Diving the President Coolidge

Santos President Coolidge, Vanuatu

 By Pete Mesley

The President Coolidge in Santo is by far one of the best wreck dives I have done. With this trip being my third to her, I was just as excited as our other tour party members!

The President Coolidge was one hell of a ship. When you descend onto a 199 metres (654 feet) long, 24.7 metre (81 feet) wide and 10.4 metres (34 feet) deep Ocean liner you really are spoilt for choice. Thanks be to the brilliance of the captain who drove 14 thousand tonnes into their own minefield

My dive buddy on this trip – Big Mike Z – was a two metre tall German technical diving buddy of mine with a big bushy moustache that could house a multitude of aquatic life given he was submerged long enough! And that is exactly what we were heading out to do spend some quality time on the wreck! The wreck now lies on a 45 degree angle, stern in 68 metres of water and the bow pointing towards the shore in 18 metres – a rust fanatics dream come true! There is so much to see on this little beautie but Mike had the deciding vote on our maiden dive (this trip) – the engine room!

The engine room is always a great place to start and thanks to the salvors who cut a massive hole into the side of the hull to directly access the engine room – it was a breeze finding it. By weekday Mike was a ships engineer so it was great to be his buddy and get all the components pointed out.

We were all kitted out to do some serious bottom time. Mike had the more traditional twins and Nitrox50 to speed things up on deco. I had my trustee Buddy Inspiration Closed Circuit Rebreather (CCR). These pieces of gear have revolutionised the way we dive for good. The gas saving and optimisation on decompression is 200 times more efficient than open circuit scuba. This would mean that I would finish my decompression obligations much to the disgust of Mike about 40 minutes before him!

With the engine room located a good 250 metre swim away from the shore we opted to drop the deco bottles on the bow and swim to the engine room opening in midwater. This would enable us not to have to carry our deco gas with us through the wreck. As we got to the opening to the engine room a huge electrical turbine came into view. The real size became apparent when Mike swam up to it. Absolutely massive!

The President was driven by two massive turbo-electric engines capable of pushing the largest non naval passenger liner built in the USA a staggering 23 knots! All I could hear when all this came into sight was Mike ahhhing through his regulator in amazement. Through a bulkhead and we were in the main operations room. There were three telegraphs positioned around the area and huge brass gauges still stood strong on the wall giving accurate vital information about the engines. Looking at the readings on the telegraphs last orders before abandonment of ship! Whenever I dive on wrecks I try to imagine the atmosphere at the time of impact in the area I was diving. There would have been a lot of desperation and confusion in the engine room when the engineers felt the terrible explosion when the first mine hit the hull. Not knowing what was happening on deck. Not knowing that Captain Nelson was reading a signal message saying STOP!

All the engineers could do was just read the desperate orders coming from the captain to put the vessel in full reverse. What they would later find out was that they had in actual fact powered right into their own minefield! Not even a minute later another huge explosion shook the ship. Her forward motion brought her onto a second mine even after her engines were thrown into full reverse. The boat now listing to port limped to the closest landmass. A shiver ran over my spine thinking about this as I made my way up through a stairwell where we cut into the galley and through into the dining room. I noticed a beautiful iron elevator lift door leaning on the bottom. We swam up through Euarts door and over the hull to where our gas was. Picked it up and finishing the dive on the fantastic little reef at five metres which finished the dive off nicely. This place was a hive of activity. Ghost pipefish, sand gobies, mantis shrimp galore, big bass and of course overseen by Boris the 600kg grouper. Unfortunately Boris was on his annual tour of duty at the Grouper conference up north!

Returning to old stomping grounds

It was great going back to where the Lady used to live (a bit of a walk down amnesia lane!). For over 50 years she gallantly sat over the fireplace in the first class smoking room steadfast to her trustee steed. Until one night when the earth (and sea) shook an earthquake came! By morning when the first set of daily divers went to pay their respects to Maaaam they realised that the ceiling of the room had caved in and the Lady was GONE! Later searching found her on the bottom, remarkably, fully intact! Must have been the hand of God that saved the The Lady (or 60 years of silt!)

She was repositioned on the ceiling of the first class dining room for all to see.

Swimming along the promenade deck brought back a flood of memories from the last trips until I came to the door where we used to enter to get to the Lady. It was now pressed hard against the floor and the ceiling lay at a 40 degree angle. It had all caved in from the earthquake. I squeezed through the doorway, momentarily looking back towards the bow when I saw another familiar site – the famous rows of toilets. They were looking pretty squashed up too! I swam onto where the Lady used to be at the far end of the room. As I got there I saw to great astonishment that the bottom half of the fireplace was still there.

Doctors Quarters

The next adventure was destined for the Doctors Quarters. This was a great dive because we got to go through the engine room again and squeeze deeper into the gut of the ship. Into the engine room opening, past the turbines, through the bulkhead that lead to the main operations room, up a flight of stairs, down a long passageway, up one more level and into the doctors quarters. Here you could gently place your hand into the stores and find these amazing sights. Morphine ampoules, antiseptic powder, bottles of miracle cure ointment and the doctors sign outside his door. It was so nice to still see this stuff after all these years. There are those that still think that a nice little memento wont go a miss! But if everyone took one piece of the wreck back with them there would be nothing left to see.

The Gauntlet

Another great dive, as always, was the Gauntlet. This is where you would enter from the stern section and swim the entire 199 metres of the ship all the way through the guts, navigating down corridors, hatchways, up shoots, elevator shafts and popping out at the other end through the chain locker. We spent a bit of time in the galley on this dive and were amazed to see huge meat grinders and mixing machines still bolted to the floor. There were still a few surprises round every corner! Still one of the best dives I have ever done. The last time I did this dive I was diving my homemade CCR at that time (the widowmaker) and admittedly she was a bit of a beast. She just wouldnt fit through the last hole. After a few squeezes here and a few big breaths out there, we finally got through okay ( much to Barrys delight I could have become a permanent fixture – half in half out) This time on my Buddy Inspiration CCR it was great no lube necessary!! She didnt even touch the sides!!

Another 14 dives on her, 35 hours in the water exploring her inner being I still felt that there was unfinished business on the wreck. Still so much to see for 10 lifetimes. Barry and the guys at Aquamarine were excellent as usual. Cant wait till the next time!

About the author: Pete Mesley is Director of Training at Dive HQ Greenlane and is New Zealands most experienced technical diving instructor. If you are interested in advancing your skills contact him on 09 520 7306 or 025 278 2250. He is New Zealands only Closed Circuit Rebreather Instructor, Trimix and Advanced Wreck penetration instructor.
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