Published on August 4th, 2015 | by adventuremag0
Meeting The President
At long last my epic journey around the world was coming to an end and finally I arrived in a small country known as Vanuatu, located in the South Pacific not too far away from Fiji. Vanuatu consists of a number of small islands and the largest, Santo, was to be my final destination.
As I left the aeroplane at Santo airport the hot, humid afternoon air hit me like a boxer’s punch. I walked swiftly across the hot tarmac and into a small departure and arrival’s lounge consisting of one room.
A mass of people were gathered together, some waiting to board the plane that I had arrived on, some waiting to collect passengers, all mixed together and impossible to separate. Collecting the baggage took no time at all as it was simply dumped onto a wooden counter and left for you to retrieve. It was with great relief when at last I saw the smiling friendly face of our tour operator who I had met some twelve months earlier when I was trying to plan this venture. I couldn’t believe that I was finally going to dive here, after several failed attempts and almost two years of planning all was now coming together.
I was going to drop me at the Deco Stop Lodge and informed that everything had been arranged for the briefing before the initial meeting the following day. The excitement grew with the anticipation of this encounter and of her enormous reputation.
The Deco Stop was a breath of fresh air in the hot day. Situated at the top of a hill above a small town called Luganville, the Deco Stop commanded panoramic views over the bay and across to a neighbouring island called Aore, which itself was covered in beautiful, lush rain forests and completed the setting for a relaxing stay in Vanuatu. The buildings were made of wood that were styled to reflect the traditional architecture of the local area, providing the hotel with a tranquil setting to plan the coming week’s activities and to reflect upon each day’s encounters.
We were up bright and early the following morning and set off to the meeting area. This was well hidden along a beach and within a small Palm tree wood with dense vegetation. Unless you knew the area you would have little hope in trying to find this location along the dirt tracks that make up the local roads.
There are several dive centres work close together, complementing each other in their respective specialist fields on promoting the finer aspects of diving on the President Coolidge. The wreck has massive potential for everybody, yet it needs the operators who manage it, to be co-operative in how the diving is to be conducted and the reef protected if the Coolidge is to become a true diving mecca. On the evidence that I have seen the future looks very good.
The briefing covered the agenda for the week ahead and was to include safety procedures and decompression techniques, all standard procedure for divers about to embark on a visit to the Coolidge for the first time.
All decompression stops would take place on the reef at the various staged levels of 12, 9, 6 and 3 metres. Additional gas cylinders were all set up at each point in the event of an air problem. Hip slung stage cylinders would be carried for the decompression routines containing a 60% Nitrox mix, we would be running on air tables and the Nitrox was to be used to provide an extra margin of safety. The reef itself provided some additional advantages by protecting the divers from unwanted surge or current, making the stops painless and easy. One other major benefit with decompressing here is that it also provided entertainment, allowing you to study the reef life while otherwise wishing away endless time doing nothing.
The wreck itself couldn’t be easier to find, fully kitted up on the beach you can simply stroll into the sea for about 40 meters and then descend past the deco stop and follow a line that runs directly to the tip of the bow approximately 20 meters below. Divers wishing to access areas of the wreck at various points towards the bow are required to undertake a surface swim to one of several buoys marking various sections of the ship, at approximately 50 metres and 150 meters (mid ships) distances, thereby maximising both air and bottom times. This is a sensible thing to do when you consider that the overall length of the vessel is 654ft (196m) and 81ft (24m) wide. Whilst the Coolidge is still fully intact and lying on her port side, she is also resting on a slope and this accounts for the bow lying in a depth of 100ft (30m) and 240ft (72m) at the stern.
To fully appreciate the size of the vessel you need to compare the President Coolidge to other ships that everybody uses as a bench mark for scale, such as the Titanic or her sister ship the Britannic. It is also worth noting that whilst the Titanic is in depths only reachable by submersible vehicles and not free swimming divers, the Britannic resides in such a depth that she can also only be reached by the most highly trained divers involved in detailed expeditions, whilst the President Coolidge is accessible, to a certain degree, to all competent sports divers and the deeper lower decks to trained technical Trimix divers. The Titanic measured a length of 882ft (294m) and 92ft (30m) wide whilst the Britannic was slightly smaller at 852ft (259m) in length and 94ft (31m) wide.
President Coolidge has been thoroughly documented in the past, ranging from best selling books to many magazine articles describing the onset of her construction with the majestic fittings and a style fit for any true president past or present, to her fateful end in Espiritu Santo in world war II. On 26 October 1942, when trying to access the Segond Channel for safe passage into Luganville, the President Coolidge struck two US mines that brought an early end to this great vessel.
Incredibly the Coolidge had over 5,500 US troops on board and the quick action from Captain Henry Nelson in beaching the Coolidge certainly prevented a major disaster in the loss of life, albeit two men died in the sinking. Firemen Robert Reid lost his life in the initial explosion and Captain Elwood Euart died after refusing to leave any of his men onboard, he stayed until every last man reached safety, unfortunately leaving no time for his own evacuation. Captain Elwood Euart went down with the ship and was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery. After the incident the US Navy tried to charge Captain Nelson with various accounts of negligence but in the subsequent trial the military tribunal acquitted the Captain on the grounds that the US Navy had failed to equip the Captain with the correct details about the mines in the Segond Channel.
As you descend to the bow you are left in no uncertain terms that this is indeed a huge vessel. The bow is still fully intact and points forcefully towards you as you move over her. The hull is an entire coral reef in its own right and is covered in life to the extent that it is difficult to distinguish between the artillery shells and the coral that has grown around and over them. Beautiful Staghorn and Gorgonian corals hang from the keel like curtains draping on the centre stage of a theatre and all across the side of the hull are anemones and hard corals that shelter an abundance of reef fish. Juvenile species of fish could be found everywhere, velvet black Bat fish with a bar of shinning orange across their backs, tiny Rock Wrasse who resemble a piece of dead leaf washing around in the surge and young Sweet Lips that resemble a Mambo dancer twirling her skirt as she swims between the corals.
Moving along the bow decking towards the gun turret you are presented with a mass of coral life that have transformed the image of war to an artist’s palette of colour. Shells still in their rack mounts, play host to the life that now begins to cover them.
An even more stunning area is the hole that runs across the hull on cargo holds one and two. Coral growths have become so strong it is difficult to move safely inside the wreck without the fear of brushing against the growths. The corals hang in massive clumps of all colours on both walls, grabbing every inch of space that point towards the light. It won’t belong before this entry point is closed due to coral growth.
Everywhere you move there is stunning evidence of how the Coolidge is transforming into a beautiful reef. Every gaping hole is occupied by schools of fish taking refuge in the Coolidge’s protective shell, every change in contour provides an anchorage to some form of coral life.
It is not until you move into the interior of the ship do you truly get the impression of a lonely, dark forbidding place. As you move deeper into the depths, her silence and stillness have an overwhelming fascination that beckons you to search deeper and deeper. Time is beginning to take its toll on the Coolidge and certain areas that have been more exposed begin to suffer with corrosion that inevitably takes place. But this doesn’t spell the end of the Coolidge because as one door closes with the collapse of its surrounds, another door opens revealing new passages, rooms and pathways to unexplored parts of the ship. The ship is far from being completely explored and all of the rooms contain artefacts that were in place when the ship sunk.
Testimony to this is the trip to the Doctor’s Surgery which involves a long surface swim to the mid ship mooring and a subsequent deep dive entering the hull at approximately 45 meters. After moving along a few corridors and then making a sharp turn, as you roll over onto your back you are faced with an eerie sight into the room. Objects lay on the floor as found covered in silt, capsules of valium, stethoscopes, first aid boxes and even a container that contains an appendix in preservative are all visible.
There are many routes and many subjects of interest ranging from jeeps stacked together, rifles and helmets scattered around the decks to the fittings of the original ballroom, chandeliers and the Lady who keeps watch over the Coolidge. Whilst there are plenty of areas to explore that are in reach for most divers, deeper areas such as the doctor’s surgery, are only open to advanced divers and even a lot of these areas are only suitable to Trimix divers.
One such dive is to investigate the engine room, deep in the dark depths of the wreck. The dive is again a deep dive to approximately 48 meters and to gain access involves moving along a corridor and into the confinement of the engine room. There is an extra hazard to contend with….silt, and lots of it! A careless fin stroke will certainly result in zero visibility. If care is taken, you will be rewarded with a spectacular dive. The brass instruments and gauges are still reading the final actions of the Captain as he stopped all engines. Pressure gauges show the final moments of the great ships life. Next to these instruments is one of the huge propulsion motors, which tower above you. You can still see the details of the electrical coils inside whose size defies any description. Next to these are the massive condensers and equal in scale to the engine itself. It is very rare to be able to see an intact engine room in a shipwreck, however, the Coolidge provides you with that opportunity.
Heading back up from the engine room you can explorer some more areas of the wreck. Passing through a few more passages you come across the Galley, containing plates stacked in a holder that resembles a magazine rack, loaded in preparation to eject the next shell. Next to this are two cookers and the counter in readiness to serve the next customer. Due to gas and time limitations these additional areas would be covered on a subsequent dive.
As you move up the ship, more of the interior is revealed to you. This is one reason why Trimix is a must, to really justify the dive you need to spend sometime here and explore these areas, rather than rushing the dive to reduce decompression times.
You may be surprised to hear that Nitrox is provided by both dive operators and Trimix is available to qualified divers from Aquamarine. Those of you who want to become certified to dive mixed gases or extended range qualifications, Aquamarine present the perfect opportunity to train and qualify under TDI. The Coolidge has got to be the perfect place to learn to dive at depth in clear, warm waters in the most interesting environment.
In stark contrast to the technical world, training and courses are available in underwater photography, with the ability to edit and view your images in a relaxed, comfortable setting at the dive centres in town. The Coolidge again provides an ideal setting for macro reef images and wide angle wreck shots. The contrast between reef life and historic wreck provides irrespirable subject matter.
Getting There & Other Considerations
Getting to Santo is by no means a quick and easy journey, however, it is worth every second. Not only is the country incredibly beautiful, it is full of rich culture and history providing plenty to distract you from the diving. The country is very cheap when pricing against the SNZ and you will be hard pushed to spend here.
The Vatu is little value outside of the country and you will only be able to obtain the currency once you are there and will have to exchange it back again before you leave, so don’t get too much. There are plenty of banks around in the town and most hotels will also exchange for you.
To get to Vanuatu can be achieved by flying direct from Auckland to Port Villa. An additional flight of approximately 60 minutes will bring you to your final destination of Santo.
Crime here is almost non-existent, the people still have strict tribal beliefs as well as normal judicial systems. This means that their own tribal chiefs will punish offenders far more severely than any court. The result is that there is very little crime and certainly not of a serious nature. There is much to see do outside of diving ranging from some beautiful beaches and tours or for those with the energy to spare, adventure activities too.
Whilst the President Coolidge lies in her final resting place, this is by no means the end of the story. In the death of this great ship new life has been given to an incredible reef system. As the ship decays, rich minerals feed the coral systems that are flourishing in vast sizes and colours, even at a depth of 35m. And as you expect with a rich coral reef, there are prolific numbers of fish. Even better still is the fact that a large part of the wreck lies in deeper water attracting fish such as pelagics and other ocean species.
For those of you who are into marine life and reefs, well you have it all. Contrasting settings of the wreck and the surrounding reefs, together with just about every species of life the South Pacific has to offer.
Anybody who is serious about wreck diving, this has to be in the top five wreck dives in the world. It has everything you could want in this category of adventure diving and the opportunity to advance your diving with specialist courses run by two outfits that really know what they are doing.
All of this in warm, crystal clear water!
by Neil Bennett
NZ Tour Company: