Espiritu Santo offers some of the world's finest diving. There are relatively few dive sites that have been explored even though there are hundreds of thousands of dives logged in the area each year. The reason for this is simple, everyone is diving the Coolidge.
The SS President Coolidge is one of the world's finest wrecks for recreational divers. It started life as one of the world's most luxurious cruise ships in the 1920's.
It was first owned by the Dollar Shipping Company and featured dollar signs on the stacks in early pictures. The company fell on hard times and the US government took it over with their other ships all named after US Presidents.
This was the birth of American Presidents Line which still operates today. APL was still largely owned by the government when the US jumped into W.W.II. The President Coolidge was converted to a troop ship in just a matter of weeks and began service ferrying troops around the Pacific early in the war.
Santo was selected by the US as the primary staging base for the South Pacific. The Japanese were next door on the Solomon Islands and this would be the place were the Japanese were stopped and act as the staging base for the offensives to the north and west.
A huge military complex was built in months. It wasn't uncommon to see 50 ships at anchor loading or unloading equipment and personnel. Three large airports were built for bombers and fighters. Over 600,000 US troops would pass through Santo in less than 4 years.
Early in the development of the base at Santo the SS President Coolidge sailed from California with 5,000 combat troops aboard. The first stop was Noumea in New Caledonia. It was here that the Coolidge received orders to continue to Santo.
Only weeks before the base at Santo had been shelled by a Japanese submarine and, though the only casualty was a cow, the decision was taken to deploy mines on both entrances to the Segond Channel. Within a week of the deployment the US Tucker, a destroyer, struck the mines on the western entrance and split in 2 before sinking.
The captain was not at fault because he had not been informed of the mines. It was classified and not reported until after the war.
The civilian crew of the SS President Coolidge received orders to sail to Santo from a US Navy officer. The crew was surprised to find little detail on the entrance to the harbor but they had good charts and didn't give it a great deal of concern.
As the Coolidge approached the captain became increasingly concerned about enemy submarines. The Coolidge was capable of great speed for swift Atlantic crossings and the captain order full ahead to out run any potential enemy threats. He headed for the Northeastern entrances as it was the widest and safest but unfortunately it was also mined. As they passed a patrol boat they signaled for any special instructions. They reply was "nothing to report". A small escort vessel waiting at the clear entrance to board a pilot saw the Coolidge fly by and they tried to pursue but they were too slow to catch the ill fated ship.
As they approached the mine field an onshore watch station signaled of the danger. The captain ordered full reverse. It was too late. The ship struck one and then another mine. Each blew large holes a mid-ship and the captain knew it was lost. He order full ahead and turned the ship toward shore. He ran the bow up on the coral which bought some time and probably saved countless lives.
He had frequently ordered abandon ship drills during the passage and everyone knew what to do. At first it seemed that the ship was sinking slowly and the soldiers attempted to climb down into the lifeboats with their full packs and gear. As the ship began to list it became obvious that they needed to pick up the pace so everyone was ordered to drop their gear on deck and get off.
It was a miracle that only 2 lives were lost considering that the ship slipped beneath the water less than an hour from the time it struck the mines. The last people off swam away literally as the ship was going under. Onshore they base was under construction and they didn't have enough food, shelter or even clothes for the soldiers. It was clear that this was not their final destination though it has never been revealed where the ship was headed. These troops were not picked up for some months and they became a huge unplanned workforce that accelerated the construction of the base.
The captain was brought up on charges by the Navy but with his crew's support he effectively argued that he was not informed of the mines. The Navy had no intention of telling there were mines but they apparently left out an instruction sheet directing an entrance to the south by Bokissa Island. The captain was exonerated of all charges but his career was ruined and he received no recognition for his accomplishments during the rescue effort.
Today the SS President Coolidge is a wreck dive without equal in the world. As you swim through the many guided dives you see both the grandeur of a luxury cruise ship and material of a war ship. The ship is still full of military paraphernalia and fixtures from a palace of another era. It lies on its side with the bow only 70 feet underwater and the stern in about 140 feet. Most of the dives are to depths in excess of 120 feet.
The most famous dive is to the first class smoking room where a 3 foot plaster statue of Queen Victoria is set over the fireplace. She is known as "The Lady".
It is a tradition to kiss "The Lady" but it is not as easy as it sounds. She lies at 150 ft inside a large dark room on its side. Many people are unwilling to take the regulator out of their mouth at this point but Suzie Young from Sydney shows she is no wimp.
Then you get the cruisers. Bruce from R. Phurst decides to cop a feel rather than giving her a smooch. This uncivilized behavior started with Buddy on Annapurna but, if you have been following our travels, I probably didn't need to tell you that.
After a dive on the Coolidge a decompression stop of 20 minutes or more is not uncommon. Nine months of the year you are entertained by Boris, a 400 pound grouper that hangs out in the deco stop area. He left just before we got there so it was a little boring. The dive guides practice blowing air rings. It is like a smoke ring but with air. Like smoke rings, air rings can be fed one through the other. It is not easy but if you are doing several dives on the Coolidge you have time to practice.
Another popular dive in the area is Million Dollar Point. Million Dollar Point is the ultimate underwater junkyard. At the end of the war the Americans had vast amounts of heavy equipment spread around the bases. They built a ramp out to the end of the reef and drove every single bulldozer, crane, truck, jeep off the ramp and into the water. Why?! There are 2 stories and You can choose the one you believe.
1) They offered to sell the equipment to the government and the local plantation owners for a very cheap price. The locals refused to buy because they said they would just collect them when the Americans left. G.I.Joe said "No Luck Frenchy!".
2) The Americans had clauses in most of their wartime purchase agreements that required that the equipment would be destroyed at the end of the war rather than end up as surplus and depress heavy equipment market. They were obligated to destroy the equipment and driving it into the sea seemed like a good idea at the time.
A dive, currently only organized by Aquamarine, is "The Shark Dive". I wasn't thrilled by the idea of the dive because a shark dive I did in Fiji was a dud. That was, until I saw a video of the dive taken by a fellow diver. This shark dive was something all together different. I learned that this dive was featured on an Australian show called "Who Dares, Wins". I had seen this show and they dared people to do crazy stunts like jumping a car over 5 cars or driving a motorcycle off a cliff with a line from their back to a helicopter. I decided to give it a shot and I wasn't disappointed.
Aaron attaches the bait to a float about 60 feet under water. The bait is medium sized fish with the fillets removed. They are strung up with heavy fishing line through the eyes making them difficult to remove. The are tightly wrapped in a garbage bag and after they are firmly attached Aaron removes the bag and swims away rapidly.
Soon the sharks move in with some tentative passes. Hunger overwhelms their sense of caution and they begin to feed with abandon.
It is hard to describe the scene. The sharks hit the bait and each other with so much force that you can hear the impacts. They have had one diver slightly injured but several snorkels were chomped so they now recommend that you take off your snorkel. Your safety is ensured by the guides or "Stick Boys". They each hold a 2 meter stick and they poke any shark getting too close to a victim, I mean diver.
I was placed right under the buoy because I was the only one in the group crazy enough to bring a camera. I had the camera on its side which put my hand on top for the shutter. I had to pull back my hand several times as sharks brushed past. Aaron kept pushing the sharks away right over my head. At one point a fish head came off of the string and drifted toward me. My heart stopped. Aaron was on it and he gently pushed it away before it was sucked up by a 2 meter gray reef shark.
This dive is definitely not for wimps.
There are 3 dive operators in the Santo area. I primarily dived with Aquamarine and they were great. They are the biggest and feature both shore and boat dives. At times they were very busy and the boat became pretty crowded.
I also did a dive with Prodive. They are smaller and they provided a more personal service. They also operate from Aore so the dives were much quicker due to the reduced transit time if you were starting on Aore. In the future I would have a hard time choosing between these 2 excellent operations.
The third dive operation is Allen Power's Dive Santo. This is the oldest dive operation in Santo. Allen began diving the Coolidge in 1969. I have no personal experience with this organization but I expect that they are excellent. They offer primarily shore dives and primarily on the Coolidge.