Vanuatu has long been a special place for me. It was probably the first place where I really sank my teeth into technical diving. At age 21, I moved to this South Pacific Island nation and worked as a dive master. On the island of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu’s northern and largest Island, I learnt what it meant to dive deep, exceeding my no decompression limits and amounting long decompression stops. Suddenly I wasn’t diving 20-metre-deep reefs for 30 minutes; the new normal became 50 metres or more every day and dive times went well over the hour. This was deep diving at its best, on the SS President Coolidge.
A Ship with a Story
The SS President Coolidge isn’t just any shipwreck; it’s arguably one of the best wreck dives in the world. This enormous underwater playground was once a luxury passenger liner and one of the best of its day. Then, amazingly, it was transformed into a troop carrier during World War II. The twist of fate that led her to rest beneath the waves of Luganville on Santo’s coast adds an extra layer of intrigue to this already captivating dive.
During World War II, Espiritu Santo became the second-largest American base in the Pacific, housing up to 40,000 troops. It was here, on a fateful day in 1942 while entering Santo’s harbour that the Coolidge collided with its own U.S mines. The ship’s sailing orders had omitted vital information about safe entry into the harbour, and with fears of Japanese submarines looming large, she attempted to navigate through the largest and most apparent channel. A mine struck her in the engine room, followed by another near her stern.
Over the next 90 minutes, 5,340 men from the ship got safely ashore. They calmly disembarked, with many even walking ashore. Only two lives were lost, a testament to the ship and her crew. However, the Captain’s attempts to beach and save the ship were short-lived. The Coolidge listed heavily on her port side, sank stern first, and slid down the slope into the channel. Today her stern sits in 72 metres of water and her bow in 20, creating a sanctuary for deep wreck diving.
Preserving the Past
Vanuatu’s independence from France and Britain in 1980 marked a pivotal moment for the SS President Coolidge. It was quickly declared that no artifacts would be allowed to be salvaged from the wreck. Since then, the ship has become a haven for recreational divers. There really is nothing like diving the Coolidge. What remains today is probably one of the most unbelievable shore dives imaginable. Divers gear up on the beach and make the short walk to the tide line. Swimming only 40 odd meters off the beach, the bow comes into view. Lying here at 20 metres on her port side you are met with the colossal structure that is the Coolidge.
I recently returned from a week of diving in Santo. It was both amazing to be back after some time and also fascinating to see how the wreck has faired over the years (particularly knowing Vanuatu gets its fair share of cyclones and earthquakes). Yes, a number of structures have collapsed (the promenade deck, mainly, and even the swimming pool recently popped out and fell to the ocean’s floor. But overall, the wreck hasn’t changed. It’s still rock solid and very safe to explore, with the right guides.
Diving the Coolidge is like entering a time capsule. With the ship almost completely intact, divers can swim through its holds and decks. You’ll encounter a mesmerizing array of relics from guns, cannons and jeeps to helmets, trucks, and personal supplies left behind by the troops who once called her home. Then, there’s relics like “The Lady” (a porcelain statue and divers’ favourite), chandeliers, a mosaic tile fountain, elegant baths and The Grand Staircases which all add to the charm of this ship’s incredible past, now frozen in time.
The Coolidge is a labyrinth of corridors, rooms, and cargo holds, but this shouldn’t deter new divers. To truly appreciate the Coolidge’s magnitude and majesty, you’ll need at least 10 to 15 dives. After all, she stretches over 200 meters in length, but even with just a few dives you can get a taste of her grandeur and enchantment.
Pacific Dive, a fantastic dive operation in Luganville run daily dives with the utmost standard for safety and hospitality. The local Ni-Van boys take great pride in the Coolidge and make incredible guides, accruing tens of thousands of dives between them all on the wreck over the years. Whislt diving all you week you will want the best accomodation and The Espirtu is nothing short of fantastic, a multigenerational hotel that provides the warmest hospitality and incredible food.
The following dives are a few common favourites:
BOW & REEF
Depth: 25 metres
Features: Hanging hard corals and fans.
CARGO HOLDS 1 & 2
Depth: 35 metres
Features: 3 inch gun with ammunition, rifles and artifacts
Depth: 39 metres
Features: The Lady, located in the first class dining salon. The Grand Staircase. Bathrooms on B Deck
THE SWIMMING POOL
Depth: 57 metres
Features: Swimming pool, collapsed row of toilets, sky lights
THE DOCTOR’S OFFICE
Depth: 45 metres
Features: Artifacts, helmets, shovels and military equipment.
THE ENGINE ROOM
Depth: 48 metres
Features: Engine dials and panels.
SS President Coolidge
Location: Just outside of Luganville, Vanuatu (shore dive)
Depth: 20-72 metres (Deep Diving)
Type: SS Luxury Liner
Built: October 1931
Sunk: October 1942
Length: 200 metres
Diving: Pacific Dive www.pacificdive.net
Accommodation: The Espiritu www.the-espiritu.com
All imagery and text ©Todd Thimios. thimios.com