By Greg Hollis
A little over ten years ago my family and I made our first visit to Vanuatu and its lure and fascination continues to bring us back time and time again.
There are many, many experiences I would love to share but as this is being written for a tourism magazine it seems appropriate to focus on one of the country’s high profile and most deserved tourist drawcards – SCUBA DIVING.
I learnt to scuba dive here with Allan Power dive tours and so I have been really spoilt having “cut my teeth” and “earned my stripes” on arguably the best dive site in the world and with a great team of instructors and divemasters. The experience had such a profound effect on me that diving has since become a major passion of mine and one I love sharing with other people. What follows is a description of a typical first dive to the President Coolidge.
The dive site is a short drive out of Luganville and is itself a beautifully manicured tropical garden that has clearly been a labour of love. Donning scuba equipment, a short stroll through shallow water and a gently sloping three-metre descent brings us to another type of garden – this one made of beautiful corals, adorned by a myriad variety of fish, and reportedly having been rebuilt on at least 3 occasions because of cyclone damage; it makes a perfect area for safety and decompression stops, and because of the clarity of the water it can also be enjoyed by snorkellers at the surface.
A quick check on equipment and divers follow a bowline that firmly ties the President Coolidge to a nearby coral bommie. (This measure seems like a bit of overkill given that the Coolidge is a little over 200 metres long and was fully laden with war supplies when it sunk. It hasn’t moved in over sixty years so it’s certainly not going anywhere fast.)
Midway along the bowline and peering forward a dark shape resolves itself out of the deep blue surrounds and slowly comes into focus – It is much bigger than expected and it has an aura surrounding it that is unforgettable. Pictures don’t do it justice because it’s an experience that needs to be felt rather than seen. (If you’ve already dived the Coolidge you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t it’s an experience that beckons.) Laying on its port side the bow is presented first to divers but it is the 3-inch turret mounted gun that commands most attention. Continuing past the anchor winch, divers may get a glimpse of Nessie, a large moray eel who has taken up residence there content to monitor the progress of divers as they swim on and into the promenade deck. Here the Coolidge begins to reveal some of her treasures and the tale of her demise for this area is littered with rifles, helmets, gas masks, and an array of possessions ordered to be left behind as soldiers abandoned ship. (A wise move to prevent falling objects striking and injuring those exiting first but still descending the escape ladders.) Shining a torch light and peering in through an opening from the promenade deck reveals how closely soldiers were packed into these transport vessels. A row of toilets stretches the length of a corridor as close together as the seats in a theatre but with the armrests removed. (There was no room for modesty or privacy on the Coolidge’s last voyage!)
A quick check on time and depth reveals the need to start our ascent. Up and across the starboard side of the hull and back to the coral garden for a safety stop but there is one last danger to negotiate. I’ve dived with crocodiles, sharks and Manta rays but none seem to strike more fear into a diver than the occupant of this region of the Coolidge’s hull. A shark cage and spare oxygen tank was positioned here before it rusted through and collapsed. The remains can still be seen but it was never needed for sharks are rarely, if ever, encountered while diving the Coolidge. It is more important to watch out for a dreaded damselfish, flaming orange in colour and stretching out a full 5 centimetres in length. It vigorously defends its territory and many a diver has been confronted head on by this savage beast as it head butts divers’ masks (Tap! Tap! Tap!) and occasionally nibbles on their ears. Surviving this part of the dive guarantees a safe return and for most an interest in the Coolidge and its fascinating history that will last forever. As an introduction to the Coolidge this is a great dive but you’ve literally only just scratched the surface and each new dive will be better; more exciting and enjoyable than the last.
Vanuatu, its people and its culture continue to occupy a special place in our hearts and probably always will. Diving is just one small part of what it has to offer but if that’s not your thing don’t despair, there are plenty of other experiences. This is a magical place. It’s the kind of place that offers a unique kind of experience whatever your interests. I know that for those of you visiting for the first time it will be an unforgettable experience as Vanuatu, its people and culture weave their special kind of magic around you. Don’t be surprised if you too will continue to return time and time again.