My gear was loaded onto a pick-up that had seen better days, and we set off. It was soon clear that the shape of the truck was circumstantial, because of dirt roads with more pot-holes than smooth spots, and as other cars passed we rolled up the windows to reduce the dust.
We backed up almost to the water’s edge. There was a small building with tanks and gear, and we set up our kits near the shoreline and simply walked in.
Clockwise from top left: Diver on the bow; pitcher, serving trays and flares; one of the trucks; steering wheels in the cargo hold; shells beside one of the bow guns.
It seemed an unceremonial entry to see one of the best wrecks on Earth, but the sun was shining, the water was warm (28°C), and I was about to see the Coolidge!
Under water, my first view of the 199m-long, 25m-wide former luxury cruise-liner and warship was a massive shadow. As I got closer, the bow started at about 21m depth and hard corals were growing on the hull.
Resting on the seabed on a steep slope, the stern sits in 70m, but we wouldn’t be visiting that on this dive.
We swam along the top deck which, because the wreck lies on its port side, feels like a wall-dive.
I could make out the two guns on their platforms, on the shallower one a stack of shells. Then I saw my guide disappear into the first cargo hold.
The Coolidge began her journey as a liner on completion in 1931, transporting society’s well-heeled passengers around the world until 1941.
Then she was put into war service, and was fully converted into a troopship. A lot of her finer points were removed or boarded up, such as the beautiful glass light-fittings and a certain famous porcelain relief wall decoration known as “The Lady”.
The Coolidge was carrying more than 5000 troops and packed with supplies to support the war. This was evident from a pile of trucks and machinery strewn below us in the hold.
Steering wheels and tyres stood out as the most identifiable, and my guide produced a gun encrusted in marine growth and directed me to a pile of artefacts that included pitchers, serving trays and flares.
We continued to explore until our bottom time ran out and we went shallower, finishing by swimming over the hull back towards the bow.
A pile of ammunition lay scattered, and my guide stopped at a large cooking-pot sitting next to guns laid out for divers to see.
He removed the lid of the pot, and inside was a treasure-trove of artefacts.
A gas-mask, Coke bottle, ceramic dishes, shoes and other bits and bobs were piled inside.
Feeling fantastic after the first dive we swam back to shore and walked the rest of the way out. But I was ready for more.
The next morning we headed down the same pot-holed road and, after my tech cert cards had been checked, I added more tanks to my kit to visit the engine-room and, I hoped, “The Lady,” both beyond recreational-diving depth-limits.
Clockwise from top left: Squeezing through tight passages in the Coolidge; ‘The Lady’; gauge panel; in the engine-room; a row of toilet bowls; munitions lying on the hull.
“The Lady” originally hung in the first-class smoking lounge, but it wasn’t found in the wreck for many years.
Allan Power, a bit of a Vanuatu/ Coolidge legend, was inside it one day and caught a glimpse of something he’d never seen before. Probably covered for protection, the wood must have rotted away just enough to make it stand out.
At one point she was salvaged from the wreck, but was later returned and now hangs at around 42m.
For this dive we did a much longer surface-swim to start closer to the stern, and hauling extra tanks and my camera made for slow going. But we finally got to our descent point and headed down.
A large opening had been cut into the hull to give easy access to the engine-room, and we dropped to 40m, almost directly on top of the boilers and the massive gauge panel.
My guide Tom twisted and turned through the engine-room, pointing out wrenches and machinery and taking me through other hallways in the ship.
There was a row of toilets, and in one passage he slowly brushed the silt off an object to reveal an etched-glass light-fitting. I was so excited that I was smiling through my regulator (and maybe just a little narked) and had completely forgotten what we were looking for.
Tom stopped in front of me, and I thought: “Why are we stopping? Keep going, show me more!” He motioned for me to turn. There she was in all her glory, still beautiful and paint bright after more than 75 years under water.
My computer showed that our planned bottom time was pretty much up, so we ascended and swam over the hull heading towards our deco stops.
The Coolidge’s demise occurred on 26 October, 1942. The captain was not given information about the minefield in the channel approaching Santo, and the ship struck a mine near the engine-room, and another near the stern.
The captain ran the ship aground, and the crew of more than 5000 managed to flee before she sank 90 minutes later. Only two lives were lost.