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Vanuatu: For wreck divers, more than just a place with a funny name

(DiverWire) – While planning a group trip to The Solomon Islands I realized our return flight from Honiara to Nadi made a stop in Vanuatu.  After a bit of research I discovered that there might be some interesting diving there.  So, I offered a trip extension and 4 adventurous souls agreed to join me on an exploratory trip.

Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides) is an 83 island archipelago which lies between New Caledonia and Fiji in the South Pacific.  Once under British and French rule, Vanuatu lobbied for and achieved independence in 1980.  About two thirds of the economy is based on small scale agriculture with the remaining one third coming from fishing, off shore financial institutions and tourism.  In 2008 it was estimated almost 200,000 tourists visited Vanuatu, nearly the same number as the entire population.

The main attraction for divers in Vanuatu is the wreck of the SS President Coolidge, one of the most impressive and accessible wreck dives in the world. Originally launched in 1931 the Coolidge was a luxury cruise liner providing trans-pacific tours.  As the war heated up in 1941, the Coolidge was transformed by the US war department to a troop transport vessel.

Photos:Joy Spring/Joyful Reflection Photography

On October 26th, 1942, fearing attack by the Japanese submarines, the SS Coolidge entered Santo Harbor, unaware of a US mine field that had been accidently omitted from the original sailing orders.  The first mine struck at the engine room and moments later another one near the stern.  The captain, certain that the ship was going to sink, ran her aground and ordered the troops to abandon ship.  In the next 90 minutes nearly 5000 men safely got off the ship before she slid into a trench were she rests today.

Vanuatu wreck diving
photo: Joy Spring/Joyful Reflection Photography

Completely intact the SS Coolidge sits at a depth of 230 feet.  With her bow at only 60 feet she has become a Mecca for recreational and technical divers alike.  That being said it is not a dive for the faint of heart.  While the dive itself is not that challenging getting on the Coolidge takes a bit of work.  There are no warm towels and tasty snacks between dives here.  You gear up on a concrete slab just above the beach then walk out into ankle deep water for about 20 yards to a point where you can don your fins.  Then it’s about another 10 yard surface swim to where you descend onto a line that takes you to the wreck.

Once underwater I was surprised at how clear the water was as the wreck loomed up before us.  She is enormous, almost 650 feet long and 81 feet wide.  The first dive was to 100 feet exploring the outside of the ship along the promenade deck.  We could see the ship’s massive 3″ gun, rifles, gas masks, troops toilets, helmets, ammunition and a US Army 1940s field cooker.

Vanuatu diving
Photo:Joy Spring/Joyful Reflection Photography

The second dive gave us a chance to penetrate the cargo holds. Hitting a maximum depth of 115′ we saw heaps of military gear including howitzer cannons, a 10-wheel truck, jeeps, tracked vehicles, steering wheels and tires.  At one point we entered a compartment where the dive master signaled that we should turn out our lights.  As our eyes adjusted we saw dozens of flashlight fish twinkling in the darkness.  The dive guides insisted on extraordinarily long decompression/safely stops on each dive.  3 to 4 minutes at 30′, 6 minutes at 20′ and 10 to 12 minutes at 10′.  Our computers released us long before the dive guide would!

On the second day of diving we did probably the most iconic dive on the SS Coolidge, a dive to 132′ to see “The Lady”.  This is a trip through the first class dining saloon to see the ceramic figure of the lady and her unicorn.  Swimming though the dark passageways made me wonder what The Coolidge must have been like in her glory days as a luxury passenger ship.

 

Our second dive that day was to a site called Million Dollar Point.  At the end of WWII the US military had lots of heavy equipment on Vanuatu that they had no way of removing.  They tried selling it to the French government but the French declined stating that since The Coolidge sank the US had no way of removing it and that they would get it anyway.  So, the US built a long pier, invited the government officials to watch as they pushed literally thousands of tons of equipment into the sea.  The resulting dive site is a grave yard of trucks, jeeps, forklifts, cranes, bulldozers and countless other military gear that have become a play ground for divers.

They say one should do at least 10 dives on the SS Coolidge to really get a feel for what there is to see.  I agree, but think Vanuatu works great as an add-on to another dive destination like The Solomon Islands. The few days we spent there was a great adventure and I look forward to visiting again in the near future.

Steve Weaver is a well-known dive industry professional who leads regular group trips through his Colorado-based company Dream Weaver Travel

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