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
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
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, Curaçao, 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 http://www.newadventures.com
and Phil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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