Diving the SS Coolidge Just Keeps Getting Better

You might think that after 60 years underwater and after thousands of divers have been to visit her, there wouldn’t be anything new to discover on the SS President Coolidge. But nothing could be further from the truth. Aquamarine in Santo, Vanuatu has developed new dives and is offering new services this year that will delight newcomers and will challenge even the most seasoned Coolidge divers.

Aquamarine in Santo, Vanuatu has developed new dives that will challenge even the most seasoned Coolidge diver.

For those unfamiliar with the SS President Coolidge, she is one of the best wreck dives in the world and Vanuatu’s diving jewel. She’s ¾ the size of the Titanic (200 metres long) and lies just 50 metres offshore, resting on a slope with her bow at 20 meters and her stern at 70 metres. Her size, her depth and the fact that she’s still nearly fully intact make the SS President Coolidge the largest most accessible wreck dive in the world and a remarkable underwater playground for both novice and tec divers alike.

The SS President Coolidge has been amazing divers since 1969, when an average of only 50 divers per year made the trek to Santo, Vanuatu to see her. Now, thousands of divers visit every year but it’s still possible for you to get lucky and dive on a quiet day when you feel like you’ve got the entire vessel all to yourself. There are 20 unique dive sites that help you see the whole wreck but more dives are definitely needed to really get to know the ship. Some divers visit the Coolidge every single year to explore her and to see what new and exciting trinkets may have been found.

Avid Coolidge fans won’t be disappointed this year as a whole new stash of Coolidge items can be seen on Aquamarine’s new dive, The Labyrinth. Aquamarine has been taking divers to the Coolidge for over 17 years and boasts the highest diving credentials of any dive shop in Vanuatu. They regularly explore the wreck for new finds and The Labyrinth was developed to provide divers with access to parts of the ship not currently on the beaten track.

The Labyrinth takes divers on a twisting, turning dive to 55 metres through rarely explored areas of the ship. The dive alone is adventure enough, but on The Labyrinth divers also get to see an amazing selection of items that have only just been found on the Coolidge, including thermometers, microscopic slides, a tripod and a few other rare finds. The dive was launched at the start of the year and so only a few dozen divers have been on the dive so far. If you’re a wreck junkie, this is a dive that you simply won’t want to miss.

It used to be that at the end of a dive on the Coolidge, divers would be greeted by a tame 200 kg grouper named Boris, who provided endless entertainment to divers during their safety and decompression stops. It’s been nearly 2 years since Boris was last seen and the crew of Aquamarine felt it was time to pay tribute to their lost friend.

The Boris plaque can now be seen on several of Aquamarine’s Hash Tours.

IDC in Santo Vanuatu

On the afternoon of Friday, March 4, Sean Pittaway and a group of divers from Frog Dive in Guilford, joined Aquamarine in a small celebration to remember Boris. Divers carried a plaque down to the Coolidge where it was placed in Boris’ honor. Sean Pittaway photographed the festivities and was instrumental in choosing the site of the Boris plaque, which can now be seen on several of Aquamarine’s Hash Tours on the Coolidge.

For longtime Coolidge divers, seeing the plaque is a fun way to remember Boris. And you don’t need to worry about entertainment on the safety stops — as much as Boris is missed, without his big appetite around, there’s a lot more fish life to keep you entertained while waiting for your computers to clear.

One of the more exciting developments to hit the Coolidge is the increasing availability of tec diving and tec training. With warm tropical waters that never dip below 25c and a stunning wreck with nearly 1/3 of it resting between 50 and 70 metres, the Coolidge is a tec divers dream come true. Aquamarine offers both Nitrox and Trimix diving as well as a full range of tec courses including Advanced Trimix and Instructor level training for Nitrox and Decompression Procedures.

Aquamarine also caters to divers who want to dive with rebreathers. If you’re interested in diving the Coolidge on a rebreather, you can contact Dive Dive Dive about the Vanuatu Rebreather Dive Expedition running from 6 November to 14 November. Rebreather courses are available with Dive Dive Dive in preparation for the trip and to help you get ready for some of the most exciting diving you may ever do.

The SS President Coolidge may be old but she certainly hasn’t passed her prime. In fact, with the newly discovered items, the new dives and the whole new world opening to tec divers, there couldn’t be a better time to plan a visit to Vanuatu. The SS President Coolidge, without question, offers truly adventurous diving for all divers. The fact that conditions are good and the water is warm all year round is just an added bonus. If you dive, the Coolidge should definitely be in your log book.

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Vanuatu Instructor Training

On April 17th, Henree Worek from Santo, Vanuatu became only the second Ni Vanuatu PADI Instructor but the FIRST to graduate in Vanuatu. He has pioneered the way for other Ni Vanuatu to become dive instructors after undergoing local Instructor Development training and a local PADI Instructor Examination.

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Born in 1967 on Motalava Island in the Banks Island group, Henree has always appreciated the water. His enthusiasm eventually turned to diving. In 1999, he gained his PADI Open Water Diver certification at Aquamarine in Luganville and has never looked back. Going on to eventually become a PADI Divemaster and recently, PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor, Henree is following in his parents footsteps, both being teachers because he wishes to teach anyone who is interested in diving.

After completing the leaving certificate at secondary school at Vures High School on the island of Ambae, Henree furthered his education at Institute National Technology Du Vanuatu in Port Vila and Honiara Technical Institute in the Solomon Islands. He also attended TAFE colleges Australia. Henree eventually enlisted in the Vanuatu Navy and trained with the Royal Australian Navy as an engineer. In this role he traveled extensively around Australia and Fiji. He has worked as a tour guide on the island of Tanna, taking visitors to see Yasur, one of Vanuatu’s active volcanoes. He has also worked as a dive guide/boat master/engineer for various dive operators in Vanuatu.

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For several years now, Henree has worked as a teacher of engineering at the Maritime College in Luganville, Santo. During that time his involvement in diving has remained purely recreational. But when Henree heard that there was a PADI IDC and IE coming to his own home town, he seized the opportunity to further develop his diving career. And so began his development to become a PADI Instructor. It was back to the books to study that dreaded Divemaster theory again, all of which eventually came flooding back.

The IDC was conducted in Luganville home to the Coolidge, the largest accessible shipwreck in the world. The Course Director was myself, David Ballard. Assistants were PADI IDC Staff Instructors, Mick Whitmore, Dale Byrne and Mark McCrum. Although an Alternate Location IDC, the course came under the umbrella of Aquatic Adventures in Melbourne. Training was held at the Deco Stop Lodge, hosted by Cathie de Koeyer. The Deco Stop Lodge is perfect for IDC training and an ideal base for diving the Coolidge. It has a huge conference room, swimming pool, restaurant (with bar!) and easy access to local open water dive sites. Some of Henree’s IDC training dives were done on the Coolidge site as well as the famed Million Dollar Point.

Henree was accompanied on the IDC by six other candidates from different parts of the world. Jen Spry was one, originally from New York and now functions as Manager at Aquamarine. She was Henree’s buddy during the IDCE. She also helped translate some of the theory into Bislama, Henree’s first language. Other candidates were Deena Lipkies, an Australian ex-pat now residing in Costa Rica, as well as four candidates from the William Angliss Institute of TAFE in Melbourne: Stephanie Lawlor, Jacqui Price, Kat Vcelka and Joel White. We also had the company of a Sydney candidate, Gareth John, during the Instructor Examination only.

PADI Asia-Pacific sent experienced Instructor Examiner Richard Evans to officiate the exams. This was the first IE that PADI have conducted in Luganville and hopefully there will be many more to come. Richard is one of the most relaxing speakers to listen to and soon put at east the nervous candidates.

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After two days of exams, presentations, rescue evaluations and skill circuits, all eight candidates together with Henree were celebration their graduation as PADI Instructors. Henree was the first of many to be thrown in the pool! Richard retired prematurely to his accommodation. I wonder why?

Henree has decided to stay in Luganville to work full-time as a dive instructor and train other Ni Vanuatu divers and hopefully instruct them to the PADI Divemaster level. Two problems teaching locals have been language barrier and the time commitment needed for instructors to teach the Divemaster theory. Hopefully those problems have now been rectified with the addition of Henree to the Instructor ranks. The snowball effect will then bring more and more local divers to leadership level. A few locals have already shown Henree an interest in diving.

Henree would like to further develop his Instructor rating by going on to become an EFRO Instructor and a PADI Specialty Instructor. Who knows what the future will bring. I’m hoping he will eventually become a PADI IDC staff Instructor and help other Ni Vanuatu IDC candidate through the Instructor development process in Vanuatu at our future IDCs.

Special thanks should be given to Barry Holland at Aquamarine for his logistical support as well as Cathie de Koyeur of the Deco Stop Lodge for the use of her facility. I can recommend their respective business very highly.

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Espirito Santo Delivers

As the plane touched down in Santo, I couldn’t help but feel a little apprehensive. I couldn’t believe that I was finally going to dive the famous President Coolidge. To win this prize, I had worked very hard to convince my family AND my brother’s family that we would all have a great holiday in Santo – even though not everyone in the family could dive. I was hoping that the Coolidge would live up to its reputation and that Santo could indeed deliver the holiday that I had promised.

We were met at the airport by Luke, a very friendly local, who drove us to our resort, Coral Quays. In addition to gorgeous bungalows and a very inviting swimming pool, Coral Quays has a private jetty stretching out into the channel with a ladder down to the water for a quick swim or a leisurely snorkel. They also offer free use of their kayaks and mountain bikes and my wife immediately signed up for one of their traditional Melanesian massage. (She ended up having 3 before the holiday was over!!)

Shortly after a tour of the resort, Andy from Aquamarine arrived to greet me and my family and sort out our diving plans. Soon after, I was having my first dive on the while my wife was getting a massage, my brother and his wife were off exploring the island by mountain bike and our teenage children were on a kayaking adventure. As I was drifting off to sleep that night, I couldn’t believe my luck. The Coolidge and Santo were far exceeding my hopes and expectations.

The Coolidge, as anyone who has ever dived it will tell you, is AWESOME! Not just incredible but AWESOME – as in awe-inspiring, breath-taking, unbelievable…and beyond the ability to describe with words or photos. You simply must do it to understand. I can’t think of many places in the world where I could spend a full 25 minutes inside a wreck, investigating its narrow passage ways and uncovering its hidden secrets (with the help of my guide, of course!).

I ended up doing 12 dives on the Coolidge, each one better than the previous. And yes, I saw the famous letters along the Stern at 60 metres. And yes, it is one of the highlights of my diving career.

My brother joined me on many of my dives and our stories of adventure each night over dinner got my wife and sister-in-law wondering if this diving thing was something that they should reconsider. The kids were also keen so one morning, while I was weaving my way through Aquamarine’s roller coaster of a dive called The Labyrinth, the wives and the kids all did a Discover Scuba with one of Aquamarine’s instructors on a pretty 12-metre reef just behind their dive shop.

The kids had a great time and all signed up for an Open Water course. My wife felt so comfortable and safe with the Aquamarine crew that even she decided to do the course after years of saying that she had no interest in diving. My sister-in-law loved the experience but decided not to do the course and stuck to snorkeling the sites while we were diving.

Just two days after the Discover Dives, we had 3 new divers in the family! The guys and gals of Aquamarine took us out to a kava bar that evening to celebrate. What a great way to be introduced to the local night life!

The next day, we had a great day out at Million Dollar Point. Starting in only 5 metres and going down to 40 metres, this is where the Americans dumped heaps of equipment at the end of WWII. The site was perfect snorkeling and great for both the new divers and the experienced divers alike.

A week into our holiday while my wife and kids were venturing on to the Coolidge for the first time and my brother and his wife were off on a trekking adventure with Luke (the guy who picked us up at the airport who also happen to run his own tour company, Paradise Tours), I seized the opportunity to dive a newly discovered wreck in Santo, the Tui Tawate. Located just out front of Coral Quays resort, this dive was truly incredible. Aquamarine’s boat arrived at Coral Quays’ jetty, we loaded in direct from the resort and were getting into the water less than 5 minutes later.

Because of its depth and the required deco time hangin’ on a line in blue water, Aquamarine takes a maximum of 4 divers at a time to the Tui. I was lucky enough to be doing the Tui with just 2 other divers and I was excited to not have to share the wreck with too many people. Descending into the blue, the ghostly shape of the tug started to come into view. Approaching the Tui and seeing the way she sits in the sand with nothing else around her, I felt like an intrepid underwater explorer discovering this wreck for the very first time.

That feeling of being the intrepid explorer was part of nearly every one of my dives – and I owe a lot of that to Aquamarine. The dive team at Aquamarine has got to be one of the most professional and friendly lot of divers I have ever had the pleasure to dive with. Their expertise in diving made me feel at ease on even the most daring dives and turned my non-diving family into wreck junkies!

When we returned to Australia, one of my colleagues asked me how the holiday went. Well, let’s see, I got to do some of the best diving I’ve ever done, my family went kayaking, mountain-biking, trekking, snorkeling, got to visit custom villages AND they all became divers. I said it was a success.

That night over dinner, my family and I started talking about our next family trip. Without hesitation, we agreed on Santo. We’ve already booked back into Coral Quays and Aquamarine. I’ve decided to do a Trimix course so that I can really explore the deep end of the Coolidge. My wife has even grander plans. She has decided to do lots of diving as well as every land tour and activity that Santo has to offer. Her incentive? To convince our family that Santo is the ideal place for our extended family reunion in 2007!

It seems that my anxiety before arriving in Santo was unfounded. Santo, Coral Quays and Aquamarine delivered the goods for the best holiday that my family has ever had.

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