Amazon of the ocean
THERE has to be something special about a place for it to be nominated as one of the seven natural wonders of Oceania.
In a region encompassing such idyllic island destinations as Palau, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu and Samoa, not to mention New Zealand's stunning landscapes, some stiff competition exists for the title of "natural wonder".
Marovo Lagoon in the Solomon Islands is one of those candidates and its nomination is well-deserved.
As the largest saltwater lagoon in the world, Marovo is a treasure trove of deserted beaches, winding mangroves streams and some of the best coral- reef diving in the world.
With many of the lagoon's islands uninhabited, the few accommodation options means visitors will never find it crawling with tourists.
Perched on the north side of the lagoon is Uepi Island - a small hammerhead shark-shaped wisp of sand and tropical forest lined by colourful coral drop offs.
Uepi is a 45-minute boat ride from Seghe Airport, which is a short flight from the capital Honiara - itself just a three-hour flight from Brisbane.
The trip from Seghe to Uepi allows you to take in the lagoon. Slicing through the flat-calm water, the boat cruises past lush islands, and locals fishing in dug-out canoes smile and wave as we pass. Uepi's small but luxurious resort, run by Aussies Grant and Jill Kelly, is a collection of bungalows and guesthouses linked to the open-air dining and bar area by sandy footpaths lined with carefully tended hibiscus and orchids.
We abandon our shoes as soon as we step on to the island, and we won't wear them again until we leave.
Sitting in one of the hammocks on our porch, my dive buddy Rochelle and I can see the ocean from both sides of our bungalow.
A giant clam shell filled with water and a hibiscus flower serves as a foot bath to make sure we don't track any sand inside.
Dinner is a buffet of locally sourced and organic food including curries, steamed crab, calamari and fried fish.
Located north of Vanuatu and east of Papua New Guinea, the Solomons are in the Coral Triangle: an area known as the epicentre of marine biodiversity, or the "Amazon of the Ocean", because of its large number of corals and tropical marine life.
So it should come as no surprise that the Solomons have some stunning reefs.
If one of the other guests at Uepi had told me at dinner that I'd see two hammerhead sharks, a spotted eagle ray and a pod of dolphins on my first dive, then I probably would have laughed and said: "Yeah, right".
We saw all of those cruising along a section of the coral reef wall on the north side of the island known as The Elbow.
Even without the sharks, rays or dolphins, this was a fantastic dive.
The vibrant blue water contrasted with the bright colours of the reef.
Pink, yellow and red sea fans branch out from the wall-like delicate nets cast out to catch plankton.
We return to our bungalow for lunch where a platter of food is waiting for us. Then it's a quick snorkel with blacktip reef sharks off the welcome jetty before heading back out for an afternoon dive at Uepi Point.
The next day is spent diving further afield at the Babata Sinkhole, Penguin Reef and the wrecks of the vertical-sitting Taiyo fishing boat and a P38 Lightning fighter plane from the First World War.
Even here in the Western Province, there is plenty of evidence of the war.
The P38 is in surprisingly good condition for crashing in just eight metres of water off the end of the Seghe airstrip.
The fishing boat has a less exciting story. It ran aground on a reef on its maiden voyage and, after a failed salvage attempt, came to rest in its unusual position against the reef.
With great sadness, we leave Uepi to check out another resort, which is a two-hour boat ride south on Gatokae Island.
But as The Wilderness Lodge comes into view, all of our hesitation evaporates. The lodge is an eco resort in Peava Village and run by locals Waelinah and Vaelathy.
Even smaller than Uepi Island Resort, the lodge was built with local materials, uses solar panels and serves seafood caught by the villagers and guests.
It's a popular spot for fishing, freediving and spear fishing, thanks to easy access to deep water and remote, pristine reefs.
We're here for snorkelling and a cultural tour of Biche village on the exposed, south side of Gatokae Island.
We battle through large swells and rain to reach the village and it's an interesting exit off the boats and on to the volcanic rock where villagers are waiting to help us ashore.
We tentatively pick our way over the sharp rocks while the men confidently walk barefoot over the jagged basalt, guiding us by the arm.
We're welcomed with necklaces made from fresh flowers and coconuts with hand-cut straws.
A few of the men re-enact the warrior welcome we would have received 100 years ago and then we split off into two groups to learn about the village's head-hunting history.
Luckily, the skulls from those days are buried underground, although three of the village's most revered chiefs are on display.
Aside from their clothes and a few modern amenities, little seems to have changed here.
They still use dug-out canoes, grow and catch food, and painstakingly craft traditional wood and stone carvings.
The villagers are Seventh Day Adventists, a legacy of the missionaries who visited during the war, and one strange by-product of their beliefs is the freshwater eels kept as pets.
The eels, some of which are more than a metre in length and as thick as a man's arm, are lovingly cared for in a freshwater stream.
Each day, the villagers catch fresh fish for the eels to eat.
Watching the feeding is the highlight of our tour.
The chunks of fish are laid on a flat rock and then water is poured over them to carry the scent of the food into the water.
The eels react immediately, sliding up the rock and snatching the fish.
The calm pond is now bubbling with a dozen eels launching themselves up on to the feeding rock.
After buying some carvings and saying our goodbyes, we head back to the lodge for our own seafood feast.
Two locals from Peava have caught a dozen skipjack tuna to share between the village and the lodge.
It's only a matter of hours between when we watch the men filleting the tuna on the jetty and when large platters of plump strips of pink sashimi are placed in front of us at dinner.
The ocean touches every part of life in the Solomons and it's refreshing to visit a place where people are still living in harmony with it.
If one of the other guests at Uepi had told me at dinner that I'd see two hammerhead sharks, a spotted eagle ray and a pod of dolphins on my first dive, then I probably would have laughed and said: "Yeah, right". We saw all of those.