A 700-kilometre chain of 80-plus islands ringed with coral fringing reefs, the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu boasts active volcanoes, lush rain forests and a fascinating array of marine life that includes dugongs, the legendary ‘mermaids’ of folklore.
Espiritu Santo (meaning home to the spirits of the Saints) is the largest and, in many ways, the most stunning of all of the islands in the magnificent Vanuatu island chain.
During WWII James A Michener, then a lieutenant in the US army, was posted here and was so overwhelmed by the island’s beauty that he wrote the legendary Tales of the South Pacific. Although there is, today, little sign of the 100,000 allied troops that were stationed on Espiritu Santo during the war, the island hosts a permanent reminder of that conflict in the shape of what is claimed to be the world’s largest accessible shipwreck, the SS President Coolidge, an artificial reef of gothic proportions.
The ‘SS President Coolidge’
A former ocean-going passenger liner turned troopship, that fell victim to an ‘own goal’ in 1942, during the Second World War, the 22,000 ton, ‘SS President Coolidge’ was launched in 1931 and began life as a luxury passenger cruise liner sailing the Pacific between San Francisco and the Far East. Commandeered into the service of her country as a troopship in early 1942, (like many other ocean going passenger liners of the time), the ‘Coolidge’ was stripped of her comfortable appointments and fittings and used to transport men and materials to the South Pacific ahead of the advancing Japanese forces.
Relying on a speed of 20 knots to outrun enemy submarines and land his precious cargo safely on Espiritu Santo, the largest of the islands of Vanuatu, Captain Henry Nelson was, on October 26th, 1942, negotiating the ‘Coolidge’ through the heavily mined second channel when the ship hit two American mines.
In an attempt to save his ship and passengers, the Captain steered the stricken vessel towards – and up onto – the steeply sloping beach. Within an hour most of the cargo had been dumped overboard and 5,500 troops and crew gained the safety of the shore before the ‘SS President Coolidge’, labouring beneath the weight of inrushing water and gravity, slowly disappeared beneath the surface.
Only two lives were lost, those of a ship’s fireman killed in one of the initial explosions and an army officer who had been instrumental in saving many lives and who had returned to search the sinking vessel in the mistaken belief that men were still trapped below decks.
Only 100-metres or so from the shore, the 200-metre long, ‘President Coolidge’ has, over the years, slipped down the steep incline on which she came to rest. Lying on her port side, the bow rests in about 20-metres while the stern drops away into 60-plus metres of water.
Regardless of certification level the ‘SS President Coolidge’ offers divers of every experience something unique and, because of its sheer size, there’s always something new to discover.
Like any penetration wreck dive silt-outs are always a possibility and, as a complex structure whose maze of passageways and compartments can defeat the navigational skills of even the most experienced divers, the presence of a dive guide is a mandatory requirement in fully appreciating all that the ‘Coolidge’ has to offer.
Most of the diving takes place between the bow and the bridge area at a usual depth of no more than 40 metres, although the more atmospheric sections of the wreck are, despite their depth, extremely easy to reach.
And there is plenty to see and marvel at. The Promenade deck is still littered with the refuse of war. Rifles, bayonets, helmets and gas masks, together with uniform clothing rest where they fell more than half-a-century ago. In the spacious holds trucks, jeeps, anti-aircraft guns and shells lie forgotten.
Apart from depth restrictions almost all parts of the wreck are accessible to divers. At the shallower levels the bridge wings still support their two cannons, while deeper into the wreck there’s an abundance of plates, utensils and artefacts.
Points of interest are the large turbines, the swimming pool, the barbers chair, the Captains bathroom, the medical supply room and rows of toilet bowls where many a neoprene clad diver has paused to rest and have their picture taken.
The highlight of a dive on the ‘SS President Coolidge’ is the swim through to the former First-Class Smoking Room of this once luxurious ship. At a depth of just over 40-metres a framed relief figure of a lady wearing costume of the Elizabethan period and posed in front of a unicorn still hangs above the fireplace: A startling treasure that comes to life in the beams of underwater lights.
With quick and easy access from either boat or shore – and more than a dozen different dives in, over and around the ‘Coolidge’ – it’s possible to overlook the marine life in favour of the wreck’s inspirational size. But for divers’ carrying out their safety stops in the shallows near the wreck (in a coral garden built by legendary diving figure. Allan Power, who has spent more than thirty years exploring the wreck and researching the history of the ‘SS President Coolidge’), there are plenty of amusing, colourful and exotic fish life that call the ‘Coolidge’ home.
Featured on the itinerary of most of the island nation’s dive operators, the wreck of the ‘SS President Coolidge’ was, in 1983, declared a Vanuatu Marine National Park.
The above, edited, article was first published in the on-line Nekton Magazine in 2007.