Santo, Vanuatu, 23 September to 2 October 2006.
To get an idea of the dive sites and depths listed in this document, please refer to http://www.casper.homeip.net/scuba/vanuatu06/Coolidge/map.jpg
Saturday, 23rd September.
The day finally arrived. 23 September, the day Shane and I were to head to Vanuatu for 9 days, 7 of them underwater. Dad picked us up from my place at 6:30AM and drove us to the Brisbane International airport. Our flight wasn't until 10:30AM, but we checked in and headed for the duty free shopping area. After looking out for something to buy (just so I can say I bought something duty free..), I found nothing that I needed, so we went and had a small pizza for breakfast.
Closer to the time we were scheduled to leave, we headed down to gate 78. Sitting there, minding our own business, I struck up a conversation with a rather attractive young lady named Nikita. A teacher from the Northern Territory, she was on her way to Vanuatu to visit family and friends. At 10:00, it was time to board. We took our assigned seats in 6A and 6B, hoping that nobody would be sitting in 6C, so we could spread out. YAY! When it came time to close the door, 6C was still empty, what luck.. So Shane moved into 6C and we relaxed.
As we climbed to cruising altitude, I watched the shoreline of Australia pass under the plane and over open water. Now, this trip for me is a big thing as since we moved to Australia from the USA in 1970, I have not been outside the country. I put on my brand new Sansa 1 GB MP3 player and settled back into the seat for the 2 3/4 hour flight to Vanuatu. When we landed in Port Vila, we walked the short 100 meters from the international to the domestic airport. After checking in and paying our 200 vatu (AUS$2.40), we sat on one of the chairs and waited the 2 hours till the plane to Santo.
The Santo plane arrived and now THIS was going to be interesting! An Air Vanuatu 18 seater prop plane. No assigned seating, first in gets the best seat. Though, I don't know if there is such a thing as best seat. No door to the cockpit and no cabin crew. For a 1 hour flight, that wasn't unexpected. This little plane got up to about 9000 feet and was so noisy. After a while, I turned off my MP3 player as I couldn’t even hear it. Glad I wasn't taking that plane from Australia to Vanuatu! As the evening grew to darkness, we made our way north. Above the clouds, we could see nothing out the window. The rain in Port Vila practically told us that this was going to be a wet holiday. When we landed at Santo, everyone applauded the captain on his efforts. Timmy picked us up as planned and drove us to the Deco Stop Lodge, about 10 minutes from the airport. As it was night, we saw nothing of this country so far. At the lodge, we were checked into room 3. It was still early enough, so we had dinner at the restaurant, checked out our SCUBA gear and then faded to sleep for the night. What would tomorrow bring?
Sunday, 24th September.
Shane and I woke up at 6:00AM and rechecked our dive gear. Breakfast is included in the accommodation costs, for the continental breakfast. If you want sausages, bacon and all the fatty stuff, you order it and it costs extra. I stuck with the Corn Flakes and Wheet Bix for the duration of the holiday. Once we sat down at the table, we were able to take in the view of Segond Channel and the islands on the other side. The view was magnificent (see my web page for the pictures). Garry came by to talk to the new divers and to let us know that at 8:30, they would be back to pick us up. Tony came down too to get the waivers signed and sight our diving cards. This done, 8:30 came and we were picked up in the Allan Powers Dive Tours bus and off we went.
The drive to the dive site takes about 15 minutes. During the ride, I saw the countryside for the first time. I was amazed at how green and lush all the vegetation is. The road is a left over from the days of WWII and has not been maintained very well. Allan was driving very slow as the road is dotted with pot holes and rain run off ruts. All of a sudden, Allan turned onto another dirt track. This one had a gate at the beginning of it. I figured this was the entrance to the property. We drove down the track and then along a 200 meter driveway to the dive location. The dive site has a purpose built gear up area with benches and a locker for weight belts and spare weights. Shane and I picked a spot to gear up and started to get ready. Alfred No1 came over, introduced himself and started to give us our dive brief. Shane had met Alfred and all the guides when he was there in February so this was really for my benefit. Alfred told us that this morning, we were going to dive the Promenade deck, depth would be about 35 meters. This dive also let Alfred know how comfortable and experienced a diver we were. The Coolidge is a shore dive. You don your gear, except your fins, and walk out the 100 meters to a rock wall that has been built to assist divers putting on their fins. The wall provides protection from the small waves and any chop. We did a 43 minute dive over the Promenade deck and Bow and got to 35 meters. There is a purpose built safety stop called the "Coral Gardens". Here is where we would spend alot of time in the days to come. Around the Coral Garden is a ring of coral and this is full of various fish life. It's a very nice change from doing safety stops hanging onto an anchor rope. After the dive, Alfred was happy that we knew what we were doing and that we could do the deeper dives later in the week. We packed our gear away and clambered into the back of the bus for the trip to Allan's house for "Coffee Bun".
It is a tradition that after the morning dives that everybody heads back to Allan's for a relaxing "coffee bun". Its coffee and buns. Allan says they are "Hot cross buns without the cross". The view out the back of Allan's place is breathtaking. I said "Geez Allan, I don't like your backyard". Allan's back yard is a view of the Segond Channel and the islands, similar to that from the Deco Stop, but this view is at seas level whereas the Deco Stop view is from part way up the mountains and about 2 kilometers away as well. Allan's place is right on the water. During the time here, Allan will answer any questions regarding the Coolidge you may have. He also has 5 or 6 folders which come out with literature on the Coolidge that Allan has collected over the years. I asked Allan how long he has lived in Santo, his reply was "I've been here 37 years, but I still don't know if I like the place or not!" What a character. This rather large dog appeared, a Rotwieler. But, I was pre warned. This dog, Jock, is just a large teddy bear. He is a sook. Loves the attention he gets from all of the divers. Allan always has a bone for Jock when we get back. Once Jock has his bone, he often comes back for more attention and pats. After about an hour, we all bid our farewells and head back to our various accommodations. Back at the Deco Stop, we rinsed our gear in the specially built gear locker. It became a tradition to have a quick dip in the pool before lunch. The water is cool, but refreshing. While in the pool, the girls ask if we want anything to drink. I always had a Diet Coke and so did Shane, with the exception of after the afternoon dives, where Shane had a "Tusker", the local beer. The girls also bring out nibbles, hot sliced sweet potato with sweet chili sauce. These were nice. We then had lunch at the lodge and relaxed until our pickup at 2:00.
At 2:00, we were picked up again for our afternoon dive. This time, we did cargo bays 1 & 2. A shallow dive at 34.7 meters with 47 minutes underwater. Afterwards, we were dropped off at the Deco Stop. After rinsing our gear out, we headed back to the pool for a dip and more nibbles. As we were not diving anymore today, we relaxed by the pool and introduced ourselves to Tim, another guest. After chatting for an hour or so, I headed in for a shower then came out ready for dinner. The menu at "Club Narcosis" (the restaurant name at the Deco Stop) changes on a daily basis. I pretty much had Calamari for entree, some kind of steak for mains and a chocolate sundae for dinner every night. After dinner, around 8:30PM, we were sleep.
Basically, this became the routine: Sleep, Eat, and Dive.
Monday, 25th September.
Awake at 6AM to get ready for our dive. Today, and for the rest of our stay, we were to have Lionel as our guide as Trevor and Debbie had "booked Alfred No1" for their time here.. First dive was "The Lady", at 40.5 meters and 38 minutes. "The Lady" is a ceramic 3 dimensional wall fresco, about 3 feet square. The unicorn behind the Lady has lost its horn and the Lady herself is missing her right hand (left looking at her) Even though the Lady has been underwater for over 60 years, the baked on colors are still plain and in very good condition. Lionel says it is a tradition, that we all "kiss the lady". When we got to her, Lionel did just that. So did Shane and I. Shane did make a note at this time, that when kissing the lady, do not purge regulator when taking out of mouth, good idea Shane.
During our "Coffee Bun", Tony had made a remark that we might be able to dive the Henry Bonneaud this afternoon, and would we like to go? YOU BET! It may be the only chance we get to dive her while we are here, so if we can, we will! In late 1989 the Henry Bonneaud, an old trader was scuttled only a few hundred meters from the main beach of Bokissa Island Resort. More by luck than design, the scuttled wreck landed on its keel in 40 to 45 meters of water.
So, that afternoon, Shane and I boarded Allan's boat, aptly named "The Lady" to make the 30 minute voyage to the site of the Henry Bonneaud. We hit the water just after 1:30PM for a 45 minute 40 meter dive. The life on this wreck is amazing, so full of color and vibrant. I recommend this dive to anyone who gets the chance to dive this wreck.
Back at the Deco Stop, Shane and I were comparing notes on the days diving when we met a few more of the other divers. Simon and Anya, Michael and Kerry. We drew 2 tables together and had dinner. Then, it was off to bed.
Tuesday, 26th September.
I woke up at 6:45AM and had my customary dip and breakfast. At 8:30, we were picked up and headed to the site. The first dive was to the ship's pool. Now, Lionel had, during the dive brief, told us that we had to count the number of colored tiles there were in the pool, just the number of colors. He would make a note on his slate and then he would let us know how many colors there were. I think this was done to see if we were experiencing narcosis or not. We made our way out to the last buoy. A long swim of about 200 meters. This was a 60.4 meter 56 minute dive. This was the deepest dive I have ever done so far.. for now. At the pool, I counted 5 colors, everyone else counted 6. I saw on the slate that everyone else had put 6, so I changed my count to 6 as well. Lionel counted 7 colors, which meant that everyone owed him an ice cream! I reflected later that if I was able to think clearly enough to change my count to match everyone else’s, then I was not narked.
The afternoon dive was to 32 meters for 41 minutes. We saw the Medical Centre, the Doctor's Office and came out the Chain Locker. The Chain Locker, I had told Lionel previously, I had heard was a tight squeeze and wasn't sure if I could make it. The Chain Locker is the last part of the Frog Haul (A dive we did at a later date that I wanted to do). Lionel didn't tell me where we were going, he just led and we followed. I saw a coil of cable on a roll and didn't think anything of it. Shane however, knew where we were and where we were going. He KNEW that this was the way out of the Chain Locker. After we did our safety stops and emerged from the water, Shane said, "Well, that was the Chain Locker". I just looked at Lionel who had a huge grin on his face. I'm glad he didn't tell me where we were going or I may have been a bit cautious. But I got through it fine. Cool. Back to the Deco Stop for a dip, dinner and sleep.
Wednesday, 27th September.
Up at 6:45, a dip to wake up and ready for pickup at 8:30. Today's first dive was a 53 meter, 50 minute dive to the Galley and Bakery. On this dive, Lionel showed us a lamp shade. Since Lionel had no torch (he forgot it), I shone my torch up the lamp and it had a rather nice rustic glow about it. Very impressive. Lionel also showed us vials of morphine that are still intact.
The afternoon dive was postponed until the evening so we could do a night dive. So Shane and I decided to take a walk into town and have lunch at the markets. This is a great idea. There is a wall with 10 windows; each window has a table in front of it with 2 bench seats. This would comfortably seat 6 customers. In the window is a lady with a very small kitchen. For 250 vatu (AUS$3.00), you get a large plate with about an inch of rice on it, steak or chicken or one of a variety of toppings, as well as some veggies in a sauce. On top of this, you get a glass of cordial and a piece of fruit after the meal. Well, I couldn't eat it all. Back home, this would cost $10 to $15 easily. After lunch, we got a cab back to the Deco Stop. 100 vatu for each person, (AUS$2.40). This wouldn't even cover the flagfall here at home..
The night dive on the Coolidge is an experience to behold. No torches. You follow the guide to the cargo bays and just hope that there is enough light to see him. Once there, you are met with a wall of flashlight fish. Of course, you do not see the fish as it is dark, but to describe the view, picture a small green laser light on a wall, one thousand fold. Each light flickering around you in a dance of green. You sit in the cargo bay with these lights all around you. I looked around and they were swarming around me 360 degrees. This was, by FAR, the most amazing sight I had ever seen while diving. Even as we left the cargo hold, some phosphorus glow could be seen in the wash of our fins and hands as we moved through the ship. I cannot recommend enough the night dive on the Coolidge if you ever get a chance to do it. It is only a shallow dive at 37 meters and we were down for 42 minutes.
Thursday, 28 September.
THE STERN DAY!! Up at 6:45, dip and pick up at 8:30. This morning, we are going all the way to the stern of the ship. In our dive brief, Lionel asked that we "look at each letter on the stern". We again made the swim out to the last buoy and dropped straight to the stern. Once there, we all had our torches on and I made sure I shone my torch on each and every letter "P R E S I D E N T C O O L I D G E". In doing this, I showed I again was not narked. At the stern, I hit my all time deepest dive of 66.1 meters. As we were cruising along the keel of the vessel, I noticed some commotion. As I looked up, I saw Elizabeth, one of our divers shooting towards the surface. Her weight belt had come off at about the 55 meter mark. Lionel was great, he shot straight up and grabbed Elizabeth's partner, who in turn had a hold of Elizabeth, handed her HIS weight belt and then made a B line for the bottom to rescue hers. During this time, Shane and I headed off along the keel, making our way slowly over the keel and along the starboard side. After a minute or so, I thought, Hang on, where's our guide and the rest of our buddies? I stopped Shane and motioned him the question, he replied with "We'll just swim this way". Along we went again. Another 30 seconds or so, I did the same thing, Shane replied with the same and we swam along again. By this time, I was a bit concerned. But as we got to the bow, Lionel appeared and signaled OK with both hands. We replied with the same. It wasn't until later, that I found out that Lionel had told Shane to just continue to the bow and to wait for him there. As we didn't have our slate with us, Shane had no way to convey this to me. But I knew Shane would not have taken off without some form of communication with Lionel. But still, I had no idea. Next time, I will just go with the flow. The dive was 63 minutes long to allow for deco stops. I emerged from the water with 20 bar of air left.
It was on or around this day that my camera went missing. My Canon A80 which I used for all of my above water shots.
Our second dive today was a shallow dive back to the galley and bakery. Only a mere 36 meters and 47 minutes.
Friday, 29th September.
After waking at 6:45 and having a dip and breakfast, we headed to the dive site again. First up were the engine room, control room and "The Lady". This time, I took my camera for the Lady. Seeing the engine room reminded me of the pictures that Dr Robert Ballard took of the boilers of the Titanic in 1985. The large round steel engines that are encrusted with sea life after 64 years at the bottom of the sea. This dive was 46 meters and 55 minutes.
Upon return to the Deco Stop, we finally met Cathy, the owner of the lodge. Man, talk about out there! This girl loves to sit with her guests and have a "chardy and a chat". Also, if a spade looks like a club, by jove she will tell it!
Our second dive was a "mystery tour". Personally, I think it was an easy dive for Lionel to get some pictures with his camera. Shane and I had no problems with this as I was taking pictures left right and centre... Shane, well, he swam around in circles, just to keep warm! A simple 36 meters and 50 minutes on this dive.
Saturday, 30th September.
Woke up at 6:45 REALLY feeling the strain of the dives and the pain was just tolerable... Time for about 4 Nurofen! Our first trip today was called the "Frog Haul". Now this dive is interesting. It's basically, swim out to the last buoy, head straight to cargo bays 6 & 7 behind the pool, IN there and don't emerge until you come out the Chain Locker. Up and down, in and out of rooms.. Quite a good dive. This was the longest dive of the trip, 60 meters and 71 minutes, 31 of which was decompression stops. As we left the Coolidge for the last time (we knew we would not be back this trip), Shane and I turned around, faced the great ship in the depths and waved her a fond farewell. I also made a promise to return. A promise I intend to keep. Once again, I didn't want to use a pony or drop tank. I emerged with 28 bar of air left. Exhausting, but certainly a very good dive. As promised to Lionel and Alfred 1, I purchased a box of chocolate Magnum bars from the LCM store across the street from Allan's place for 4000 vatu (AUS$48.02). 20 in all, 4 for each dive guide.
The afternoon dive was at Million Dollar Point, about 1 kilometer east of the Coolidge. At the end of WWII, the Americans dumped about a million dollars worth of surplus military hardware into the ocean at this point. Their reasoning was that they did offer the equipment to the locals and the government at a price, but the locals and government, knowing the Americans didn't have enough room on the ships to take it all back to the US said "no thanks". The Americans realizing the locals thinking just decided to dump it into the ocean instead of giving it away. So, they did. A dive here will see forklifts, jeeps, tractors, trucks and other machinery that was dumped. You can get to 50 meters here if you go out far enough, but I only got to 36 meters and was submerged for 55 minutes.
That night, Rod and Gail, from Prodive in Cairns, invited Allan to the restaurant for dinner. During dinner, Allan entertained us with his stories of the Coolidge and some of its history. He also told us stories of the local people and the government. Allan is very knowledgeable on these subjects, having lived there for 37 years.
Things seemed different now. Neither of us had the bounce that we had had all week. I just couldn't believe that the dives were over. No more would we descend the rope to the bow of the S.S. President Coolidge. No more would we see the grand promenade, the dining hall, the engine room, the cargo bays.. The Lady will have to wait until we return to get another kiss from me.
Sunday, 1st October.
Rest day. For those who do not know, if you dive before you fly, you put yourself at an increased risk of decompression sickness. Residual nitrogen that is still dissolved in your body at sea level could leach out of your system upon the airplane's ascent. The more nitrogen in your body, the more likely this would happen. You must give your body time to off gas the nitrogen. So, today was our day of rest. Shane and I walked into town and joined the divers for Coffee Bun. It was also here that I paid for my 4 extra dives, my 3 T-shirts, my dive log with Allan's company insignia on it and a copy of "The Lady And The President - The Life And Loss Of The S.S. President Coolidge" - which Allan was kind enough to sign for me. I paid 29,500 vatu (AUS$354.11) onto my credit card for the extras. Pretty good and money WELL SPENT. Allan was also kind enough to pose for a photo with Shane and myself. I have placed this photo on my website www.ozscuba.net (click on the picture on the right and look for the Vanuatu trip link). We bade our farewells to Allan and his tour guides. And thanked Lionel for the exceptional diving experiences he has given us. We also thanked Tony for his help in getting us the extra dives, and in particular the dive on the Henry Bonneaud. We then headed, for the last time, back to the Deco Stop.
I was having a chat to Cathy, when all of a sudden she
asked me "What are you like with IPods?" Um, well, I have never had one, but
have heard of them.. So, Cathy told me she got an IPod from a girlfriend as a
gift "500 BUCKS! She doesn't want to marry me that much does she?" Gotta love
the lady :) Anyway, Cathy wanted to alter the music in the restaurant to play
from the IPod instead of the "stereo". I use that term loosely as the "stereo"
is a car CD player under a bench connected to a set of "normal stereo" speakers.
Hey, whatever works! The IPod has a Belkin radio frequency transmitter which can
be programmed to transmit the IPod's sounds on a range of FM radio frequencies.
Set to around 80Mhz, the IPod was connected to a permanent power supply, powered
on and set to shuffle and repeat all tracks, was placed inside 2 stubbie coolers
and placed inside a metal box I bolted to the underside of the bench right next
to the CD player. The transmitter was stuck to the side of the CD player, the
radio station tuned in and away it went. Nice job, even if I do say so myself :)
Dinner was a somber affair. In the back of my mind, I was praying that the airlines would go on strike so we would have to stay another few days in this paradise. Alas, this was not to be.
Monday, 2nd October.
Time to go home. I paid my 36,278 vatu (AUS$435.48) for my meals and extras that I had accumulated along the way. Cathy saw us off from the front driveway of the Deco Stop with a hug. Then, we were gone. At the airport, we climbed aboard the plane and left Santo. In Port Vila, we had a 5 hour stop over, so Shane and I had lunch with Vince and Laurence, then, with Port Vila and the S.S. President Coolidge fading into the distance, we were on our way back to Australia.
WE WILL RETURN!