A shining Star in Port Vila

Sunken shipwrecks are a unique ‘happy spot’ for each of us. For the serious wreck addict the focus is all about their technical history and structure. For others it’s more about the romance, the story behind the wreck. Or perhaps it’s simply a case of being able to tick off diving on a wreck. Then for others of us it’s all the above.

For me it’s the joy of diving to something that now provides shelter for an amazing array of marine life, taking advantage of this man-made edifice and forging it into their own haven. For my husband, Eric, the focus is on the history, story and detail, while not forgetting the amazing opportunities such a wreck provides for the smallest and largest marine creatures.

We both love diving the Star of Russia now sitting in 36 metres of water in the sheltered Port Vila harbour in Vanuatu. Every dive on this amazing wreck is unique, but some things are almost guaranteed. The first thing you become aware of is the cloud of batfish loitering at some point down the mooring line. It’s a perfect start and finish to any dive being surrounded by a school of curious batfish. The mooring line itself is full of life, tiny blennies, crustaceans, evasive filefish – take time to examine the life in front of you. There is always something happening with every fin kick.

In no time at all the shape of the Star emerges below, one of her massive masts off to one side complete with crow’s nest. Then the open bowels of the ship come into view where a diver can safely explore all three levels of the ship, though her teak decks are long since gone.

Looking up from the bowels of The Star. Photo: Anne and Eric Simmons

Here you can be privy to spiralling clouds of trevally rising up then sinking again into her depths. Or watch a vacant eyed puffer fish aimlessly keep its distance, a large grouper lurks along the sides seeking prey, and a crocodile fish sits motionless waiting for you to pass by.

A variety of colourful nudibranchi and vertebrates adorn the shell of the Star, with the occasional lionfish moving stealthily around. If you look closely you can find moray eels taking advantage of the many nooks and crannies, and a close inspection highlights various cleaner shrimps or soldier shrimps in residence.

Even without the fascinating marine life there is interest aplenty, from the large capstan at the bow complete with winch below, bollards lining the sides. At the stern the rudder and the steering gear are waiting to be found. The gap where the bow sprit, long since gone, provides home to one of the large morays complete with entourage of cleaner shrimp. Inside the hull an array of equipment gives a diver plenty of scope to explore and gain a sense of respect for the amazing ship she was in her hey-day.

A SHIP’S LIFE

The Star of Russia was built by Harland and Wolff in 1874, a Belfast shipping company that built many fine ships, including the RMS Titanic. Iron hulled and a fully rigged three masted ship, she was almost 83 metres long and 12 metres wide with a gross tonnage of 1981 tons. The Star was the largest of 12 almost identical ships built for James P Cory & Company of Belfast, Northern Ireland, a grand lady, speedy and efficient, as she needed to be to compete with the steam ships fast encroaching on the clipper trade.

Crocodile fish lurking. Photo: Anne and Eric Simmons

Haven for shrimps. Photo: Anne and Eric Simmons

On her tenth voyage, transporting 4,000 ton of cement from London to Melbourne the Star set a best day’s run of 388 miles during a 23 and a half hour day (sights to sights) averaging over 16.5 knots, an incredible speed for such a large sailing ship.

For much of her life she worked the London to Melbourne route but in 1898 James P Cory & Company went under and she was sold several times over the next few years, ending up with several of her sister ships, purchased by the Alaska Packers Association to add to their fleet of square riggers transporting supplies and labour heading north and returning with canned fish.

Chromodoris Nudibranch. Photo: Anne and Eric Simmons

Her last voyage was in 1926 when she was sold to be used as a cargo hulk in the South Pacific. From coal barge to copra hulk she laboured between Australia, Noumea and finally to the New Hebrides. Moored in Port Vila, and after suffering through several cyclones, she gave up and succumbed to her watery grave just northwest of the main wharf. Her location now gives the diver a reverberating sensory experience of those sailing ship days, a feeling that can literally be felt throughout the body. Quite eerie.

Eel and shrimps. Photo: Anne and Eric Simmons

Keep a careful eye on the line for these wee blennies. Photo: Anne and Eric Simmons

Puffer loitering on the sides. Photo: Anne and Eric Simmons

The Star of Russia is a fascinating dive for everyone. A single dive isn’t enough to see all of her, and visibility is often only average, usually around eight metres. So at her depth its pays to watch your dive time and air carefully. The Star is also an excellent build up dive enroute to the SS President Coolidge (see Dive mag 164).

And keep an eye out in the surrounding waters on your ascent for the occasional passing manta ray or dugong!

Variety of colours of batfish. Photo: Anne and Eric Simmons

By Anne Simmons. Photos by Anne and Eric Simmons.

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