Diving the SS President Coolidge in Vanuatu

After two days, Stef was feeling nearly well enough to dive, and either way time was getting short and I needed to get on the wreck! We had chosen Allan Power’s dive operation to go with – the most experienced on the island. Stef decided not to go on the first dive of the day and see how she felt in the afternoon.

The site is only 10 minutes drive from town, and at the briefing when we got there, it became obvious that even the first check-out dive was going to push us beyond our previous experience. I had expected this, and had looked for someone in Cairns to do the deep diver speciality course at least (and thinking about the wreck diver speciality) – and even asked for these at Allan Power – but they didn’t have an instructor available. So, I jumped in at the deep end with a dive around the outside of the wreck to 39m (the deepest I’d been before was 32m). It also soon became obvious that the dive profiles required will very quickly break through the no-deco limits on the conservative Suunto computers.. despite the claim in the briefing that “this’ll be a no-deco dive”. I guess/hope the dive guides had more liberal computers. Also the going near or a little beyond the limits is compensated for by additional safety stops – at 6m and 3m (or in the case of my second dive the next day 10, 6 and 4m) – and 4 hour surface intervals between dives. So, my dive computer went into deco mode for a couple of minutes before we started to ascend, but as soon as we got to our safety stops it kicked back out into no-deco – not anything to panic about – but definitely focusses the mind that this isn’t the kind of dive you could bail from with a CESA – and your buddy is your one good chance of survival if something goes wrong with your air supply – so better stay really close!

The wreck is very close to the shore indeed – there isn’t really a surface swim required for it – more of just a walk out then a swimming descent down a rope onto the side of the bow. The visibility on the first dive wasn’t great – and it was difficult to get a good idea of the size and layout of the ship – sitting on its side with bow in about 20m of water and stern all the way down at 70m. Previous divers had retrieved some rifles and shells from the wreck and placed them on the top which provided some nice photo opportunities in relatively shallow water. We swam along the wreck a while and the guide pointed out below where the mine had hit – but to be honest in the poor visibility and low light I couldn’t see anything. We swam around and descended down the top deck and swam back towards the bow – a big gun mounted on the deck of the bow was interesting. This was an OK dive and good for safe experience pushing to 40m without being in an overhead-limited environment. I think I felt a little bit narced (a bit slow and dreamy) but not exceptionally so, with basic logic functions still intact!

The second dive was much better – and Stef joined me this time. The visibility was a bit better (although still poor for this site – maybe only 10-15m). We descended straight along the top deck and swam in through the cargo hold doors. There were trucks/jeeps and tracked vehicles to see – plus huge shells/bombs as well. We found our way through to the main part of the ship and examined some medical supplies (still sealed with dry powder in a jar) and saw a row of toilets looking strange mounted sideways on the wall. It was always difficult to understand the orientation and layout with the ship on its side. We also saw some bio-luminescent lanternfish which was amazing, but we couldn’t get a picture in such low light (it’s supposed to be a very cool night dive because of this). We didn’t go as deep but the level of penetration was further than we’d gone before – and in particular pushed Stef close to her limit of claustrophobia. But we made it through and saw some really cool things. Again my dive computer went into deco mode for a minute or two (and Stef’s was about a minute behind mine too).

On the third dive the following morning Stef decided not to join me because she wasn’t feeling 100% and because the plan was to visit “The Lady” which involves going even further into the wreck than we went yesterday. I wasn’t too keen on pushing much further beyond the limits set by both the dive computer and my experience – but this was an opportunity too good to miss. Luckily I had an experienced dive guide all to myself – the safest way to do it, to avoid overcrowding and so you don’t have to keep an eye on anyone else. “The Lady” is a porcelain statue/relief of a lady and a unicorn which was mounted on the wall of the first class smoking room of the original cruise liner – you can see it in the original photographs of the ship in its best days in the 1930′s and early 40′s, before it was converted into a troop transport. At one point it fell off the wall and was remounted (by Allan Power I understand) in the First Class Dining room. To get there we entered the ship from near the bow and descended along one of the floors (which would have been relatively open wide spaces in the original upright ship, but felt like a long tall corridor). It took us about ten minutes to navigate through these spaces and find the Lady down at 40m. There was also a chandelier from the dining room. By the time we had finished taking photo’s, my computer already showed only 1 minute of no deco time left so we began to make our way back – swimming the whole length back to the cargo holds near the bow which I’d seen yesterday. We then went into the chain locker (a pretty tight entrance, exit and space inside) where we saw some of the lantern fish again. By this time my dive computer had been in deco mode for a while and the ascent back to 24m was not satifying it, so I signalled to the guide that we needed to ascend. We exited through a small hatch near the bow, and it was a relief and a great site to see the huge ship in the light behind us and to have appeared from such a small hatch in it! We then took a further 15+ minutes to ascend and decompressing at 10, 6 and 4m. My computer didn’t kick back into no-deco mode until I had been sitting at 4m for a couple of minutes. Out of the water with 75 bar in the tank, and knowing that there were extra tanks at 5m if we needed them, meant I wasn’t really too nervous about this. But it’s definitely pushing things far further than we usually would, and not something I intend to make a habit out of. But what an experience! (Stef here- I’m glad John enjoyed this dive but I was really the nervous fiance at the surface!!)

In the afternoon I decided not to dive as I thought I’d already taken on enough nitrogen and we were flying the next afternoon, so Stef went for a dive without me on Million Dollar Point. Hey- Stef here:) This was the second dive for the others so it was a shallow (relatively), easy one. The wreckage runs from shore to 40m deep and it was neat to see stacks and stacks “stuff” and try to determine what it was- jeeps, bulldozers, cars, trailors and building materials are everywhere. The highlight was a wreck of an Australian ship that sank whilst trying to remove the original WW2 wreckage for sale back in Australia. It made one journey and was on the second mission full of stuff (particularly copper) when it cut its hull on metal and sank- directly on the wreckage it was taking- ironic eh? It was also neat to see how the coral and aquatic life have made this scrap their home. We saw loads of fish including huge wrasse & crocodile fish as well as hard coral.

On the first dive: me with a WW2 rifle, rusted and encrusted after nearly 70 years in the Pacific Ocean:

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Second Dive – vis slightly better – able to make out the huge bow with the cannon mounted on the front:

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Stef with some of the ammo from the big gun up front.. it looked pretty heavy – I thought the dive guide was going to let go and Stef would sink to the bottom with it ;-) :

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Entering the hold – yes it’s pretty dark in there. I think the tracked vehicle is some sort of bulldozer, not a tank. There were also a few jeeps:

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“The Lady” at 40m:

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The Lady and I:

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Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu

In the end we decided to spend only 5 days in Vanuatu, as our time and budget is becoming increasingly tighter. The main reason for us to come here was to dive the SS President Coolidge – a fascinating WW2 wreck nearby the main town of Luganville.

Unfortunately when we first got here, Stef had bit of a cold and couldn’t dive, so the first two days we spent exploring some other places. We met Carsten (from Switzerland, in search of volcanoes) at breakfast on the first morning, so we shared a taxi to go to Million Dollar point for some snorkelling. It’s so called for the millions of dollars worth of material disposed there by the Americans at the end of WW2. Santo (and nearby Efate) were important military bases in the battle for the Pacific – with up to 500,000 soldiers vs the native population of 60,000 in the whole of Vanuatu. The bases played an important role in the battle for Guadalcanal, athough the activity was fairly short-lived, as the main theater of war quickly moved much further north. So there were vast amounts of stored equipment and munitions here when the war came to an end, which needed to be disposed of under “Operation Roll-up”. They tried to sell their remaining equipment to the British and the French, who wouldn’t pay any money for it, so eventually they just dumped it all into the sea – jeeps, six-wheel drive trucks, bulldozers, semi-trailers, fork lifts, tractors, bound sheets of corrugated iron, unopened boxes of clothing, and cases of Coca-Cola. Thursten Clarke described it: – “built a ramp running into the sea and every day Americans drove trucks, jeeps, ambulances, bulldozers, and tractors into the channel, locking the wheels and jumping free at the last second. Engine blocks cracked and hissed. Some Seabees wept. Ni-Vanuatu witnessing the destruction of wealth their island would never see again, at least in their lifetimes, thought the Americans had gone mad”. Ironically, the bulk of the surplus, an estimated 90 percent, consisted of civilian items – it’s a shame the Americans didn’t give this away to the Vanuatuans rather than dump it.

But it does create a fascinating dive and snorkelling site, and we found some interesting bits and pieces on the shore as well.

Stef and one of the many Jeeps dumped at Million Dollar Point:

Stef at Million Dollar Point

Diving to one of the tracked vehicles – I think a bulldozer of some sort:

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The next day we were still not up for scuba diving yet, so we shared the cost of a tour with Carsten along the eastern side of the island. This area has some very nice beaches (Stef thinks that Champagne Beach and the beach at Port Olry are the best in the world). We stopped to look at a coconut drying plant, at the beaches and at the Blue Hole. Snorkelling at the beaches was pretty good – great hard corals off Champagne Beach and at Port Olry we saw two turtles (one of them was huge) and a black eagle ray. The blue hole was a very beautiful spot as well, at a calm spot in the forest, with deep clear water great for swimming. All of these places were very quiet with few visitors, and we were lucky to have great weather.

Champagne Beach:

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Stef getting some sun:

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Port Olry – restaurant where we ate lunch by the beach:

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Swimming at the Blue Hole:

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