SEAbbatical Destination: Vanuatu
By Brent Vaughan
It’s the middle of winter, 26 degrees, sunny and almost humid, but there is a nice gentle breeze that drifts across the ocean. We are in the small coastal town of Luganville on the north island of Vanuatu, Espiritu Santos, to enjoy some of the local hospitality and the most accessible wreck dive in the world. While Luganville isn’t much to write home about itself, it was once a major US military base during World War II and it provides the gateway to exploring these remnants of the past and the spectacular landscapes and islander culture that surround it on the islands of Espiritu Santo.
While Vanuatu is most famous for its Volcanoes (its located on a fault line), the originator of bungy jumping (tribes on Pentacoste Island tie vines to their ankles and jump from makeshift towers into mud to prove their manhood), its friendly culture (considered the world’s friendliest country) it is a white lady and a unicorn that brings me here.
Onboard an enormous shipwreck located minutes from Luganville’s shores, there is treasure in her belly known as ‘The Lady and Unicorn’ – a beautiful porcelain relief statue mounted in the first class dining room at around 40m. I have read about the SS President Coolidge for what seems like a decade in diving magazines and was keen to see here for myself. It was originally built as a luxury cruise liner and one of the most opulent of its time taking guests such as Charlie Chaplin, until it was handed over to the US Navy to convert her into a troop carrier to transport troops and supplies from San Francisco to Vanuatu during the war. Unfortunately on arrival into Santo, due to poor communications the ship hit a friendly mine entering the port which blew a massive hole in her port side. In an attempt to minimise casualties, the Captain drove her full speed onto the shoreline where it sat as troops clambered off the enormous ship into the warm waters of their new home – unfortunately without any spare clothes or personal affects…everything was left onboard. Shortly after the crew escaped the ship listed to port and then slid down the shelf of the island to its final resting place where it uniquely sits on an angle with bow up around 20m and the stern down around 70m. Only two lives were lost – one a fireman that was impacted by the mine blast, and a Captain of Artillery who went down with the ship while searching the inside of the ship for unaccounted-for troops.
Considered one of the best wreck dives in the world due to its close accessibility to the shoreline (seriously – you walk into waist deep water, put your mask on and 20m down there she is) and endless dive opportunities both in and out of the wreck, it’s The Lady and Unicorn mural that attracts the most intrigue.
Now I’m no technical diver and I’m lucky to get a couple of dives in a year, so I was unsure if I was up to or even allowed to get to the Lady due to its depth, but after a couple of orientation dives in and around the bow and cargo holds that were littered with Jeeps, tanks, artillery and other artefacts, I was assured we could go to the next stage. So walking from the shore about 30m from waters edge, we descend down to the bow and follow the starboard hull down to a cargo opening. We sink down into this opening into the dark insides of the hull, swimming down the old promenade deck and then to an elevator shaft. We go deeper again until in the dark gloomy distance emerges a ghostly figure of the white Lady and her Unicorn. It truly is a sight to behold when everything else inside the ship is a dreary green colour from the marine growth and silt that has built up, then in contrast seeing this white carving with a pink dress that stands out in bright colour after so long under the sea.
We then explore deeper and hit a maximum depth of 46.4m and start ascending with three decompression stops starting at 9m with a pony bottle on hand if we need it which we don’t. The dive guide we have is Paul, a local Vanuatuan who was trained up and works for the famous Alan Power who has been diving the President Coolidge since the late 60s.
Alan has an impressive business, with a very well trained group of Vanuatuan dive guides that runs his diving operation under his closetful eye. He doesn’t dive anymore but still drives the dive bus from his shop and residence in Luganville to the dive set up location on the beach.
Alan shares around old rusty guns, knives and ammunition that have been discovered around Luganville over the years that decorate his living room and shares stories of when the US military came and recovered the remains of one of the lost soldiers, discovered by one of Alan’s boys on the wreck only a few years back.
We take the afternoon off to decompress our built-up nitrogen from the earlier deep dive and go to the local Rodeo, a once a year event that happens to be on today. Held just out of town under enormous fig trees, it seems the entire island has turned out to watch. There must be at least a couple of thousand people here. So we grab a couple of coconuts and nestle in for an afternoon of rodeo action, Santo style. Espiritu Santo is famous for its beef and its not hard to see why when you see how fat some of their cattle get eating the lush green grass in the shade of coconut tree plantations.
Encouraged to do the night dive onboard, we head back that evening and submerge one last time into the dark abyss following Paul. He insists that we do NOT use our torch lights until he says so. We keep close to him and can just make out his silhouette against the hull of the ship as we submerge to around 40m again. Then as we approach a room that used to mount a chimney smoke stack, a weird almost science fiction scene presents itself in the dark. The room that we are approaching is bright with tiny lights – it looks like the Milky Way has been captured and contained inside the ship. We get closer as Paul lets out a under water laugh and we enter the hold. It’s hard to believe what I am seeing. Inside the dark ship is a flurry of spectacularly bright lights buzzing on and off and moving around. Paul sits on a beam inside the ship to watch. Curious, I slip under this beam and right into the middle of the action so that I am completely surrounded by little lights in the dark with virtually no reference for the rest of the ship or the universe for that matter around me…except where I held the beam is glowing with green phosphorescence. This is what I call my ‘Interstellar’ moment and was a feeling akin to Matthew McConoughey being sucked through a black hole in the movie Interstellar as a free fall in space surrounded by moving stars, some close some far. Simply mind-blowing. What we were could see was a school of ‘Spotlight Fish’ at their finest and is one of the best dives of the ship and certainly one of my most memorable dives ever.
The next day we go exploring on land and hire a Jeep Wrangler and head up to the northern end of the island. We come across Port Orly which features spectacularly blue water, bright white sand, and palm trees littered down the beach. The church is full for a Sunday service as we drive past and enter the village which is surprising to see how many thatched huts people are still living in. We enjoy a lime juice in a spectacular sand bar rustic restaurant that also offers some accommodation in their two tree houses! The water here is just unbelievably blue and gorgeous white sand and palm trees littering the beach.
We then go off the beaten track a little driving half an how to a little village known as Big Bay…while there is a road, it is muddy and rough, but still enjoyable by 4WD. It winds its way around the
volcanic mountain ranges and through dense jungle until we come across this very small village based on the shores of a volcanic black beach. Kids wave us by and the women are washing clothes in the fresh water creek and drying them on the black beach. A dug out canoe sits on the beach ready to be launched.
Our final stop is one of the blue lagoons that sit inside volcanic bowls of limestone. The water is extraordinarily clear and tainted blue by the limestone. Its hard to gauge if it is really shallow or incredibly deep. We free dive down to touch the bottom and register 11.2m so its certainly deep enough.
This finishes what has been an extraordinary visit of exploration and certainly some new life experiences and definitely on our list as a top SEAbbatical destination for a South Pacific jaunt.
Luganville is located about 450 miles north east of Noumea in New Caledonia, the gateway to the Pacific. Most yachties will sail between say Brisbane and Noumea as their first major ocean crossing and then island hope to other islands close by in the South Pacific. I met a couple from Sydney onboard their 46 foot catamaran who had done just that and were enroute around the Pacific islands during winter.
Most expenses and fees are very similar to that in Australia. There is pretty good 4G and cell phone coverage around the island provided mostly by Digicell. The locals virtually all speak English but French or pidgeon is more widely spoken and more prominent in the more rural areas.
Suggested Diving and Exploration Itinarary:
Day 1 – Orientation Dive 1, Cargo Hold Dive 2. Consider dinner at the ‘Deco Stop’ lodge and try one of the famous Santos steaks.
Day 2 – Dive ‘The Lady’, snorkel Million Dollar Point (shallow water WWII wreckage)
Day 3 – Dive to the stern at 60m
Day 4 – Explore the island by Jeep and stay in an overnight treehouse at Port Orly.
SEAbbatical Destination: Vanuatu
By Brent Vaughan