N I G E L M A R S H P H O T O G R A P H Y
U N D E R W A T E R I M A G E S A N D A R T I C L E S
HANGING WITH THE PRESIDENT
By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose
Hanging out with the President is always cool, and very addictive. We know people that go back year after year just to spend time with the President, and once you have met this grand old relic you can understand why. This President is no crusty old man, but the SS President Coolidge - one of the most spectacular shipwrecks in the world.
Located near the town of Luganville, off the island of Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu, the SS President Coolidge is regularly voted in the top ten shipwrecks of the world, and once you have explored this incredible shipwreck it is easy to understand why.
Built in 1931, the SS President Coolidge was a luxury liner and with a length of 198m, 24m wide and weighing 21,936 tonnes it was the biggest ship built in America at the time. After a decade of carrying passengers and cargo to the Far East, the ship was converted to carry war supplies and troops after the Americans joined the Second World War in 1941. But only a year later the ship was sitting on the sea floor after striking two mines when entering the harbour at Luganville. The ship had been carrying over 5000 troops when it hit the mines, but fortunately all but two people were successfully evacuated from the sinking ship.
Although the ship was partially salvaged in the 1970s there is still so much to see on the SS President Coolidge that most divers spend a week exploring this massive wreck, and many come back to explore it again and again.
Accessible from the shore or via boat, everyone’s first dive on the President is a tour of the bow area. Following a rope to the bow, that first view of the President lying on its port side is simply breathtaking, as you realise how enormous the ship is. After a few photos around the bow, we followed our guide to the three inch bow gun, where a pile of artillery shells have been stacked. In this area are also bollards, winches and we also had time for a quick look inside the cavernous hold one and two.
From this point divers use to swim along the promenade deck, but this area unfortunately collapsed a decade ago after an earthquake. One good thing about this section having collapsed is that it opened up the rooms below, allowing a view into bathrooms with tiles, taps, toilets and basins still in place.
After journeying about halfway along the massive ship, and reaching a depth of 35m, our guide led us back along the top, which was previously the starboard side. Littering this area are artillery rounds, helmets, rifles, portholes and debris left by the salvage divers. That first dive on the SS President Coolidge ended all too quickly, and we barely scratched the surface of this immense ship.
On subsequent dives we did some serious penetration of this huge ship. We thoroughly explored hold one and two, looking at the trucks, jeeps, tyres, drop tanks and other equipment. We explored seemingly endless passageways and rooms on A, B and C decks, where we saw gasmasks, boots and bottles. We visited the Captain’s bathroom, and saw a typewriter, pipework and other fittings, plus a row of toilets installed for the troops. We also visited the dining room to see the famous Lady and Unicorn statue. In the dining room were also ornate light fittings, a dishwasher on the floor, plus crockery in the silt. On our deepest dive we dropped into the engine room and inspected the condensers, pipes, valves and the telegraph.
With the President resting in depths from 20m to 70m, most of the diving is deco diving, so you need to be experienced enough to handle the depths. But with gentle currents, warm and usually clear water, 15m to 30m visibility, the diving is not as difficult as it sounds. The wreck is also a beautiful artificial reef, covered in corals and home to invertebrates, reef fish, pelagic fish, moray eels, gropers and reef sharks. And deco stops are never boring in the coral gardens, as there are octopus, nudibranchs, moray eels, reef fish and the occasional dugong to be seen.
While most divers are lured to Espiritu Santo by the SS President Coolidge, the area has so much more to offer. Two other shipwrecks are located in the harbour, the tug boat Tui Tuate, and the Henri Bonneaud, a former island trader. But a highlight for us was the USS Tucker, a 104m long destroyer that sank two months before the President in similar circumstances, when she hit a mine. The ship is very broken up in depths from 15 to 20m, but is a fascinating dive.
Another impressive shore dive is Million Dollar Point. This is the location where the US military dumped trucks, cranes and other equipment at the end of the war, rather than give it to the locals. This pile of rusting equipment is found from the shore line to 40m, and is always an interesting dive.
Espiritu Santo and its surrounding islands are also fringed by coral reefs that are well worth a look. We only had time for one reef dive at Nasiise Reef, but wish we had done more as the corals were just wonderful, especially the extensive gardens of hard corals. We didn’t see many pelagic fish, but there were abundant reef fish and also turtles, garden eels and an eagle ray.
For something completely different Espiritu Santo is also dotted with numerous freshwater lakes and rivers that are crystal clear. The closest one to Luganville is the Blue Holes, which is a popular swimming hole and reaches a depth of 18m.
There is no shortage of topside attractions as well. We did a half day World War II tour with Butterfly Adventure Tours, visiting the old runways and seeing the remains of a crashed B17 bomber. And the daily market is always fascinating to explore.
A visit to the SS President Coolidge is a presidential experience you will never forget.
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