Part II: Vanuatu Adventure Vacation – Diving, discovery, and more diving!
My 10-day adventure to discover diving and happiness on the Island of Vanuatu.
See Part I for more on Porta Villa, local spots, and more diving! Click Here
My dives were amazing, particularly the cave and night dives. The wreck dives located in the bay, while interesting, were shrouded in thick, pea green soupy water that was hard to see past more than 3 meters or so. The murk did enhance the mystery of what we were exploring and I was having a blast simply being down with the wild variety of life forms in this grim, green graveyard.
The days in Port Villa had come and gone so fast with only occasional rain showers to dampen the mood and muddy up the place. I had found the dance club where the expats hung out, got to know another boat captain who sailed a crazy looking pirate ship and had also once called Austin, Texas home, racked up several more dives, ate new and exotic local cuisine for a fraction of what I would have paid and made some new friends, some of which I am still in contact with.
It was a wonderful few days but more was on the horizon, during my off days surfing the web in search of my next destination I had come to a decision on which Island I was to visit next.
As I stepped back on to the small island jumper that would wing me to my next destination, I wondered to myself what the next island would be like. I only knew that it had an amazing wreck dive that I was determined to explore while there but I had no idea how mind blowing my experiences there would actually be.
The town of Luganville on the island of Espiritu Santo was a bleak place by comparison with Port Vila. The few shops that existed were sparse and dilapidated. Having once been a hopping military outpost for the US and it’s allies during WWII, it was now as much a shell as those I had gathered from the beach the afternoon of my landing.
Fortunately The Deco-stop Dive Resort was an oasis that had a stunning view of the ocean and the neighboring islands from its perch high atop the hill country of the island. I had discovered The Deco-stop thanks to my dive club friends back in Queensland and the place did not disappoint.
The Deco-Stop is run by an expat Aussie couple named Kim and Ben who had decided they’d had enough of hustle and bustle of western living. They had taken over the Deco-stop some years prior to my arrival and seemingly transformed it into a one stop shop where one could stay, drink, rent scooters, be fed and entertained as well as book tours and dives without leaving the comforts of the resort.
It was a bit out of the way and I was concerned that I might be a bit bored there if the resort was sparse with guests. As it turned out, my timing was right in line with a dive club from Melbourne that was made up of a wild bunch of Aussies and a few Kiwis. They were a fun, rowdy bunch who kept the place jumping, when they weren’t diving or hungover that is. Which is a bit of an understatement given that by the end of the first night together we were enjoying a nude pool party together.
They too had come to dive the S.S. Coolidge. The story of this massive ship was quite spectacular though you’d be hard pressed to find many people who aren’t WWII buffs or Scuba diving enthusiasts who even knew anything about it.
Basically the story goes like this: the ship was decommissioned from being a luxury liner for the rich to a troupe carrier in 1941. On October 1942 the SS Coolidge was being chased more or less by a Japanese submarine. Backup was on its way but who knew how long they would take to arrive. The captain, one Henry Nelson, did what good captains must do sometimes and decided to take matters into his own hands, knowing well the many lives he had in his care. His decision? Given that the ship itself had broken many speed records he did the obvious, put the proverbial “pedal to the metal” and high-tailed it into the bay.
Unfortunately the good captain was never given the information about the mines in the harbor that had been placed to protect it from enemy incursion and struck two of them on the way in, blowing big holes in the side. One, an enormous gash in the port side that we would later be diving into. Fortunately the ship was close enough to shore for him to go full steam ahead and basically drive the massive boat up onto the beach.
The channels on Espiritu Santo are steep so the boat eventually fell to its’ side and sank back into the sea resting its bow at 70ft (20 meters) and it’s stern at 240 ft (70 meters). However, it stayed afloat long enough (90 minutes to be specific) to get all 5340 men off the boat with only 2 casualties. Quite an accomplishment if you ask me.
There was a little salvage operation that took place after the war but the government of Vanuatu decided that nothing further was to be taken from the site in 1983 and since then it has been enjoyed by thousands of divers for “wreck”-reational diving — Sorry, I had to!
Subsequently, copious amounts of interesting antiquities can be enjoyed while diving the S.S. Coolidge. Likely the most famous of these is a sculpture of ”The lady & her unicorn.”
She sits in her pitch black room, quietly resting in a state of suspended animation about 140 ft (40 meters) in the bowels of the ship and to whom you are obliged to take out your breathing regulator and kiss when you see her.
While my new Melbourne mates were focused on racking up their S.S. Coolidge dives, I found a dive operator who had one of the few boats to take people to dive areas other than the S.S. Coolidge. The reason dive boats were scarce is due to proximity and economics. The Coolidge, being so close to the shore, was accessible enough for divers to just walk in and get to by land. No boat required. Since it was the biggest diving draw, I assume the dive tour operators didn’t feel the need to purchase and maintain boats.
I loved diving the wreck but I knew the coral and sea life would be extraordinary given that most divers only came here for the ship. So while I got several wreck dives in, I also got to dive some of the most amazing undersea gardens I have ever seen.
I floated through aquatic canyons and cliff sides, flying over lushly colored beds of coral and vegetation. At one point my guide pointed to a massive lobster tucked back into an alcove. We stopped to have a good look at him while he too examined us. Really, I could write pages on just the diving here but there was so much natural beauty to explore on Espiritu Santo that I’ll save it for another article.
Back at the Deco-stop that evening we enjoyed a show put on by the locals that incorporated tribal dance, music, some authentic cuisine and of course copious servings of Kava much got the regret of a few of my Aussie cohorts.
The following day I was to go with a small group on a fantastic hike through a local village and into the Millennium cave and canyons. The day started bright and blue but before long thick, rain laden clouds where moving in from the north and I dressed accordingly sparse in hopes that I would eventually dry off. I had no idea that part of the hike actually necessitated a swim to get to our final destination.
We drove for about an hour, pressing further into the jungled hills until the muddy, red earth road itself began to disappear. We stopped at an area with a few dwellings and livestock and prepared ourselves for a very moist day.
The jungle becomes rather quite when the rains fall hard. But the sound of the water smacking incessantly on the broad leafy plants that occupy much of the grounds surface more than makes up for the sound that is lost. As it turned out, the grand leaves actually served us well as umbrellas when our guide brought out his knife and carefully selected leaves of the appropriate size to offer each of us some modicum of cover. The leaves being around 1 meter from stem to tip and about 3/4 of a meter wide did the trick of keeping the water out of our eyes. This was an important detail as we would eventually be climbing down mud and moss laden ladders made from, what was by now wet and slippery, wood in order to get to the riverbed and into the cave. Our eyes needed to be keen as we made each potentially treacherous step down into the gapping green maw of the earth.
We made the descent slowly and carefully, finally reaching bottom, where we were greeted by a tribal elder who offered prayers and
anointed our foreheads and cheeks with some of the red earth we had been so eagerly slogging through.
Each of us took our turn and with a nod and a smile from our host, we’d move on making way for the next in line.
Like a giant mouth with a never ending thirst for water, the cave hungrily slurped the river into the black void that lay before us. The rustle of bags and zippers reminded me that I too would need to get my torch (flashlight) out. At which point our guide’s assistant appeared and took our excess baggage on what was presumably a dryer path to our final destination. These would be gathered again once we were reborn on the other side.
We stumbled and splashed through water and over stone for the next half hour through the dark. The cave was a monument of aquatic craftsmanship. Like a sad, low budget laser show, our lights zipped frantically across the dark, sculpted landscape in search of who knew what. The high chirps of bats sending sonar signals to figure who or what had invaded their territory combined with the flash of birds and their accompanying shadows across our white beams gave ample reason for our primeval instincts to kick in to overdrive.
Eventually the darkness was forced to retreat as the hazy grey light of the outside world began to offer itself to us again. Exiting the cave we were offered our bags again and in light of a brief reprieve from the rain, sat and enjoyed a bite before going deeper into the gorge.
The mossy, jagged rock of the steep cliffs surrounding us offered no options. It was literally sink or swim. Like ducklings following their mother, we cued behind our guide, each taking tentative steps into the dark green water until steps gave way to strokes and our bodies were slowly taken by the gentle current through the narrow gorge. I had brought with me a small video camera but had nothing to keep it dry. Seeing my dilemma, the guide generously offered to carry it while I swam so that I could use both hands to dog paddle downstream. He seemed rather practiced at swimming with one hand while holding items over his head so I assumed I wasn’t the first to come ill prepared on this journey.
We finally reached dry land and were met again by the guide’s assistant to equip us with our packs and the miscellaneous items we had brought. We marched back through more damp jungle to one of the villages we had passed on the way in and stopped briefly to meet the locals and see their wares before heading back to the van.
Deep Blue Sping
We passed by an old WWII Air Force landing strip long reclaimed by foliage and fauna on our way to Blue Hole. My mind wandered back to the past, picturing the olive green willie’s jeeps racing about between twin engine bombers and fierce faced fighter planes parked on the runway. I imagined Big Band Jazz blasting from the little am radios while plane mechanics made sure “all systems where a go”. The place was jumping in those days from everything you read but once the war ended and Vanuatu had served its purpose, the “Empire” would leave the tiny island nation with nothing but the wreckage of the past.
I pondered what other possible outcomes could have been had different decision been made. I wondered how they would have affected this place and its people. I decided that the island’s inhabitants were better off that the allies simply left. This land could have very easily been torn apart by commercial development had the western influence remained a dominant one. Still, it seemed a happy medium was possible given that some very basic things were lacking on this island. But this idea, I realized, was a very western perspective.
Blue Hole is a natural spring that forms a large deep pool in the jungle with water so unsettlingly clear that you literally cannot tell how deep it is. What you think is perhaps 2 meters could be more like 5 and you wouldn’t know it until you’re trying to actually touch the spring’s silty floor.
Our group splashed and played about in the beautiful blue oasis. Our time was short as we had gotten there rather late in the day. The sun soon fell behind the tall, thick wall of trees and left its last fragmented rays sparkling upon the crystalline water. Across from the rocky out cropping from where we all jumped in, about 20 meters out, was a large tree with a rope swing tethered to a high branch. It was too tempting for our band of thrill seekers and most of us quickly made our way over to the swing. Each of us took a turn at offering our best Tarzan impersonation swinging far out over the surface of the water, some 3 to 4 meters depending on when you let go of the rope, only to plunge deeply into the cool azure pool.
I had brought my diving fins and snorkel with me but had not brought the booties (or shoes) that you are meant to wear with the fins. I tried to cinch them on as tight as possible but the effort would not be enough to keep one of them from falling off my foot and slowly sinking down into the deep. I thought it was gone for good. I could see it, it seemed right there. The water was like a magnifying glass bringing the floor right up to you. But the painful reality was that it was about 10 meters down and I definitely didn’t have the breathe control to fetch it.
Fortunately one of my Aussie crew had spent some time learning the techniques of free diving. This is when you dive down to often obscene depths while only holding your breath. (As an aside-At the time of this writing, the record for free diving is held by Russian born Alexey Molchanov with his depth of 250 meters.) Often these divers learn to hold their breath for up to ten minutes.
Thankfully, that level of skill wasn’t going to be needed to fetch my lonely fin. But the principles my Melbourne based friend had learned came in very handy. His initial attempt had failed. He needed more breath and more propulsion. We asked around until we found another of our crew who had also brought fins. After putting them on he preceded to simply float face down in the water and breathe deeply and deliberately. It was like a kind of meditation. He said he slowed his heart rate down and hyper oxygenated his cells giving him the excess O2 he’d need to get to the bottom and back up without gasping for air and sucking in water mid dive.
After only a few minutes of this he was ready. A handful of us watched with anticipation to see if he’d pull it off. I put on my mask again and ducked my head underwater to watch as he took one long last breathe and plunged beneath the surface. I was astounded to see him not only swim gracefully down the fin, picking it up, but also seemingly take his time ascending. I thought surely he would be kicking those fins of his furiously to get back to the surface, but it was quite the opposite. He surfaced triumphantly raising the lost blue fin to the roar of cheers whistles and hand claps, my own included. It was no ten minute feat but it was impressive none the less and I was very thankful not to hobble home short one diving fin.
“Floating in the dark womb of the great ship, I lost all sense of time and space.”
The Last Dive
Our small boat buzzed through the black sea as the twinkle of the resort lights faded into the distance. Unlike most of my evenings here, this one was wet. The rains were less like drops and more of a fine mist. Combined with the sea, it covered us thoroughly like a moist blanket. There were only a few of us on the boat and we would be diving into the large hole blown into the port side of the S.S. Coolidge apparently to see a show like no other. I had no idea what was in store.
My dive guides were good humored and well trained locals, young Vanuatu men who had found an escape from the drudgery of farming or having to placate tourists too much from behind a bar at some resort. They really loved their job and I think occasionally enjoyed the company of those of us they had to take out with them.
We cut through the smooth obsidian surface for 15 or 20 minutes before reaching our “in point”. Flashlights came on and every one geared up. Our guide proceeded to hand out various colored glow sticks, you know the ones that lollipop licking, “X” indulging ravers dance around with. We each took one and cracked it open, tying it on to our BC. (This is the vest you see most divers wear to control their buoyancy).
Our guide then told us that we could not use our flashlights on our decent into the hull of the ship as it would ruin the show. “No lights!?!” I thought to myself. “That seems like a bad idea.” But then I thought, “Hey, this isn’t their first rodeo,” and proceeded to psych myself up for what I was about to do.
The sense of awe and wonder began to really sink in the moment I rolled back into the water. The water was alive with each movement of my body. Neon blues, pinks and purples flashed like electric sea fairies all around me and I was entranced. The trepidation I’d felt just before entering the water was gone. I was completely swept up in this mysterious experience.
The temperature of the sea was nearly bath like but not stifling in anyway. It seemed to match the air. For the next 45 minutes though the only air I would know would be coming from the weathered, steel air tank upon my back.
After every one had entered the water and gathered themselves we looked to our leader and how gave us the cue to let the air out of our BCs and descend into the dark depths. It was strange that in such blackness, with only the light of glow sticks, our eyes still managed to adjust. I don’t know if the ocean itself magnified what little light there was or it was just the eyes amazing capacity to adapt but we could see the outline of the mammoth vessel even in the dark. Submerging along the ridge and over the bow down some 35 meters to where the hole was, the “show” began to reveal itself.
As we entered the blast point thousands of tennis ball sized green orbs moved erratically in front of us. They flashed and bobbed, circled and bounced, coming close and whizzing away. We floated in 3-D space surrounded by these magnificently bioluminescent beings. My mind was so overwhelmed by the experience that it had nowhere to categorize it. I imagined for a moment that I was hallucinating, that perhaps I had died. Or perhaps I wouldn’t mind if I did as long as this euphoria could last forever.
Everything and everyone disappeared. Floating in the dark womb of the great ship, I lost all sense of time and space. The stillness of my mind, having been so profoundly disoriented, was experiencing a form of Nirvana. I was lost and in rapture.
Then suddenly there was a tap on my arm. Awoken from my hypnosis, I looked to see that my guide was inquiring about the air I had left in my tank. More time had passed than I had been aware of and my air supply was reaching dangerously low levels. Given that I’d need extra air for the time required to stop and decompress on our way up it was definitely time for us to go. Once again I was aware of my fellow divers and each one of us slowly ascended back up to the bow where we would wait at the buoy chain to decompress.
I had gone into the red on my air gauge and though I was still inhaling oxygen it would likely not last the length of time needed to decompress. Having been an asthmatic all of my childhood, I don’t tend to panic without air. This seems crazy to most I’m sure but it’s a learned response. At this point our underwater torches could be used again so I calmly let our dive master know the situation and he seemed to be more worried about it than I was. As a divemaster you often deal with panicked divers so I think he was expecting the worst. But when he saw that I remained calm he simply handed me his extra regulator to breathe off of for the duration until we were to surface. After our 15 minute “deco-stop” I offered his reg back and began breathing off of mine again as we easily made our way back to the boat.
Million Dollar Point
After the allies had won and the war was over, there was a lot of the military’s equipment that needed to be dealt with on the island.
This ranged from boats and tractors, structures and combat tanks, various pieces of equipment and who knows what else.
But what to do with it all? Spend tax payer money shipping it back? Leave it for the locals to use? Much of it could have helped them with farming or building and so on but no…a brilliant idea was drummed up by some desk jockey back in the US. That decision? Dump it all into the deep trench in the ocean at the tip of the island! I mean that makes sense right?
All sarcasm aside, the obvious wastefulness and lack of generosity to the people who had their home used as an air base and soldiers “way station” was astonishing to me. Having said that, it did make for some AMAZING diving! The “millions of dollars” of wreckage offered great hiding places for all stunning array of sea life in these largely unspoiled waters. For me, seeing the works of man so far underwater and in such disrepair always puts perspective on how all of our efforts can be quickly brought to ruin given the right circumstances. Everything is transitory and I think the sea is a great place to understand that on a visceral level.
Back at the Deco-stop I recuperated from the extraordinary days that lay behind me. After a day of rest, it was time to pack my bags, say goodbye to my new friends and head back to Australia. I had enjoyed the time of my life and experienced things I had never imagined in Vanuatu. There was much more to do but I knew I would be back. I would take these experiences with me for as long as my mind could carry them and do my best to bring them to life in others, hopefully inspiring them on journeys of their own.
See Part I for more on Porta Villa, local spots, and more diving! click here