Four days on the
Two air flights beyond Australia and New Zealand lies one of the biggest and best wrecks in the world: a time capsule of a troop carrier, loaded with American soldiers and war supplies when sunk by the US Navy's own mines in 1942. Gavin Anderson dived the awesome USS President Coolidge (right), starting in her engine control room.
It felt dangerous. In almost total darkness and 48m down, we were weaving our way through a maze of passages inside one of the largest wrecks in the world. Two very experienced divers had recently got lost in this same part of the wreck, and never made it back out. I didn't fancy dying in the bowels of the USS President Coolidge.
Squeezing through a doorway, we reached our first target. A massive panel of gauges glinted in the light of our powerful torch. We were right in the heart of the ship, inside the engine control room.
Kevin Green, owner of the local dive centre, Aquamarine, had been diving on the Coolidge for nine years and knew the wreck better than his own backyard. I stuck with him as if we were on a buddy line.
Most of the controls were thickly coated in algae, but parts we could still see clearly. Kevin pointed out the ship's telegraph. It had spent 55 years under water and was covered in algae and little calcareous tubeworms, but I could just read the "Dead Slow" segment, though could not make out in which position the controls had jammed.
Until now the dive had felt like playing one of those virtual reality games, but it hit me that it was from here that the captain had relayed his last desperate orders before having to abandon ship.
I tried to imagine the scene. Bells must have been ringing and amidst one almighty hive of activity the ship's telegraph would have clicked into its final position: Full ahead, give us everything you've got!
It was the morning of 26th October 1942 when the Coolidge, loaded with troops, weapons, vehicles and army supplies, hit two "friendly" mines just a few miles from its destination, Luganville harbour on the Pacific island of Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu.
The captain hoped to save the ship by driving it at full speed up on to the reef, but once there it continued to take on water. One and a half hours later it slid back into the sea and sank to the bottom.
Captain Elwood Euart, a young artillery officer, heroically helped many men to safety but went down with the ship. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. Amazingly, of the 5440 men on board (mostly from the 43rd Infantry Division) only he and one other man killed in the initial blast lost their lives.
We set off along another corridor, and through a narrow door. There was just room for the two of us here in the doctor's office. Kevin carefully reached up to produce several glass medicine ampoules. They twinkled in the torchlight.
We put them back for the next set of adventurers to find and, our computers beeping, headed back through the wreck.
Built in 1931, the 22,000 ton President Coolidge was one of the biggest, grandest ships in the USA. Until the War it was run by American President Lines as a luxury liner, carrying almost 3500 passengers mostly on trans-Pacific routes.
It boasted features previously unheard of, such as air-conditioning, and could reach more than 20 knots. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour it was hastily adapted to carry troops and military cargoes, and in early 1942 became active in the Pacific.
We spent four full days diving on the wreck of the Coolidge, and it was not enough. Most of the divers we met were from Australia or New Zealand, many on their third or fourth trips. They would spend one or two weeks on the wreck and dive it at least a dozen times.
The Coolidge is divided into many different sites, and the two local dive centres organise dives to suit different levels of experience.
With the possible exception of the promenade deck, all dives are treated as decompression dives. Spare tanks of air (or nitrox) are kept at between 5 and 9m and occasionally deeper, on a line that stretches down to the bow at 20m.
New divers usually warm up by exploring the promenade deck, down to about 33m. The shark cage (used during the salvage operation when there was a fear of shark attacks), a typewriter, possibly taken from the officers' quarters, and empty shells lie outside, while helmets, gas masks and guns, mostly World War One issue Springfield rifles and Thompson sub-machine guns, litter the deck.
This is one of the most atmospheric areas of the ship, with light streaming in through the large open spaces in the roof, and fans and corals growing from the deck sides. Leaving or entering the promenade deck you can look, as if down a massive liftshaft, inside the massive bridge, which now lies on its side.
The President Coolidge, all 200m of her, is intact and in remarkably good condition. With a guide, safe penetration dives are possible and there are many exciting places to explore. In Medical Supplies No 1 and 2 you will find more ampoules or eye-droppers; the ABC decks and the galley hold plates and smaller items.
In No 1 and 2 holds you find the big stuff. With a good torch we were able to see GMC trucks keeled over on their sides, 155 mm guns lying on top of each other and smaller interesting things such as spare portholes, coffee-urns, plates and dishes.
We also came across a barber's chair in a small room next to No 2 hold, upright but with no customers!
Then there is the engine room and, for those qualified and suitably experienced, the deepest dive - the stern at around 67m.
But most people's favourite dive is a reminder not of war but of luxury - "The Lady". The route takes you along the promenade deck and down a level into a long corridor full of row upon row of - toilets. There was no room for privacy when the Coolidge became a troop-carrier!
The sight is made even more bizarre because one complete row has been twisted upside-down in a recent earthquake and now resembles a set of peculiar hair-driers!
Swimming upwards a little further along brings you into the huge smoke room, at the far end of which a magnificent porcelain Elizabethan figure with unicorn stands above a marble fireplace. This is the Lady, and it must be one of the most beautiful pieces of treasure a diver can view under water.
It was discovered in 1981 by Allan Power, who runs Santo Dive Tours. Allan was one of the salvage divers who recovered the two giant propellers, spare bolt-on shafts and smaller items such as the empty cartridge cases back in the late 1960s.
It was through Allan's efforts that the wreck was declared a national marine sanctuary in 1969, and but for him the Lady might not be where she is today, giving pleasure to hundreds of divers each year.
Allan thinks she must have been hidden for a long time, possibly boarded or covered up, and that he found her only after the wood had rotted away! With a sufficiently powerful torch, if you back off a little and tilt your head sideways you can see the whole fireplace.
Impressive as this sight is, one should not get carried away with it. At 45m the Lady is a deep dive, and time is limited. We dived three times here and each time spent more than 20 minutes decompressing.
Luckily there is plenty going on at the Coolidge deco-stop. Over the years Allan Power has created a coral garden that teems with fish encouraged by free hand-outs.
A regular is Boris, a massive and exceptionally tame 2m-plus Queensland grouper, which Allan started feeding 28 years ago. Between October and December Boris disappears to find a mate and must stop feeding altogether, as he returns as thin as a rake!
Boris might have been on his holidays while I was there, but two of Allan's other Coolidge pets, Nessie the moray eel and Beauty, a blue-edged angelfish, were in residence. Nessie tended to frequent a hole close to one of the forward 3in guns, while Beauty hung out around No 2 hold.
The wreck has become one gigantic coral reef, and we encountered schooling barracuda and jack, butterflyfish, parrotfish and bright red coral groupers.
For macro photographers there is a good selection of smaller creatures. We saw pretty nudibranchs, cleaner shrimps and arrow crabs, all on top of the promenade deck.
Visibility on the Coolidge is generally around 15 to 20m, but can be as much as 30m. We were lucky to hit one of those crystal-clear days. We were diving with David, Santo Dive Tours' top guide, and made the most of the conditions.
Gliding down that bridge like sky-divers, we were able to get a grip on just how big this wreck is. On the bottom at around 42m we checked out the 20mm cannons and then the massive anchor, lying in the sand beneath No 2 hold.
It was on this dive that we discovered the Coolidge dive guides' interesting habit of burrowing in the sand and appearing with something exciting to show their customers. David seemed to have found out of nowhere a pair of ship's binoculars and a revolver. After showing them to us he carefully hid them again in a different spot, out of our sight.
It was strange, but we appreciated how keen they were to preserve everything they could on the Coolidge.
One could never grow tired of diving this wreck. I would like to go back, because I have yet to see Boris, cruise to the stern on a scooter or even make a night dive.
And there will always be a large part of the ship left to explore - I have still, for example, to find the swimming pool!
Location: Vanuatu is a Y-shaped chain of 83 Islands 1250 miles north of Auckland, 2500 miles north-east of Sydney. Until 1980 it was known as the New Hebrides and jointly administered by Britain and France. The people are predominantly Melanesian.
Climate: Summer is from November to March, winter April to October. Temperatures range from 23-28*C.
Getting there: Flights to Sydney or Auckland cost from £500 return in low season. There are four three-hour flights a week to the international airport at Port Villa on Efate, Vanuatu's main Island, on Air Vanuatu and Qantas for around £125 each way. Connecting flights to Espiritu Santo with Vanair cost around £55 each way. No visas needed by British citizens. Book with AusTravel, tel. 0171 287 0212 or 584 0202.
Dive operators: Santo Dive Tours runs two trips a day to the Coolidge from the shore. It also does shore dives at Million Dollar Point, a massive underwater scrapyard of WW2 army vehicles and machinery. Owing to heart surgery Allan Power rarely dives but enjoys sharing his wealth of knowledge on the Coolidge over a coffee at his house/operation centre. Tel. 678 36822, fax 678 36822. Aquamarine runs both boat and shore dives on the Coolidge, and offers reef dives, a shark dive, smaller wrecks and Million Dollar Point. Kevin Green can also arrange cave diving. Tel/fax 678 36196.
Accommodation: Hotel Santo is opposite Santo Dive Tours. Clean rooms, good value at £30-50 a day, tel. 678 36250. Bougainville Resort, 3 miles out of town, offers for £60 a night good food and private bungalows in pleasant gardens, but with tin roofs that amplify anything falling on top of them - such as large seed cases from the trees! Tel. 678 36257. The Deco Stop (£15) is a climb up the hill but boasts a fantastic view. A favourite spot for backpackers, rooms are clean and inexpensive. Owners Margaret and Russell Donovan run trips to waterfalls, snorkel cave systems and blue holes in the rainforest. A good way to decompress before flying home! Tel: 678 36175, fax: 678 36101.
Appeared in DIVER - June 1998