THIS IS NOT for those who are only after the tried and tested wave magnets — those consistent spots where you’ll find “guaranteed waves” aboard a luxury surf charter boat. Not that there’s anything wrong with booking your two weeks’ annual leave around a surf break known for waves six months of the year.
But scratch the surface a little and you can find options on the fringes, the harder-to-get-to places. The spots that, as you read this, have waves that are going unridden. Like Melanesia.
Surfing by braille
With a wave as predictable as this, I threw around the idea of photographing it at night. This was the third night we had attempted to get it right. As the sun set, I swam into the lineup with the camera and flash setup. I couldn't see anything until a wave began to break, and even then just the faintest outline from the whitewater was visible. Each time I pressed the shutter on the camera and fired the flash it completely blinded the surfer, making it difficult for them to make a clean exit from the wave. In the end it was worth it, but I think there's still room for improvement and I'm looking forward to having another night session at this particular wave.
Barrels of green
Most of the waves in Papua New Guinea are reef breaks with crystal clear water, this one being the exception to the rule and also one of the best waves. It sits in a river mouth and, given the amount of rain in the tropics, the water is often a soupy brown colour. After a few days of dry weather it did clean up a little and went green.
This wave is situated off a north-facing reef in the Solomon Islands. It attracts the same swells that are generated in the North Pacific and reach Hawaii each winter. By the time they get to the equatorial regions, the swells have travelled through a huge amount of open ocean. With little to no wind at this time of year in the ‘doldrums,’ it is common to have perfectly glassy waves with not a single other surfer around.
Perfectly formed waves with no one surfing them: It’s every surfer's dream. The thing is, most people flock to the well-known ‘wave magnet’ destinations that have a virtual guarantee of consistent surf. Getting to this break was a challenge; it took two full days of some pretty rugged travel, but the effort was certainly rewarded with waves like this one going unridden while the surfers in the lineup (all 5 of them) waited for the bigger sets.
Manmade subsistence living
The tiny island you see silhouetted against the sunrise is manmade. The people of the Solomon Islands have been building them this way for generations. The mainland is only about a 100 meters away, but with its rugged terrain and malarial mosquitoes, living over the ocean with the sea breezes and slightly cooler temperatures is an attractive option.
Backhand from below
PNG has some of the cleanest water I have ever seen. This photograph was taken during a light rain squall. The sun was still bright behind the clouds but the light was poor for photography, so I decided to work on some underwater images. I estimate the visibility to have been nearly 30m underwater despite the lack of sunshine.
I never found out why this child had been crying -- the language barrier proved too difficult -- but it has to have been something minor because as soon as I pointed the camera at this youngster’s face, the tears stopped. I could not get a smile but I really like the image, mainly because of the eyelashes still stuck together with tears and the dark background.
Balance, skill, and instinct
There's a statistic I heard thrown around in the Solomon Islands, that the average subsistence villager has more spare time than the average city office worker in a developed country. With an abundance of fresh seafood, fresh water, and good soil for crops, these people have all they need. Watching this man fish from a canoe with nothing more than a sharpened stick and honed skills was amazing. To stand in such an unstable craft is a feat in itself. To transfer your weight, spear a fish, and haul it in is an exercise in a lifetime of practice.
Only half of my camera equipment had shown up at the airport. I had no clothes, no toothbrush, and no idea when the rest of my gear would arrive. The surfer featured is the guy who picked me up at the airport. He promised me everything would be ok and he would send one of the boat crew to collect my stuff the next morning. He said I could stay if I wanted, but there was a good swell running and there would be waves in the morning. Luckily I had a camera and a few lenses with me, as this wave was the first thing I saw in the morning. Everything else was totally irrelevant until the winds came up about lunchtime and ruined these perfect conditions.
Boy in the jungle
With a huge population of children all throughout the Solomon Islands, it's not unusual to see them pop up in the jungle. I was actually standing in a freshwater spring, filling water bottles with our crew, when I saw this young boy, wearing nothing but a pair of old army shorts, staring back at us. I picked up the camera, smiled at him, and managed to get only one frame before he trotted off into the jungle and disappeared again.
When all you do is surf this wave for six months of the year, you get to know it pretty well. The surfer is Andrew Dart, surf guide on the PNG Explorer. ‘Darty’ has an affinity with this wave. He makes it look like the easiest barrel in the world to make. I've seen him clock more tube time here in one morning than most people will see in a lifetime.
WWII Japanese wreck
The islands of PNG and the Solomons are littered with wreckage from the Second World War. I've dived a fair few amazing wrecks, but this one sticks in my mind. The coral hasn't taken over too much, as the plane is made of aluminium and is resisting the rust (for now). The story goes that the Japanese pilot ditched into the ocean next to an island and survived only to swim ashore and find he had landed in a leper colony. The remains of the colony can still be seen today only a short walk from this plane wreck.
What did you think of this story?