Adventures: Diving Espiritu Santo's War Wrecks

My holiday really began when the ship sank. True, it happened almost a decade before I was born but if the skipper of the SS President Coolidge hadn't taken a disastrous short cut, I wouldn't have been in Vanuatu.

On October 26, 1942, the war in the Pacific was raging. The President Coolidge, a liner hastily converted to service as a troop ship, was entering the channel to Espiritu Santo. The captain hadn't finished reading an urgent cable from the allied forces ashore stating "Danger you are entering a mine field" before the vessel hit a mine. He ordered the engines to full astern - and promptly hit another mine. It was probably little comfort to know that they were "friendly" American mines.

Realising the ship was going to sink, the captain deliberately ran it onto the beach for easy evacuation. That was a good move: of the 5000 troops on board there was only one fatality after hitting the mine. The ship was abandoned in haste when it was realised that it was slipping back into deep water. Its bow now lies in 21 metres of water with the stern at about 65 metres. At 200 metres long, this is the largest wreck in the world accessible to scuba divers. It's 45 metres longer than the largest wreck in Truk lagoon.

I had come to Vanuatu specifically to dive on the Coolidge. Air Vanuatu operates direct flights from Australia to Port Vila, then a one hour flight to Santo.

Bustling Vila has a population of about 20,000 and most of Vanuatu's resorts are located nearby. However, the best way to appreciate the Melanesian lifestyle is to take an excursion to an outlying island.

Tanna is renowned for its volcano and cargo cults. Pentecost is the birthplace of bungy jumping. And Santo, the largest, was the centre of US war operations, and is the location of Million Dollar Point and the President Coolidge.

Santo's history is inextricably linked to Australia's: we shared the same name. Europeans had long thought that there had to be a 'great south land' (or Terra Australis Incognita) to balance the land mass of the northern hemisphere. They just couldn't find it.

In 1605 Pedro de Quiros scaled down his aspirations considerably when he decided that the island he named 'Tierra Austrialia del Espiritu Santo' must be the pocket-continent. The island's name is now invariably shortened to "Santo".

A young James Michener was one of 250,000 US troops based on Santo during the war and it was here that he devised "Tales of the South Pacific".

Today, the whole island is home to just 22,000 people and the only centre of any note is Luganville (pop 6000), a straggle of houses and shops along a dusty strip of road. Just outside town is the island's best accommodation: Bougainville Resort. It consists of a series of breezy fares in two hectares of gardens around the pool and restaurant. The resort's food is some of the best in Vanuatu.

Bougainville Resort is also where everyone diving with Exploration Diving stays. Operated by Nigel and Louise Hill, Exploration Diving operates its own dive boat. It is a reassuring operation: all the equipment is new, and attention to safety in marginal conditions, exemplary. Because the dives are deep you have to be escorted. My divemaster was Nigel Hill.

Stepping onto the bow of the President Coolidge, a protected US war grave, is a very personal experience. Fellow divers became irrelevant.

The vessel's vast bulk stretches into the gloom and as I swam over a forward hold I looked down to see ranks of jeeps still chained in position. We entered the ship through the windows of the bridge and swam along the Promenade Deck. This must have been a scene of pandemonium during the evacuation - rifles, water canteens, helmets, even a typewriter still litter the deck.

Coral is slowly and elegantly reclaiming these artefacts - I found two rifles welded together into a cross by coral growth. The President Coolidge is home for large colonies of fish.

There are a wealth of dives on the vast vessel and many divers come here for a week or more. One of the highlights is a visit to "The Lady", a statue above a fireplace in the large Smoking Room. It's now definitely a smoke free zone in 50 metres of water.

Another feature of the wreck is an open room filled with rows of toilets installed when the ship was converted to troop carrier. Still, I wonder how many other warships had a beauty shop?

Swimming through tilted doorways or finding a lion fish peering from behind an iron grid is a strange sensation. Fortunately, there is enough open water to avoid feeling of claustrophobia. One needs a period of orientation on the wreck before venturing deep into the interior of the vessel. A week of diving is barely enough. Fortunately, the inside of the Coolidge doesn't feel very claustrophobic because it's free of silt and the corridors are wide, in keeping with its luxurious design.

Only a short distance from the Coolidge is an underwater sight that is simply bizarre. Million Dollar Point is one of the strangest relics of World War II. I had never sat in a tractor in 20 metres of water before. Nor seen fish living in a small reef made entirely of truck wheels.

The facts of its creation are simple. By act of congress, none of the machinery shipped from America for the war effort was to be re-imported - because that could wreck post-war industrial reconstruction. Santo as a major operations base held a huge stockpile.

At the end of hostilities, the Americans offered to sell their hardware to the local government for 10 cents in the dollar. The government stalled because it expected to get it for nothing. What else could the Americans do?

The Americans answered that apparently rhetorical question. Overnight, they bulldozed the lot into the ocean - and then flew away. The name "Million Dollar Point" is a typical bottom of the harbour write-down - there are multi-millions of dollars of equipment down here.

I found diving on Million Dollar Point to be unsettling. The sheer spiky mass of machinery covering one hectare of underwater real estate is disconcerting. It's unnatural to swim through the cabin of a scuttled boat to find the stern resting against a truck. The whole submerged industrial wasteland forms an artificial reef more than 20 metres high and a hundred metres long.

Midway through the dive, I rolled onto my back and looked up. Poised overhead was a wall of ironmongery more than 15 metres high with the complete rear end of a semitrailer hanging over the top. Looking down, I found the sea bed littered with scores of steering wheels. Million Dollar Point is a very strange place indeed.

I have never been particularly attracted to wreck diving. I dive when I go to the tropics because I like the visual overload provided by coral reefs and their myriad occupants. Vanuatu has plenty of these, too - even the coral gardens used as a safety/decompression stop on the way up from the Coolidge is beautiful.

The warm water wrecks of Santo are special and well worth exploring. The President Coolidge combines a feeling of history with the chance to visit its new marine residents. And Million Dollar Point may be the strangest reef in the world but masses of fish have moved in irregardless. Together they form a very unusual holiday destination.

If you go

Diving

Diving on the SS President Coolidge can be arranged through Exploration Diving, PO Box 164, Luganville, Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu, Tel (678) 36638, Fax (678) 36101. In Australia, tours with Exploration Diving are offered by Pro Dive (03) 882 7970, Dive Travel Australia (02) 970 6311 or fax (02) 970 6197, and Dive Adventures (03) 866 5738.

Pro Dive offers a six day excursion to Santo from Port Vila from $695 per person, twin share ($490 for non divers). The cost of airfares from Melbourne are $878 for the first person and $439 for the second. The trip includes five nights at Bougainville Resort (and a night in Vila), breakfasts, transfers and six boat dives including the President Coolidge.

Further Information

The Vanuatu National Tourism Office in Australia is part of Air Vanuatu, 126 Wellington Parade, East Melbourne, Vic 3002, Tel (03) 417 3977 or (008) 331 175.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd