Diving the SS President Coolidge is supposed to be 1 of the best, if not the premier, wreck dives in the world. This, for a number of reasons. It is the most accessible dive, it is very intact, and it is in warm clear tropical waters with bounteous fish life. So it was a dive greatly anticipated.
First let me explain that this area of the southwest Pacific was a strategic staging ground for the Allied Forces that were battling the Japanese in the frontiers to the north in the 1940s. Luganville was sequestered as a safe staging port during this period. The Coolidge was a 200-metre luxury liner that was converted to a troop carrier. When, on October 26, 1942 it was entering the channel on the approach to Luganville, it hit 2 mines planted by its own forces that were intended as a barrier against possible Japanese vessels.
The Captain very quickly assessed the damage and determined it was a fatal blow to the ship so he wisely steamed it up onto the shore. It came to rest upright. He immediately ordered all hands off and not to dally retrieving personal effects. He told them they could come back later for their items. They all went over the side and virtually walked across the reef to safety. Of the 5,000 only 2 died. Well, within 90 minutes of running aground, the ship settled at the stern and slipped back and sank to its final resting place.
(For more information on this famous wreck, you can read The Lady & the President: the Life & Loss of the SS President Coolidge by Peter Stone.)
The dive operator picked us up at 08:00. As we loaded up the equipment for the short drive, Judy strolled over to the cafe for a day of internet catch-up.
A 10-km drive deposited us to the beach right in front of the sunken wreck. We suited up and I was paired with the dive master. We waded out about 30 m (100 feet) then began our descent for the benthic exploration. We did hand-over-hand on a taught rope that led the way down.
Soon the behemoth wreck slowly came into focus and I could plainly see it lying on its side (in 20 to 67 m) in silent repose. We levelled off at the bow in about 20 m of depth and about the same for excellent visibility. I noticed very little coral buildup but there were plenty of tropical fish.
As we swam along, we first came upon a mounted gun (76 mm/3 inch calibre) with its shells close by. We penetrated a hold where we could clearly see a motley cargo scattered and toppled about. Trucks, tanks, and even jeeps with their iconic grills were still noticeable.
In the sick bay area, we saw the enduring remains of medicines and equipment. In another area, a cache of guns and ammo. But what were most striking to me were other somber relics of everyday life, lying as they were left as testament to the rapid abandonment.
Is this rifle salvageable?
On the way back, we did a safety stop while the dive master took out a bag of bread that signalled a copious amount of eager fish!
Clown fish in their anemone home
I made a morning and then an afternoon dive that day, but evidently only saw a small fraction of the accessible areas and compartments. The engine room would have been interesting or the porcelain plaque of The Lady. Endless opportunities...maybe another time on our 2nd go around...