Wreck Diving in Espiritu Santo: The President Coolidge
Espirtu Santo is famous the world over as a diving destination. There’s one wreck particularly that stands out: The SS President Coolidge. It is said that this is the largest, most accessible wreck in the world and has been coined as “the world’s greatest shore dive”.
The SS President Coolidge was launched by the dollar steamship line in February 1931 at a cost of just over US $7 million – truly a luxury ship worthy of the presidential name. It was fitted out with the finest materials of the time. The liner was designed to accommodate 988 people plus a crew of 385. The ship had 2 dining rooms, first class state rooms, a theatre, two pools (one with its own sand beach), a gym, soda fountain, barber shop, stock exchange, children’s play area, shopping arcade, and sports options such as golf, tennis, handball and squash. As an ocean cruise liner, it sailed the Pacific route from San Francisco travelling to Manila in East Asia via Kobe and Shanghai.
When war broke out between the US and Japan, the Coolidge was refitted to be a troop carrier. After this transformation, the Coolidge was able to carry 5,000 troops, equipment and supplies to the South Pacific region. She made her final voyage from San Francisco on the 6th of Oct 1942. The Coolidge sailed to Noumea and was ordered to proceed to New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). Arriving in Vanuatu on the 26th of Oct 1942, Captain Henry Nelson fearing Japanese submarines and unaware of the minefields that protected the area entered the Segond Channel unescorted. The ship sailed into the minefield that had been laid across the north eastern entrance to the channel and hit two mines around the engine room around 9:35am. The Captain acted quickly, ordering the ship to be rammed ashore and beached in shallow water where it ran aground on the reef just 50 meters from the shore. The order was made to abandon ship immediately; at 10:52am, the Coolidge rolled onto its port side, slipped beneath the surface and came to rest on the sloping seabed. 5340 lives were saved and only 2 men were lost that day.
Over the years, some of the superstructure (sun deck, boat and promenade decks) has collapsed due to natural deterioration and earthquakes. Salvaging took place in the late 60’s and early 70’s to reclaim items such as propeller blades, electric motors copper tubing and the fuel oil was removed in 1976 preventing a potential pollution disaster. Vanuatu became an independent nation in 1980 and the ship was protected from salvaging and recovery in 1983 when it was designated a national park site.
President Coolidge is now considered one of the best wreck dive sites in the world. It rests on its portside with the bow at a depth of 21 metres and the stern In 70 metres. Easy beach access, fantastic visibility plus its sheer size make it a desirable wreck site for recreational and technical divers alike. With over 20 unique dives that be made on the ship, Guns, cannons, Jeeps, helmets and trucks can easily be seen in the numerous holds and decks. Signs of its former life as a luxury liner still abound such as chandeliers, a mosaic tile fountain and the porcelain relief of “The Lady”.
If the artillery and luxury of this fallen beauty isn’t enough, divers will also come across beautiful corals and vibrant sea life such as barracuda, dog tooth tuna, bluefin trevally, lion fish, moray eels and turtles. The President Coolidge should definitely be on any diver’s bucket list.
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