Gizo, Solomon Islands


Andi Cross
Marla Tomorug & Adam Moore
August 24, 2023
8 min read
Audio generated for accessibility using AI. Intonation does not express the true level of awe and stoke.

The current was getting stronger by the minute. Hovering at around 30 meters (100 feet), it was apparent the drop off went far deeper than that. Perched at a point that was jutting out into open ocean, this was where marine life was congregating in mass. It felt like we had arrived at the epicenter of the underwater world. 

A sense of nostalgia was flooding me given my New York City roots. With so much action happening at this site, it reminded me of the busy city streets with tons of people in a hurry, all with different reasons for the rush. It made sense immediately why this site was called “Grand Central.” In this instance, humans were replaced with countless endemic fish. 

But focusing on my past life was difficult while watching the massive schools of fish struggle to swim due to a heavy down current. We needed to firmly be in the present and on high alert. We were splitting our focus between the incredible marine action all around us, and not getting sucked deeper into the depths than we already were. Yet again, we were living out the mantra of our expedition, and this underwater dropoff felt entirely like the edges of earth.  

When it came to figuring out how to navigate the Solomons, it was very difficult to understand where to go, what to do, and who to meet. This island nation does not get the same traffic as the likes of Fiji, and its infrastructure is not nearly as developed. Getting around is hard. 

Of the 900 islands that make up the Solomons, only 347 are inhabited. And the sparseness of the population actually translates to the diving itself. With fewer divers, the harder the diving. And this scuba diving was extremely raw. There are no frills, hardly any resorts and very few comforts. Simply put, the Solomons are not for everyone.

According to the Solomon Islands National Statistics Office, 29,000 travelers were typically coming through the Solomons pre pandemic—in comparison to the 1 million going through Fiji. With those numbers dropping drastically to around 5,000 post pandemic, we assumed we’d have the open ocean all to ourselves. That we certainly did. Our first stop was Gizo, which became an imperative destination to explore after we met the Kennedy duo.  

Danny and Kerrie Kennedy have been living on Gizo for decades, setting up what’s deemed the only accredited dive center in the area, called “Dive Gizo.” We had been pointed in their direction so many times by explorers who had traversed the Solomons long before we had. These two were notorious in these parts on account of their well-oiled operation, but more so for their community-based work. They are all about empowering locals to get involved in the diving community and in establishing conservation areas. 

Upon arrival, we were greeted by Kerrie, an Australian who was all in on making us feel right at home. We also were introduced to Craig, our trusted guide for the duration of our time in Gizo. The two of them clearly were pros, getting us briefed the second we stepped foot on their dock. We were going to get an exclusive look at the Kennedy couple’s passion project—an untouched island with a reef that was deemed one of the most biodiverse in the world. 

Before we knew it, we were falling in love with a new “Grand Central” that could be found on Njari Island, the Kennedy's current conservation project. 

Njari Island was as raw on land as it was out to sea. This is true for most of the islands in the Solomons. But this one in particular was owned and managed by the Kennedy’s as of 2004, alongside the original custodians. With 279 individual species of fish, it’s been ranked the fourth-highest fish count of any dive site on the planet. Before the Kennedy’s purchased the land, the locals were using the site for fishing. That’s why they have pushed hard to establish it as a conservation area, helping to keep this thriving population alive for years to come. 

During our surface intervals on Njari, Craig made a roaring fire using different parts of coconuts. We cooked freshly caught triggerfish found outside of the protected area, placing leaves over them to ensure the perfect preparation. Using those very leaves as plates, we ate with our hands before making our way out to sea to search for World War II relics, secret dive sites and more rich biodiversity that can only be found in the Solomons.

We visited almost all of the 23 marked dive sites that Kerrie and Danny had established, and most of our days out to sea were met with at least 3 sessions of torrential rain, raging surge and according to Craig, “unusually murky waters.” To us, it was perfect. In the Solomons, you embrace the wild and don’t let a bit of rain impact your decision making. We were going diving no matter what, as each site seemed to only get better and better. We couldn’t help but reflect on what this wilderness must have been like eons ago.  

Diving with Kerrie and her team gave us, with full certainty, some of the best, fish-rich experiences we’d ever had. But we soon found that all the beauty in the sea was also met with a startling contrast as we explored further inland. Seeing what sits right on the top of Gizo is what made our expedition team fully realize why Danny and Kerrie have stayed here for so long. There’s an ongoing battle that they are fighting, alongside some other strong figures in the Solomons. 

Like many remote nations, the Solomons struggle to find ways of removing waste from their island. So instead, it all goes into landfills or into the ocean. We sat in the back of an open truck, driving to see the landfill situated on the top of the island. To our shock, the landfill was surrounded by residential homes. And it was filled to the brim with trash. 

It was hard not to have a visceral reaction to the sight, especially when seeing children riding bikes past the dump as a part of their daily routine. 

We met Sumana, the local representative with Positive Change for Marine Life—a nonprofit that is working tirelessly to find solutions to the waste management problem here. Having run this program for two years, this team has been successful in preventing 1,500 kilograms (3,300 pounds) of waste going into the ocean. Every Thursday, Sumana and her squad of 14 go around to the island’s key districts collecting soft and hard plastics in waste bags that are provided to homes. With 80 homes participating, the goal is to get to 100 by the end of 2023. 

But here’s the crazy part: The people of Gizo are expected to transport their standard waste—with the exception of the soft and hard plastics—to the landfill themselves. For some, that’s over an hour commute. Because fuel prices are so high, most of these families cannot afford transport to-and-from the landfill. So, they have to walk up hills and on unpaved roads, carrying their heavy waste bags.

Alternatively, they can just leave the waste around their homes, as it's an easier solution for many who are just focused on getting by. Not to mention, there’s currently no way to get trash OFF the island, as moving the waste is too costly given its far distance from any mainland. 

Passing the landfill and listening to Sumana talk us through the struggle, it was hard not to get emotional. We pulled up to Positive Change For Marine Life’s home base, located in a facility that tries to find use cases for the soft and hard plastics. Run by a man named Richard (affectionately known as “Ricky Boy” to those who know him), we had the distinct pleasure of seeing how the facility runs under his watch. 

The women bring the plastics onsite each Thursday. Then, the bags of waste are weighed, sorted and cleaned. Some plastics get stored in the facility as there’s no other place to put it. Or it's given to another women’s group that up-cycles the plastics into crafts that are sold back into the community. Or lastly, handed off to Ricky Boy and his team. 

Ricky Boy operates two machines—the crusher and the shredder. The crusher takes predominantly soft drink cans and presses them into long bricks, while the shredder tackles all kinds of plastic bottles. But, there’s nowhere for these bricks and shreds to go, so the team is constantly thinking of ways to reuse the materials they have on site. Positive Change for Marine Life is working on a long-term plan to use the bricks and hard plastic materials stored at the facility to build a larger Marine Conservation Center on Gizo Island.

From creating new building materials to concocting new business ventures to get the community more involved in waste management, this is how Ricky Boy and his trusted team of two spend their free time. One of his workers, Reggie, is a 70-year old who works harder than most people we’ve met. You could sense his level of commitment, even in just a brief meeting. There’s no shortage of workers like Reggie in Gizo. But when it comes to waste management, there's a shortage of capital to be earned. And that’s the fundamental issue. 

Ricky Boy said it often feels like an uphill battle when it comes to the waste problem here. But his team, Positive Change For Marine Life, Danny and Kerrie—they are all integral parts in keeping Gizo a thriving home for themselves, and an enchanting destination for others to explore. Each doing their part on this small slice of paradise, with the skills, tools, knowledge and desire that they all collectively have. 

Without each of these teams playing their part, it’s uncertain what Gizo’s fate would be today.  

There was a stadium-sized church situated right next to our base camp. On Sundays, the entire community sings soulful gospel songs from morning to night there. The people of Gizo will rally around things they believe in. And that’s what’s happening when it comes to their land and sea. People are catching on to the importance of the island's natural resources; they’re whole-heartedly and optimistically putting their minds together to come up with ways to contribute.

Watching each exceptional person we met on this tiny island do their part, made us want to do more. From choosing the right local operators to volunteering time when exploring a new place—these are all things that ladder back to conscious, sustainable and ultimately the most fulfilling traveling. It's up to all of us to think about our consumption, our usage, and our way of life. Where we are doing well and where we can make even the slightest changes. 

For those of you looking for a one-of-a-kind, life changing experience in the remote wild, we sincerely hope you find your way to Gizo. Call Kerrie, as she’ll make sure you have the best island lunches and that you feel right at home on the edges of earth.


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