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CORAL QUAYS RESORT – DIVE THE OTHER SIDE OF SANTO

By Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose

 

Most divers come to Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu to do one dive site, the amazing SS President Coolidge. And while it takes over a dozen dives to explore this immense shipwreck there are also other dive sites in the area that are largely ignored and unexplored. On a recent trip to Santo we had the opportunity to dive some of these lesser known sites with Coral Quays Resort.

 

Coral Quays Resort is located a few kilometres out of the town of Luganville, sitting on the shores of the Segond Channel. Arriving at the resort we were instantly impressed by its tropical gardens and tranquil setting. The resort is owned and managed by an Australian couple, Phill and Charmaine Jones and set around a central dining/lounge/bar area with a pool and deck overlooking the Segond Channel. The resort has 18 bungalows spread around the garden, most under the massive rain trees that look like something out of ‘Avatar’.

 

We settled in very quickly into our bungalow, and then decided to checkout their dive centre, where manager Michael Batcock showed us around. He then suggested we go for a dive. We had no time to setup our cameras, as it was late in the afternoon, but just grabbed our dive gear and loaded onto Michael’s ute for a shore dive.

 

On the way Michael told us about his experiences of growing up in Santo and what he hopes to achieve with the dive operation, which only opened a year ago. Coral Quays Resort has two dive boats that accommodate groups of eight or four. Michael has done countless dives on the SS President Coolidge as a guide, but at this stage they are not offering trips to the shipwreck but working with the other dive operators. In the future Michael would like to offer tek diving on the Coolidge and other sites in the area, but at present Michael is taking divers to the reefs and wreck at the southern end of Santo, which is still largely unexplored.

 

Our first dive was to the north, a shore dive at Million Dollar Point. This site is where the US military dumped millions of dollars worth of trucks, cranes, forklifts and other equipment into the sea after the end of the Second World War rather than give it to the locals. It is a colossal pile of junk from the shore to 40m and a fascinating dive. While all the equipment was interesting to explore there was also some lovely marine life to be seen, including a huge Maori wrasse, schools of snapper and abundant reef fish and invertebrates.

 

We got to do a boat dive with Michael two days later, in between diving the Coolidge. Off Santo are a number of other shipwrecks, but the one we really wanted to dive was the USS Tucker. Departing at 9am it was about a 30 minute run to the shipwreck site.

 

The USS Tucker is a fascinating dive. Built in 1936, the 104m long US Navy destroyer survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, but wasn’t so lucky in August 1942 while escorting the SS Nira Luckenbach to Luganville. The USS Tucker struck an American mine, a similar fate that occurred to the SS President Coolidge only two months later. The mine broke the ships back, but she didn’t sink for two days, so was towed to shallow water to be salvaged. The ship is broken up, due to salvage work and also from a couple of bombs that got dropped on her after a pilot mistook the hull for a submarine.

 

Tying to the mooring above the shipwreck we couldn’t have asked for better conditions, as we could see the wreckage 18m below. Once in the water the visibility was 30m plus, that bright blue that we all love. We then spent an hour exploring the ship, which is scattered across the bottom. Parts of the ship were easy to recognise, like the stern, bow, engines and drive shaft, but others were just a pile of twisted metal. It was still a wonderful dive, with corals covering much of the wreckage and plenty of marine life to be seen; including turtles, sweetlips, gropers and a crocodilefish.

 

Between dives we anchored in a picturesque lagoon, where Michael told us about the local reefs. The reefs at the northern end of the Segond Channel are often dived by the other dive operators in Santo, but the reefs at the southern end of the channel have hardly been explored. Michael added that there are also some incredible offshore sea mounts where he has seen hammerheads and marlin, but these are unfortunately too far away to be dived at present.

 

Our reef dive was on Nasiise Reef, where the reef top is at 10m and then drops into 40m. We did a brilliant drift dive over the reef, amazed at the dense coverage of hard corals. On the wall were gorgonians, soft corals, sponges, whip corals and some of the longest sea whips we have ever seen. While small reef fish were abundant, there were not a lot of pelagic fish to be seen, apart from a school of fusiliers. We did encounter an eagle ray and a number of turtles, and Michael informed us that reef sharks, stingrays and leopard sharks are often seen here. At the end of the dive we explored a series of sandy gutters that were populated by thousands of garden eels.

 

Our time in Santo ended all too quickly, meaning we missed diving the other sites that Coral Quays Resort dive, including their house reef, where nudibranchs and other small critters are common, and the fresh water Blue Holes. We will definitely be returning to Santo to explore more of its reefs and wrecks, and Phill left us with food for thought when he mentioned that they are looking into a liveaboard boat to really open up this untouched area.

 

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