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Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu ... The Travel Beat

There are Wrecks, and Then There's the Coolidge
Diving at Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu
by Phil Carta

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There are Wrecks, and Then There's the Coolidge
Diving at Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu
by Phil Carta

Imagine a 654 foot long, 22,000 ton luxury passenger cruise liner. Imagine it lying in only 60 to 200 feet of water and just barely offshore, easily accessible from boat or shore. Imagine it almost completely intact and littered with artifacts. Imagine: you've just created a mind picture of the SS President Coolidge: what many scuba divers consider to be the Best Wreck In The World, eclipsing even the denizens of Chuuk Lagoon, 1700 miles away in Micronesia.

Launched in 1931 and converted to a troop carrier for World War II, she was waiting to enter the harbor at Santo in Vanuatu on October 26, 1942 when the Captain heard of enemy submarines in the area. He held position outside Tutuba Island waiting for a pilot to arrive and take them safely into the Segund Channel were about a hundred other ships were anchored. With the submarine threat becoming more real, and the pilot delayed, the Captain eyed the two possible routes around Tutuba and into the Segund. He selected the close and wide channel rather than the narrower channel a few miles away. It was the wrong decision.

Steaming at 18 knots, the Coolidge met her match with two friendly mines on the port side of the keel. The Captain took the heroic action of continuing on about 3 more miles, ordering a hard turn to starboard and was able to beach her on the main island of Espiritu Santo. His action saved all but 2 of the 5500 troops and crew on board before she slid off the reef just 55 minutes later. The Captain was later exonerated of any blame.

The unfortunate event, however, has resulted in a highly specialized tourist attraction. The Coolidge is fast becoming one of the few individual dive sites which are in themselves premier dive destinations. Almost completely intact and penetrable, divers can enjoy guided tours through the many holds and decks. In fact, one could do dozens of different dives and still not tire of her unearthly appearance, with military artifacts lying aside crystal chandeliers and vials of medicine still to be found in the doctor's office. The galley and butcher shop are still quite identifiable as is the barber's chair still attached to the deck. Above is a ghostly tiled swimming pool.

"The Lady"

The signature dive of The Coolidge is The Lady, a beautiful Elizabethan statue still in situ above the fireplace in the first class smoking lounge. At 146 feet deep it is a light decompression dive (as are most of the dives on the wreck) well within the reach of divers making the effort of getting to Santo in the first place. Dive to The Lady and you've earned the right to purchase the T-shirt! And after any of the dives, decompression and safety stops on the nearby reef are as fascinating as the wreck itself, with tons of marine life including anglerfish, octopi, numerous and Boris, the 300 pound grouper who is regularly hand fed.

The Coolidge is the premier attraction of the small island of Espiritu Santo in the tiny country of Vanuatu. You may have heard of it by its former name of New Hebrides as it was a major supply point for allied troops and navies during the Second World War. Aside from visiting a few primitive villages, scuba diving is the main purpose of visiting. And there are plenty of other terrific dives in Santo: Million Dollar Point, the wrecks of the MV Henry Bonneaud and the USS Tucker, several top quality reefs (although I would personally rather spend time on the wrecks) and an awesome, high voltage shark dive which some place in the world's Top 5 Shark Dives.

The only problem with Santo and the entire country of Vanuatu is that you almost can't get there from here That's mainly because international flights are not daily. For example, flights from Fiji run only twice weekly, are midweek and arrive in the capital of Port Vila too late to catch a flight to Santo. But spending a night in Port Vila is not all that bad as it is a cosmopolitan burg in miniature. Nonetheless, the intrepid traveler can put a workable itinerary together with the help of a good travel agent; it's one place on earth that's worth the effort to reach, especially for divers.

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Phil Carta is the owner of Phil Carta's New Adventures, a travel firm specializing in tropical islands and destinations around the world. Originally a specialist in scuba diving travel (Phil is a NAUI, TDI and PADI scuba diving instructor) New Adventures provides both tours and vacation packages primarily to places Phil has personally visited. In the Indian Ocean and South Pacific that includes the Seychelles, Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Micronesia, the Maldives and Egypt and the Red Sea. In the Caribbean you may see Phil almost anywhere, although his favorites are Aruba, Bonaire, CuraƧao, Dominica, Jamaica, Antigua, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, and the islands of Belize and Honduras. New Adventures has an excellent and informative web site at and Phil can be reached at

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