Posted by: Tommy | September 26, 2011

Diving the SS President Coolidge

We initially researched Vanuatu in Bangkok.  The day after throwing my back out playing frisbee, I couldn’t really walk so we spent our time buying flights for this final leg (Fiji, Vanuatu, China, Japan, Indonesia) of our trip.  We knew we wanted to go to a couple of South Pacific islands but we didn’t know which ones.  Anna did some research (she’s done at least 90% of our trip research) and found something she really wanted to do – dive on the wreck of the SS President Coolidge.  It was located off the island of Santo, in Vanuatu.  So we put Vanuatu on the list and found that, to get to Vanuatu from New Zealand you have to fly through Fiji.  So that’s how we decided which islands to go to – because of a 60 year old shipwreck.

The President Coolidge was, in its incarnation, a luxury cruise liner.  It was converted by the US government into a troop carrying ship during WWII, but kept a lot of its luxury liner accoutrements.  The Coolidge hit 2 anti-ship mines a stone’s throw from the Santo coast and sank in about 100 feet of water.  All but 2 of the ship’s crew made it to shore, leaving behind 100,000 tons of wreck for us to look at today.

The ship is actually submerged at an angle – the bow is lying in 60 ft. of water, while the stern is the deepest point at over 210 feet deep.  We did 3 dives on the wreck with the deepest at 120 feet.  Our first dive was the same as all first dives of the Coolidge (there are 3 dive shops in Santo and the pricing and itinerary is fairly standardized).  You sink down to the bow, swim past (and look into) the front cargo holds, then swim along the top (which is actually the side, since the boat sank sideways) matching the map to the openings.  It’s a dive designed to make you familiar with the geography of the wreck for future dives.

Seeing the massive ship looming in clear water was a very impressive sight.  You could clearly make out the 3 inch gun turret, sitting on its side and growing coral from the barrel.  Swimming near the cargo holds, we couldn’t make out much in cargo hold 1, but cargo hold 2 had a set of dishes on display, as well as a barnacle-encrusted typewriter.  From there, we headed to the top, where we saw the shark cage (rusty and in pieces) and a pile of barnacled rifles and helmets.   We were diving with another couple who we met that morning on the boat – imagine our surprise when they were from Oklahoma (OSU, not OU, thank goodness).  They had a camera with them and took a few pictures for us.

I'm looking for a triggerfish to shoot

The next Coolidge dive would turn out to be the last one where we got to see inside the wreck.  The Okies, Brian and Audra, got cold feet on penetrating the ship, so they waited topside while Anna and I went with the guide down to see The Lady.  The Lady is a famous work of art, stuck on the wall, down a long, submerged hallway.  The Lady sits at exactly 40 meters deep, which is the maximum recommended depth for most divers.

Me with The Lady

We dove straight down to The Lady, stayed for 2 minutes to take these pictures (Brian and Audra let the guide take their camera so we have photos!) and then had to start ascending.  Along the way, we passed chandeliers, fancy tilework (if you scraped off the algae) and this row of toilets.

Toilets on The Coolidge

Unlike Egypt’s Thistlegorm, the hallways in the Coolidge were nice and wide, never giving us a feeling of claustrophobia or danger.  We slowly swam along, often times side by side, looking at this amazing underwater museum.  Occasionally, you could make out rifles or gun shells, as well as tanks, trucks and jeeps.  Anytime you dive deep, it’s a short dive (you run out of air faster deeper) so we didn’t see much other than The Lady.  We surfaced and prepared for a night dive that evening.

The night dive took place on the Coolidge, but had none of the “living history” feel that the other dives on the Coolidge had.  More to come about that later.  The one other dive we did in Santo was at Million Dollar Point.  Million Dollar Point gets its name from the millions of dollars worth of equipment that lies literally feet from the shore, only a hundred yards or so from the wreck of the Coolidge.

During WWII, the US government shipped hundreds of tons of equipment to Vanuatu to help build roads and runways for our troops to use Vanuatu to fight Japan.  After the war ended, the costs to bring all of the stuff back exceeded their value, so the US tried to sell it to the French/Vanuatan government at a serious discount.  The French, knowing our conundrum, declined, hoping to get the stuff for free.  And in my favorite part of the story, the US decided not to set a precedent for giving our stuff away – so we built a jetty 70 ft. into the ocean and used bulldozers and cranes to dump it all in the water.  After the other equipment was submerged, we bulldozed the cranes in, then set the bulldozers to run without drivers and ran them off the jetty too.  A little dynamite took care of the jetty – leaving a massive pile of wheels, axles, forklifts, cranes and other building materials and equipment just under the surface.

Upside down truck

The dive there was unreal – you can make out cranes and bulldozers with fish and coral growing in odd spots.  Some are upside down, some are sitting right-side up and some lay on their sides – all in a heap.  It was a fun dive to do – swimming in, out and around the wreckage, trying to identify each item.

The diving at the Coolidge and Million Dollar Point certainly justified our decision to journey to Vanuatu.  Wreck diving is a great change of pace from the usual coral diving that we’ve done most everywhere else – a chance to learn about history, rather than learn about fish.

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Responses

  1. YOU GUYS ARE SO BRAVE!!! Thank goodness I can read about these adventures AFTER the fact!! XOXO, Kita

  2. way to too cool you two! That lady looks really scary, glad I did not live during those times. lol

  3. Cool and creepy. I love what the US did.


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