ESPIRITU SANTO, VANUATU
A spectacular World War II wreck in a South Pacific paradise
Season: Year round diving
Water Temperature: 24-29°C/75-84°F
Shore-based resort: Hotel Santo and Allan Power Diving
Can be combined with Fiji
Vanuatu comprises a north-south chain of 83 volcanic islands some 1100 miles (1770 kms) east of Queensland, Australia and about 550 miles (890 kms) west of Fiji. It was here on these idyllic islands that James A Michener was inspired to write Tales of the South Pacific, the magical Bali Hai of his imagination. One of the poorest and least developed nations in the world, Vanuatu is simultaneously supposed to be the happiest nation in the world. The people of Vanuatu are certainly friendly and welcoming, and travellers generally feel safe in this far-flung island nation. Nowadays an independent democracy, the islands were for a time ruled as a condominium by Britain and France, and the islands still have an interesting mix of Anglophone and francophone traditions. Espirito Santo, more commonly known simply as Santo, is the largest and most mountainous island of the archipelago. Since the 1980s, divers have been visiting Santo to dive the world famous wreck of the SS President Coolidge, the largest accessible wreck of a passenger vessel on earth, and the numerous other pieces of military hardware from the Word War II era that now reside under the sea. Whilst this is an area famed for its wrecks, there is some beautiful soft and hard coral reef diving to be done off the southern tip of the island.
United States President Calvin Coolidge was known as ‘Silent Cal’ for his laissez faire attitude to the economic situation facing America in the late 1920s. The wreck of his namesake vessel, the SS President Coolidge, is certainly silent now! She counts among the best wreck dives on the planet. With a length of almost 200 metres and a gross weight of 21,936 tonnes, the President Coolidge is certainly an imposing and impressive sight as she greets divers on their descent to depths of between 20 and 50 metres! The wreck is so large and so extensive that it is said that one can dive on her over 15 times and still not have seen all she has to offer. Her ‘double identity’ never ceases to fascinate divers from around the world. She began her travels as a luxury cruise liner in 1931 and was converted into a troop carrier for the US military during World War Two. To think that such a vessel would meet its watery doom so far from home in the South Pacific is a stark reminder of the nature and reach of ‘total warfare’. On the 26th October 1942, she ran into two ‘friendly’ mines as she attempted to enter the heavily protected port of Espiritu Santo and was subsequently run aground on a nearby reef on Captain Henry Nelson’s orders. (It subsequently emerged during the naval court of enquiry that, because he was a civilian, the captain had not been alerted by the military authorities that the harbour was mined, so that the significance of the instructions he had received for the precise means of entering Segond Channel had not been appreciated by him! Captain Nelson was subsequently acquitted of all charges.)
Captain Nelson’s quick thinking in running the Coolidge aground soon after the two massive explosions tore into the ship undoubtedly saved a great loss of life. Thinking that they would be able to return later to collect them, the soldiers left their equipment and personal belongings behind as they followed captain’s orders and abandoned ship, only to find that the vessel slipped off the reef 55 minutes after the grounding and rolled over onto her port side as she sank. Of the 5092 troops on board, only two were lost!
The fact that the wreck is so full of items means much delight for the visiting divers of our modern era. Springfield rifles, helmets, water bottles, cooking pots and even jeeps still litter the deck and interior of the SS President Coolidge. Throughout the three decks of the ship the living quarters still hold personal affects of the soldiers; defying the ravages of time. The toilets, bathrooms and even ceiling light bulbs have survived undamaged. In the medical supplies area of the ship, syringes, bottled of medicines and powders have all survived. Even the barber’s chair seems to be waiting for the next customer! Towards the bow of the ship, ‘Euart’s Door’ survives as a memorial to Captain Elwood Euart’s bravery. Returning to look for a missing man, Army Captain Euart sacrificed his own life when the President Coolidge sank.
Alongside these grim reminders of wartime, remnants from the ship’s first life as a high-class luxury liner have also survived. ‘The Lady’, a porcelain relief of a lady riding a unicorn, is one of the most beautiful sights that this remarkable ship has to offer. Together with the breath-taking Italian mosaic fountain and chandeliers, she echoes the grandeur and opulence that once was. Amid so much imagery of her past, marine life has of course taken over the wreck and she nowadays serves as a huge artificial reef covered in hard and soft corals. Moray eels lurk and bob amongst the crevices, while a host of anemonefish inhabit their symbiotic anemone ‘houses’. Sea turtles, Spotted Eagle Rays and reef sharks sweep past much like navy planes would have done in the ship’s days of old. It seems that every large wreck is home to barracudas and the Coolidge is no exception. Mantis shrimps also now make their home on the wreck. Night dives are especially remarkable, for when you turn off the lights the bioluminescent organs of the flashlight fish make for a particularly memorable underwater disco! The exterior of the vessel offers an equally exciting snapshot of history, war and nature; fire extinguishers, Wellington boots and typewriters litter the ship’s portside promenade deck and divers can still swim in the mosaic-tiled first class swimming pool or take a closer look at the ship’s cannons and the crows nest.
The bows of the Coolidge lie at about 18m, the stern at about 55m (the sea floor is at about 70m). In order to explore the deeper parts of the wreck, decompression diving is required, but much can be seen without needing to do this.
When World War Two was over, the US military dumped hundreds of tons of equipment into the ocean at Million Dollar Point after to failing to acquire the desired selling price. Located less than one kilometre to the east of the Coolidge in Segond Channel, here, sitting 35 meters of water, you can find bulldozers, trucks (including six-wheeled Studebakers) and jeeps, all of which are now wear camouflage of a different nature as they are covered in almost fifty years worth of coral growth. The dive is usually conducted from the shore with a short swim of about 20 meters before descending onto the huge ‘junk pile.’
As well a the President Coolidge and the array of military hardware at Million Dollar Point, there is also some rewarding reef diving at Tutuba Point with both hard and soft corals that are home to sea turtles, Napoleon Wrasse and passing reef sharks. Caverns and swim throughs give this dive site a little bit of everything!
Located in the centre of Luganville and only 10 minutes from the airport, you are sure to find a warm welcome at the Hotel Santo. The hotel offers pleasant accommodation and a friendly atmosphere. The hotel is two storeys tall and has a total of 30 rooms. Twenty two Air-conditioned Rooms are located on the first floor and either overlook Segond Channel and Unity Park across the street or look out over the pleasant gardens, while 8 Fan-cooled Rooms overlook the gardens. All rooms have an en-suite bathroom, telephone, tea and coffee making facilities, and a fridge. The pool is a perfect spot for sunbathing or relaxing with a cocktail. Soak up the local ambience and meet fellow travellers (many of the overseas visitors are here to dive the President Coolidge). The hotel’s restaurant serves local and international food and there is a well-stocked bar. Thanks to its central location, the hotel is the perfect base for exploring the town with its various restaurants, shops and market. Champagne Beach with its inlets, tropical vegetation and coconut groves makes for a lovely non-diving day trip.
Allan Power has been diving in the waters of Espiritu Santo for over 35 years. Located in the main town of the island, Luganville, his dive centre, Allan Power Diving, and its staff are known as the ‘Caretakers of the Coolidge’. The staff of the dive shop regularly take part in the cleaning and restoration of the vessel. Diving on the Coolidge is conducted from either the shore, where you can descend down the gently sloping reef to the wreck, or from their purpose built aluminium dive boat, ‘The Lady’ that holds up to 14 divers. Typical group sizes are 2-4 divers with a guide, and there are never more than 5 divers to a guide. Personal guides can be hired. Due to depths often reached on the Coolidge, it is recommended that divers do no more than two dives a day. Dives on the Coolidge are mostly begun from the shore where a dedicated ‘gearing up’ area has been established by the dive shop. Dives at Million Dollar Point are likewise mostly done from the shore, while reef dives are by boat. The typical dive day will begin with an 0800 pick up before the first dive of the day. Tea, coffee and cakes are provided for post dive snacking at Allan’s house! Divers then head back to their hotels for lunch before being collected at 1400 for the afternoon dive. Nitrox is available.
COMBINATIONS: If you are travelling to Vanuatu via Fiji, why not extend your trip to dive with the sharks of Beqa Lagoon, visit Taveuni or Kandavu, or take a Fiji liveaboard cruise? Talk to us about the possibilities.
Price: from about $923 for 7 nights. Includes: airport transfers; 7 nights room and breakfast accommodation on a twin/share basis in an Air-conditioned Room at Hotel Santo; 5 days of diving (2 shore dives daily; dive guide). Boat diving, particularly to more distant dive sites, can also be arranged. Reduction for non-divers. Single Occupancy Supplement: from about $401 for 7 nights.
FLIGHTS: Please contact us.