Marine history provides us with many heroes and the story of the SS President Coolidge is no different. The ship’s captain, Captain Nelson, a figure of some debate, is one. Captain Elwood Euart, who evacuated men from the infirmary at the cost of his own life, is another. Allan Power, with his salvage of non-ferous metals and oil from the wreck and later for his dive tourism on the wreck, is one of the ship’s more recent famous figures.
Most recently though, a new legend has been involved in the President Coolidge, a local man by the name of Alfred Niko. His beaming smile and wicked sense of humour have now become synonymous with diving the famous wreck. I had the pleasure of hearing about his experiences and enjoying his infectious personality.
As a young boy, his home was on the island of Malekula, which could have been a million miles from anywhere. Tropical life was carefree and simple where visitors were unheard of. His father travelled to Luganville for work, and in 1982 Alfred followed his father in hope of earning a little cash for the family. He started working for the Health Department as a Consultation Officer in 1983 until 1989. It was during this time he crossed paths with the most recognised name in the history of the President Coolidge, Allan Power. In 1990 Alfred started working for him. Allan’s property was littered with artefacts from the wreck and Alfred was fascinated with the collection and where it had come from.
It didn’t take long before his passion for swimming led him to ask if he could borrow some fins and a mask to look at the wreck. Allan was surprised at his interest but handed him some snorkel gear, little realising how this would manifest in the future. By 1992, Alfred was a certified diver and nothing slowed his investigations of every nook and cranny of the mighty ship. Alfred still remembers Tony Lewis, his instructor, trying to restrain him on his first dive on the President Coolidge as he frantically tried to see everything on that single dive.
Luganville (Santo) became a popular destination for divers and the numbers grew steadily Alfred’s dedication and passion impressed Allan enough to place Alfred in charge of the growing number of dive guides working for him. In 2011 Alfred went to Australia to complete his Dive Masters course.
Over the years the wreck itself has undergone tremendous changes and Alfred has been there to see most of them – including the time an earthquake shook it so much that the entire front portion of the Promenade Deck collapsed. Alfred was confronted with a wall of silt that was impossible to penetrate and ‘the Lady’ was lost for years before it was found and moved to its current location.
Alfred fears the structure is collapsing with the constant pressure of divers’ bubbles and knows its days are numbered. From the days of Boris, the large potato cod, to dugongs scratching themselves on the bow and leopard sharks on the main mast, he has seen pretty well everything there is to see. With so much time dwelling in her bowels, I was keen to find out what his most memorable find was. Once again, a huge smile came across his face and he explained that he found a small cash box full of US Dollars – more money than he had seen in his life, though it was no longer worth anything.
Alfred is totally at home in the water, perfect buoyancy control at all times, fingers interlocked and only occasionally expelling the minutest stream of bubbles as he breathes sparingly on his air, never disturbing even the slightest particle of silt from the confines of the wreck. His eyes are more like an owl than a hawk, seeing awkward tourists through the pitch black as they fumble tentatively through his backyard.
One of the biggest changes that he has noticed in the past two decades is the decreasing skill levels of divers that now have access to the wreck – where once only the most experienced came to dive, these days there is a huge demand from learner divers.
I have lost count of the number of night dives on the President Coolidge that I have done with Alfred, without the aid of torches. He calmly marshals each individual into the best spot to observe the swarms of flashlight fish circling in the cargo hold and firmly attaches their hand to the superstructure before manoeuvring the next diver in, all the time knowing exactly where everyone is and what they are doing. This leads to hilarious conversations post-dive as divers try to pass off their inadequacies as someone else’s fault, while Alfred recounts, play by play, everyone’s movements, as if a recording.
With so much to take in as you anxiously follow your guide’s fins, it is a real blessing when he regularly stops and illuminates a light bulb or chandelier with his torch, demonstrates a fan or one of the numerous fittings throughout the maze of decks and cabins.
Every dive is an adventure for Alfred, and the novelty never seems to wane. When asked which dive is his favourite, he laughs and replies, “Alfred’s Special Magical Mystery Tour,” simply meaning the ones he makes up as he goes along – such is his knowledge of the wreck.
Today, Alfred Numba Wan (number one), as he is best known, has completed more than thirteen thousand dives on the President Coolidge, a milestone that will probably never be eclipsed. When you think that he must have spent more time on the President Coolidge than anyone in history, including when it was afloat, it is easy to understand how he knows every minute detail, passageway and exit on the wreck. There is simply no one that I would rather dive with here. As one tourist said: “I’m sure that he would get safely back to the surface if he had no air and he had lost his mask and fins in a complete silt-out on a night dive.” Such is the respect Alfred inspires. Anyone who has dived on the President Coolidge knows Alfred or has heard of him. Some heroes are simply never recognised despite everyone recognising them.
The legend continues with Alfred’s son Sethy, now a dive guide himself with over 2500 dives on the wreck. You can dive with the legend himself, or his son, at Aore Adventure Sports and Lodge.