Diving Vanuatu

Diving Vanuatu

by Carrie Patrick

My first impression of Vanuatu, as we drove into Port Vila from the airport, was the warm, floral scent of the night air blowing in through the open windows of the van. Little could be seen along the mostly unlit road, but the tropical perfume of the island left no doubt that we were a long way from home. The first indication that this was going to be one awesome holiday came as the van drew up outside Le Lagon Parkroyal. Our group’s late-night arrival was announced by the rattle of a traditional drum, and as we piled out into the huge and impressive lobby entrance with its polished wooden pillars, we were handed a tall, cool fruit cocktail each, while more staff members whisked away our luggage in the background. Our eight-day dive holiday had begun.

Early next morning, I looked out my front door to see my first Vanuatu scene by daylight. Far across the calm morning water of a huge lagoon, thin columns of smoke rose from cooking fires on the opposite shore. Le Lagon’s jetty stretched out into glass-like water beyond a row of charming bungalows, no more than two steps from the water’s edge. This resort caters for all budgets in a gorgeous natural setting of 75 acres of lush tropical gardens.

While in Port Vila, we dived with Nautilus Scuba who are based on the town’s waterfront. They have a very impressive range of hire gear which looked newer and better maintained than most of our own. Besides the retail range in their dive shop, all the hire gear is also for sale, at excellent prices. Our first dive with them was the Konanda, a 45m island trader which was deliberately sunk as a wreck dive in 1987. This was my first ever wreck dive, and what a perfect introduction!

The Konanda looked just like storybook shipwrecks are supposed to, sitting upright on a flat, white sandy bottom in perfect visibility. We descended to the top of the mast, ten metres below the surface, and dropped slowly down it to the deck. At a maximum of 26 metres, this is a safe and easy dive even for beginners. Konanda residents included a crocodile fish on the deck, and a lionfish in one of the toilets. And I loved the reflective bubble ceiling! I can’t really say what was the best part of this dive, because from the moment I put my face underwater I was just about screaming with excitement the whole time. My first dive in the tropics! My first wreck dive! My first dive in more than ten metres visibility! More experienced divers will probably laugh – and yes, I did dive on the President Coolidge later in the week – but for me the little Konanda will always represent the world’s ultimate wreck dive. I’ve never, ever been so excited and thrilled by diving.

Nautilus Scuba has three other wreck dives. The three-masted sailing ship Star of Russia is a romantic old lady of the 1900s, now lying in 33 metres. Less than ten minutes away is the Tasman, a Qantas S26 Sandringham flying boat. The Tasman broke records in the days when air travel was a long, slow process – she was the first to fly from Auckland to Sydney in less than eight hours!! As a buildup to deep dives on the President Coolidge, you can try the Semle Federsen, a cargo ship sunk in 1985 with her cabins and wheelhouse at 40 metres.

We were all impressed by Nautilus’s dive boat and well-trained staff. Pre-dive briefings were comprehensive, and included sketches of the site and our route. After handing up my weight belt and scuba gear from the first dive, in the few seconds it took me to climb back on board somebody had already removed my used tank, put on a new one, tied it all up with my mask and snorkel on top so I could identify it, and put the whole lot on the side of the boat ready for the next dive. Wow! As if this wasn’t enough, a secret panel was unfolded from a bulkhead, turning into a table laden with cakes and hot drinks. I had visions of local sharks promoting the twice-daily Nautilus feeding frenzy to tourist sharks from other countries: see the savage beauty of humans in their own environment, hunting their natural prey – the chocky muffin!

After a great day out on the water, it was time for a different sort of experience at Le Meridien Port Vila Resort & Casino. The last thing I would have expected on a tropical island was a Parisian-style catwalk fashion show, but Vanuatu was turning out all its surprises. Over cocktails in Le Meridien’s huge restaurant, we watched the weekly parade of local talent modelling the painted fabric designs of Nicholas Michoutouchkine. After dinner, we visited the casino with its quiet, civilised atmosphere and elegantly dressed patrons. I went overboard and forked out the equivalent of about $3, but sadly did not win enough to buy any of Mr Michoutouchkine’s luscious dresses. Oh well, I guess I couldn’t have worn it on a dive trip anyway.

The next day we had two morning dives. Nautilus took us to a really interesting site called Blacksands Caves. These turned out not to be actual caves, but something like a huge honeycomb of pillars, arches, and tunnels forming a maze of connected passageways. Although the site gave the feeling of being in an extensive cave system, there was plenty of light and a quick glance upward always revealed a nice open route to the surface. With the bottom at 14 metres, our Scottish guide explained, you don’t need to worry about your depth ‘unless you dig a hole.’ It was fun exploring the stone labyrinth.

After Nautilus’s usual post-dive cake session – a few more days of this and I wouldn’t need a weight belt at all – it was off to visit a coral reef for our second dive. This was Mele Reef, which rises to six metres from the surface. Even before jumping off the boat we could see the colours and life on the bottom below us. After a tour along a vertical wall, with a riot of life on every square inch of coral, we finished the dive under the boat on the shallow reef top. There was so much to see I could have stayed there all day. The brightness of the light, and the clarity of the water, was incredible to me. The tiny, brightly coloured fish were so pretty as they went about their business, and I saw my first big anemone with its friendly little anemone fish.

On this dive, I realised I need a prescription mask. At one stage everyone went mad with excitement, pointing frantically out into the distance at what I could only see as a whole lot of water. I spent the rest of the dive wondering what it had been – a shark? a whale? a crashed alien spacecraft? Surfacing to hear the others using phrases like ‘always wanted to see one’ and ‘the size of a dinner table’ didn’t make me feel any better. It was a turtle, and I still haven’t seen one, the size of a dinner table or not. I spent that night trying to work out how I could wedge my glasses inside my mask, but to no avail.

There is plenty to do in Port Vila on your non-diving days. The scenery is lovely, with the town arranged around the turquoise waters of its horseshoe-shaped bay and a multitude of attractive boats in the harbour. One of them is Response, a 42 foot sloop owned by New Zealander Jim White, available for charters locally or to the other islands of Vanuatu. A compressor, weight belts and tanks are available for divers.

I asked Jim about his best day, and it turned out to be quite a story. His guests were from a country that shall remain anonymous, and had spent the whole day complaining loudly about how boring Vanuatu was compared to their home town. On arrival at the last dive site of the day, Response had no sooner anchored than the water heaved and a pod of black whales surfaced right next to the boat. Well, this was actually not too bad, the guests had to admit. Eventually the whales left – and a pair of giant turtles appeared, also right next to the boat. By now the guests were somewhat mellowed and eagerly took the chance to swim with the turtles. Some time later, the turtles swam off and everyone piled back on board … only to return to the water almost instantly, as one of Vanuatu’s very rare dugongs surfaced! ‘So,’ Jim told me with a grin, ‘I kept a straight face, turned to them and apologised for bringing them to such a boring site … normally, I said, we saw a lot more there!’

Our last night in Port Vila was spent at Iririki Island Resort, and I never wanted to leave, ever. Iririki Island is the dominant feature of Vila’s harbour, a beautiful dome-shaped island which was once the residence of the British Commissioner. A free ferry runs 24 hours a day (the crossing only takes a couple of minutes) from the downtown waterfront. Even if you’re not staying on the island, this is a great place from which to view the town.

Iririki Island is topped by Michener’s Restaurant, which combines spectacular harbour views with gourmet cuisine by a French chef. Accommodation is in individual bungalows, stunningly decorated and furnished – I’ve seldom seen houses this good, let alone hotel rooms. Although all our accommodation in Vanuatu was of an extremely high standard, Iririki’s overwater bungalows get the vote as my personal favourite. I’ll leave my description of Port Vila with the atmosphere of an evening at Iririki Island Resort – the warm air, the soft lapping of water beneath your bungalow, the chatter of a gecko, the buzz of cicadas, the sudden scream of a travel agent disappearing over a small cliff – what? Yes, one member of our party, no doubt disappointed that our tour did not include the famous Land Dives of Pentecost Island, decided to try it out for himself. His planned short cut back to his bungalow in the dark proved to be very efficient indeed in terms of speed of arrival, but probably not so comfortable as sticking to the path would have been. Nice one, Dennis.

The second half of our holiday was on the island of Espiritu Santo, known to divers worldwide as the home of Million Dollar Point and the President Coolidge. Getting there is easy. You go out to Bauerfield Airport, where you will see the world’s smallest aircraft that is not actually marked ‘For Ages 3 and Up’ waiting at the domestic terminal. Graham got to sit next to the pilot! The pre-flight safety announcement consists of the pilot turning around in his seat and shouting down the plane to put your seat belt on. After the very scenic and comfortable flight, you touch down in Santo just over an hour later, along with half the chicken population of the South Pacific, silent ladies clutching mysteriously wriggling sacks, and a man with a rusty bicycle that God alone knows where the pilot put during the flight.

Santo is very different from Vila. The town of Luganville was built by American troops during WWII, and has not had much in the way of maintenance since they left. As we bumped down the deserted, ramshackle main street, it seemed obvious that the accommodation standards here would be limited. Wrong! We stayed at three separate places in Santo, each with a different character but all excellent. Our first stop was Bougainville Resort. A small, pretty resort with 18 bungalows set in six acres of tropical gardens, Bougainville provides a real family atmosphere. Owners Yvan and Elaine really go out of their way to make guests feel at home. The view over the Segond Channel at night from the restaurant verandah was something special. Like all the places we stayed, Bougainville Resort is very handy to all the dive sites and has a secure area to clean and hang dive gear. I would recommend it to those who want a home-like, relaxed atmosphere for their holiday base. This was also where I first tried Santo steak, which is rightly regarded as either the finest or second finest in the world (after Argentinian), and is enough to make the most dedicated vegetarian waver.

We dived with Aquamarine, run by Kevin and Mayumi Green. Kevin and his staff know the President Coolidge like the backs of their hands; the shop is lined with photos of this president of all wreck dives, including the famous Lady statue. (They also have a great range of really tasteless t-shirts connected with ‘The Lady,’ ‘The President’, and certain recent American events.)

Our first dive was at Million Dollar Point. This giant underwater rubbish heap, consisting of thousands of tons of military equipment, was shoved off the beach at the end of the war by the US forces. Bulldozers, cranes, fork lifts, and trucks can be seen amongst the debris. It was strange to look up the face of this towering wall of rubble, and realise it was made up not of coral or rock but of metal. The first object we encountered as we entered from the beach was the wreck of a ship that was sent to salvage metal. In what must have been a masterpiece of comic timing, it arrived, steamed with grim determination straight into the pile of scrap metal it was there to salvage, tore a hole in its hull and added itself to the pile. Although I enjoyed Million Dollar Point, the next day’s dive blew it away.

I was one of a group of three on a guided dive to the promenade deck of the President Coolidge. As one of us was newly certified, and the other diver and I were relatively inexperienced, we did not wish to go deep. The divemaster gave us a very comprehensive briefing, with explanations of the history of items which would be pointed out to us. This turned out to be an awesome dive, and I regret not having enough time in Santo to dive the Coolidge more than once. We descended down the line to the great ship’s bow at 21m and set off over the huge metal plain of its side. Along the way we stopped to look at ammunition, a typewriter, an old shark cage with a decaying tank and regulator still inside (guarded by a tiny yellow fish!), and then it was on to the windows of the promenade deck. The size of the ship was staggering. Peering over the edge, the huge wall of metal descended into darkness far below, and in both directions as far as the eye could see.

It was probably psychological, but as the others dropped the paltry two or three extra metres into the promenade deck itself, my ears decided enough was enough – they weren’t going one bit deeper! After a few more tries, we decided by signs that I would stay at my current depth and follow above the others. It was pychological – after several minutes, I was more interested than awed by the wreck, found no more difficulty, and popped in through a window to rejoin the others.

Finning along the promenade deck was great. But the best part was when we reached the end of the long, broad tunnel and flew out through the vast girders of the ship’s bridge. The only way I can describe it is to suggest you watch Star Wars – you know, the bits where they go VOOOM through the canyons? You pass from the tunnel of the promenade deck into a huge space, the floor dropping away behind you, and in front of you is a grid of twisted metal that reaches up, down and sideways as far as you can see. You are very small, and as you fly through the grid into open space there is nothing below but deep, deep water. I really wanted to just keep going back, VOOM down the tunnel again, and VOOM back out through the girders, for the rest of the dive. I think you have to make spaceship noises as you do it to get the full effect. Yeah, I know it’s childish and silly. So sue me.

Unfortunately, we did not get to meet Boris, the famous 150kg grouper who lives near the bow of the wreck. At the time of our visit, Boris had left on his annual holiday to meet some lady groupers in New Caledonia. A long way to swim for a date! Aquamarine has been diving the area since 1988, and has a range of locations, although most divers come for the President Coolidge. Our last dive with them was at Tutuba Point, a reef area which is one of their best sites for visibility – 40 to 50 metres is not uncommon. The geography of the reef is the main attraction, with caves, swimthroughs, and chasms covered in an abundance of hard and soft corals. They have several good reef sites, as well as other wreck dives like the destroyer USS Tucker and the coastal trader Henry Bonneaud, which is especially good for night diving with its resident schools of flashlight fish which swarm about the wreck like stars. Shark feeds are also available, and new locations for dives are always being found.

The rest of our stay was divided between the two very different locations of Aore Resort and the Hotel Santo. Aore Resort is marvellous, and would be my choice for a return visit. This new resort, with 18 large bungalows, is on Aore Island, three kilometres out of Luganville. An excellent reef for snorkelling is directly in front of the resort, with a number of WWII artefacts to be found. The rest of the island consists of 900 acres of coconut and cocoa plantations, strewn with war relics and inhabited by 400 beef cattle. We took a plantation tour with manager Jason Juel, past enormous banyan trees and old wartime bunkers now full of tiny, darting swallows.

The central feature of Aore Resort is the huge open-air restaurant, lounge and meeting place called the Big Nakamal. Its thatched roof can be seen across the water as you arrive. A very diver-friendly feature of the resort is the outdoor gear washing and drying facility located under some shady trees right next to the jetty. In the evening, watch the flying foxes leaving the trees and the fairly minimal lights of downtown Luganville across the Segond Channel as you explore the gourmet menu. What a great dive base for a week’s holiday in Santo.

For those wanting maximum holiday for minimum cost, the Hotel Santo is good budget accommodation. It’s in the middle of Luganville itself and has 22 air-conditioned rooms and eight units. As a basic, no-frills base to crash in the evening, the units are just what the budget-conscious diver wants. While we were there, we took a day off diving for the Man Bush Tour. For heaven’s sake don’t miss this tour if you go to Santo; it’s almost worth the trip all by itself. Russell Donovan, a New Zealander straight out of a Barry Crump novel, takes the tour in addition to running his new Deco Stop Lodge. Russell drives an air-conditioned tour coach – you have a choice of the fairly good air conditioning that comes through the open windows of his ute, in the cabin of which he can cram up to five hapless tourists, or the really great air conditioning and occasional tropical downpours that you get when riding on the back. This was the most fun tour I’ve taken anywhere, bar none.

Russell’s commentary was interspersed with stories that were wide-ranging, educational, occasionally hair-raising and probably at least 90% true. The two highlights of the tour – and almost of my whole holiday – were a trip up an underground river, and a visit to a native village. After driving for miles into the middle of nowhere, we piled out of the ute and followed the machete-wielding Russell through the bush until we reached a hole in the ground, into which a huge steel ladder vanished. We had been told to dress in swimsuits, tough shoes, and dive masks. Far down the ladder, we found ourselves in a small, rocky space at the bottom. A torrent of water raced past over our feet, exiting one small hole and rushing across the bottom of the pit to disappear down another. ‘Don’t slip and go down that hole,’ Russell suggested, ‘or we’ll never find your body.’ Er, yes, OK.

We shoved our way upstream through a good-sized cavern and regrouped in a thigh-deep large pool at the far end. This was where it got scary. There was a hole underwater in the rock wall. There was a rope disappearing into the hole. Russell was actually suggesting that we put on our masks, duck down, grab the rope, and pull ourselves along an pitch-black underwater tunnel into the next cave. The man was clearly insane. He reassured us that the tunnel was very short, and the current flowing through it meant that even if we accidentally let go of the rope, all that would happen was that we would be hurled against the sharp rocks at the top of the tunnel before our bleeding and half-drowned bodies were forced back out the other end. Some of the group immediately decided to sit right down and wait until we got back. It took quite a major effort not to join them, but after ten minutes of working myself up to it, and maybe three seconds of total terror, I was through.

Then we took a hike up the dark, rushing river, with the ceiling a comforting number of metres above our heads, until we came to what can only be described as a huge, bottomless underground swimming pool. This was as far as we could go. After a brief swim (during which, to my surprise, we were not grabbed from below by creatures from before the dawn of time), we headed back to the tunnel. This was when we witnessed the prize-winning event for Most Stupid Thing Ever Done In A Cave In Vanuatu. Now, to understand what follows, you must realise that we were wearing swimsuits and some of us had torches. A lady who should remain anonymous (but isn’t going to) was preparing to go through the tunnel when she realised she needed both hands for the rope. Now, what could she do with her torch? ‘Stick it down your front,’ suggested Russell. What a great idea! The fact that turning off the torch first might be an even better idea did not cross the innocent mind of young Dina, whose brightly glowing anatomy in the darkened cave will probably remain a highlight of the trip for the tour’s male members. ‘You did that on purpose – I bet you do that to all the girls on this tour,’ she accused Russell. ‘No, but I damn well will from now on, ‘he choked as the rest of us rolled about in hysterics.

The custom village which was our next stop was fascinating. Russell has a good relationship with the tribe, and has helped them build a water tank and make other improvements. In return, the chief allows him to bring visitors to see the village. Nothing is planned or put on for the visits – the villagers just go about their daily business, and if nobody is home when Russell arrives, that’s all there is to it. We were introduced to the chief, a tiny wizened old man with an enormous grin. He showed us the interior of his hut, and proudly displayed a bowl he was carving; these bowls can only be made by men of sufficient rank and honour, and he is one of the few in the area who is entitled to produce them. The native houses were fascinating, and we admired the village’s newest baby, a tiny cutie slung in a hammock in the shade. My memories of Vanuatu are made up of so many highlights that it’s hard to say what I liked best about the holiday. Great diving, great people, and most of all a great time that I look forward to repeating soon. Next time I hope to get in a few more dives on the President Coolidge, and explore the other islands – the active volcano and the cargo cults on Tanna, the sand drawings and ancient customs on the black magic island of Ambrym, the original bungee jumpers performing their amazing land dives on Pentecost, and so much more. Thanks to Air Vanuatu for this experience of a lifetime, and to all the hotels and dive operators who made it so special.

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