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SANTO, MUCH MORE THAN THE COOLIDGE

by Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

Most divers head to Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu to dive just one site, the famous SS President Coolidge. This enormous shipwreck is rated as one of the best wreck dives in the world and it recently celebrated 70 years underwater. But there is much more to Santo than just the Coolidge, as we discovered on a recent visit.

 

Our main reason for visiting Santo was naturally to dive the SS President Coolidge and also join in the week long festival marking 70 years since the ship sank. For those that don’t know its history the SS President Coolidge was a 198m long luxury liner, built in 1931, which was converted to carry troops during the Second World War.

 

On the 26th October 1942 the Coolidge was heading towards Luganville, the capital of Santo, which was one of the largest American bases in the South Pacific. On board were 5000 troops and a full load of cargo, and with reports of a Japanese submarine in the area the captain didn’t wait for the pilot boat to arrive. There are a number of entrances into the Segond Channel, but unfortunately he picked the wrong one, hitting two mines and mortally wounding the ship. The captain had time to run the ship aground to get the troops and crew off. However, 74 minutes later the ship was underwater lying on her port side in 18m to 70m, and amazingly only two people died in the incident.

 

Said to be the largest accessible shipwreck in the world it takes at least a dozen dives just to see the highlights of the SS President Coolidge. The ship is so close to shore that you can either dive it from shore or by boat, depending on which dive operator you choose in Santo. We did both, from boat with Santo Island Dive and from shore with Allan Power Dive Tours and found both operations very professional.

 

As the SS President Coolidge is so immense you need to dive the ship with a guide, and the first dive is always an introduction to the wreck, but what an introduction it is! That first view of the Coolidge’s bow resting on her side is breathtaking. On this introduction dive we explored the bow area, where two three inch guns are found, and had a brief look in cargo hold one and two, which contain trucks, jeeps and other equipment. This first dive used to include a trip down the promenade deck, but unfortunately this area collapsed after an earthquake around four years ago. We then returned to the bow along the side of the ship, which is now the top, where bombs and other debris litter the ship, left there when salvage work took place in the seventies. Most dives on the SS President Coolidge are in depths from 30m to 45m, with a bottom time of 25 minutes, so this is deco diving.

 

Penetrating this luxury liner is an incredible experience, and quite safe if you stick with your guide and follow their instructions. One of our favourite dives was exploring A, B and C decks, following long corridors, squeezing through doorways and seeing items like a typewriter, boots, helmets, gasmasks, medicines, bathrooms, light fittings and rows of portholes and toilets. The Coolidge is also home to some wonderful marine life; decorating the ship are gorgonians, sea whips and soft corals and there are plenty of reef fish, pelagic fish and invertebrates to be seen.

 

On other dives we explored the engine room, more of the holds and visited the famous Lady and Unicorn, the signature of the ship. It is hard to believe that this delicate sculpture has lasted 70 years underwater, even surviving a fall off the wall in the first class smoking room, where she use to be mounted, and relocation to the dining room.

 

There is just so much to see on the SS President Coolidge that after five dives we had only seen the front half of the ship, but as we also wanted to see the other sites off Santo we allowed an extra day to view these, but we should have allowed much longer.

 

Not far from the Coolidge is another shore diving site called Million Dollar Point. Entering the water here the dive site starts in 3m and continues down to 40m. While there are fish and corals to be seen, the attraction is junk and the waste of war, as Million Dollar Point is where the US military dumped millions of dollars worth of cranes, trucks and other equipment at the end of the war, rather than give it to the locals. It is a fascinating dive swimming around all the equipment piled on top of each other. There are also two shipwrecks, lost in failed attempts to salvage the equipment.

 

There are a number of other shipwrecks off Santo, but the most interesting is another victim of a mine, the USS Tucker. This 104m long destroyer sank two months before the Coolidge in much the same manner, hitting a mine but at the other end of the Segond Channel. The ship now rests in 15 to 20m of water and is very broken up. We had a brilliant dive on the USS Tucker, enjoying 30m visibility and had a wonderful time investigating the stern, bow, engines and other parts of the ship. The wreckage was also home to reef fish, gropers and turtles.

 

Santo is blessed with many lovely coral reefs that are largely ignored by most divers. We only had time to do one of these, Nasiise Reef, where we did a wonderful drift dive along a colourful wall. Decorating the wall were gorgonians, sea whips, soft corals and sponges, and while pelagic fish were scarce, we did see plenty of reef fish and turtles. The top of the reef, in depths from 8m to 15m, was a joy to drift over as here were gardens of hard corals – plate, staghorn and other healthy species. There were also numerous sandy gutters where we saw triggerfish and garden eels, but were told that stingrays and leopard sharks are often seen.

 

Our brief visit to Santo only whet our appetite for the diving in the area. We are already planning a return trip to explore more of the reefs, wrecks, the unique freshwater blue holes and of course more of the amazing SS President Coolidge.

 

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