Savo, Solomon Islands.
If I have a fear, it’s this:
Dangling like bait in a tropical sea populated by crocodiles and hammer-head sharks, a long swim from shore, looking down into the darkness of hundreds-meter deep water.
My modest fear of the sea isn’t all-consuming, but it’s there, niggling away. It’s at the point where my only hesitation about flying is not so much crashing as it is surviving the crash, only to be left floating aimlessly in the middle of the Pacific.
But alas, I’m not on Savo Island - a rural volcanic clump in the middle of Iron Bottom Sound - everyday.
I came here because it was the closest island to Honiara on the map. Not many other people come here, I found out, save for a handful of aid workers and officials keen to get tourism off the ground to help give the island an economic booster.
Two such folks were on the island when I arrived - Gordon and Bella. I came with no plans, but Bella and Gordon - charged with scoping out how the island could develop a sustainable tourism future - had plenty.
Savo Island is known mainly for its megapode breeding grounds: sections of beach in which a rare bird species lays its eggs each sunrise.
But there’s another breeding ground that we were told about: a bottlenose dolphin sanctuary a couple-hundred meters off the island’s south.
Curiosity piqued and a ride on offer, Bella, Gordon and I mounted a banana-boat and were soon sailing across the sound on the hunt for the pod.
On the chase.
It didn’t take long before they started to appear: dancing playfully alongside the pink and yellow boat we were circling in.
Dozens of the dolphins swam in circles around the boat, playing in the wake, soaring into the sky doing twists and turns. The locals called these dolphins ‘spinners’.
Bottlenose dolphins emerging from the deep in Iron Botton Sound.
Follow the leader: the pod re-emerging.
From the deep: A single bottlenose leads the way.
In the water.
John, our guide, assured us it was possible to go swimming with the dolphins.
I pictured us frolicking in shallow water with the dolphins playfully joining us.
“They like the noise of the engine”, John told us. “You’ll hang on to the side of the boat as we circle the dolphins'“.
We all nervously agreed.
Bella entered the water first:
Bella nervously enters the water: John’s reassurances were not entirely convincing for the three of us.
Bella under tow: Bella, on the island to study its potential for tourism, took the tentative first swim.
She was soon holding the handle that you’d see a water-skier firmly grasping.
The technique, however, was tricky: to avoid being sucked under the engine, we were told to firmly push our right arm against the boat to balance ourselves.
I watched Bella quickly adapt. While the boat was not going fast, it took considerable stamina to maintain the correct position without being knocked under the boat.
Gordon was next in the water, under John’s watchful eye.
Gordon under tow: My ship-mate getting dragged along side the banana boat under the watchful-eye of our guides.
Under his eye: John was reassuringly attentive.
Bella and Gordon had returned to the surface elated, speaking of dozens of dolphins soaring underneath them, emerging from the black to come and frolick near the surface.
I overcame my nerves and slipped into the deep water, positioning myself before the engines fired up and we started moving.
I’d never swum that deep before: looking down as I gently glided in the water, the ocean seemed endless. It was black and quiet.
Unfortunately, the dolphins seemed more apprehensive by the time I entered the water. I saw some, in the distance, but was soon being dragged out of the water as the banana’ boats fuel supply depleted.
For me, the best views were had from the boat: