The waves lashed against brown bits of twisted metal that were almost indistinguishable from the rocks. I could make out a wheel, an axle, possibly the remains of a truck—80 years of saltwater had smoothed most of the World War II military equipment dumped by Americans into the ocean as a parting salute to the French and English.
Because of the value of the materials, the area was nicknamed Million Dollar Point and remains one of the wackiest dive spots on the planet. It is also one of the biggest draws to visiting Vanuatu, an added bonus to my visit here, but I had bigger fish to fry.
I was first intrigued by this island when I met a fellow scuba diver on a trip to Fiji who told me about a sunken cruise ship off the coast of Espiritu Santo. I was to later learn that the ship was actually a former luxury liner that was repurposed during World War II and had been sunk by “friendly mines” in 1942.
The ship’s final resting place was in relatively shallow water and has since garnered a reputation for being one of the best wreck dives in the world due to its accessibility and great condition.
Vanuatu is not the easiest place to get to, so I put it in on my bucket list knowing (or hoping) I’d eventually get close enough to make a stop.
It turns out Vanuatu is a relatively inexpensive flight from Australia. You can visit two of its islands, Espiritu Santo and Efate, for about $350 with Air Vanuatu. When I found a great deal on a Papua New Guinea cruise from Sydney, it was the perfect opportunity to add on a Vanuatu excursion. I contacted Coral Quays Dive Shop in Santo and let them know when I’d be coming, and my bucket-list dive suddenly became a step closer to reality.
Public transport in Santo often means riding in the back of someone’s truck. We opted to rent our own vehicle since we'd made plans to stay in Lonnoc Beach on the north end of the island.
Santo really has one main road that extends north. The rest of the island is pretty much inaccessible and has a mysterious air about it. However, its most famous coast, Champagne Beach, is just a little over an hour from the airport.
We booked a one night stay at Lonnoc Beach Bungalow, just a 10-minute walk from Champagne Beach, which charges a hefty $30 admission. It’s a fantastic piece of paradise. The plan was to spend the night on the beach, see a little of the northern part of the island, and then dive the Coolidge the next afternoon.
We stopped along a few places on the way back the next day including Turtle Bay and Thar Blue Hole. TBH is one of several fresh springs where you can swim in crystal-clear water that slightly resembles a Mexican cenote. Tourism is still a budding industry so there’s not a lot of travelers, and you might have the place to yourself.
The capital, Luganville, is a vibrant town with a market and some of the friendliest islanders you’ll ever meet. Since we were diving with Coral Quays divers, we opted to spend the night at their hotel.
It’s a beautiful lodge with a swimming pool, bar, great restaurant, and an amazing view of the canal. The dive shop is connected, so we were able to get our equipment ready there and take their truck to the dive site. Coral Quays has their own private beach access, so everything was super convenient. The price was great, too. To do a private dive and rent everything cost $65.
The SS President Coolidge lies in a channel a short swim from the shore. The top of the hull is only 40 feet below the surface, so it’s pretty easy to see as soon as you start your descent.
I’ve dived many wrecks, but nothing as large as the Coolidge. At first it’s hard to imagine the size, since coral has formed on the outside and some parts look like sea bottom. Suddenly I found myself looking into the interior of the ship where a large section of the hull was missing.
It looked like a giant alien space ship—a huge mass of technology being slowly swallowed by nature—with metal beams encrusted by barnacles and fish the only remaining passengers on board.
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When we reached the deck of the ship, I could finally see what all the fuss was about. The wreck is every bit as impressive as its reputation. The sheer size of it is awe-inspiring, but it’s also a time capsule of life during WWII.
It’s a surreal experience floating above the treasures of the sea and interacting with the denizens of the deep. It’s like a lucid dream that you know is ending. You want to experience as much as you can before it’s over. The Coolidge is so huge that I’m sure even a dozen dives wouldn’t be enough to truly explore its sights.
As soon as it began, it was over. I wanted more, but I had a flight the next day, and diving and flying don’t mix. I wish I had added an extra day on the island so I could do a night dive, but alas, it was not to be.
I learned about one of Vanuatu’s other treasures on this trip: the island of Tanna. It's the only place on earth where you can walk to the edge of an active volcano and live to tell the story. Two different seasoned travelers told me that it was the most exciting thing they'd ever seen on the planet. So, I have another date with Vanuatu in the near future, and I’ll be stopping in to revisit the Coolidge.