Russian register KM ice class
Year built: 1984
Accommodation: 50 berths expedition
Main engines: power 2x1560 bhp (2x 1147 Kw)
Maximum speed: 12 knots (2 engines),
Cruising speed: 10 knots(one engine)
Bunker capacity: 320 tons
View a Species List from this expedition here, or read on below for a full Trip Report.
Day 1: Friday 20th October
Honiara, Solomon Islands
We landed safely at Henderson Airport on the large mountainous island of Guadalcanal located in the Solomon Islands and were soon transferred to our central hotel the Solomon Kitano Mendana, downtown Honiara, the capital of the Solomons. Guadalcanal is well-known for its pivotal role in World War II, with the ‘Battle of Guadalcanal’ turning the tide in favour of the Allies in the Pacific theater.
Day 2: Saturday 21st October
Honiara touring day, Solomon Islands
After a leisurely morning we joined the afternoon Honiara highlights tour, taking in the local sights of the market, World War II memorial, and ending with an informative tour of parliament and visit to the museum. Soon we boarded the Spirit of Enderby, anchored close by in the harbour, and were shepherded to our comfortable cabins onboard. After mandatory safety briefings, emergency assembly practice, and staff introductions by the expedition leader Nathan Russ, we were soon back on deck bidding farewell to Honiara, all excited for the journey ahead and the ‘Secrets of Melanesia’ with Heritage Expeditions, aboard the Spirit of Enderby.
Photo credit: S. Noakes
Birders had an early start this morning, heading up to Mt. Austin. At the top of the road we started birding under cloudy skies, which kept temperatures very comfortable all morning. Walking down towards the river with our local guide, Samson, we soon recorded the first Solomons endemic in the form of a noisy Solomons or Ducorp's Cockatoo that perched on a distant snag. A pair of Blyth's Hornbill offered a nice flyby and several Knob-billed Imperial-Pigeons sat out in the early hours. A musical call got us onto a pair of endemic Yellow-bibbed Lories that were feeding in a tulip tree and we would see additional lories throughout the morning.
A small bird that shot in for good views turned out to be the only Black-headed Myzomela of the day and was a welcome Guadalcanal endemic. Two viewpoints offered excellent opportunities to scan the distant treetops and we soon found Brown-winged Starlings, Long-tailed Mynas, Barred and White-bellied Cuckooshrikes, and Claret-breasted Fruit-Doves. One of the real highlights of the morning were two pairs of Buff-headed Coucals that perched up long enough for lengthy scope studies, what a massive coucal! We hiked back up the hill along the wide track and continued past the vans to bird some of the grassy clearings at the top. Soon we heard a pair of Woodford's Rails and after some maneuvering and patient waiting we had the pair cross the road, offering point-blank views, the definite highlight of the morning. We got into the vans again and drove down with one final stop producing a close pair of Ultramarine Kingfishers that showed exceptionally well, ending a very productive first morning.
Day 3: Sunday 22nd October
San Jorge and Utuha Islands, Santa Isabel Province, Solomon Islands
Nestled in ‘Thousand Ships Bay’, a name given by the Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendaña y Neyra Mendana during his 1568 voyage through this area for the expanse of the harbour, we were woken by the enthusiastic voice of our cruise director, Helen Ahern, with a brief on the days exploration ending with – ‘it's a wet landing so come prepared!’ Eager to be on the move to catch the early morning birdlife, the birders landed at Lubiria logging camp on San Jorge Island, ready for an energetic walk to track down the endemic species of the island.
Before the Zodiac even reached the landing on San Jorge Island we could see Solomons or Ducorp's Cockatoos flying along the forested ridges and we would tally two-dozen of these large parrots during the morning. In addition, we could hear the hoped for White-billed Crows calling. We were welcomed by our local guide, Eddy, and walked past a small group of houses towards a logging road. We successfully lured in a White-billed Crow that flew high above and alighted in a distant tree, offering excellent scope views of its oversized and light-colored bill. We slowly worked our way up the steep track and finally found a calling Solomons Cuckooshrike that flew in close, a great bird to finally catch up with. The bird stayed put for several minutes, allowing us to enjoy every detail if this distinctive species.
Flocks of Yellow-throated White-eyes and pairs of Long-tailed Mynas accompanied us as we reached the top of the hike and continued along flatter ground. Here a pair of Metallic Pigeons flew over, while Claret-breasted Fruit-Doves and Knob-billed Imperial-Pigeons stayed put for scope views. We also found a surprising North Melanesian Cuckooshrike that landed close, a very rare, but welcome find at this low elevation. In the same spot we caught up with Chestnut-bellied Monarch, a pair of nesting Variable Goshawks, a female Pacific Koel, Scarlet-naped Myzomela, and Steel-blue Flycatcher before hiking back down, scoring a Gray-capped Cicadabird en route before returning to the ship.
The remainder of the group transferred by Zodiac, passed the mangrove fringed coastline to enter into the small village of Talise. Greeted by Chief Samuel Voti, we were introduced to the other two chiefs, Stuart Kelly and Jim Avalu. We were encouraged to ‘adopt a local’ and wander to explore the village, the local school and surrounds, to acquire an insight into the intricacies of a Solomon Islands village life. Being Sunday the elders gathered the church choir to offer a farewell presentation in the church. During early colonialization time, mid 1800's, Anglicans were more successful in this area than other missionary denominations, as they trained local people in both New Zealand and Norfolk Island early in the piece to help with effective Christian conversion. On arrival a number of us noted that villagers appeared to be very shy, with some of us employing drastic measures to engage and entertain from magic tricks to painting nails. However, inside the cool of the Anglican Church the choir seemed to materialize from nowhere, and what some later eluded to, transformed themselves into a different spirit and delivered a powerful rendition of a number of church hymns expanding their repertoire to end with a few evangelical style songs. Needless to say we were stunned and amazed with the volume of the singers – in fact they nearly blew the roof off the church with the quality of their harmonizing and enthusiasm shown by each and every choir singer. Truly an incredible experience – and it was only day two of our expedition onboard.
Before lunch, those intending to snorkel during the expedition joined Courtney in the lecture room for a short briefing and introduction to snorkeling aboard the Spirit of Enderby. In the afternoon our planned visit to the chiefs of Utuha Island (Johnlas Remon and Silas Valira), was cancelled given one of the elders was seriously ill and not expected to live. Instead we had the chance to do our inaugural snorkeling excursion in the Solomon Sea, with an easy beach entrance, the other end of the island.
As our first snorkeling site for the expedition, Utuha Island was an ideal location. Straight off the corner of the white sandy beach was an expansive reef flat offering a myriad of marine wonders. The corals were teeming with fish life – schools of scissortail sergeants, wrasse, damsels, goatfish and plenty more. Large table corals protruded from the reef with numerous species of bigeyes and squirrelfish sheltered beneath them. The easily recognized spinecheek anemone fish was darting in and out of its anemone extremely territorial, and beautiful gastropods including Triton’s trumpet were scattered across the reef. The edge of the reef also sloped off into deeper blue water where a black tip reef shark was spotted cruising along. It was a great way to end our visit to Santa Isabel Province before moving on to Malaita.
Photo credit: H. Ahern
Photo credit: D. Brown
Day 4: Monday 23rd October
Leli Lei Island, Malaita Province, Solomon Islands
We arrived early in the morning at the birders landing and quickly boarded the bed of an open truck. Once we were all in position, some sitting on the wooden floor, others standing and holding on, we commenced the bumpy ride up the steep gravel road. Momentarily, we thought our journey had come to an end when the truck struggled to cross a small stream and could not climb the slippery road on the far side, but some dirt thrown on the road and pushing by the local guides soon had us back on our way, expedition birding! Fortunately, we arrived ten minutes later at our birding site and began walking down a sidetrack that branched off the cross-island road.
Immediately, we heard the endemic Malaita White-eye and a few seconds later spotted the first one, which flew into a tree directly above us and sang a surprisingly musical song. We saw a few more Malaita White-eyes during the morning, but the species was not common in the area. Midget Flowerpeckers on the other hand proved common and we enjoyed several good views of this tiny bird with males sporting a deep red chest patch. A bit further down the track a suspicious call note had us stop and we soon called in a pair of Red-vested or Red-bellied Myzomela, a very rare find. We saw the male briefly, with deep red offset by jet-black, but the pair flew off. We located another female or juvenile myzomela later in the morning and even obtained some scope views of this seldom seen species. A small feeding flock nearby contained the endemic Black-and-white Monarch and Chestnut-bellied Monarch, while noisy Yellow-bibbed and Cardinal Lories raced through the canopy.
Other additions to the trip list during the morning included fly over views of Duchess Lorikeet, an Oriental Hobby hunting dragonflies, Moustached Treeswift, and a pair of nest building Barred Cuckooshrikes that offered lengthy scope studies. We walked back up the road and took a short break during the drive back, cooling our feet in a clear stream and rested in the shade, while a busy Olive-backed Sunbird constructed a hanging nest right overhead. We reached the landing around 11:00am and returned to the ship for a well-earned lunch.
After repositioning the ship, everyone else got to start the day with snorkeling at Leli Lei Island. Many of us were able to identify several of the fish groups we learnt about the day before, while others thoroughly enjoyed relaxing and taking everything in. Multicoloured christmas tree worms stood out on the coral boulders and feather duster worms were wide open feeding. Abundant pacific banded butterflyfish, regal angelfish, a variation of chromis and damselfish (largely staghorn damsels) were circling the reef. Also perched on the slope were several anemones with red and black, and pink anemonefish inhabitants. The conditions could not have been more perfect, with a glassy surface and crystal clear waters, making for an extremely enjoyable morning.
Mid-morning, we viewed Part 1 of ‘The Lost Fleet of Guadalcanal’, an excellent National Geographic documentary on locating a number of notable cruisers/destroyers of WWII in iron bottom sound. A graveyard to over 50 vessels during one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific arena.
After lunch we repositioned the Spirit of Enderby beside Malaita Island, a mountainous island home to one-third of the Solomon’s total population, with pristine rivers and unspoilt tropical forests, ready for our onshore activities. In convoy style, we made our way by Zodiac to visit Faumamanu Village. Greeted on shore by a surprise warrior attack we were soon being lead to the presentation area over a newly built foot bridge, by Father Enock, one of the village leaders. Following introduction speeches, the tunes of the local bamboo (PVC) band and church choir we split into three groups and wandered with local guides for an interpretative walk around the small village of approximately 200 people. Along the way we learnt more about how villagers live, staple diet, medicinal plants, cash crops and view the South Sea Evangelical mission memorial of the returned ‘kanakas’ from the cane fields in Queensland. Some noted with interest that the plaque noted both converted and heathen members of the village. During the late 19th century many coastal areas in the Solomon Island had a long history of "black birding", the seizure of islanders for work on the sugar cane plantations of Australia and Fiji. Many never to return again to their home land.
Day 5: Tuesday 24th October
Star Harbour, Makira Island, Solomon Islands
Makira Province is the most easterly of the main island group in the Solomon’s archipelago, and covers some 3100sq km. Like Queen Elizabeth II prior to us in 1974, first stop is a visit to Na-Mamaru Village. Standing proudly in front of his canoe shed, complete with moiety totem sentinels, Chief Alfred Murray welcomed us to a courtyard brightly decorated with hibiscus, frangipani, celebration balloons, and long wooden planks positioned on red soft-drink crates, thoughtful assembled for our comfort. In the shade of a beach almond tree, dancers soon appeared, a few proudly wearing the family jewels – necklaces made from flying fox, dolphin and dog teeth. After the obligatory thank-you speeches, some of us elected to stay and soak up village life, with the remainder of us making the journey by Zodiac deep into the mangrove forest of Namuga passage. Chief Rastas accompanied us on the trip and was soon leading us through a botanical wonderland of tall native trees, giant taro, and fruiting coconut trees into his scenic village of Tora (Panisa), dramatically nestled in the shadow of the massive limestone cliffs. He welcomes us to his ‘million-dollar’ view. Given it was low tide, most joined Courtney and Dan to beachcomb along the shoreline in the hope to find marine treasures.
The intertidal pools of Tora Village were a delight to wonder across. Countless invertebrates and juvenile fish spread across the seagrass habitat. It took a keen eye to spot the juvenile moray eel and nudibranch concealed against the bottom. Brittlestars overtook many of the cracks and crevices, with their long thin arms slinking out, and a range of urchins were also nestled into cracks. Cowries and hermit crabs were plentiful, with one in particular drawing attention due to the two anemones attached to its shell.
Meanwhile, others watched the competitive soccer match that unfolded in front of them in the large sports field, organised by our onboard chef, Connor. The athletic amongst us soon joined in, including our expedition leader, Nathan Russ, all abiding by the visiting team protocol rule to allow the home team to win. With others adopting a local to explore the village in depth. Soon we were saying our farewells and returning to our Zodiacs to rejoin the Spirit of Enderby. With the afternoon at sea our program was filled with insightful documentaries, and informative presentations, commencing with Stephan’s ‘Pelagic Seabirds of Melanesia’, Part II of The Lost Fleet of Guadalcanal ending with Suzanne and Wilson’s presentation on ‘Traditional money and bridal wealth of the Solomon Islands’.
After landing at the small village (where a Cardinal Myzomela greeted us) in the morning, birders made our way past the neat houses onto a logging track that quickly turned into narrow trail. It was very quiet, extremely humid, and the trail was muddy, but we pushed on into the thick secondary forest interspersed with more mature trees. Masuk, our local guide told us that it had rained heavily all night and was likely an explanation for the near absence of bird song. We continued uphill, systematically scanning the trees. Soon we saw our first Makira endemic, the bizarre looking Makira Honeyeater (an endemic genus Meliarchus), which sat out in an open tree, apparently drying out, and offering lengthy scope views. Slowly the birds were waking up. A flowering tree held scores of the endemic Sooty Myzomela, but only one bird came close for good views.
In a more open area we found a pair of responsive White-headed Fruit-Doves and this stunning Makira endemic sat out in the open for as long as we wanted, one of the highlights of the morning. The widespread Yellow-bibbed Fruit-Dove also showed well nearby. We climbed up a steep trail in search of a calling Chestnut-bellied Imperial-Pigeon, but the bird was too far off and we only managed brief flight views later in the morning. The cute, endemic Mottled Flowerpecker proved to by quite tricky, with birds calling high in the canopy unseen, but again persistence paid off and each person eventually got good views of these tiny birds. With only a few minutes left we walked up to some fruiting trees near the village and found Island and Knob-billed Imperial-Pigeons side by side. The afternoon was spent at sea and diligent watching got us the first Short-tailed Shearwater of the trip, many Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, a distant Wilson's Storm-Petrel, and late in the day a single Tahiti Petrel.
Photo credit: D. Brown
Day 6: Wednesday 25th October
Nendö, Temotu Province, Santa Cruz Islands, Solomon Islands
The Melanesian island group of Santa Cruz lies southeast of the Solomon Islands group and north of Vanuatu. Santa Cruz is administered as part of the Solomon Islands, but biologically shares more in common with Vanuatu. The Spanish navigator Alvaro de Mendana de Neira tried unsuccessfully to establish a colony here in 1595.
Another morning kicked off with snorkeling along a brilliant blue drop off in Nendo. Hard corals smothered the slope until petering off to a deep sandy drop-off. Trumpet fish were present stalking prey along the reef, with one lucky snorkeler witnessing their suction capture technique on a smaller unsuspecting fish. Some species were quite inquisitive including redfin butterflyfish, and perhaps too inquisitive, the piano fang blenny which attempted to take a nibble of a snorkeler. Goatfish were abundant actively searching the bottom with their barbels (‘whiskers’ beneath their chins) for food and humphead banner fish cruised across the reef. Across the other side of the bay freshwater inputs were entering the shallower water, with a drastic change in temperature noted, and a crystal clear blue hole sat just meters away from shore.
After enjoying the early morning birding hour on deck studying the numerous terns, which included Sooty, Bridled, Greater Crested and Common we had a leisurely breakfast then went ashore for a nature walk while others snorkeled. At first it was very quiet and we only recorded a single Cardinal Myzomela that showed briefly, but we pushed on and eventually found a small clearing in good forest that harbored some bird activity. First we located a pair of Temotu Whistlers for brief, but good views and finally a white-eye was singing. It took some time, but a Santa Cruz White-eye revealed itself to all, flying into the same tree right in front of us several times. The pair of whistlers also came into the same tree, feeding on small fruits and moments later a Sanford's White-eye passed through. The views were brief, but luckily the same bird returned for better views a few minutes later. The Sanford's White-eye is truly a unique white-eye with its brown plumage and large size. To top things off, a Red-bellied Fruit-Dove flew in to feed on the same fruit, finishing a successful morning.
For the afternoon, our expedition leader, Nathan repositioned our entry point to Mrnau Village – due to an on-going compensation conflict at the wharf in Lata. Father Charles, and what appeared to be the 200 strong villagers were waiting our arrival on the man-made stone wall rimmed with freshly picked frangipani and hibiscus flowers. Due to low tide on entry our fearless leader, Nathan Russ, ended up chest deep in the water to help guide the Zodiacs on their entry into the coral rubble beach. After a short introduction and culture explanation on the newly built custom house by Father Charles, we were soon piling into the best available transport – open trucks with slabs of wood perched on the rear tray. Soon we were traversing the interior of the island to visit Noipe Village. The surprise warrior attack proved to be quite comical as warriors spent more time smiling and laughing rather than playing the role of the ferocious attacker. Following the national anthem and welcome speeches by village elders, Chris gave a heartfelt tribute to the villages in Maori, on behalf of the Spirit of Enderby tribe. We were ushered to the dance arena, where village leaders and chiefs circled the traditional dance pole and showcased their prized red feather money. Feather money is used in Santa Cruz as a form of currency and is predominately used for settling important obligations in both bridal wealth, mortuary celebrations and compensation payments (although now Solomon Islands currency is also used for this purpose). This currency, known as tevau, is formed as coils resembling long belts and can reach up to ten meters long (approximately five centimeters wide). The manufacture of the feather coils is limited to just a few hereditary specialists, working on one island, who are thought to receive their skills from spirits. One man locates the small Scarlet Honeyeater birds (Myzomela Cardinalis) living in the rain forest, and traps them using sticky perches. He then plucks the feathers from their heads, breasts and backs. A double coil of currency may consist of around 50-60,000 red feathers. Another man assembles the platelets from which the coils are composed. Using sap from a shrub as an adhesive he glues together Grey Pigeon feathers using a wooden gauge to check that each platelet is the correct size. A narrow strip of red feather is then glued onto each platelet. The currency binder assembles the platelets using a fiber cord base. The platelets are overlapped so just the red feathers are visible. The finished piece may be decorated with strings of seeds, shells, and turtle-shell, and attached to a ring of bark. The value of a coil is dependent on its condition – newly made vivid coloured examples are most valuable. The coils are wrapped in leaves and bark cloth for storage. The cultural program rolled on uninterrupted, culminating with a shared dance in the traditional sing sing ground – the strength of one’s character is measured by how powerful one can beat the ground with body and soul. We enjoyed leisure time in the village viewing how the staple diet of taro, greens and coconut cream were prepared, along with the intricate craftsmanship from the specialist on hand who were completing a red feather money coil. On our return to the disembarkation point, two new travellers joined us onboard bound for the Duff Islands, the Honorable Stanley Tehiahua, Member of Provincial Assembly for Ward 13 in Temotu Province, along with local coordinator William Kese. After dinner we joined guest presenters, Stephen and John in the Lecture Room for a short video and explanation on the Vaka Taumako Project. A remarkable story of how the Nga Taumako began building a traditional Tepuke (ocean-going canoes) in 1996, inspired by the few old men and women who still remembered how to construct and sail these craft. Amazingly enough we will have the chance to view a completed Tepuke, tomorrow, on our arrival into the Duff Islands, and the island of Taumako. John was also able to expand on his story of restoring sight to Chief Mosses – a valued elder of the village, and traditional designer/builder mentor – truly and inspiring presentation.
Birders spent the last hour of the visit walking into some forest near the village, obtaining excellent views of a pair of Santa Cruz White-eyes, flight views of Pacific Imperial-Pigeons, scoped Red-bellied Fruit-Dove, and the final bird of the day, a single Rusty-winged Starling perched in a dead tree. The trucks took us back down to the coast and we bid farewell to this fascinating island.
Photo credit: C. Rayes
Day 7: Thursday 26th October
Duff Islands, Temotu Province, Solomon Islands
We woke to the rock and roll of the Pacific Ocean this morning and to a standby message to be ready for an expedition morning based on new tide readings obtained in situ by our expedition leader, Nathan. Located northeast of Nendö, the isolated Duff Islands are a cluster of 11 small islands situated in the Temotu Province. Some 600+ people live here – other Solomon Islanders regard nga Taumako (the Taumako people), as exotic and mysterious; to outsiders they are all but unknown. Dwelling outside the so-called Polynesian Triangle, a construct of the 19th century French explorer Dumont D’Urville, the islands are but a blip in far Oceania, but are certainly making a mighty impact on the world of ocean-going voyages with the launch of their Vaka Taumako project and rekindling of ancient seafarer traditions. Whilst we waited for the optimum time to enter into the reef atoll, we joined Dan in the lecture room for his presentation on ‘Amazing Wildlife Discoveries of the South Pacific’, and had the chance to do some on-board shopping from the souvenir items on offer at the Seashop. After lunch, our Zodiac flotilla weaved its way through the small break in the reef towards the entry point of Taumako island, passing Tohua an artificial island leeward of the main village which is the assembly site of the Vaka Taumako Tepuke project. During the journey ashore a number of us needed to exit the Zodiac and walk it along the seagrass beds based on the turn of the tide. A sense of excitement greeted us onshore at Ngauta Village as we donned our welcome lei and passed through a welcome arch of traditional dancers into the main assembly area ringed by the villagers. After welcome speeches from elders, a presentation in thanks to Stephen and John, on behalf of Chief Mosses, we soon settled on woven pandanus mats to watch the enthusiastic entertainment accompanied by the beat of the resident canoe drum band. Reciprocity is a tradition that is practiced within Melanesia and after we had been treated to songs, dances and ceremonies we thought it only proper for us to reciprocate with a dance of our own - the ‘hockey pokey’. Our visit was blessed with a prayer of good fortune from Father Leslie.
After the obligatory soccer match along with cat and mouse catch game, enthusiastically directed by Connor and Courtney, Dr Simon Salopuka, the executive director of Vaka Taumako Project of Solomon Islands (aka Vaka Valo Group), invited us to view the completed Tepuke and meet a young Vaka canoe designer/builder and sailor, Harry Vanosi. Led by Dr Simon and Hon Stanley, Harry along with a few other specialist villages recently returned from a culture exchange program overseas, recreating history by successfully linking their canoe making and sailing traditional knowledge, technology and skills with Fara’ngaw Tribal Nations of Amis ethic group in Taitung County of Taiwan. Studies have shown many archeological, linguistic, anthropological evidences, and DNA patterns of human, animals and plants suggest Taiwan was the original source from which the Austronesian peoples set off to settle the vast Pacific Ocean west of Taiwan, and the Indian Ocean south-east of Taiwan. Chief Jonas Hollani touched our hearts as he shared ancestor tales and legends about the creation of Taumako sailing techniques. After dinner, guest presenter, Chris delivered an informative presentation on Polynesian traditional sailing techniques and symbolism.
Due to the remoteness of these islands the bird diversity is relatively low, but it is one of the best places in the world to see the range-restricted Palm Lorikeet. After the greetings and dances had finished it didn't take us too long before we had the small Palm Lorikeet in the scope and the species proved to be numerous, offering many excellent views. We also saw many Cardinal Myzomelas, a few Ruddy Turnstones on the beach, a calling Wandering Tattler, and Pacific Kingfishers.
Photo credit: D. Brown
Photo credit: S. Lorenz
Day 8: Friday 27th October
Vanikoro, Solomon Islands
Our entry into Vanikoro’s island was surrounded by a dramatic barrier reef, which had claimed the French explorer Jean-François de La Pérouse vessels La Boussole and Astrolabe, when he mysteriously disappeared on his 1788 ‘Voyage around the World’. Later in the afternoon on our Zodiac cruise we would take time to visit the monument to Le Perouse, erected by fellow explorer Dumont Durville in 1827. In the nineteenth century Charles Darwin made a number of observations there about the formation of atolls. In the 1920s a New Zealand-Australian company began logging and milling kauri logs for export, based at Peou. This day in 2017 the inquisitive travelers of the Spirit of Enderby step onshore to explore this island wonderland. Approximately 1,000+ people inhabit Vanikoro and the island of Tenau with a mix of Melanesian and Polynesians originating from nearby Tikopia.
This would be our last island in the Solomons and we planned to make the best of it for birding, starting 06:30am on the gangway for the short Zodiac ride to the village of Usili. Vanikoro is home to two little known endemics and we set out to search for them. After meeting our local guides we walked out of the village with Melford along the beautiful beach towards a small patch of tall forest and healthy mangroves. Here we found the first Vanuatu (Melanesian) Whistler of the morning, a species that was very common on Vanikoro, and a few moments later a displaying pair of Vanikoro Flycatchers in the mangroves.
We walked back to the village and after quizzing our local guides about good patches of forest we continued towards the hills beyond the houses. The path quickly turned muddy, then wet, and then both, but we pushed on and after a difficult stretch reached a good trail again. Here we carefully checked the larger trees and found Rufous Fantail and more Vanuatu Whistlers. Pausing in a promising looking area of ancient, towering trees we finally found a Vanikoro Monarch, this small slate-gray monarch was bouncing around the high canopy. After a bit of maneuvering on our part and following the vocal bird we ended up with excellent views of a pair, one of the highlights of the morning. After slogging back to the village we searched far and wide for the endemic white-eye, but could not find it, although other members of the expedition saw some. In the afternoon we added Pacific Emerald Doves to the expedition list.
Everyone else was greeted on arrival by Chief Christian and wife Stella who welcomed us into Usili Village, a breakaway family unit who settled on traditional land during the 1980s. Some of us took to the island paths with Dan, weaving through gardens past giant taro, swamp taro, sweet potato (kumara), pigs, returning via the shoreline mangrove maze expertly lead by local carver, Godfrey.
After a very relaxed morning in Usili Village, we set off to enjoy the waters along the coast before lunch. We were inundated with sightings of larger animals including a spotted eagle ray, whitetail stingray, hawksbill turtle and a wonderful bumphead parrotfish. The steep drop-off created the ideal place to look out into the blue while expansive beds of coral covered the reef wall. Large sea fans were hanging on the underside of overhangs and larger fish species like snapper, sweetlips and bluefin trevally were cruising around. Once again the conditions were calm making for a very enjoyable snorkel.
After lunch we were invited to join Chief Francis at Puma Village on Teanu Island. The curious mythological appearance of the Tamate dancers, shrouded in banana fibre, topped with colourful masks hiding the dancers below is completely different from the other traditional dancers we have seen on the trip. Villages take inspiration from the islands ancestral legends shrouded in myth and magic culminating in the development of spirit dancers and stories. Chief Moffat takes the opportunity at the end of the dance to explain the intricacies of the traditional dance to the young of the village – to them a rare occurrence to witness the festivities. Our return path to the Spirit of Enderby was lit by the late afternoon sun rays.
Photo credit: H. Ahern
Photo credit: S. Noakes
Day 9: Saturday 28th October
Vanua Lava – Sola, Banks Islands Vanuatu
This morning we arrive into Vanuatu at the northern outpost of Vanua Lava, the largest of the Banks Islands, which is crowned by the volcanically active Mt Séré’ama. Our clearance into our new destination was delayed given customs’ had missed the flight the day prior and was arriving mid-morning. After the showing of the BBC ‘Strange Islands’ documentary that covered the unusual animal life found on the South Pacific islands, we joined the expedition team in the Global Bar for a Q&A session. Once the ship had been cleared for port entry, we were soon exploring the provincial town of Sola on foot. The birders headed for the hills into ‘the bush’ with the remainder of us being led by the passionate Ricky Simeon Mol, the local tourism representative. Walking past government offices and the well-appointed sporting arena to the ‘kastom’ house tucked away in a mangrove bay, we were welcomed by Chief Melkio into his village of Nereqon. Expecting a low key welcome, we were surprised with the extent of the program including demonstrations of basket weaving, bamboo weaving for walls, food preparation of nangai nut and roasted coconut oil and flesh – truly delicious – festivities concluded with a women’s and men welcome dance along with a women’s water music performance, unique to the Banks Islands. For the patient amongst us we are soon toasting our experience on Sola with a shell of kava (our first for the trip), expertly minced in front of us. Made from the ground roots of the plant Piper methysticum, Kava is used for medicinal, religious, political, cultural and social purposes throughout the Pacific Ocean cultures of Polynesia, including Hawaii, Vanuatu, and some parts of Melanesia and Micronesia. Kava-drinking rituals help to strengthen ties among groups, to reaffirm status and rank in the community, and to communicate with the spirits.
Vanua Lava was a pleasure to visit with high bird activity and easy terrain plus a few surprises. We left the ship after lunch once customs clearance had been obtained. As soon as we landed in the village of Sola we could hear Vanuatu Honeyeaters calling, a species that occurs at higher elevation on other islands, but is pleasantly common down to sea level on Vanua Lava. It didn't take long for us to get excellent views of this distinct, endemic honeyeater. We joined our local guide Eddy and started to walk towards the main village, finding flocks of Vanuatu White-eyes and Long-tailed Trillers along the way.
We followed a narrow path into secondary forest and flushed a large, dark imperial-pigeon which was the rarely recorded Vanuatu or Baker's Imperial-Pigeon. Continuing towards a fruiting tree our guide knew we located several Pacific Imperial-Pigeons and Metallic Pigeons for lengthy scopes studies. We searched far and wide for fruit-doves, hearing a Buff-banded Rail calling from tall grass and finding many Red-bellied Fruit-Doves. Checking a tree behind some buildings we stumbled upon a perched Vanuatu Imperial-Pigeon that sat long enough for everybody to get good views, the rarest find of the day for sure.
Late afternoon we explored another snorkeling site along the Sola coast. Snorkeling side by side with the local free divers, we searched for notable species of the day. Stony corals spread across large rocky patches and not long after entering the water, a whitemouth moray was spotted venturing its head out of a crevice. Other standout species included some of the largest white spotted sea cucumbers and several stingrays spotted on the outskirts of the reef. All the key groups of fish were present and lively including wrasse, parrotfish, surgeonfish, butterflyfish and damselfish. As the sun began to set, it was time to head back to the ship for another evening at sea.
Photo credit: S. Noakes
Day 10: Sunday 29th October
Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu & Champagne Beach
Espiritu Santo (Spanish for ‘the Holy Spirit’) is the largest of Vanuatu's islands (3677 km2) and is home to some of the most beautiful white sandy beaches in the entire world. Voted as one of the world’s top ten beaches, the white soft sand and clear blue waters of Champagne Beach took our breath away – coupled with an early heart starter of a glass of champagne, served up by our expedition team.
The ease of snorkeling out from the beach and great fish life also proved great entertainment. As soon as we stepped into the water schooling scad were surrounding us and lots of juvenile butterflyfish were scattered across the reef. A timid black spotted puffer was curled into a coral head and an energetic blue blanquillo was cruising above the bottom. Right out on the point a lone nudibranch sat on a rock, miniature in size, but vibrant in colour. Looking towards the surface a school of needlefish could be seen darting around.
An extra surprise awaited us onshore – the local water music ladies took us through the intricate percussion techniques required to create the wondrous base and delicate accompany notes required to replicate the sounds of nature and wildlife. The sudden downpour of rain could not dampen our spirits as we continued to play with water until we said our farewell’s to Sylvia and her creative team from the Banks and Torres region – internationally renowned with recent performances in Florida, USA; Australia and Asia.
The remainder of the morning activities included a presentation from Suzanne in the Lecture Room on ‘Cargo Cults of Melanesia’ followed by an afternoon bus tour exploring Santo and downtown Luganville, the provincial capital. During WWII, particularly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the island was used by Allied forces as a military supply and support base, naval harbor, and airfield. In a highly fictionalised form, it was the locale of James Michener’s ‘Tales of the South Pacific’ and the subsequent Rogers and Hammerstein musical, South Pacific. After visiting million-dollar point, named for its worth after thousands of tons of US construction equipment was dumped into the sea after WWII, we headed to the memorial site of the SS Coolidge – a converted American luxury ocean liner that was converted into a troop carrier during WWII and sank as a result of hitting two US mines. All, but two on board was saved. The SS Coolidge along with Million Dollar Point have now become world renowned dive sites on Santo. Stopping for a refuel stop at the farmer’s market of bananas, peanuts and sweet pineapple and pawpaw, we end our trip at one of Santo’s legendary Blue Holes – crystal-clear, deep iridescent blue pools unique to Vanuatu. These natural phenomena are formed when underground streams originating in the island's western ranges resurface as springs, cutting deep circular pools into the karst. Filtered by limestone, the water in these holes is pure and gin-clear, manifesting in luminous shades of blue. Departing by Zodiac along the canal, our sunset cruise returns to the Spirit of Enderby.
Birders landed at daybreak on Champagne Beach and Vanuatu Whistlers kicked off the dawn chorus. Ten minutes later we loaded three trucks and drove to the Vatthe Conservation area. The thirty minute drive followed a good paved road first before turning down a gravel road winding through coconut plantations and pastures. As the track swung up to a high point we could see the extensive protected lowland forest below. After arrival and meeting out local trail guide we walked into the mature rain forest with some of the tallest and oldest trees we had seen during the trip. In the cool early morning we quickly located active Streaked Fantails, had excellent views of at least two endemic Buff-bellied Monarchs, and after some effort ended with great views of the endemic Vanuatu Kingfisher that called from high in the canopy.
We were also looking for several regional endemic species and enjoyed a very cooperative Southern Shrikebill that sang in full view, while Melanesian Flycatchers were only briefly seen high in the canopy, and shy Island Thrushes (ssp. vanikorensis) peeked from the undergrowth. Unfortunately, the Vanuatu Scrubfowl was only heard distantly, although we were able to see one of their distinctive nest mounds. Returning to the road, we found several fruiting trees that held Pacific Imperial-Pigeons, Red-bellied Fruit-Doves, fly over Mackinlay's Cuckoo-Doves, Long-tailed Trillers, Vanuatu White-eyes, and Silvereyes. At 11:00am we got back into the truck and drove towards Oyster Island and our pick up point. During the afternoon tour of the Million Dollar Point and Lorengau we noticed good numbers of Cardinal Myzomelas.
Day 11: Monday 30th October
Ambrym Island, Vanuatu
The smoke from the two active volcanoes, Marum and Benbow created an ethereal backdrop to the island and as we stepped out onto the bow early morning to view Ambrym. Owing its name to Captain Cook who anchored off there in 1774, it means “here are yams” (ham rim in Ranon language). Ambrym is first and foremost a “black” island due to its volcanic ash and because of its ‘black magic’ steeped in mystery. Ancient customs play a significant part in everyday village life including unique characteristics such as the sculpted tam-tams (slit gongs), sand-drawing, tree fern statues and local mystical dances. We had the choice of stretching our legs with the sixty-minute walk uphill or riding in the back of the best available transport on the back of two utes/pickup vehicles. John Willie, our master of ceremonies, welcomes us to the village of Fanla, and advises us of the necessary protocol and etiquette we must follow whilst visiting the sacred dance ground called the ‘nasara’. The sense of something exciting is herald with the rhythmic sound of stomping feet and magnificent tam-tams as village chiefs and elders ceremoniously entered onto the nasara, wearing nothing but namba (penis sheath’s) and a red hibiscus flower to demonstrate their high social status. Soon the mythical Rom dancers burst out of the forest – the air heavy with ancestral spirits and ancient chanting. Donned with brightly coloured masks, hidden beneath dried banana leaf cloaks, they float along the sacred ground. The most striking custom dance we had seen this trip, the Rom dance is traditionally an exclusive male event and kept a guarded secret. A complex highly formalized system of intellectual property rights, men continue to this day, to sell the rights to learn how to make the costume, masks and participate in the dance. Each initiate negotiates a payment of pigs, rooster feathers and money to his mentor for the privilege. Like a good stage performance – it maintains costume production standards and preserves local culture. After a chance to purchase artefacts, the best so far on the trip, a demonstration of sand drawing, we were led through the village, past the grave of the original chief who met Captain Cook finishing with a banquet of local foods of sweet potato and coconut cream, fresh fruits and local vegetables – a thoughtful touch by the women of the village. What a morning! What a finale!
The secondary forest along the track was full of birds and we quickly added Dark-brown Honeyeater, Fan-tailed Gerygone, and Shining Bronze-Cuckoo to the trip list. During the hike up to the village we noticed a promising fruiting tree and saw a suspicious fruit-dove fly in. So on the way back we staked out the area and promptly found half-dozen Tanna Fruit-Doves of which several allowed great scope studies. Red-bellied Fruit Doves and Pacific Imperial-Pigeons were also in the area, finishing an exciting and productive last day.
This afternoon, we dove into inky blue water, the ashen sediment concealing the exceptional visibility of todays snorkeling site. Looking across the water numerous coral fingers and boulders were seen stretching out from the coastline. The coral colours were vibrant and fishlife circled the reefs. Suddenly shouts were coming from the surface, “dugongs dugongs!”. Half the snorkelers raced out into the blue water trying our best to keep up with the dugong mother and calf. Several people managed to sight the pair underwater, while others from the surface, but the dugongs were intent on venturing further along the coast. On the swim back in from the dugongs, we were treated with a couple of rays, one spotted eagleray and a masked ray, which was seen feeding in the sand before darting off again. Back on the reef, a large anemone boulder drew lots of attention and a couple of nudibranchs were spotted just beneath an overhang. It was an exhilarating way to end the trips snorkeling.
Early evening, we joined Nathan and the expedition team for our final recap and photographic slideshow which encapsulates the Secrets of Melanesia.
Photo credit: S. Noakes
Photo credit: D. Brown
Day 12: Tuesday 31st October
Port Vila, Vanuatu
With over 1209 nautical miles covered and over 20 expedition stops over a 12-day period, we certainly feel we have found some of the secrets that Melanesia can offer and travelled to places that no other expedition ships venture to. Early morning, we bid farewell to the Spirit of Enderby, crew and the Heritage Expedition team.
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