Vanuatu: Shaken not stirred

By Sheriden Rhodes

Sheriden Rhodes goes deep-sea diving and finds a warship.

Kids cavort in the shallows of Champagne Beach. Photo / Supplied
Kids cavort in the shallows of Champagne Beach. Photo / Supplied

Allan Power says his first sight of the mighty luxury liner-turned-warship SS President Coolidge "scared the crap out of him". I think this as I descend the anchor line to the ship's bow on an overcast Sunday morning in Vanuatu. When it emerges out of the murky blue, my eyes widen behind my mask and I inhale sharply. My God, it's huge.

We swim past the chain locker, anchor and inside cargo hull two, where military gear including howitzer cannons, a 10-wheel truck, jeeps, steering wheels and tyres remain in their watery museum. It's my first shipwreck dive and I am hesitant. Nonetheless, I follow Jimmy, a dive master with Santo Dive and Fishing. As he points out guns, helmets and gas masks lying on the floor of the darkened hull, a loud rumbling sound stops us in our tracks.

The disconcerting noise goes on for some time. Jimmy makes a hand signal which I can't decipher and indicates we get out of the hull as dust muddies the water. I follow obediently and learn on resurfacing that we had experienced a 6.6-magnitude earthquake. It dawns on me what Jimmy's hand signal meant. Vanuatu lies on the so-called "Pacific Ring of Fire", a zone of frequent seismic activity caused by friction between shifting tectonic plates.

I remove my mask and laugh nervously. We survived, "shaken but not stirred", and I loved every moment crawling over this amazing ship.

Power opened up diving of the renowned wreck, thought to be the largest and most accessible in the world. The Coolidge lies just off the shore of Espiritu Santo - Spanish for "the Holy Spirit" - and most commonly called Santo. It is the main drawcard for diving in Vanuatu. The 22,000 tonne liner converted to troop ship sank fully laden during World War II, after striking a mine laid earlier to thwart entry by midget submarines. More than 5000 troops made it to shore, but two men were killed, including a brave young mess officer who returned to search for anyone trapped inside. Within 90 minutes of being run aground, it was lying on the seabed with medical supplies, field weapons and motor vehicles.

We swim along the promenade deck and see the ship's massive gun, rifles, gas masks, troops' toilets, helmets, ammunition and a 1940s US Army field cooker. On deeper dives you can swim through the first-class dining saloon and visit the ceramic figure of the lady and her unicorn.

Other dives take you through the first-class lobby, library and continental lounge, with ornate Italian mosaic fountain, porthole skylights and brass mushroom-shaped ceiling lights, remnants from the ship's heyday as a luxury ocean liner built, with sister ship the SS President Hoover, for Dollar Steamship Lines. Apart from being an amazing wreck dive, the Coolidge has also formed a large artificial reef that's home to abundant marine life.

There's a reason the ship remains almost completely intact. Before Allan Power had the ship declared a protected wreck in 1983, he used to tell divers they' would cop a $12,000 fine if they were caught stealing from the ship during spot checks at the airport. One couple, remorseful and fearful of the "alleged" fine, reportedly hid a blue cup they'd taken from the ship under their hotel bed, Power tells me.

It's widely regarded that Power put the Coolidge on the map. After coming to Santo with friends salvaging propellers off the Coolidge, he first dived the ship in 1969 and was awestruck by what he saw. "I predicted the Coolidge would become the premier wreck of the Pacific," he said. This prediction been proved right and the wreck of the President Coolidge is now world famous. Thousands of divers have visited the wreck which has stood up well to ravages of time.

Most divers come to Santo to explore the Coolidge, but there are other terrific dives and plenty more reasons for visiting Vanuatu's largest island. After our dive, we head back to the beach and enjoy a lunch of tropical fruit and baguettes (a legacy of French colonisation), before diving Million Dollar Point.

This is where thousands of tonnes of US military equipment was controversially dumped into the sea at the end of World War II. Just offshore, snorkellers and divers can see scores of coral-encrusted bulldozers, cranes, forklifts and trucks piled on top of each other at this unique dive site.

Possibly my favourite dive was of the USS Tucker, one of only two diveable US destroyers in the world. I went with 23-year-old Vanuatu-born Australian dive master Mike Babcock, who grew up on an island just off Santo where his father worked as a linguist. He returned three years ago from Brisbane and stayed to set up Coral Quay Resort's dive operation.

The Tucker also hit a mine (laid the day before) and sank 70 years ago, just before the Coolidge went down. It now lies in three main pieces - the bow, the mid-section engine blocks, and the stern spread across a hundred meters of reef off Malo Island. Here, on what is an easy, enjoyable dive, we see dozens of types of tropical fish, swim inside parts of the wreck and spot a shy green turtle. Amazingly, we are the only divers there.

Another day, I visit the amazing Blue Holes that are another of the island's unique attractions. Perched on the back of a moped, soaking up the balmy air, we wave at friendly locals on the scenic drive along the island's east coast. We reach the Blue Holes by an overgrown, potholed runway used by Allied troops when they were stationed here. At the end of a muddy and slippery track, we arrive at a lush rainforest setting surrounding the biggest of the Blue Holes, with its staggeringly beautiful fresh water the colour of sapphires.

A bunch of shy Ni-Vanuatu girls bathe on one side of the hole and on the other side, young boys jump from a high spot into the cool, refreshing water. It is Vanuatu custom that females and males bathe separately, even when married. We jump in ourselves and swim out under the shade of a glorious banyan tree and I think this must be one of the most beautiful natural sights I've ever seen.

Later, I cross the channel to the charming Aore Island Resort, located on a quiet tropical island. Here, I enjoy the hospitality of yet another Australian, Anne Thode, who bought the low-key beachfront resort after coming to Santo to work on her family's coconut plantation and cattle farm.

Over a glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc Anne tells me that there's more to Santo than diving. "There's the incredible natural beauty of Champagne Beach plus the interesting Santo culture. It still amazes me that the Ni-Vanuatu people have internet and TV yet they still buy wives, using a down payment of a mat, pig or a bag of rice," Anne explains.

As I take a stroll at sunset I walk through a coconut plantation behind the resort, spooking a herd of Santo cattle, prized by the Japanese market.

I say hi to a couple of young Ni-Vanuatu men on bikes. Bats screech and a deafening chorus of cicadas consumes me. Sure, it's the Coolidge that bought me here, but I'll return for what Santo offers in spades - a truly authentic slice of Pacific life.

CHECKLIST

Getting there:

* Air Vanuatu flies to Santo from Auckland via Port Vila.

* Air New Zealand also flies to Port Vila from Auckland.

Where to stay:

* A beachfront bungalow at Aore Island Resort costs from $315, including continental breakfast.

* Rooms at Deco Stop Lodge, an ideal base for serious divers in the heart of Luganville, are priced from $218 including return airport transfers and continental breakfast.

Where to dive:

For info about diving in Espiritu Santo see:

* Allan Power Dive Tours

* Coral Quays Fish & Dive

* Santo Dive and Fishing

Further information:

For more on Vanuatu see vanuatu.travel.

Sheriden Rhodes travelled to Vanuatu courtesy of Vanuatu Tourism.

- Herald on Sunday

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