Grand central station

The waters around the Solomon Islands are as enigmatic as they are expansive, drawing interest from scientists, conservationists and divers alike. Said to be one of the most biodiverse places in the world, this remote archipelago was always top-of-mind for the Edges of Earth expedition team.

Words by Andi Cross
Photographs by Marla Tomorug

With about 1,000 islands in the country, there is a lot to explore when it comes to the Solomons. So we turned to one of our longstanding partners, The Explorers Club, to help us consider how best to navigate the region. With close to 3,500 members from all around the world, we knew this coveted group would know someone who had traversed the Solomon’s, both above and below water. 

That’s when we were introduced to Rob McCallum, an esteemed figure in deep-sea exploration, marked by his notable descent into the Challenger Deep. Rob has been named the deepest diving New Zealander, with a 30-year career rooted in executing complex operations in the world’s most remote locations. A Founding Partner of EYOS Expeditions, he has led over 1,500 tailored journeys to earth’s hidden corners. That said, he’s been to the Solomons countless times. We had found our guy! 

When planning our expedition, we first would identify where we want to go and why. In this case, we wanted to first understand the extent of the biodiversity in the Solomons. Then, we’d begin outreach based on our connectivity in the region. The search would include finding the experts on the frontlines at each location of interest, or those who have spent meaningful time there in the past. 

One connection would lead to the next, until we’d find the perfect match – an individual, team or organisation that was mission and vision aligned and wanted to share their stories of their time living on the fringe. In this case, Rob introduced us to Danny and Kerrie Kennedy. Rob described Danny as the heart and soul of diving in the Solomons – a man that put Solomon’s on the map as a world-class diving destination. 

Flying into mainland Honaria, we took another plane to Gizo Island. Catering so much to divers, they allowed our multiple dive bags onto the tiny plane free of charge. We were thrilled. From there, we were met by a small boat that was to take us from the airport landing strip, surrounded by some of the most beautiful coral that we’d seen thus far, to Gizo proper. 

The first thing you see upon arrival on the nearby landing strip in the Gizo area is a sign that says, “if you want to go diving, there’s only one accredited dive operation on the island.” And that was Dive Gizo, the Kennedy’s operation that was set up back in the 80s. Welcoming us was Kerrie, an Australian ocean enthusiast who fell in love with an American and together, they made the Solomon Islands their home. 

Our main mission was to explore the Kennedy’s long-time conservation project – Njari Island. If we wanted to understand the biodiversity in this region, this was the place to go. But to understand how Njari Island came to be, we have to go back in time to Danny’s arrival in the Solomons in the year 1985.  

The Floridian had a dream of establishing diving in the Solomons, particularly in Gizo, after a life-changing visit. In order to do this, he needed to understand where there were dive sites and begin the mapping process. The waters surrounding Gizo are rich with Japanese WW2 relics, soft and hard corals of all kinds and seagrass that summoned exotic animals of all varieties. 

In particular, there was one area about 45-minutes away from mainland Gizo that was, without a doubt, the most concentration of fish Danny had ever seen. More than any of the sites that he was finding and naming at the time, this northwest corner of an island called ‘Njari’ was what he deemed THE hotspot. 

Danny and his newly formed team started to use the island as a surface interval, exploring the untouched landmass, cooking authentic island lunches and surveying what was beneath the surface. Visiting more and more, Danny wanted to form a relationship with the original landowner. After tracking him down, Danny explained that this was one of the most exceptional dive destinations he’s seen, and asked permission to continue coming back, but moving forward, with visiting divers. 

What started out as a simple handshake, turned into formal partnership between Danny and the Gilbertese elder who was settled on this island by the British Government in the late 50’s due to drought in the Gilbert & Ellie islands. Every month, Danny would make a financial commitment to the original landowner, and for years, the owner would come to Dive Gizo and collect his ‘custom fees’. This ultimately helped to sustain his family then and in the long term. 

Danny, now a permanent resident of the Solomon Islands, began inviting international friends to witness the extraordinary marine life in Gizo firsthand. A friend from New York accepted the invitation. Eager to showcase the diverse underwater world, Danny arranged a week of diving at the notable northwest point of Njari Island for her. 

The site was teeming with fish, drawing a comparison from Danny’s friend to the crowded bustle of Manhattan’s morning commute. At that moment, the unnamed northwest dive site earned its moniker, ‘Grand Central Station’. And the name has stuck ever since, marking the beginning of the Kennedy family’s ongoing commitment to preserving this underwater haven.

In 2002, the original landowner approached Danny with an offer to sell the island. His children were well-educated and self-sufficient, and he recognised Danny as a consistent contributor to his family’s welfare. Eager for a comfortable retirement, he found a willing buyer in Danny. After negotiations, a deal was sealed, granting Danny a 75-year Fixed Term Lease (FTE) on the island. The sale marked a new chapter in Njari history, as this deal opened up more conservation opportunities here than before. 

In 2004, Danny and Kerrie took a significant step to protect the biodiversity of Njari Island by supporting a Rapid Ecological Assessment (REA) by The Nature Conservancy (TNC). The report highlighted Njari’s exceptional biodiversity, marking it as a crucial part of the Solomon’s rich ecosystem. Their goal was to transform the island into a sanctuary for marine life and honor the legacy of the original landowner.

Dr. Alison Green led a rigorous 35-day study that revealed the vital significance and pressing challenges of this marine hotspot. The investigation, conducted across seven provinces, meticulously documented the Solomon Islands’ remarkable underwater world and used Njari as a case study throughout the report. The findings underscored the urgent need for protective measures to preserve the sea in the Solomons amid ongoing environmental challenges.

In the study, noted coral specialists, Dr. Charlie Veron and Emre Turak, identified 494 coral species, underscoring the Solomon Islands as a stronghold of coral diversity. Although the reefs were in good condition, signs of human and environmental impact were evident. The presence of crown-of-thorns starfish and remnants of blast fishing marked the ecosystems, highlighting emerging threats to these marine havens.

Dr. Gerry Allen was also involved, and contributed to the study by recording 1,019 fish species. This was another critical factor that reinforced the Solomon Islands’ biodiversity status. However, this was contrasted by a noticeable absence of commercially exploited species, underscoring a persistent issue of overfishing in the region.

The sobering reality of human impact was particularly evident in the scarcity of green snails, Trochus shell, and several species of tridacnid clams and sea cucumbers. Yet, amidst this ecological strain, Njari Island stood as a testament to the resilience of marine life when shielded from human exploitation. It was a refuge for marine life to flourish, offering a glimpse into the possibilities of conservation and sustainable interaction. The recognition of Njari Island’s significance was now extending beyond the original landowner and Danny & Kerrie to gain the attention of the wider science and conservation communities. 

Then in 2007, an unexpected disaster struck. A catastrophic 8.1 magnitude earthquake – the seventh largest recorded at the time – struck just 35 km (22 miles) southeast of Gizo Island. The Kennedy’s lost over 80% of their assets related to Dive Gizo. Many of their boats sank, and extreme damage to their other infrastructure plagued their operation. 

To make matters worse, 75% of the magnificent reef system was completely destroyed, and Njari Island itself took on extensive damage. Danny recounted that around 90% of the coral looked as if it had been bulldozed over, completely leveling the seafloor. Kerrie recalls that time in their lives as one of the most painful, as Danny was truly and entirely heartbroken. 

In the subsequent decade following the quake, Danny and Kerrie spearheaded a resurgence, diligently restoring their operation and investing their energies into ecosystem management. The objective was clear—revitalise the submerged paradise to its former state of vibrancy and resilience. Their efforts were marked by tenacity and an unwavering commitment, qualities that by 2017, had yielded significant progress. Njari Island, once a spectacle of devastation, was on an encouraging trajectory of recovery.

The year 2017 wasn’t just about recovery, but about transformation. Danny harboured a vision to elevate Njari Island into a global conservation exemplar. His aspiration was to have this island and its surrounding ecosystems serve as a living classroom, a dynamic space where scientists, researchers, divers and students globally could converge and glean insights into the remarkable journey of oceanic revival following that cataclysmic event. By 2018, this vision inched closer to reality. Armed with a grant from the Solomon Islands Government, the inaugural jetty on Njari Island was constructed.

Danny and his team were immersed in extensive ecological efforts, including the planting of new corals, the elimination of invasive crown-of-thorns starfish and the seeding of juvenile clams to enrich the marine ecosystem. All the while, a new challenge was surfacing – illegal night fishing. Workers stationed for extensive periods on the island reported that fisherfolk were exploiting the marine sanctity of Njari, and significantly depleting marine life at the primary dive sites.

In response, Danny exhibited swift, decisive action. An old 4X5M army surplus tent was established as an outpost on the island. A security team was mobilised, tasked with the crucial role of safeguarding the waters, ensuring the continued flourishing of marine life unhindered by human predation. These actions showed the continuous devotion to the island and their unwavering commitment to conservation.

While hosting private vessels in the Solomon waters, Danny introduced divers to the rejuvenating underwater world of Njari. One guest, deeply moved by the unfolding ecological revival, extended a significant donation, catalysing the establishment of a two-bedroom ecolodge. This facility was initially envisioned to accommodate WCS research partners but had a broader purpose to educate divers and students in ecological preservation and conservation.

By the time we arrived in 2023, we were exploring Njari topside in the pouring rain, while diving during the intermittent sunshine. Regardless of the weather, the dive sites were simply put, incredible. The vibrancy of fish activity echoed the bustling energy of my 11 years in New York City, grounding me in a sense of familiar energy amidst the remote allure of the Solomons.

Witnessing the reef’s recovery 16 years post-earthquake and from the subsequent destructive fishing was profoundly impactful. Danny illuminated the resurgence of the ecosystem, noting the presence of approximately 279 fish species observable in a single dive on Njari, making it the fourth highest fish count in the world when it comes to dive sites. “The remarkable rebound of this reef is a direct outcome of protective measures and diligent management,” Danny asserted, highlighting the tangible progress achieved through collective, sustained effort.

Njari Island serves as a powerful testament to nature’s resilience and adaptability, while illustrating the potential for ecosystems worldwide to recover with adequate care and protection. This realisation amplifies our collective responsibility to actively participate in earth’s healing process. 

Our experience with the Kennedys highlights the profound impact of life on the edges of earth, and the commitment to significant environmental stewardship. Regardless of how many hurdles this group had to overcome—from earthquakes to human damage – there never was a moment of waiver, and the relentless commitment has proven its value. Leaving the Solomons, we were deeply moved by the evident restoration of Njari, a testament to the effect of individual and concerted efforts.


Photographs by Marla Tomorug

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