Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Santo Above and Below Water - The SS Coolidge and Millennium Caves

Liz wrote about the adventures in administration and logistics when we arrived into Luganville - our port of entry for Vanuatu - in this post.

We also decided to do something a bit unusual for us and pay to go on some tourist activities: the Millennium Caves Tour and, for me, two dives on the SS Coolidge.

The SS Coolidge was a 654 foot American luxury liner pressed into service in World War II as a troop carrier.  She was lost in 1942 when she struck two American mines as she tried to approach the American base at Santo.   The incident was a classic communication failure - the dreaded "fog of war" - in that the Coolidge was unaware of the minefields. When a USN patrol vessel then tried to warn the Coolidge of the minefield it was found that the two ships did not understand each others signals.  Not the first nor the last interoperability issue to impact joint and combined operations.

The Captain, assessing he could not stop the flooding, ran her aground approaching a beach just outside Luganville.  Amazingly, all but two of the 5430 men onboard survived. One sailor was killed with the first mine blast and the second was Capt Eurt Euart, the duty officer for one of the mess decks, who went down below to check for his troops again.  His body was found in 2013 by the company I dove with on this visit.  The USN sent a large clearance diving team and excavated his body so he could have a proper military funeral.  A large number of supplies were lost at a critical junction of the war including the US's entire stock of quinine.

The wreck has been rated as one of the top ten in the world so I was pretty tempted to spend the money and have a look.  I signed up for two dives with Allan Powers Diving.  Allan was one of the original divers exploring the wreck and is full of interesting stories in the days before we had the same awareness of decompression injuries.  He is reported to have done over 15,000 dives on the Coolidge.

The first dive was with two other cruisers and went down to 33m and only penetrated one deck level.   The other two divers changed their mind about the second dive which worked out well for me as it was just the guide and I and we were freer to push boundaries a bit.  Having taken people white water kayaking and off-piste skiing in the past it seemed a sensible approach to have a "get to know you" dive regardless of what certifications you have.  I should point out I am not a trained wreck diver  - it was pretty clear on the Ships Diver Course I did way back in 1998 that divers are supposed to stay out of wrecks.  Working under big hulls like PRESERVER's was intimidating enough so this was one of the more interesting dives I have done. The guide was very patient as we slowly went further into the wreck.  Good buoyancy control was obviously a requirement to go through the relatively narrow gaps.   As you can see from the drawing, the ship is on her side so you penetrate each deck by swimming horizontally further into the hull.  We went in several decks and proceeded about as far the medical supplies just past the drop tanks in hold 4 (see the diagram below).  The second dive also to 33m with a short deco stop on the way back up.

Ammunition still onboard
The extent of my second dive was to the medical supplies just past the drop tanks.

and quite a few rifles.

and trucks
and jeeps

and that critical infantry delivery vehicle, boots

Not as much light in these later photos as we are completely inside the hull - what wreck divers apparently call "'full penetration"

typewriter !

Drop tanks - we are a longways into the vessel by now - I think ...
and interesting creatures.  It does not show in the photograph but the inside blinked like a neon light


This was a fun day out the Liz booked for the big kids and I  (Three big kids I guess ...).  It is managed and staffed by a local village and is very professional.  Kind of fun to be a tourist although it is interesting to see on their website that they do not guarantee your safety (but then they do go on to explain their risk management strategies).  After a bumpy taxi ride you meet your guides at a local village.  From there it is a nice hike through the jungle and then a descent into a water filled (plus some bats and swallows) cave.  A picnic lunch is then taken by the river before a fun combination swim and climb through the canyon. Floating in fresh water was such a nice feeling some seven months in atolls where fresh water is so precious.   Lastly, there is moderately steep climb out of the canyon to head back to the village for refreshments and fresh fruit.  On the hike on the way back we were in awe of the scope of the gardens and nibbled on the hot peppers and raw peanuts our guides picked.

A great day out and I was certainly feeling by the end that even with all the swimming and kiting on the atolls our legs were not quite ready for hills again.

Faces appropriately marked to appease the spirits of the cave
Descending into the cave

Entering the cave.

And back into the light

a nice place for a picnic

Swimming down the canyon.  The GoPro was rather having some condensation issues that day.

And some rocks to climb over ...

and under ...

and more swimming
and swimming under the rocks.
Heading out of the canyon
A very tidy village

Thatched roof

Nothing to do with either tour but a poster from one of the government offices. 

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