Hanging with the ‘President’ in Vanuatu

Hanging out with the President is always cool, and very addictive. We know people who go back year after year just to spend time with the President.

Located near Luganville, off the island of Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu, this President is none other than the SS President Coolidge, regularly voted amongst the top 10 shipwrecks of the world, and once you have explored this incredible, grand old relic it is easy to understand why.


By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose.
www.nigelmarshphotography.com

Built in 1931, the SS President Coolidge was a luxury liner with a length of 198m, 24m wide and weighing 21,936 tonnes, the biggest ship built in America at the time.

After a decade carrying passengers and cargo to the Far East, but when the Americans joined the Second World War in 1941 the ship was converted to carry war supplies and troops. A year later she hit two mines entering the Luganville harbour and has sat on the sea floor ever since.

All but two of the 5000 troops on board were successfully evacuated.

Helen photographs the famous Lady and
Unicorn in the dining room.

Though partially salvaged in the 1970s there is still so much to see on this massive wreck; most divers spend a week exploring it, and many come back again and again.

Everyone’s first dive

Accessible from the shore or via boat, everyone’s first dive on the President is a tour of the bow area following a rope down, and that first view of the ship lying on its port side is simply breathtaking. You realise just how enormous it is.

After a few photos around the bow, we follow our guide to the three inch forward gun where a pile of artillery shells are stacked. In this area are also bollards, winches with time also for a quick look inside the cavernous holds one and two.

From this point divers used to swim along the promenade deck, but unfortunately this area collapsed a decade ago after an earthquake. But the collapse opened up spaces below, allowing a view into bathrooms with tiles, taps, toilets and basins in place.

Our guide ready for action with a rifle and helmet left by the troops.

Halfway along the massive ship, at a depth of 35m, our guide leads us back along the top, previously the starboard side where artillery rounds, helmets, rifles, portholes and other debris was left by the salvage divers.

Our first dive ended all too quickly; we had barely scratched the surface of this immense ship.

On subsequent dives we thoroughly explored holds one and two, looking at the trucks, jeeps, tyres, drop tanks and other equipment. We passed through seemingly endless passageways and rooms on A, B and C decks, where gasmasks, boots and bottles were littered about. We visited the Captain’s bathroom, a typewriter, pipework and where other fittings are still in place. We visited the dining room to see the famous Lady and Unicorn statue, with ornate light fittings, and crockery in the silt. On our deepest dive we dropped into the engine room to inspect condensers, pipes, valves and the telegraph.

Depths?

The President rests in depths from 20m to 70m; most diving requires deco and you need to be experienced enough to handle these depths. But with gentle currents, and warm,usually clear water (15m to 30m vis) the diving is not as difficult as it may sound.

Whip corals decorate the reef wall at Nasiise Reef.

The wreck is also a beautiful artificial reef covered in corals and home to invertebrates, reef fish, pelagic fish, moray eels, gropers and reef sharks. And the deco stops are never boring in the coral gardens where octopus, nudibranchs, moray eels, reef fish and the occasional dugong can be seen.

Three more wrecks

While the SS President Coolidge lures most divers to Espiritu Santo, the area has much more to offer.

Two further wrecks, the tug Tui Tuate, and the Henri Bonneaud, a former island trader, and a highlight for us, the USS Tucker, a 104m long destroyer, that sank two months before the President when she too hit a mine. The ship is very broken up in depths from 15m to 20m, but is a fascinating dive.

The first view of the SS President Coolidge is the bow of the massive ship.

Over the years the guides have collected bottles and put them on display for divers.

Helen explores the USS Tucker.

Million Dollar Point/

Another impressive shore dive is Million Dollar Point, where the US military dumped trucks, cranes and other equipment at the end of the war rather than let the locals have them. The piles of rusting equipment are found from the shore line to 40m, and always interesting.

Espiritu Santo and its surrounding islands are also fringed by coral reefs that are well worth a look. We only had time for one reef dive at Nasiise Reef, but wished for more; the corals are just wonderful, especially the extensive gardens of hard corals. There weren’t many pelagic fish, but reef fish were abundant along with turtles, garden eels and an eagle ray.

Crystal freshwater

Espiritu Santo is also dotted with numerous crystal clear freshwater lakes and rivers.

The closest to Luganville is the Blue Holes, a popular swimming spot reaching 18m.

Topside attractions are plentiful as well.

We did a half day World War II tour with Butterfly Adventure Tours visiting old runways and the remains of a crashed B17 bomber. And the daily market is always great.

A visit to the SS President Coolidge is indeed a presidential experience. You will never forget it.

ACCOMMODATION & DIVING

Big Blue Vanuatu
www.bigbluevanuatu.com

Coral Quays Resort
www.coralquays.com

Hotel Santo
www.hotelsanto.com

Deco Stop Lodge
www.decostop.com.vu

Bokissa Eco Island Resort
www.bokissa.vu

Aore Island Resort
www.aoreresort.com

Santo Island Dive
www.santodive.com

Allan Power Dive Tours
www.allan-power-santo.com

Aquamarine
www.aquamarinesanto.com

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