The President Coolidge is one of the world's great shipwrecks, but it helps to get a bit technical to enjoy diving it to the hilt. Shane Wasik does just that.
DROPPING DOWN THROUGH THE CORAL gardens and decompression area at 6m, all the pains of travelling with tek gear were lifted as the 27° water cooled me from the heat of the tropical sun.
Down the sandy slope, the bow of the massive liner loomed into view, numerous gorgonians adorning her stem. Arranged in a pile at recreational depth, artefacts that have been recovered from deep within the bowels of the ship now sit out in daylight for the many tourist divers to inspect.
Pots inscribed with the date “1940”, cutlery, plates, even GI helmets and rifles have been made available.
I wonder how many photos there are with divers posing with them
Lying on its port side, between 20 and 70m, the 22,936-tonne ss President Coolidge is one of the world’s largest diveable and easily penetrated wrecks.
This luxury liner converted to a troopship came to grief when mixed messages about minefield positions were received in the sailing orders.
Entering the channel, the ship hit two mines, one under the engine-room and the other at the stern.
The captain knew that the ship’s fate was sealed, so he ran her aground on the nearby reef, assuming that she would stay there to be repaired or salvaged.
The GIs were told to leave all their gear on the ship, in the expectation that it would be salvaged.
Ninety minutes later, after nearly 5000 men had abandoned the vessel, she heeled over and slipped down the reef. Remarkably, there were only two casualties, one in the engine-room when the mine exploded and the other, a Captain Euart, who went in to retrieve some men but got stuck himself, and went down with the ship.
The Coolidge features in many “Top 50 Dive Spots of the World”-type books, and lies on the other side of the world, slap-bang in the South Pacific, between Fiji, New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands. So it’s a mission to get there, but travel is always part of the adventure.
Packing tek dive gear for air travel isn’t for the faint-hearted, especially when carrying steel backplates and wings, a rebreather and SLR cameras.
Fortunately Air Vanuatu gives divers an extra 10kg allowance on the internal flights, which is a real help.
IN SANTO WE CHOSE to dive with Aquamarine, run by Rehan Syed. It has the advantage over other operators of catering for technical-diving logistics.
In the weeks prior to our visit, a flurry of emails reinforced our “high-maintenance” requirements, which included rebreather bottles, twin-sets, stage-cylinders and high-end deco mix.
Unfortunately, a recent earthquake had broken the oxygen plant, so Rehan had been scurrying around trying to get all the oxygen he could. I managed with 50bar fills, but the open-circuit guys had to dive plain air the old-school way!
Although I was keen, helium was difficult to organise and expensive this far into the islands, so we had to go with the limitations of deep air.
Aquamarine has a dedicated shore base for diving the Coolidge, with benches for kitting up, which makes the heavy gear easier to manage. The only variable for entry was the tidal cycle, either a long swim or a long walk (I think I preferred the walk by the end!).
The Vanuatu government also regulates diving on the Coolidge, and ensures that divers dive to the DCIEM tables, which are really punishing, especially on deep stops.
They are considered the safest option, however, and we were able to run some extended profiles on these tables, which allowed us to see a bit more of the ship on each dive, making for some great extra-long tours.
The only problem was the deco obligation that we racked up, especially on our second dive of the day (which is also your last on the Coolidge, because of the government rules).
Run-times of two hours were no problem as we had 27° water both on the wreck and at deco. But a 5mm suit was needed to keep the chills out by the end of a long stop at 6m.
The deco area has been long nurtured as a coral garden, and the time flies by swimming along the reef. In fact it’s like two dives in one, and much better than hanging off a DSMB or shotline.
Most visiting divers use single cylinders, regularly taking in the stern in this configuration (68m – eek!), but carrying twins and bail-outs happily gave us a comfortable safety margin.
As the ship is 200m long there are two shotlines, one heading over to the bow from the deco area and another amidships. When diving the rear half of the ship, you swim out to the buoy and drop down from there; in wind and current it can be bloody hard work!
During our trip we were given our own guide, and over the week we were able to work up our dives, progressing ever deeper into the wreck, learning the routes and building up the depth.
We began at the bow end, progressing through cargo holds 1 and 2, which feel very similar to the Thistlegorm’s, packed as they are with 10-wheeler and GM trucks, artillery cannons and Jeeps.
This was an easy penetration dive, with large open holds moving into smaller rooms. It gave us the chance of a bit of a shakedown, easing us gently into the diving.
The timetable was set up to ensure a minimum of four hours between dives, and we returned to our accommodation for a big lunch and afternoon snooze. This was definitely luxury tek diving!
We were staying at the Deco Stop, which is dedicated to divers with gear room and rinse tanks. They even have plans of the Coolidge on the wall, and these were the subject of many post-dive discussions. You need to check out an island night here and experience the infamous local drink, Kava!
THE BULK OF THE DIVES are between 30 and 55m, with moderate to full penetration. There are a few main entry/exit points to the wreck, so you get to know the routes well after a few dives.
Being on the rebreather was great, as I had no worries about gas consumption, or bubbles disturbing the silt in the wreck.
The deco benefits were immediately apparent too, compared to open-circuit air. My Vision computer was clearing up to an hour before the other guys’, although ideally a CCR buddy or group would have allowed me to take full advantage of these benefits.
Most of the penetration was in decent-sized spaces with a few swim-throughs, doorways and hatches. Only on one such tour did we come a cropper. The guide with his single cylinder fitted through an S-shaped restriction, but me with rebreather, sides and camera – no way.
The passageway we had just came down was silted up, so we then had to make our way through in zero vis and drop through a squeeze in the floor. Once through this hole we dropped into 30m vis in a large room – relief!
The wreck is full of photo opportunities, and I hardly looked up from the viewfinder as the next subject appeared. Fuel tanks, rifles, medical supplies, barber’s chairs, dentist’s instruments, cooking utensils, GI helmets, taps, portholes – and, of course, the famous Lady!
On our last dive we took a swim along the deck of the ship, passing all the collapsed decks. This really gave us a feel for the enormity of the vessel, and how little we had seen of her!
For divers who have been before, the promenade deck has now collapsed, with a lot of twisted metal, but all it means is that the routes have changed a bit.
GIVEN THE DEPTH OF OUR DIVING, we took a midweek break to catch a few other sights. Million Dollar Point is where the Americans dumped surplus machinery into the sea, after being unable to negotiate a deal to sell it at the conclusion of World War Two.
Piles of wreckage lie in a tangled and twisted heap, from fork-lifts to diggers, ships to Jeeps, all being slowly encrusted with marine growth. Entering from the shore, we had a leisurely dive to 40m, fascinated by all this unique wreckage.
We also had one boat dive to sample the reef diving, something usually overlooked by the wreckies who head up this way. There are some other wrecks in the harbour such as the USS Tucker and the tug Tui Tawate, along with a few fighter planes, but it’s difficult to drag yourself away from the Coolidge.
There are also many topside activities to keep you occupied. The Millenium Cave tour is strenuous but rewarding, offering some spectacular sights and great interactions with the locals.
A day trip north from Luganville is very worthwhile too, because there are a number of diveable blue holes, the water is warm and visibility is endless.
Trees overhang the pools and provide spooky shaded areas where numerous small fish hide. Champagne Beach and Port Orly are also good trips, for divers and non-divers alike.
ON OUR RETURN TO PORT VILA, the main centre for the island group, we arranged another stop at the southerly island of Tanna, a mere 40-minute flight away.
We planned to visit Mount Yasur near its eastern coast, because it’s one of the world’s most accessible live volcanoes.
After a few hours of driving through villages (one was having a circumcision ceremony, so we didn’t hang around!) and jungle, we stopped at the base of the crater. Walking up the last 200m, I could hear the rumble and my senses tingled.
There are a few viewing spots around the crater that are deemed “safe” zones for varying levels of activity. The volcano was erupting every 3-5 minutes, and it felt like being in a war zone.
The ground shook and rumbled, then kaboom!, the crater would spew out red rocks of molten lava, a huge ash plume floating off as I tried to suppress the urge to run the other way.
We stayed until nightfall, when we saw only the bright red lava as it blasted out, then splatted onto the sides – truly spectacular.
Vanuatu is a place on many bucket lists, the Coolidge and Million Dollar Point are in many top 50 dive books, and with the exhilarating Mount Yasur, it’s well worth combining the two trips. It’s a long way from the UK, but I can think of few other places that offer such a range of must do’s.
|GETTING THERE: Connecting flights to Port Vila and Santo via Auckland in New Zealand or Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne in Australia. Internal flights through Air Vanuatu. www.airvanuatu.com.|
DIVING: Aquamarine, www.aquamarinesanto.com and Allan Powers, www.allan-
ACCOMMODATION: Deco Stop Lodge, www.decostop.com.vu. Aore Island, www.aoreresort.com. Coral Quays, www.coralquays.com
WHEN TO GO: May to October
MONEY: Vanuatu vatu and Australian dollars.
HEALTH: Anti-malarials are required, along with hepatitis vaccinations. There is a hyperbaric chamber in Port Vila..
PRICES: Dive Worldwide can arrange packages including international flights and transfers, 10 nights accommodation with breakfast, transfers and diving from £2645, 0845 130 6980, www.diveworldwide.com
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.vanuatu.travel