overland-underwater.com - A charity drive from the UK to New Zealand
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Final Statistics: Alex & Maz Total distance: 93,550km
Furthest Point: Rotorua, NZ Now settled in Sydney, Australia
Final Statistics: Martin Total distance: 79,698km
Furthest Point: Hobart, Australia Now settled in Bristol, UK

We're all going on a summer holiday..!

Written by Alex Towns. Uploaded 27 March 2007.

Vanuatu, Country 27, Diary entry 10 - 18th Feb 2007, Total distance in Vanuatu: 0km with Tinfish!

With the end of the expedition in sight, we decided that we both deserved a small holiday away from the car. Life on the road has been a lot of fun, but extremely challenging at the same time and we both felt like we desperately needed a little break away from old Tinfish before we officially engaged the handbrake once and for all. Of course it had to be a good dive location, so scouring the dive mags Vanuatu caught our eye, not least for the opportunity to dive pretty much the worlds most accessible wreck dive... SS President Coolidge.

He head to the skies

Solomon Airways flies conveniently from Brisbane to Espiritu Santo, so the plan quickly formulated and fell into place. Before long we were waving our goodbyes to Phil and Katherine as they kindly dropped us off at the airport. Expert packers that we now are, we didn't even need to flinch at check-in when all our luggage fell easily within the weight limits... although they'd also kindly allowed us extra for diving equipment. We passed the flight reading and drinking the generous servings of wine that were liberally dished out and after a quick stop-over in Honiara landed at Espiritu Santo to be met by a local band playing a welcome tune to passengers clearing immigration. Maz had been slightly worried whether she'd have enough space left in her passport with only half a page remaining, but they kindly stamped the corner of an otherwise busy page. Hopefully they'll be as considerate when getting back into Australia!

The welcome committee

On the short taxi ride over to Espiritu Santo the looming grey clouds were massing, threatening to put a dampener on our lush tropical retreat! I guess it's so green for a reason! We checked in at The Beachfront Resort briefly meeting Dave, who had very kindly arranged our stay via copious amounts of emails. Whatever did we do before email - I'd hate to think! We were shown to the 'The Cottage', a self contained lodge specifically for groups of divers, with it's own lounge and kitchen facility... pretty much a home from home, but in our case when home is a car, a 5* holiday resort!

5* luxury

With rain imminent, the air was excessively humid and even we were finding it a wee bit stifling. After unpacking, it was pretty much time for dinner so we strolled over to the restaurant to enjoy an infamous Beachfront pizza as it was pizza night after all... and damn fine they were too. Being a diving week and potentially deep dives at that, it was to be an alcohol free week, as drink dehydrates you making you far more susceptible to decompression sickness, something we wanted to obviously avoid. Whereas most diving on the trip to date had been typically in the 20m range, to enjoy the SS President Coolidge you need to at least plan for 40m, although the stern rests in the extreme depths at 60m and in our opinion needs specialist diving equipment and breathing gases to conduct safely, so not for this trip. With our pick up arranged for 8am the following morning, we decided it would be early to bed.

Yam - the national symbol of Vanuatu

Built in 1931 by Newport Ship Building and Dry-dock Co. she was launched on the 21st of February 1931, then fitted and delivered to her owners on the 1st of October 1931, where Mrs Calvin Coolidge christened her gracious hull, the President Coolidge. She and her sister ship the President Hoover were the flagships of the Dollar Steamship Line's fleet. When the flag bedecked new liner arrived in her home port of San Francisco, the whole city turned out to welcome her. She was a superb bravura of a ship and at 654'3" long; the largest passenger liner built in an American shipyard up until till that time.

Crashed out after a hard day

The proud ship President Coolidge served the commercial South Pacific for some time but her future was soon to change. As World War II approached she was occasionally used by the War Department on a part voyage basis but as the damned for war materiel grew, she was hurriedly modified for the carrying of enormous numbers of American troops and put into service in the South West Pacific. On the 6th of October 1942 loaded with a full compliment of troops, she set sail for Espiritu Santo, entering the seemingly calm blue water on the 26th of October 1942. Little did Captain Henry Nelson know that they were on the brink of disaster! At 09:35 ships time, propelled by her turbo electric twin screw engine's her majestic bow parted the crystal calm waters at approx 15 knots approaching the wrong entrance to the harbour of Espiritu Santo.

Going... Going... Gone..!

This route took the doomed vessel directly through a US minefield strategically placed in the East End of the Segond Channel to protect the safe anchorage from roaming Japanese submarines. A muffled explosion shook the President Coolidge and Captain Nelson turned the bow immediately to shore in an effort to beach the vessel and save the troops onboard. She quickly developed a list to Port as 5050 US troops calmly without any panic clambered down her progressively raising starboard side to safety. They'd been told to leave all their equipment behind as no one expected the ship to actually sink. However over the course of only a few hours she gradually filled with water then slipped entirely off the reef and sank! This is where she remains today, with the stern down in the depths at 60m and the bow pointing towards the reef in only 18m... a wreck divers dream!

Paddling in the shallows

At 8am sharp, Gary from Allan Powers Dive Tours picked us up from The Beachfront Resort and drove us the few kilometres back into town to the dive shop. With a number of other divers busy loading their equipment onto the truck, we decided to have a simple easy couple of dives today so didn't bother modifying our equipment to the configuration we'd normally dive for deeper dives, so as not to hold up the rest of the group. Once everything was loaded we all jumped into the bus and headed out of town to the divesite. What also makes the President Coolidge such a unique dive is that it is actually a shore dive... you don't often get to dive such a superb wreck of this proportion literally by walking off the beach!

Why take one bottle when you can take three!

Just a little way out of town along a bumpy dirt road, we turned down a short drive surrounded by lush forest and tropical flowers before coming to a stop besides a kitting up area right on the waters edge. The truck backed up to the patio and equipment was unloaded and the benches used for kitting up. Gary was to be our guide today and he went over the plan with a sketch of the wreck to show us where we were heading. Being our first dive on the Coolidge it was more of an orientation dive to get our bearings. Once kitted you walk to the waters edge then wade about 50m out to where they have made a break water to shelter you whilst you put on your fins. Staggering in knee deep water reminded us of all those US Soldiers that streamed off the ship and paddled in the opposite direction to the beach all those years ago.

Beach entry to dive the Coolidge

Ducking under the water, which is still very shallow here, you have a rope laid which you use to pull your way along the last 20m past the coral garden and to the edge of the slope which the Coolidge slipped off into the deep. Following another rope you slowly descend before the main event starts to take shape in front of you, the enormous bow, now resting on her port side, looms up at you and keeping the wreck on your left you follow the contours of the ship further down. Passing the enormous anchor winch then swimming between the forward 3" guns, one on either side of the bow, stacked with live ammunition in the ready lockers, you peer momentarily into the two cavernous front holds and try to size up the colossal 9 ton anchor now lying flat on the seabed far deeper below you.

Discarded war materiel

The next sight that grabs your attention is the bridge structure rising away from the deck like a block of flats. Staying on the outside we swam around the superstructure getting a feel for just how big the monster is. Impressive too were the giant shoals of fish both small and huge, swirling about the wreck, agitated by the current flowing over it, bringing the food up from the depths and exciting all the hungry mouths. At that point Gary started going wild, beckoning us over and pointing excitedly at something on the wreck. Instinctively we both knew what he'd found and burst into a mass of bubbles with laughter when we spied not one but two nudibranch! Our favourites... all this wreck to explore, it could have been a line of nudi's doing a conger for all we cared, it wouldn't have distracted us away from all this rust glorious rust!

Helmets and typewriter Gas masks and water bottle

With our time fast approaching decompression, we headed back towards the bow following the route of what would have been the starboard promenade deck in her time as a luxury liner. It was along this side where the thousands of troops waited patiently to clamber over the edge leaving their equipment of rifles, helmets and gas masks which still litter the deck, although the rifles are now encrusted with marine growth and are barely recognisable for the weapons of war they once were. Back at the bow, you follow the slope back up to the coral garden which plateaus at 6m, ideal for your decompression stops.

The heads..!

The prolific fish life isn't at all afraid of divers and come right into your face and my suspicions as to why were soon confirmed when the guides started crumbling bread into the water. Obviously the fish go mad and even meter long snapper come rushing in to grab a bit. To us it's all a bit of a circus and I believe bread is actually indigestible by the fish and I'm told by fishy types that it doesn't do them any good! Puts on a great show for the tourist though!

Trucking the kit about

After so long in the water, it comes as a bit of a shock to the legs when you have to stand up and wade all the way back to shore and you're thankful for the bench to collapse on when you finally make it back on to the kitting patio. The kit is then all loaded back onto the truck and you're taken back to the dive shop for tea and sweet buns before being ferried back to your hotel. It was great to have the midday hours to just relax and read books and we made full use of our comfy sofas in the lounge of the cottage. All we needed to remember was to be ready for our 1.30 pickup for the afternoon dive... this was going to be a hard week :)

Willy's Jeeps Chandelier

Our afternoon dive was a route around the front part of the ship. Gary explained the route, but I think they are more used to people just following them blind from point to point, rather then seeing the wreck for themselves. Of course give me a camera and every view has a potential for getting that shot, which means we gracefully drift from spot to spot and take our merry time. As it turns out we spent the entire dive in just the front two holds, which was only about half the route he'd had in mind! But what a lot to see... We entered first into number one cargo hold which is stacked with Willy's Jeeps, now all tumbled about as the ship rolled over. After routing around in there we came out then entered number two hold.

How the Coolidge rests now

The first thing you come across is the barrel of Long Tom cannon, a 155mm Howitzer pointing out of the hold. As you continue inside you pass over the tracks of an armoured troop carrier and at the back are a number of GMC trucks. Following the lower deck into the dark in the very bowls of the ship is an almost complete truck lying on its side and stacked in front of it are three Willy's Jeeps all on top of one another and now sticking straight up towards you. Being the second dive you have less time than the morning dive, so soon our dive computers were telling us it was time to head back up to the fish stop and watch more bread being fed to the fish as we counted down the minutes of our decompression stop.

Maz sorts our here kit

That evening we took the opportunity to rig our equipment in preparation for more deeper dives, where we would be exploring further inside the wreck. We follow a simple rule, one of self sufficiency, should anything go wrong at depth or when inside the ship, you want to be sure you have sufficient gas to breath. Although we dive as a buddy pair, you can guarantee the time you might need their gas in a hurry, is the time they've got their back to you and being at depth or inside a wreck you can't just swim to the surface. So to avoid such risks we dive twin cylinders, which gives each diver their own redundancy and hence safety. Another safety factor that we were keen to use was a third smaller cylinder containing 50% Nitrox... which in effect is a gas mixture containing 50% oxygen.

Alex sorts out his camera

This gas mixing was a revolution in sport diving, allowing for safer or more efficient decompression as the elevated oxygen in the gas you breathe literally forces out the nitrogen, which is the bad gas that can lead to decompression sickness if not managed correctly. As with all such advantages, there is a disadvantage and that is the gas needs to be breathed no deeper than 21m as below that depth the oxygen becomes toxic and can actually do acute harm. It all sounds far more complicated than it is... basically you work out the most efficient gas to breath for decompression (50% is pretty much the standard) then make sure you don't use it until you are at the appropriate depth! We've been diving this way in UK for many a year and are well rehearsed in its practice. The challenge here would be doing a beach entry, staggering out with three cylinders when a single cylinder was hard enough... we're far more used to just rolling off a boat with all the kit!

The beach at The Beachfront Resort

Normally where possible we'd do these dives on a suitable weaker Nitrox in our main cylinders, but as there is a possible risk to go deeper on this wreck than permitted by the mix you are breathing, the policy is no Nitrox diving on the Coolidge save a customer inadvertently drops deeper with possible serious consequences. We did find it a shame to group all divers together, but I assume they see divers of all types passing by and this way they were sure to avoid any unnecessary incident. With our three cylinders attached we set off to dive the star of the President Coolidge... we were off to see "The Lady".

The first class smoking lounge in it's day The mystical Lady today

The world famous "The Lady" and the Unicorn - probably the most photographed underwater icon was formally positioned in the first class smoking room before she fell off during an earthquake. She now resides in the first class dining room and is approached by entering a sea-door from deck C where you swim inside along deck C and "The Lady" is mounted in front of you at 38m. It really is the most bizarre thing to see underwater and is really quite mystifying. These ships in their day were decked out like floating palaces and the first class quarters received all the refinements with chandeliers and exquisite fitments. Of course much was removed when converted to a troopship, however "The Lady" was simply boarded up, lying hidden for many years until the wood panelling fell away to reveal her in her glory once more. It is a mystery as to the significance of "The Lady" or who she represents, although some believe it might be Queen Victoria, due to the unicorn and the roses.

Maz tucks into beef stew

After another superb day of great diving, we decided to venture out to try some of the local cuisine. We'd heard that steak down at the market was very good value, however when we got there they'd run out, having only beef stew left instead. Two fantastic plates of stew later, for a few bob and we'd arranged with the lady to make sure she had steak in ready for us for tomorrow night. Something definitely to look forward to! With our time between and after diving taken up with some serious relaxation, we made use of the TV and DVD player to catch up on some movies and slobbing on the couches, something we'd not done in a very long time - and it felt good! All this time we had the cottage completely to ourselves and fell quite nicely into the routine, only once having to chase down and corner a spider as big as your hand!

Now that's what I call a spider!

The next morning we were summoned by Tony who runs Allan Powers Dive Tours as he'd heard we'd not left our 50% Nitrox cylinders in the shallows, instead opting to carry them with us for the whole dive. Their policy when using such mixtures is to leave them at the bow so that the diver cannot accidentally switch to this 'decompression gas' at the wrong depth and potentially injure themselves. This did conflict with our simple policy of where I go my gas goes. When you are reliant on needing that gas for your decompression obligation there is no way we'd consider being separated from it. Tony had explained their policy to me before, so we felt like we were being sent to the head master as naughty school children. There then started a bit of a show down between the three of us...

Tea & buns

Once again Tony explained their reasoning, citing an incident when someone had switched gases at 50m and got into serious trouble. Now we're not your normal splash and dash punters, we've been doing this sort of diving for ever, so we do actually know what we're on about. We put our side across once more and reinforced that we were strictly limiting ourselves to 40m and no deeper. Below that we know damn well you should be on Trimix a far more serious dive undertaking which following current thinking should be used on all deep dives. These guys didn't practice it's use, but quite happily let divers go down to 60m on air... which has a serious narcotic effect - a good analogy would be like driving a car after 3 pints of beer... you can do it, but if something goes wrong or you need to react quickly you normal end up in an accident. Hence the chap at 50m was obviously out of his box when he switched to 50%!

Sunset on another great day

What infuriated us even further was that they were also quite happy to let new divers plunge to those depths... a practice erring on negligence! During yesterdays diving, a new PADI Open Water diver that they'd just trained with less than 8 dives under her belt was incredibly taken down to 45m... the PADI limit for this qualification is 18m and rightly so. It doesn't really matter how confident the diver is, some do take to it like a fish, it however only needs one small thing to go wrong and regrettably there is only one possible horrific outcome at that depth. Of course the OW diver was blissfully unaware, putting all her trust into the guide as she was led to those depths, including full penetration of the wreck with only a single cylinder and no dive computer. They were totally reliant on their guide for the entire dive, to the extent that he would tell them when to move shallower for their next decompression stop, having clocked up over a staggering 15mins of decompression! Dive agencies don't practice deco diving until far into a divers sport diving career as its extremely serious stuff and they do that for a reason - we were flabbergasted!

Sunset on another great day Maz gets her Valentine's flowers

We got quite annoyed that he was insisting we follow their procedures which we didn't feel safe doing and felt they were on very thin ice to be preaching safe diving practices! When we appeared to hit a stalemate, quite by surprise Tony said he'd put his neck on the line and let us do as we wanted so long as we weren't planning on diving any deeper than 40m. Glad that he had decided to trust us in our judgement we thanked him and promised that he'd have no further trouble from us...!

Ammunition

With such a big wreck to explore we had more than enough to look at even when limiting ourselves to 40m. We spent the rest of the week weaving in and out of the wreck and thoroughly exploring the many decks, such as the first class dining saloon, the second class accommodation which is in dispersed with bathroom suites and many confined spaces to nose into. One entire dive I spent in just the very bow of the ship, wiggling through tight squeezes to peer into the steward's accommodation with iron bed frames scattered and their eating mess, before coming across the forward magazine which stored the munitions for the forward 3" guns. Up in the side of hold 2 is the crew's barber's chair and you can also find the left over medical supplies which were being transported to the pacific theatre such as many colourful glass bottles and little glass tubes containing sutures.

Medical supplies

The captain's bathroom is always a draw, a little more lavish than the rows of troops' toilets the small bathroom that the captain enjoyed was extremely well appointed. Toilets or the nautical term heads are oddly always something that attracts the diver's attention... probably because the porcelain doesn't rust and they can actually tell what it is they're looking at! Within our depth limit you could also enter the cut away made during salvage and look at one of the enormous propulsion motors then swim out through the actual aft funnel. Working our way between decks we also found our way into cargo hold 4 which was full of aircraft drop fuel tanks, used to extend the range of attack aircraft and then discarded after use. In the eerie darkness, these egg shaped tanks had been jumbled about and now protruded randomly from the hazy silt looking not too dissimilar from the room full of eggs in Alien!

Medical supplies Bottles and jars

One tea break back at the dive shop we overheard the Open Water diver contemplating whether she should continue her training and progress to PADI Advanced Open Water. We were amused to hear how horrified she was to read that an Advanced OW diver is limited to only 30m..!! By this stage she'd been inside the engine room at 50m, to the first class swimming pool at 55m and deep inside the galley, wreck penetration at 55m! If she was going to progress to become an Advanced OW diver, how could she possibly do the stern at 60m? By now her dive count was barely 15 and had obviously overlooked the 18m depth limit imposed on an OW diver! Unable to hold my tongue any further I told her just how deep she was going and to think long and hard about what she was doing... after all there is nothing worth dying down there for! Alas it had no effect; however another far more experienced diver who'd recently joined us, thanked me for my wise words and decided himself he wasn't going to do anything stupid.

Valentine's Chinese nosh

Although we'd been enjoying the local cafes we decided tonight seeing as though it was Valentines Day we'd treat ourselves with a feed at one of the more touristy restaurants - which narrowed it down to about a choice of 3! We decided on the Chinese for a slap up feed. On finding the restaurant we were a little confused as to whether it was a restaurant or just someone's home. With the lounge and TV at one end and a collection of tables and chairs the other, I think it was a combination of the two. Authentically as we'd experienced in China, the food arrived one plate at a time, the last one being the rice, but unlike China the food wasn't at patch on the real McCoy. Tomorrow we'd save our dosh and return to the market cafes, even though the steak wasn't quite fillet, it was tasty enough and always served with a smile.

Our steak and beef stew chef

With 12 dives clocked up on the Coolidge during our stay, one that was entirely unique was the evening we did a night dive on the wreck. Night dives are always something different as the day shift gives way to the night shift, however this night dive was to be one with a BIG difference... NO torches! What's the point you might well ask, swimming around in the pitch black? Well the unique thing on this wreck is the night shift is made up almost entirely of flashlight fish (Anomalops katoptron), which come out of their day hiding spots and shoal in the innards of the wreck like a ghostly swirling cloud. The fish have a gland under each eye full of bacteria which they can lift a little flap up sending out a fluorescent light. They are particularly concentrated in the forward two holds and you simply nudge your way inside the wreck surrounded by the myriad of tiny fish giving off a big glow - enough to actually see by! It is truly a remarkable experience like pixie dust glittering all around you! We then continued the dive by swimming along the promenade deck, peering down into the depths of the first class saloon watching the ghosts of passengers long since passed still dancing a haunting waltz as the shoals magically flitted around one another... transfixing!

Beer n Pizza

After a fabulous weeks diving we celebrated the last night with beer, pizza and a final DVD relaxing in our lounge. As the President, Coolidge was said to have slept 10 hours a night, more than any president before or since... When someone told a friend of Coolidge's death, the friend retorted laconically "..how do they know..." Quite appropriate for a vessel once the pride of the Dollar Steamship Line and now resting serenely at the bottom of the sea. The following morning Dave kindly run us to the airport in time for us to catch our flight back to Brisbane and the final leg of our journey. The holiday was everything we needed and thanks go to all that made our stay both pleasant and memorable... one day we'll be back to do the 40-60m bit of the President Coolidge, once I've got my PADI Advance OW ticket of course!

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Comment from Katherine
why does it say last known positon Auckland, New Zealand? since when have u been there? lol
31 Mar 2007 @ 09:26:32