Though you won’t find legendary gold mines in the Solomon Islands, natural treasures abound, as a trip to the South Pacific nation’s remote Western Province reveals
By Johnny Langenheim
Photographs by James Morgan
We crest a prodigious South Pacific swell, and there it is—a spinner dolphin within arm’s reach of my perch at the prow of the speedboat. And it’s not alone. A pod of 30 or more of the creatures are darting and leaping in front of me now, each one seeming to return my grin as we follow the waves to the wild western side of Tetepare. Beyond us stretch 1,600 kilometers of ocean—all the way to Australia’s Queensland coast. But for now, I’m oblivious to this epic setting, mesmerized instead by the silvery flash of the dolphins as they pilot us toward shore.
At 120 square kilometers, Tetepare may be the largest uninhabited island in the South Pacific, though it’s not on too many radars. Neither, to be frank, is the archipelagic nation to which it belongs. The Solomon Islands’ one brief burst of geopolitical notoriety occurred during World War II, when its main island, Guadalcanal, was the setting for fierce fighting between Japanese and American forces. A onetime British protectorate that gained independence only in 1978, the Solomons today are a sleepy backwater, with most of their half-million people engaged in subsistence farming and fishing. Yet a closer look at this chain of nearly 1,000 islands turns up unexpected treasures.
How apt, then, that the promise of treasure gave the country its name. In 1567, Spanish navigator Álvaro de Mendaña set out from Peru in search of the mythical continent of Terra Australis, rumored to be the biblical land of Ophir, source of King Solomon’s gold. What he found instead were the Solomons, where he set up camp on the island now known as Santa Isabel. De Mendaña and his crew spent several months scouring the area for riches, but left empty-handed. The name, however, stuck.
The Solomon Islands remains one of the poorest nations in the South Pacific, with its main export product, timber, now dangerously overexploited. Yet for the trickle of visitors that make it out here, the archipelago’s real treasures are its ecosystems—both terrestrial and marine—which offer close encounters with nature that you don’t have to share with dozens of other camera-toting tourists.