Historical Deep Diving on The Lady and The President – A Vanuatu Adventure
By Jen Tempchin, DiverWire.com traveling reporter
(DiverWire.com) Who wants to go diving on the largest, most accessible shipwreck in the world? Me Me!
How could I go reef diving ever again? The thrill of diving on a mammoth shipwreck with historical significance has given me the wreck diving bug. Now I understand how divers become addicted to wreck dives, how salvage divers get up and go to work and why divers all around the world travel to the remote, tiny island above Australia called Santo, Vanuatu.
How did this luxury liner turned US troopship sink just ninety feet off the coast of Espiritu, Santo back in 1942? How deep can a recreational diver go down on The SS President Coolidge, given that she is 654 feet long and lies at a max depth of 220 feet? Which dive operator has the most experience and best safety record on the largest, most accessible wreck dive in the world?
There were so many things to think about, to see and wonder about. Since this trip was impromptu, I did my research on who to dive with once I checked into Deco Stop, the diver’s hotel with a killer view. One of the hotel guest’s sheer enthusiasm for the known “Caretaker of The Coolidge”, Allan Power, was contagious enough for me to go and meet the man for myself and to check out his dive operation.
True to his reputation, Allan Power knew everything there was to know about this magnificent WW II wreck. His house is not only the Allan Power Dive Tours dive shop, but a mini-museum of artifacts, books, ship logs and photos of the SS Coolidge and the place where divers mingle and have coffee, tea and buttered buns after the morning dive. He came to Vanuatu in 1969 on a salvage expedition to raise the brass propellers and remove the diesel fuel and has been settled on Santo, Vanuatu ever since. Over the years, he has logged over 15,000 dives on The Coolidge guiding more than 20,000 divers from all over the world. His favorite dive is the “Flyover” on a clear day and at 30-40 feet above the wreck because he is able to see how enormous the wreck is. His bottom time on The President is over one and a half years!
It’s no wonder why Allan Power is being inducted to the Scuba Hall of Fame in 2011 for developing the dives on the President Coolidge and building the Coral Gardens where divers decompress. Allan shares it is an honor to be joining the ranks of the world’s most prestigious divers, past and present.
All divers are required to start out with the Orientation Dive. This dive sounded rather routine at the time, but the operations manager, Alfred Niko cheerfully debriefs what to expect and this dive turns out to be the ultimate snapshot of this giant hulk lying beneath the ocean. She is lying very close to the shore because back in 1942, loaded with over 5000 US troops, she sailed right into two undisclosed American mines. Two men perished, one in the explosion and one trying to save the crew while the Captain beached the ship as she listed over on her portside and sank to her demise. There are theories about why this happened in the book “The Lady and The President – The Life and the Loss of the SS President Coolidge” (by Peter Stone) for the wreck history buff who wants to know all about it.
This unfortunate WW II accident created a most convenient wreck site for generations of divers to come. Over the years, Alan has designed over 20 dives from 65-196 feet in depth for all of us divers from beginners to techies. My dive instructor, BJ, monitored my air consumption and skill level, while touring through The Cargo Holds which contain stacks of dissembled Jeeps, gas masks, cooking pots, shoes, piles of tires, pieces of trucks and artillery on through to The Promenade Deck to see the rows of porcelain toilets that comprised the men’s starboard head. We also penetrated The Medical Supplies room to see medical bottles, insulin kits and drop fuel tanks from airplanes that look like alien pods. Maybe I was bit narced out on that one!
Oh so many dives and so little time: The Engine Room houses the main condenser and propulsion motors, which just tower overhead with the control room full of gauges, control levers and telegraphs. The Swimming Pool is likely the deepest one in the world at 180 feet, where you count how many colors of mosaic tile you can see to test your eyes at depth. The Lady, with her unicorn is one of the most photographed underwater relics from her luxury liner days before she was converted to a warship and is set in the First Class Dining Room. The tradition is to kiss her, so I kissed her and the unicorn for good measure! Finally, The Stern at over 196 feet is the pinnacle dive for many that go down on the SS Coolidge as you must prove your air consumption will prevail on dives leading up to this one. I am told there are no unplanned dives on The Coolidge and that the dive crew plans their dive, and dives their plan. My dive instructor carries a pony bottle on every Stern dive, and on occasion, a diver does need it, but not me~!
Oh the Night Dive on the ship was to die for! Can you imagine going down to 115 feet without a light to look into the bowels of a massive ship to see the crazy flashlight fish lighting up the darkness like fireworks in the sky? It was beyond words, as thousands of these “Anomalops Katoptron” have a gland under each eye where they lift a little flap and send out a fluorescent light. This provides for a light show that Mickey Mouse’s wand sparkle and Tinker Bell’s wing dust can’t touch. This remarkable experience still leaves my adrenaline flowing!
The Coral Gardens is the decompression dive after our deep wreck dives that Allan has created just so divers have a place to decompress that is visually stimulating with colorful schools of fish, anemones and an array of hard corals. One of the dive instructors, Yvonne Ritchie, even brings waterproof Uno cards for her divers to play with, finally something in my life to be jealous about, since I am hovering and not playing underwater Uno! Watching what other divers are doing during an 18-minute deco stop is also extremely entertaining, some hover horizontally with perfect neutral buoyancy, some blow rings from their backsides, some stand with a knee bent and move with the ocean current, while some swim back and forth inspection the gardens. Every part of this dive is just surreal compared to normal reef diving.
I have never felt so safe on any dive trip in over 17 years of diving. It was cut and dry – dive 2 times a day, rest and hydrate. Diving more than that is not only against the Santo Dive Operators Code of Practice that has been made amongst the dive operators but it is also not worth the risk of getting the bends or worse. Besides all divers want to do in between repetitive diving is to talk about their dives, eat good food and re-energize, so this was easily had with many hearty laughs from my new SS Coolidge dive buddies.
Remember, there is no such thing as a safe wreck, only a safe diver. So be safe, dive within your limits and make sure you are diving with the operator that knows your wreck of choice, the best, wherever you are in the world.
When you are ready for the SS President Coolidge, go find Allan and have some coffee and a buttered bun for me. See http://www.allan-power-santo.com for all you need to know about diving in Vanuatu.
Photo credit courtesy of the SS Coolidge archives and Brad Waddell.
Jen Tempchin met with Allan Power, 2011 Scuba Hall of Fame Inductee, during her trip.
To read more of Jen Tempchin’s articles, click here: Jen Tempchin Traveling Reporter