Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Vanuatu: Diving the Coolidge

Amy and our guide

One of the main draws of the islands is scuba diving on the USS Coolidge, a former passenger liner that was converted to a troop transport during WWII. The ship hit an allied mine (D'OH!) while on the way to deliver troops and equipment to the US base on Vanuatu, the overwhelming majority of the troops got escaped with their lives (the captain actually went down with the ship) but due to the desperate evacuation all of the equipment was left on board. This, combined to the close proximity to shore makes for an outstanding and unique diving experience. The ship itself is gargantuan, approximately 650' long and lying on its port (left) side on a slope with the bow closest to shore. We did 3 dives on the Coolidge, visiting 3 separate areas.

Click on the picture to for a blown up version courtesy of Aquamarine

Dive 1: The Promenade

Looking up at the surface through the structure of the ship and hull

This dive was mostly on the outside of the ship and was the shallowest of the 3. It is approached as a warm up dive to get people comfortable with the location and depth. We descended over the bow and swam along the deck, which due to the fact that the ship is on its side, is perpendicular to the ocean floor. We saw some large deck guns, a huge crane and the bridge. At one point, we entered the ship by swimming through a large hatch in the deck to a storage compartment that contained jeeps and tanks which had to be abandoned. We next swam up to the starboard (right) side of the ship which was closest to the water's surface. Here there was lots of coral built up and some previous divers had stashed some gear that they recovered from the ship including a gas mask, a rifle, some ammunition, and a helmet, all covered in barnacles and coral.

Preparing to battle the underwater WWII zombies, helmet on the knee

This was a cool dive and it helped us get accustomed to the scale of the ship. for the short time we were inside, you could see that it was massive, the tanks and jeeps were dwarfed by the size of the hold they/we were in.

Shell from a deck gun. Be Prepared.

Dive 2: The Lady

This is probably the most well known dive and location on the ship, the primary objective being a carving of a woman petting a horse that is above a doorway in one of the interior corridors that is a vestige of the passenger liner days. This was the deepest dive we did, it took up through the ship and down to about 125' (12 stories) from the surface.

Drifting in the current

It started off with us following our guide dropping through a cut hole in the starboard side of the ship. The reality of this is hard to describe, you are basically swimming down into a dark hole on the side of the ship into a hallway that is otherwise enclosed. Because the ship is on it's side, the portholes are above you as you swim through this corridor, providing the only natural light in vertical columns that pierce the darkness. In the video, these appear as circular holes in he ceiling. The water inside is extremely clear, you can see reasonably well once your eyes adjust but before that, you are looking over the cusp a dark hole that you are about to descend into. We soldiered on.

This was one of the holes in the hull that we descended through

Once entering the ship, we made our way through successively deeper corridors through the bowels of the ship to The Lady. The corridors are relatively large, there is enough space for a person to turn around without any advanced acrobatics (aquabatics?) but you are definitely enclosed. There is no way to extricate yourself without retracing your path. For one, there is no way a person could fit through the portholes, secondly, you are very deep in the water and would not want to risk getting lost in a dark, sunken ship. When we finally got to The Lady (we couldn't take pictures of her-too dark but here is one), we took a few moments to check her out and then began our ascent. We have video of this point in the dive, it starts at about 35 seconds in on the embedded video. About 40 seconds into the video, you can hear me inhaling and then on the exhale, there is hysterical, maniacal laughter. This was primarily due to euphoric joy.

On our way out, we passed through several rooms that we hadn't stopped in on the way down. After you have reached the deepest point in the dive and are on the ascent, air conservation is less of a concern so we could take the time to look at this stuff. We passed through a bathroom with the toilets on the ceiling above us as well as a workshop with a vise sticking out of the wall, both due to the sideways orientation of the boat. All of these items were covered in coral but you were able to make out their shapes, especially after some charades from out guide.

We eventually came out through a side corridor into the large hold we had been in on the previous dive which contained the jeeps and tanks and then after a safety stop with lots of fish and coral, ascended to the surface.

Dive 3: Medical Room

This dive was more shallow than The Lady but more as well diverse. We also entered through a cut hole in the starboard side of the ship, swimming into a dark room but saw many different compartments, including the eponymous Medical Room.

First off was a storage compartment for airplane fuel drop tanks. These are large, egg shaped containers that are strapped to planes to extend their range and then dropped while in midair when they are empty. There was also lots of small caliber ammunition in this room, bullets lying everywhere. After the storage compartment, we swam to the washing room which contained clothes washing machines - some smashed, others intact. Next was the Medical Room of the ship which contained cabinets with vials and bottles of medicine, some of which were still sealed. We got to handle some of these and then carefully put them back.

The last stop was the barber shop of the ship, which still had the barber's chair intact. Our guide demonstrated by placing himself in the now sideways chair.

Amy swimming through a corridor

It was odd seeing these aspects of everyday life on the ship. It helped cement the idea that this wasn't just some ancient structure but was actually a home to people from our grandparent's time and they did what little they could to make it as bearable as possible.

Overall, the dives were outstanding and diving the Coolidge is a unique opportunity for wreck divers. We were amazed by both the immense size and complexity of the ship and the exploration far exceeded our expectations.

Safety stop, with company

The guides we were diving with were from Santo Island Dive and Fishing and I cannot speak highly enough of them. Mal, the operator was friendly, accommodating, and helpful throughout the entire trip and the rest of the staff are all local guys who were friendly and eager to share their island and wreck with us.

Surface interval between dives

For more info about diving in Vanuatu check out Vanuatu Diving Info


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Hey! Amazing pics
    Isn't it the best activity ever?
    Last year I did a Galapagos diving cruise and ir was great... I want to do it again next year
    really nice your description, thanks for sharing