Exploring the (mostly) Uncharted Vona Vona Lagoon

We weren’t sure how far we’d get. Beyond the depth soundings over the Katherine bar on the western edge, some details around the perimeter and a small scale chartlet of the port of Noro, home to the Sol Tuna factory, the rest the Vona Vona lagoon appeared as an empty grey expanse on both our electronic and paper charts. The few small islands enclosed within the lagoon looked as jagged yellow triangles, obviously not accurately drawn, and there was no indication of any reefs…at all.

We were heading into uncharted waters, literally.

Well, kind of. We had an old guidebook that outlined some hazards we would have to watch out for. The author had drawn mud maps of his track through the lagoon, so we had some idea of where to go. And for the first time we started using some navigational software that incorporated Google Earth satellite photos. If taken on a clear, sunny day these images show incredible details; reefs, shoals, islets and sometimes even waves easily readable. But, if snapped on an overcast day, or too far into the evening, the pictures were muddy, hard to read and somewhat distracting. None the less, they proved to be another tool in our navigation arsenal as we heading into the abyss.

We usually move only when there is enough wind to sail but with incomplete charts, restricted room to manoeuvre and not great water visibility to spot hazards the slow and steady pace of motor seemed more sensible. That is besides the fact that we’d been having weeks of windless, blue sky weather, so there was no breeze to sail anyway. Our first two days inside the lagoon were fairly stress free; we made it across the bar, found a few nice places to anchor and had between 10-20M under the keel. It seemed like we had the lagoon to ourselves, only a small local boat now and then whizzed by on the distant horizon.

On the third day navigating in the lagoon things got a little more interesting.

The water had gotten murky, in our anchorage the night before and I couldn’t see the bottom, despite the fact we had thrown the pick in only 6M. Steve drove the boat and I stood on the bow willing visibility to improve and straining my eyes looking for rocks and reefs ahead of us. We were passing through the shallowest part of the lagoon, a bottleneck where the maximum depths were 3-4M and rocks hid along the edges. Steve pulled back on the throttle and we crawled along at a snail’s pace, blindly groping our way forward, fingers crossed. Occasionally a turtle surfaced and I watched as it dove and quickly disappeared into the murky shadows, it’s presents both reassuring and troublesome. I turned and asked in our sign language how much water we had. Steve held up 1 finger, a closed fist and two fingers…1.2M below the keel, and it still looked like we were gliding through milk stained tea.

It took a better part of a white knuckle hour to safely make it through the narrows, then the lagoon opened up once more and the bottom fell away to a comfortable 10-12M. And although we both heaved a sigh of relief there was no time to let our guard down; reefs peppered the path in front of us, but at least now we could see them.

Bow lookout photo credit:Elli

We spent a week anchored at the island of Lola, home to the Zipolo Habu Resort, fishing headquarters in the lagoon. We met a young and enthusiastic couple from Switzerland, Ruben and Eli, who shared our passion for travel and our sense of humour and who were staying on the island for several weeks. We found their company easy and enjoyable and we spent many an afternoon by the beach sharing cold beers and tall tales.

We booked a fishing trip with our new Swiss friends.

They had been out a few days before and brought home 4 mahi mahi and an assortment of other fish. Our freezer was looking a little empty and it had been a while since we’d caught a mahi mahi, despite dragging a lure all the way from Vanuatu. Going out on a local go fast boat would be a bit of splurge, but there was some money from Christmas in my Canadian bank account and instructions to spend it on something fun. We were looking forward to a day out on the water with someone else at the helm.

GO fast
photo credit:Elli

We sighted a sailfish swimming slow and deliberate on the surface, it’s raised sail the only thing disturbing the glassy sea. We made grand sweeping circles around the fish, dragging an assortment of lures but it wasn’t interested. It let us drive almost right up beside and it swam across our lines so closely one actually startled it as it brushed it’s sail, but still it didn’t take the bait. After more than a half an hour we gave up, it was obvious that sailfish wasn’t coming to dinner at our place that night.

sailfish swimming on the surface

Unfortunately the mahi mahi had moved on, and the only thing of note that we hooked up on was a 5-6 foot whaler shark. A shark was not a welcome catch but we didn’t want to lose our lure either. I happen to be on the rod and boy was it was a struggle. I managed to get the shark up to beside the boat before the leader broke and shark swam free, my pink and purple squid dangling like a punk rock lip ring from the edge of it’s mouth. Ruben snapped this great shot leaning over the gunnels with an underwater camera.

photo credit:Ruben

We all needed to visit immigration to extend our visitor’s visa so we offered Ruben and Eli a ride to Noro, a nearby port and home to the Sol Tuna cannery. The trip was slow going, more hidden reefs and some contrary current as we headed up the Diamond Narrows towards town but the skies were clear, the sun bright and the conversation flowed like the sea around Kate; fast and easy.

Ruben & Elli onboard

The lagoon itself provided hours of entertainment at every anchorage we stopped at.

With the help of some GPS coordinates we found a WWII Hellcat plane sitting in 10M of crystal clear water, our first real war relic. In the mornings we enjoyed exploring nearby rivers, coffee mugs in hand and eyes searching the mangrove snarled banks for crocodiles, or went on early fishing trips in search of dinner. At sunset, after a cool shower to wash the heat of the day off, we sat in the cockpit and watched the parrots, doves, sea eagles, osprey, cockatoos and hornbills flying across the pink sky roosting in the trees of our island du jour. We had sharks around the yacht and dolphins swimming under the dinghy. Several mornings we woke up surrounded by a gang of squid, many of which ended up in our bucket and later on our dinner plates. We even visited a skull shrine; a strange burial island left over from the headhunting days.

WWII Hellcat
Morning dinghy trip
Skull shrine
Morning in the Lagoon
Dolphins escort us home at sunset

When we finally passed back over the bar and felt the gently rolling of the open ocean it was both foreign and familiar. The lagoon had been so still that both time and Kate had felt suspended. We hadn’t intended to stay three weeks but it was easy to get lost inside the Vona Vona lagoon. Each new day gave us another reason not to leave; protected anchorages, uninhabited islands, unspoiled wildlife, endless sunny days and star filled nights, great fishing and new friends. Lagoon life was so good we’re tempted to go back…



Leave a Reply