by Neil Sands Sat Apr 7, 7:19 PM ET
In an instant, the grinding of the Earth's tectonic plates in the 8.0 magnitude earthquake Monday forced the island of Ranongga up three metres (10 foot).
Submerged reefs that once attracted scuba divers from around the globe lie exposed and dying after the quake raised the mountainous landmass, which is 32-kilometres (20-miles) long and 8-kilometres (5-miles) wide.
Corals that used to form an underwater wonderland of iridescent blues, greens and reds now bleach under the sun, transforming into a barren moonscape surrounding the island.
The stench of rotting fish and other marine life stranded on the reefs when the seas receded is overwhelming and the once vibrant coral is dry and crunches underfoot.
Dazed villagers stand on the shoreline, still coming to terms with the cataclysmic shift that changed the geography of their island forever, pushing the shoreline out to sea by up to 70 metres.
Aid agencies have yet to reach Ranongga after the quake and tsunami that killed at least 34 people in the Pacific archipelago but an AFP reporter and photographer on a chartered boat witnessed the destruction first hand.
At Pienuna, on Ranongga's east coast, locals said much of their harbour had disappeared, leaving only a narrow inlet lined by jagged exposed coral reefs either side.
Villager Harison Gago said there were huge earthquake fissures which had almost split the island in half, gesturing with his hands that some of the cracks were 50 centimetres (20 inches) wide.
Further north at Niu Barae, fisherman Hendrik Kegala had just finished exploring the new underwater landscape of the island with a snorkel when contacted by the AFP team.
He said a huge submerged chasm had opened up, running at least 500 metres (550 yards) parallel to the coast.
On the beach at Niu Barae, the earthquake has revealed a sunken vessel that locals believe is a Japanese patrol boat, a remnant of the fierce fighting between Allied forces and the Japanese in WWII.
Kegala said that from the perspective of those on the island, the sea appeared to recede and villagers still feared it would come back again as a tsunami, making them reluctant to return from higher ground where they fled.
"Plenty big noise," he told AFP, describing the disaster in the local pidgin dialect.
"Water go back and not come back again," he added, saying the whooshing sound of the receding water and the shaking from the quake occurred simultaneously.
Danny Kennedy, a dive operator in the provincial capital Gizo, said the earthquake had damaged coral reefs throughout the Solomon Islands' western province.
He said dive sites once ranked among the best in the world were dying because the tremors had upset the fragile natural ecosystem.
"Some of the most beautiful corals are the most delicate and those are the ones that have been affected," he told AFP.
"The more robust corals are still there but it's the ones that people want to photograph, the sea fans and the colourful corals, that are dying."
Kennedy said the damage to the coral reefs could dry up the region's major source of overseas money.
"Diving is huge here, it employs so many local people," he said. "The fear is that people are going to come here and see the reefs are damaged then tell people not to come back for a few years until they recover."
Jackie Thomas, acting manager for Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) in the Solomons, said the loss of the reefs was a huge blow for the fishing communities that are dotted along Ranongga's coast.
"The fish from the reefs are the major source of protein for the villagers," she told AFP from Gizo.
"They use shells for tools and rely on the sea for many of their basic needs.
"It just shows the incredible force of the earthquake, to move a whole island."
She said the reefs around Ranongga were a protected marine environment and locals had worked hard with WWF in recent years to ensure that they were managed sustainably.
"Now it's another marine environment that has been destroyed," she said.
"Who knows if the coral reefs will recover and the fish will come back? Villagers will have to travel further to find the same sort of food and nutrition they've relied on -- the whole food chain has been disrupted."
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