Starting the Search for Underwater Giants in the Solomon Sea

Even the best laid plans go astray. After one year of planning in every conceivable way—the two of us camped out in backyards, in cafes, on campus, on planes and trains—we finally felt as prepared as we could be to visit a place neither of us had ever been, to study a fish neither of us had ever seen. Every expedition has its misadventures, and ours came on day two of our travels.

Panorama of the MV Fair Glory passenger ferry and Honiara harbor in the Solomon Islands. Photograph by Andrea Reid.
Panorama of the MV Fair Glory passenger ferry and Honiara harbor in the Solomon Islands. (Photo by Andrea Reid)

We left -30°C weather in Toronto (that’s -22°F for all you American readers) and headed for the Solomon Islands, a small island nation in the South Pacific that’s 3,280 km (2,040 miles) northeast of Australia. The first leg of our journey went according to plan: We, and our gear, made it safely across the continent. It wasn’t until checking in for our flight to the capital of Honiara, routed through Fiji, that we learned of the travel ban between our carrier, Fiji Airways, and the Solomon Islands. The ban rerouted us through Brisbane, Australia, for three days as we waited for the next available flight to our rarely trafficked destination.

Bow of MV Fair Glory in the Solomon Islands. Photograph by Mikayla Wujec.
Bow of the MV Fair Glory in the Solomon Islands. (Photo by Mikayla Wujec)

From the plane we could see for miles the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean dotted with small, forested islands and larger volcanic remnants. There are 992 Solomon Islands, approximately 600 of which are uninhabited. Their extraordinary remoteness has allowed biodiversity of all kinds to flourish—especially marine life. Over 3,000 fish species thrive on the surrounding reefs in abundances unrivaled in much of the oceans. During our 26-hour ferry ride on the MV Fair Glory to our research base on Ghizo Island, we glimpsed flying fish chasing prey, circling blacktip reef sharks, and colorful, chatty parrots and parakeets. Crabs, groupers, and kingfish were also brightly on display—but this time onboard, traditionally wrapped in banana leaves and quickly devoured by hungry passengers. Once night fell, the Fair Glory docked at small ports, where fishermen in dugout canoes clustered around the lower decks selling their daily catch and then disappearing into a darkness so deep the sky and sea were indistinguishable.

Passengers of the MV Fair Glory looking port-side over Marovo Lagoon in the Solomon Islands. Photograph by Andrea Reid
Passengers of the MV Fair Glory looking port-side over Marovo Lagoon in the Solomon Islands. (Photo by Andrea Reid)

Landing at Gizo Harbor, it was clear to see that we’d picked an ideal venue for our research. The visibility in the aquamarine waters was greater than anywhere we’d ever been scuba diving—it took all of our willpower to keep ourselves from diving right in. Everyone in the town knows and has tasted topa, the Pijin word for bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum), our study subject and the largest parrotfish species in the world. We’re here to survey topa populations and capture their impacts on their main prey, coral reefs; a single individual consumes roughly five tons of coral per year. Our dive surveys begin in the coming days, and we’ll be back soon to share stories from under the Solomon Sea.

Passenger on the MV Fair Glory ferry at sunset in the Solomon Islands. Photograph by Mikayla Wujec.
Passenger on the MV Fair Glory at sunset in the Solomon Islands. (Photo by Mikayla Wujec)

Changing Planet

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Mikayla Wujec is a National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee (YEG) with a passion for all things aquatic. Toronto born, she grew up with her toes firmly entrenched in Georgian Bay in Ontario, Canada and her nose stuck in countless books of adventure. At age 18 Mikayla travelled to the opposite edge of the world to become a certified SCUBA diver on the reefs of Vanua Levu, Fiji. That experience, and her BA in geography and biology from Concordia University in snowy Montreal, guided Mikayla into her roles as research consultant to international conservation organizations and a LEED-certified ambassador for sustainability in institutions of higher education. These pursuits are on hold as Mikayla now returns to the distant South Pacific as an aquatic conservationist studying threatened fish and the ecosystems that support them. She is using graphic imagery and storytelling as educational tools in promoting the conservation work she is currently doing and illuminating broader themes in sustainable development. On this YEG expedition, Mikayla is teaming up with YEG Andrea Reid who is an aquatic biologist and science communicator based in Montreal, Canada. You can learn more about her work at www.andreajanereid.com.