24th October to 2nd November 2018
One island in Vanuatu, more than any other attracts divers like a magnet – Espiritu Santo. The majestic beauty of Santo is what inspired James A. Michener to write his classic “Tales of the South Pacific.” Approximately 50 minutes flying time from Port Vila to Santo, Air Vanuatu operates daily services between the 2 islands. Santo is from a time past. People still come from within the jungle to trade for a few basic necessities, then blend quietly back into the shadows, amongst the remains of crashed B17 bombers, deserted Dakotas and old WWII hangars and storage shelters that are scattered in the thick tropical jungle and serve as silent reminders of the American occupation of the island
What a fantastic week and a smidgen!
Our eclectic group ranged in experience from Tec 50 qualification right down to snorkeler, and all meshed together to become a great bunch of buddies and friends.
Upon arriving at Brisbane International airport, we made our way to the departure gate, and looked around for our plane…. Down there. Air Vanuatu is using Nauru airlines aircraft to fill the extra flights they are now offering, but I wasn͛t expecting an overgrown budgie! To be fair, the flight was smooth, and the aircrew were lovely, and a flying time under 2 and a half hours had us walking on the Tarmac at Santo International airport quickly and safely.
Arriving at Coral Quays, we met with warm greetings from the restaurant, resort and dive team, who became our family for the next 9 days. We set our dive gear at the dive shed, and imbibed in a local brew; ͚Tusker͛ or two to relax and get to know each other better.
Wandering to our bungalows between the massive raintrees had us feeling as though we were amongst the jungle, in our private rooms and ensuites. Never got tired of it!
Up the next morning, and each thereafter, to our continental breakfast, and the discovery of Coconut Jam – made locally on one if the islands close to Santo – this spread is basically coconut and sugar, and became quickly emptied each morning as we slathered it on toast and coconut pancakes to accompany fruit and juice. We later found the jam in a local supermarket and basically bought them out of stock by the end of the trip!
Our first shakedown dives took us to the shore dive site of the President Coolidge, stepping into the shallows, and then swimming to what would become the͚ deco-stop/safety-stop ͛location about 50m from shore. Descending and completing weighting and equipment checks, we followed our guide Jimmy (Ruben) to the bow of the Coolidge that slowly materialized from the blue.Our visibility was not epic over the first few days, owing to the heavy rains received just prior to and during our first few days (including one massive thunderstorm that woke everyone at about 1am one night!!).
Swimming past the massive bow, next to what was originally the deck, past the huge anchor winch, and between the forward massive guns, fitted after she became a troop carrier in WWII. In the higher gun compartment there are a stack of artillery shells that would have originally been for this gun – which some divers tied to lift – rather heavy!! Past Cargo hold one, and the fallen mast, we then slipped into Cargo Hold 2 to have a gentle look around in inside, but not 100% enclosed area. Gorgonia Fans spot the now-vertical decks, ladders between the decks still in place, and a gentle fin around had us exploring tumbled jeeps, aircraft fuel drop-tanks, gun barrels, jugs and crockery, amongst other items – we scratched our heads over, wondering what they were.
Before our No-Deco limits got too close, we departed and slowly made our way back to the bow, ascending over the sandy bottom to our first of many safety stops. CoralQuays have an excellent safety record, and have recommended stops for each dive, while these resemble decompression stops, as we are not decompression diving, they are not truly mandatory, but give an excellent safety margin while we would be completing 30+m deep dives repetitively over the next week. It also gave all the divers time to improve their trim, weighting and finning techniques, while exploring the creatures and features at 9, 6 and 3m
Our second dive took us to Million Dollar Point, a spot where masses of road building and other vehicular equipment was dumped off the end of an airstrip at the end of WWII. This is was an amazing discovery dive, and snorkel, drifting over the piles of remains, trying to recognize what they originally were. Bulldozers, Water Tankers, Jeeps, building supplies, and even more recent additions – 2 ships – are here for inspection. Many critters are hiding amongst the safety of this labyrinth of items, from Lionfish to Crocodilefish to Nudibranchs and Anemones with their defensive clownfish tenants.
Enough for one day, we headed back to Coral Quays, and after a lovely lunch, some of us wandered into town for some retail therapy. Here we found the famous Coconut Jam, Coconut oil soap, Coconut cookies, and postcards to send home and make our friends and family rather envious.
A yummy dinner and off to bed and listen to the sounds of nature (and apparently a pesky rooster–although I didn͛t hear him!)
This was to be our schedule for the rest of the week, with one more dive on Million Dollar Point and most of the rest on President Coolidge. Million Dollar Point, whi le still a little murky turned on the goods for us with my buddies Jeanette and Chris discovering a cuttlefish that was happy to pose and pull faces at us for quite awhile! We even discovered a teeny tiny pipefish on the bridge of the De Dele wreck amongst the growth!
October 26th marked 76 years since the President Coolidge struck two allied mines on her transit through the islands to Luganville in 1942. Taking a vine wreath into the wreck to lay it on the vessel as a mark of respect and reflection was my memory of the trip. Humbling and emotional, not only to remember the 2 men who died in the event, but all those who not come home during service to their country, those who served, and those who serve still.
Our dives continued on the Coolidge, becoming progressively deeper and more challenging. Under The Bow had us not only where the name suggests, but also exploring the crows-nest lookout, portside anchor and finding the wreath laid previously on the top gun, which had floated down – so I laid it on the lower gun!
Promenade Deck Collapse was our first exploration to 40m, and hard not to go deeper as we viewed the remains of the beautiful window frames, hundreds of coloured glass sunroof ports from the͚ roof͛ of the promenade deck itself, and the tangle of metal we tried to decipher.
Our group consisted of a high percentage of photographers and videographers,so at times there was a queue to catch an image of something in particular. One being the Barbers chair, still attached to the floor – now hanging sideways – accessed from Cargo Hold 2. Another amazing item accessed from Cargo Hold 2 – a massive Howitzer Gun still seemingly attached in its original positi on now hanging sideways –with another atop it!
Medical Supplies, with rows of jars, some still containing their original liquids and powders, was a stunning sight – with some terrific images taken.
While we dived each day, our snorkeler Malla sometimes joined us above in the shallows, and other times explored the beautiful surrounds of Luganville waterfalls, beaches and stunning blue freshwater pools. A few of the afternoons some of us explored the ‘Coral Quays Adventure Trail’ in the waters at the front of the resort – finding freshwater springs, anemonefish everywhere, lionfish, nudibranchs, black coral, cowries and even a submarine mine in the immediate area. More still to explore next time!
Our last day diving had us boarding ‘Blossom’ and ‘Snags’ for a scenic cruise out to Mal-Mal Reef. We dove both the east and west side of the island, and saw stunning stands of branching and encrusting corals, along with massive boulder corals –from the size some Porites species could be perhaps 600 or more years old (It is estimated Porites/Boulder/Massive Coral can grow up to 10mm per year). Reef fish everywhere with superbly clear water made for shallow relaxing diving on our last day.
Our very last dive however was very exciting. Not only did we celebrate Glenns 200th logged dive, and some silly antics for Halloween, but this was a Night dive, which we spent 15m perched in Cargo Hold in complete darkness, until a huge school of Flashlight fish rose from their hiding place below us, and danced in front of us un undulating patterns. Bioluminescence glowed as we moved around, and Basket-stars spotted the wreck as we returned over the deck to the deco-stop.
The Deco-stops became very familiar to us over the week, with many small creatures to search for and observe during the week. The anemones held not only fish, but porcelain crabs and popcorn shrimps, Shrimp-gobies and their house cleaning shrimps dot thesand, incredibly tolerant of divers observing from above. A Peacock Mantis Shrimp gazed at us from under a͚ verandah of rock before disappearing into his home, Flounder, Moray Eels and Hermit Crabs found everywhere lionfish under overhangs, and coming out to use our lights to feed on the abundant krill and marine worms on the night dive –(cheeky opportunistic sods – you would not believe the size of their fat bellies at the end of that safety stop!), so many little critters to keep us occupied on these stops!
For our non-diving day, Glenn and Ian headed off to the Millennium Cave walking adventure, while the rest of us headed to Riri Blue Hole, via Canoes with outriggers.Four in one canoe with the guide, and Robyn, Matt & I in the second. It was an event in hilarity as we tried to steer this (think shopping trolley with a wobbly wheel) canoe with outrigger up the creek after the other canoe. Utterly hysterical, and definitely needing more skill than we possessed – but it was utterly beautiful gliding above the gin-clear waters, and then spending an hour or so swimming in the cool refreshing Blue Hole water!
Aside from the watersports and activities, the downtime at Coral Quays was lovely. With a pool to spend the surface interval in, or mocktails and drinkies beside it after the day was done, the staff at the resort made us feel incredibly welcome and happy,even when we managed to eat them out of all the best desserts – Coconut Cake, Lime Tart, Lime & Passionfruit Tart! The food was second to none – delicious and filling, Chefs Alex & Letty outdid themselves, along with Esther, Senkoi, Flores, Silas, Phil and Charmaine ensuring we wanted for nothing.
Our last night was spent with a bonfire on the beach – lit by our firebug Robyn, when all other lighters failed, Tuskers, wine, and Vodka with Coconut water toasting not only an end to an excellent week, but also Glenns 200th dive, a massive 18 dives completed by Glenn and myself – which is apparently a record!) and Ross successfully completing his Advanced Nitrox and Decompression Procedures courses with TDI Instructor & Dive Manager Tom during the trip. Heading home in first class (Haha –rows 2 & 3) on the ATR72 to Port Vila, and then once again aboard the overgrown budgie 737-300 by Nauru airlines, smiles and sadness abound, as we remember the great week, and sad for it to be over. We even managed to keep Ross awake on the flight to Brisbane by watching the classic movie ‘The Life Aquatic’ en route.
A wonderful week, a wonderful team, a wonderful place with wonderful staff to assist us.
Looking forward to seeing you all on November 23rd to watch the video/share your photos on the bigscreen – Next Social Night!
Don’t forget – Kedron Park pub from 6:30pm.
Luganville, President Coolidge and Coral Quays – see you next year for the 77th anniversary trip!