By Gary King
(Editor’s note: this is the time of year with the best chance of seeing both green and hawksbill turtles laying and hatching on the same night and I can personally attest to the quality of the snorkelling and service at Vavaghio and the Arnavons.)
The Arnavon Islands is a Marine Protected Area (recently registered under the Protected Area Act of the Solomon Islands). It is a very special place and one trip that ex-pats must make before finishing their contract in Solomon Islands!
This conservation area was established in 1995 by The Nature Conservancy (“TNC”), a large US conservation organization, in consultation with customary landowners from Isabel, Choiseul and Wagina.
The reason for TNC establishing this conservation area was for the protection of the critically endangered Hawksbill Turtle. The Arnavon Islands is one of the most significant breeding rookeries for the Hawksbill Turtle in the world.
The islands are uninhabited except for the conservation officers who work there on monthly rotations, monitoring the laying habits of the female turtles and conducting patrols to prevent the poaching of the turtles at this stage when they are extremely vulnerable. The turtles and other marine life are protected by law but their abundance makes them a target for those wanting an easy meal.
The Arnavon Islands management committee (ACMCA) welcomes visitors to the facility to experience their efforts to conserve the Hawksbill Turtle and the marine life of the area. Visitors can accompany the conservation officers on their nightly turtle patrol where they try to intercept female turtles coming ashore to dig a nest and deposit their clutch of eggs. The officers count the eggs and take physical data from the female as well as tagging her for statistics of movement and/or return to the site if she is subsequently encountered. Visitors can also take part in a “turtle rodeo” where the officers catch male and juvenile turtles from a fast-moving boat in the open sea for tagging and recording. This activity is aptly named as you can well imagine!
As well as being able to experience the turtles, the protection of the area ensures fantastic snorkeling and a chance to see what island marine life would be like without fishing pressure – shoals of tropical fish, coral gardens to take your breath away and marine species such as Giant Clam that have been eliminated from even remote areas of the Solomons.
The project has a comfortable Guest House on the island of Kerehikapa for visitors. There are beds and mosquito nets and there is a flush toilet and a kitchen with a gas stove. Rates are very reasonable but you do have to cook for yourself! Visitor fees go to help fund the project so it is a great cause.
Vavaghio Guest House is the gateway to the Arnavon Islands! It is sited on Vakao Island on the northern side of north-west Isabel and is the closest Guest House to Arnavons. The guest house makes a perfect stopover for anyone making the Arnavons their prime destination. They have packages that involve some nights stay at Vavaghio and some at the Arnavon Islands. This works particularly well as it is a long boat ride from Suavanao air strip to the Arnavons and a stayover at Vavaghio breaks the trip. Also when returning from the island it reduces the boating time and gives visitors the chance to be hosted in comfort after having to cook for themselves at the island. They also have the chance to experience Isabel hospitality and the wonderful Isabel family at Vavaghio.
If you want to take the Arnavon Island package, Vavaghio can arrange all the transport and Arnavon Island stay and activities on your behalf.
Vavaghio Guest House is run by the Habotu family, assisted by ex-expat Gary King who was himself a VSA volunteer at the Arnavon Islands and who became tied to the lifestyle and people at the end of his contract. They have traditional housing and facilities but with some western comforts such as power, tiled shower and flush toilet to make your stay comfortable. Likewise the cuisine is a mixture of traditional dishes with some western influences. They even have a freezer and fridge running off the solar system to keep your drinks cold!
Vavaghio Guest House is also a destination for surfers, fishermen and others just wanting a relaxing holiday in a remote location in the Solomons.
Fishermen find the fishing amazing, with the remoteness of the area guaranteeing good stocks of all kinds of fish, from reef-dwellers such as Maori Wrasse and Giant Trevally to pelagics such as Sail fish, Spanish Mackerel and all types of tuna. The local lads can even show you how to fish with lures made from local materials!
As well as surfing and fishing, all manner of other activities are available at Vavaghio. You can go on a crocodile “hunt”, bush-walk to waterfalls, snorkel amazing reefs and drop-offs, spear-fish, evening bird-watch the iconic Frigate Bird that have a roosting island nearby. Dolphins are seen in the area most days and the wonderful and rare Dugong sometimes graces with his presence.
OK – how do I get there? Take the domestic Honiara to Suavanao Solair flight which goes on most days of the week. Flight is about 1hour and costs around SB$1,350. Vavaghio Guest House will collect you from Suavanao and deliver you to Vavaghio. Boat travel is around 11/2 hours, depending on sea conditions. The transfer from Vavaghio to Arnavon Islands is another 11/2 hours, again depending on sea conditions.
Costs – because of the reliance of boat transport and the cost of fuel, per head costs are very dependent on the size of the party and the length of the stay. The larger the party the less the per-head charge. As an indication, a party of six people spending two nights at the Arnavons and three nights at Vavaghio will pay around SB$4,000 (A$690) per head, plus airfares. This cost includes all Arnavon fees, accommodation, food and activities as well as Vavaghio accommodation, meals, transfers etc. The only extra cost will be any extra activities at Vavaghio that require the use of a boat.
Contact – visit their web site – http://www.solomonsurf.co.nz or email firstname.lastname@example.org or text to the sat. phone – +870776102049. Please note that internet access is infrequent so there may be a few days delay in getting back to you, but if you message to the sat ph you will get a reply same day.