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
EXPLORING THE COOLIDGE WITH SANTO ISLAND DIVE
By Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose
Being the new kid on the block and taking divers to one of the most famous dive sites in the world was a tough call when Santo Island Dive opened for business in 2006. But by offering great service and something different the business has survived and is becoming more and more popular with divers visiting Vanuatu.
Santo Island Dive is based in Luganville, on the island of Espiritu Santo, and takes divers daily to the SS President Coolidge and also to the local reefs in the area. Owned and operated by Aussies Mal Davies and Tony Roberts, Santo Island Dive have three dive boats and work closely with the local resorts offering a pick up and drop off service for divers.
We only had a short stay in Santo on a recent visit to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the SS President Coolidge sinking, so unfortunately didn’t have time to dive the local reefs with Santo Island Dive, but we did get two full days to explore the Coolidge.
Picked up from our resort in the morning by Mal himself, he dropped us at the harbour where the dive boat and our local guide Aidan awaited. There was only two of us on the boat today, another group were off exploring the reefs. It had been 23 years since I last dived the Coolidge, which was all from the shore then, so it was great to enjoy a relaxing boat ride along the Segond Channel before arriving over the shipwreck.
Our first dive was to be an introduction to the massive ship, which is a 198m long luxury liner that sunk in 1942. We jumped in to find the visibility 20m and followed Aidan down a line to the bow. The ship rests on its port side and that first view of the bow at 18m is still breathtaking. We then swam around the bow area, pausing to photograph bollards, winches and the three inch gun.
We followed Aidan past the two forward hatches, glancing inside to see trucks, jeeps and other equipment that went down with the ship after she struck two mines. Up until then the ship looked exactly as I remembered her, but it was sad to arrive at the spot where the bridge and promenade deck use to be, this area collapsed after an earthquake about four years ago. One benefit of the collapse, it has left bathrooms and other rooms open to view.
After swimming along only half the length of the ship we turned around and swam along the top of the ship, previously the starboard side. Here were ladders, helmets and rifles left by the troops when abandoning ship, plus bombs and twisted metal left by the salvage divers. It was good to see this giant artificial reef was still covered in corals and swarming with fish.
Our dive ended all too quickly, and left us eager to explore more of this massive ship. Our second dive, after a surface interval at nearby Million Dollar Point enjoying sandwiches, fresh fruit, biscuits and drinks, was to be inside the ship exploring A, B and C deck.
This was when the serious fun really started. We entered the ship at hold two, stopping to have a quick look at the Captains bathroom, then squeezing through a doorway onto A deck. Aidan then led us down a wide corridor, pausing to show us boots, bullets and bottles in one area and numerous other artefacts. After a tight squeeze around a corner we entered B deck to see rows of toilets, a typewriter, medical supplies, and other items.
On C deck were rows of airplane drop tanks littering the bottom that looked like alien eggs. Aidan then led us back into hold two for a closer look at the trucks and a jeep in hold one. After 25 minutes it was time to exit the Coolidge and return to the shallows for a deco stop, as we had been to 33m.
Two days later we were back on the Coolidge and following Aidan to the famous Lady and Unicorn. The last time I visited her she was on the wall in the first class smoking room, but having fallen off she has been relocated to the dining room. We entered a sea door to find ourselves in the huge dining room, admiring portholes dangling above us. At the far end of the room we could see a ghostly figure, the Lady and Unicorn sculpture, lying on its side at 38m.
We took numerous photos, then Aidan gave her a kiss for her 70th birthday. We then explored more of the dining room and saloon, seeing light fittings, now on the wall, a dishwasher and also the elevator. We slowly returned to the bow along a maze of corridors.
For our final dive with Santo Island Dive we returned to A, B and C decks. While we thought we were going to see the same areas as before, Aidan managed to take us on a different route and show us more artefacts. At one stage he got us to turn off our torches, deep in the ship we wondered what he was doing. Once the light was extinguished we could see hundreds of flickering lights in the room before us – flashlight fish! We had only seen these at night before, so it was novel to see them during the day. We had a last look in the forward holds, before squeezing through the bow and exiting out of the chain locker.
We had a wonderful time in Santo and were sorry that we didn’t have more time to explore the incredible SS President Coolidge with Santo Island Dive.
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