Diving on the SS President Coolidge
13 October 2010 | Aore Island, Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu
The SS President Coolidge was a luxury liner built in 1931 that was purchased by the US Navy and converted for active service in WWII. It went down in 1941, a victim of mis-communication and a "friendly" mine. The Captain, a civilian, had over 5,000 troops on board and a cargo hold full of jeeps, tanks, ammunition and medical supplies. To his credit he saved all on board except 2 by running the 200m long, 22,000 ton vessel aground on the south shores of Santo, Vanuatu. Within 90 minutes and luckily once all the crew and passengers had disembarked, the Coolidge slipped back off the reef and sunk. Today it's just a 50 metre walk off the beach to one of the world's best wreck dives and one that we've been keen to dive since a mate in the Caribbean told us about it.
After dropping Gav and Linda at the airport we headed straight to the dive shop and by 2pm were descending for the first time to the bow. From its previous life as a luxury cruise liner the Coolidge has the lines and structure of something like the Titanic, whilst most of the artefacts on board are military. The reef is steep, so bow sits in 21m of water and the stern in 60m, so a set of dives is necessary to acclimatise to the considerable depths that are much deeper than both normal recreational divers and advanced divers are allowed to dive anywhere else in the world. You also need to become comfortable with the dark confined spaces inside the boat, and twisty small entrances when you penetrate deep inside the wreck.
Over the course of the next 5 days from our mooring at Aore island we settled into a routine of dingying over to AquaMarine dive shop and diving in the morning, normally down to as much as 60m penetrating the aft cargo holds, the engine room and the dining rooms. Then we had a break of a few hours for lunch before diving again in the afternoon to shallower depths exploring the forward half of the ship from 40m up. Then a quick rinse off for both kit and diver before meeting up with everyone up at Roy's, a local Kava bar.
One of the most famous dives is to see the Lady, a large relief craving of a medieval lady and a unicorn that was boarded up during the military conversion of the ship, so was only discovered years later. Today divers pose with the lady and it is traditional to give her a kiss! For us though the highlights were the piles of ammunition in the aft cargo holds, the stacks of jeeps and trucks in the forward cargo holds, the dials and gauges in the engine room, the tiny tiles forming the swimming pool mosaic and the bottles and bedpan in the doctor's office. But not all dives have a single goal, some are "hash" dives as they known where the dive guide just makes it up as he goes, weaving you in and out of corridors, through bathrooms and holds and tight narrow spaces looking for new stuff. Past rows of toilets, taps that still turn and fallen chandeliers with purple light bulbs that are still intact and give a hint of their form glory when a dive torch is pressed against it.
The stern dive is always a highlight as it takes divers deeper than most have ever or will ever go. At about 60m you can still read the vessel name and while such a long time (compared to the relatively short time at the bow) is spent on safety stops on the way up to decompress, it is well worth it. While Kat wasn't feeling too good one day I took the chance to run "the Gauntlet" a demanding dive that sees you enter the wreck as far aft as possible near 60m deep and swim the entire length of the vessel inside, finally emerging through the chain locker at the bow. It is a long way and needs to be done fairly quickly, but very, very cool!
So after 7 and 6 dives respectively we took a chance to catch-up with Ross and Jo off Sojourn at Oyster Bay, a very sheltered anchorage next to an island with a lovely resort on tucked half way up the East coast. We spent 5 days relaxing, kayaking up river to see the blue hole, wakeboarding and probably drinking too much. Emma, Ross and Jo's daughter who we last met back in Martinique flew in and as always happens when she gets together with her Dad they put on a little show on with Emma on vocals, Ross and John (from Playground) on guitar and Al on percussion. All the cruisers came ashore and we carried on till late.
Back on Epi, we ran in to a Kiwi/Aussie combo in Brian and Rachelle who were backpacking through the islands, we gave them a lift to Ambrym and then ran into them again at the dive shop on Santo. We dove with them several times on the Coolidge and then they came onboard with their friend Cathy for a few days up at Oyster Island. To our surprise Mike and Sami from Quartermoon turned up (we hadn't seen them since Bora Bora) so we had a good night catching up.
Keen for a couple more dives on the Coolidge we soon headed back around to Aore Island with Quartermoon. We had a few more days of diving and great dinners on board both boats whilst waiting out bad weather - It's been raining for near on 3 days and proper heavy non-stop rain, but we'd rather this than the much stronger winds further south.
The weather is passing now and soon it will be time for us to move on - we plan to head south to past Port Vila again and then perhaps Tanna before New Caledonia and finally, Australia.
For more pics see: http://picasaweb.google.co.uk/bradmcmaster1/DivingTheCoolidge