Vanuatu beyond the Coolidge

Nose of the Corsair F4U wreck
Nose of the Corsair F4U wreck

Last Updated on May 26, 2024 by Steve Weinman

There is more to the Pacific islands of Vanuatu than the iconic wreck of the President Coolidge, says French diver PIERRE CONSTANT, after discovering as much when he decided to go his own ‘local way’ on the island of Espiritu Santo. He took the photographs

On my second day in Port Vila, a 1,000-passenger cruise ship of the Royal Caribbean fleet dropped anchor in Mele Bay. Big business was coming to Vanuatu.

It was my cue to escape the crowds with an excursion to a historical cave and World Heritage Site on tiny Lelepa Island. I met the recommended guide, who had raced into the harbour on a speedboat. He gave me a price – the equivalent of about £80 – but was not free on the day I wanted. So I asked a French-speaking Ni-Vanuatu about going the “local way”. 

“You catch a minibus to Au Bon Marché Manples, change to another heading north to Lelepa Landing. Cross by boat over to Lelepa Island. In Natapao village, head left along the coast and walk 20 minutes,” I was told. “You’ll find Fele’s Cave”. 

Coral and featherstars on Mavea island, east of Espiritu Santo
Coral and featherstars on Mavea island, east of Espiritu Santo
Gorgonian at the Office site
Gorgonians at the Office site

So that’s what I did. In the village, a woman pointed me in the right direction. “You’ll find people there,” she assured me. I strolled through a coastal forest fringed with pandanus trees and suddenly found myself at the base of a 40m-high striated cliff of white volcanic ash, It was an eerie kind of place, without a soul around. 

Torch on forehead, I ventured into the cave, moving between large fallen blocks in a clockwise direction into a vast round chamber with a tall conical ceiling. This was where King Roy Mata was killed by his brother in the 13th century. A taboo site, in which speaking would be disrespectful. 

At first I could see nothing, but then started to make out out little holes carved into the wall, and lines of short black bars drawn with charcoal. This was a 3,000-year-old lunar calendar, I was told later. 

3,000-year-old lunar calendar
3,000-year-old lunar calendar

Retracing my steps, I noticed trochus and clam shells on the floor. A fossilised nautilus shell was stuck under a ledge.

Finally, charcoal drawings appeared to the left of the entrance: a whale, symbol of good luck for the start of the yam-planting season; a chicken, for catching fish; and an anthropomorphic figure with raised arms – Roy Mata himself. 

Charcoal drawing of Chief Roy Mata in Fele’s Cave
Charcoal drawing of Chief Roy Mata in Fele’s Cave

Back in the village, the rain poured. I took refuge in the house of Manu the boatman, was offered papaya by his daughter Samantha and had a lovely chat with the family.

That was a good experience. However, the dives I did from Port Vila on the island of Efate on this first part of my Vanuatu trip were a big disappointment because so many of the site were fished-out. It was time to move north to the main island of Espiritu Santo.

Ferry to Espiritu Santo

Vanuatu Ferry at Port Vila
Vanuatu Ferry II at Port Vila

Travelling with dive equipment and underwater photographic gear, flying between islands was not an option for me. With the high cost of domestic flights and excess-baggage fees in mind, I caught the Vanuatu ferry from Port Vila to Luganville on Espiritu Santo. 

The 24-hour crossing is made via the Malakula Islands to the north. The 10am check-in happened an hour late. The scheduled 12pm departure was postponed until 2. Don’t dare to board the ship too early, because you’ll be invited to get off again. 

Once on the ferry, the air-conditioned passenger lounge had comfortable yellow seats. It was nice and cool at the outset though it turned out to be miserably cold in the middle of the night with only a T-shirt on. 

The boat was full, with people sleeping on mats in the corridors. I felt suitably immersed in authentic Ni-Vanuatu culture. After a four-hour stopover in Malakula the next morning, we finally disembarked in Luganville at 2.30pm.

I was anticipating the diving experiences in Espiritu Santo, and chose to start at a site 20km north of Luganville, on the east coast road. This was in Turtle Bay, the location of an airfield during the Pacific War, and close to some attractive blue holes. 

A dive on the north-western tip of Mavea Island revealed clear water and a decent reef, but lack of fish life was again an issue. I encountered a hawksbill turtle, a lone great barracuda and a red snapper but not much else there. 

Putting the dive-boat into the water in Turtle Bay
Putting the dive-boat into the water in Turtle Bay
Longfin bannerfish at the Awesome site
Longfin bannerfish at the Awesome site

A French couple with their young son shared the Zodiac with me but, during the surface interval, it filled with water at the back because of the excess weight. We hastily returned to base, making it only just in time.

On the plane

The next morning I was alone with the South African dive-guide for an outing to Shark Point on the north-east side of Billota Island, 30 minutes away. I was keen to see the silvertip sharks associated with the site but, instead, saw only a timid grey reef shark. 

On the dive-boat heading towards Shark Point
On the dive-boat heading towards Shark Point

The water was an amazing cobalt blue. Attractively colourful and healthy, the reef was carved into numerous gullies.

Out of the blue a school of bigeye jack (Caranx sexfasciatus) came swirling around me for a minute before vanishing towards the sun without further ado. It was exhilarating, with just enough time for some good shots! 

Bigeye jack at Shark Point
Bigeye jack at Shark Point

Schools of neon (Pterocaesio tile), variable (Caesio varilineata) and scissortail fusiliers (Caesio caerulaurea) made furtive appearances. The highlight was a little cloud of white spotted surgeonfish (Acanthurus guttatus), playing hard to get.

On my bucket-list was a WW2 aircraft wreck discovered in February 2020 in 30m+ of water – a Vought Corsair F4U-1 fighter from the Pacific war. The Turtle Bay airfield had been constructed on a coconut plantation in late 1942 by the Seabees, aka the 3rd Naval Construction Battalion of the US Navy. 

Units of the US Marine Corps were based there in March and April 1943, with pilots flying Corsair F4U-1s on their raids against the Japanese at Guadalcanal. 

The Corsair was a high-performance fighter with an 11:1 success record against Japanese Zeros. The three-bladed prop plane had foldable wings and a “bird cage” cockpit set far back behind the nose, with a consequent lack of visibility that made landings tricky for the pilot. The plane was 10.3m long with a 12.5m wingspan and carried six 12.7mm M2 Browning machine-guns.

The Corsair F4U aircraft wreck
The Corsair F4U aircraft wreck
The broken tail has twisted to the right
The tail had broken and twisted off to the right

Johnny, the Ni-Vanuatu owner of the site, knew the wreck’s location, though there were no surface indications. “It’s around here…” he said with a sweeping hand-gesture, but it was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

I suggested that the dive-guide go in first for a look around. Her safety sausage popped up five minutes later – by sheer luck she had found the thick algae-covered rope that would lead us down to the wreck. 

Visibility was fair. The intact plane rested on the white sand some 300m from shore at a maximum depth of 33m, pointing south south-east and missing its propeller blades. It must have crashed shortly after take-off, probably due to engine failure or loss of the prop.

The tail was broken in front of the rudder and twisted to the right. The cockpit glass was gone, as were the dashboard and instruments, but the pilot’s seat remained, empty. 

Two friendly grouper played hide and seek around the nose. A silver sweetlips (Diagramma pictum) zoomed in towards me. Dive time was 30 minutes. 

The famous sites

The two most famous dive-sites in Santo were too touristy for me. Million Dollar Point at Luganville, where vast amounts of highly valued US military equipment were dumped at the end of WW2, is a much-vaunted tourist attraction, but I had seen videos of the site with its greenish water and algae-coated hardware and didn’t feel motivated.

I also wanted for this article not to dwell on the renowned 200m-long President Coolidge, the WW2 US Navy troopship resting between 20 and 70m deep – if only because it has been so well covered, and usually in such a way as to suggest that there is no other reason to visit Vanuatu.

I had to pay the wreck at least one visit, of course, but I experienced poor visibility on the day. Using my strobes only resulted in back-scatter so I stuck to ambient light for the images that appear here.

Medicine bottles on the Coolidge wreck
Medicine bottles on the President Coolidge wreck
Coolidge superstructure
Coolidge superstructure
Anemonefish on the Coolidge wreck
Anemonefish on the Coolidge wreck
Guide holding a gun and a helmet on the Coolidge
Guide holding a gun and a helmet on the Coolidge
Over the wreck
Over the wreck
Inside the hold
Inside a shallow part of the wreck
A panel window
Panel window
A box of shells on the Coolidge
A box of shells on the Coolidge

Matevulu Blue Hole

But also on my wish-list was Matevulu Blue Hole, near Turtle Bay Airfield. A small entry fee (around £6) is requested in the honesty box. The site can turn into a public swimming pool for kids during the day, so I dived it early on a Sunday morning – while they were all at church. 

At a maximum depth of 18.5m, this freshwater spring is the result of rainwater flowing underground from the highlands on the western side of Santo.

A shortie is recommended here, where the water temperature is 25°C. Amid the sharply carved limestone rocks the bottom is silty, but there are beds of green mosses as well as pretty underwater plants. 

Pierre Constant before a dive at Matevulu Blue Hole
Pierre Constant before a dive at Matevulu Blue Hole
Sunbeams behind logs and forest at the blue hole
Sunbeams behind logs and forest at the blue hole
Weeds on limestone rock against the forest background
Weeds on limestone rock against the forest background

The fish life was, surprisingly, a cross between fresh and saltwater species. Of Santo’s 49 freshwater species, 10 are endemic, and 917 marine fish species have been recorded around the island. 

Inquisitive little schools of spotted scat (Scatophagus argus), square and silver with dark dots, and mangrove red snapper (Lutjanus argentimaculatus), silver with light bars and red fins, were common. 

Spotted scat, against the submerged vegetation
Spotted scat, against the submerged vegetation
Inquisitive spotted scat
Inquisitive spotted scat

Other species included the rock flagtail (Kuhlia rupestris), with black-tipped tail lobes, and vermiculate rabbitfish (Siganus vermiculatus), schools of which skimmed the bottom. I also met three silver jack (Pseudocaranx dentex) with yellow fins and a conspicuous keel at the base of the caudal fin

Quite a few logs lie under water, and lots of roots and grasses on the banks of the blue hole. A river extends east, then south, to flow into Turtle Bay. Exiting after a 55-minute dive, I noticed a dusky sleeper (Eleotris fusca) close to the edge of the muddy bank. The freshwater eels I had been told to expect were not in evidence.

Dusky sleeper at the blue hole
Dusky sleeper at the blue hole

The Santo Expedition 2006 was the last major scientific expedition to visit Vanuatu since James Cook and Louis Antoine de Bougainville first arrived, separately, in the late 1760s. With 233 participants and a million-dollar budget it covered all aspects of research above and below the surface, including cave-diving exploration, and resulted in a remarkable 572-page book, The Natural History of Santo.

Vanuatu glistens like a snapshot of paradise from a distance, though the reality is somewhat different. Port Vila and Luganville are tourist destinations that attract mostly high-income Australians and New Caledonians, and food and lodgings there are by no means inexpensive.

However, should you choose to avoid the well-trodden routes you will find, like a breath of fresh air, how nice, friendly and hospitable the Ni-Vanuatu are. 

All you have to do is sit down and be willing to share your time and some stories. Gates will open to you, with genuine smiles of kindness and curiosity.

Children of Kole village
Children of Kole village

Island service Air Vanuatu entered voluntary administration on 6 May, temporarily stranding a number of passengers and casting doubt on future bookings. It operated a single Boeing 737 and a number of turboprop aircraft and was said to have been affected by mechanical issues for several months. Virgin Australia also flies into Port Vila from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Contact the Vanuatu Tourism Office for advice.

Pierre Constant runs Calao Life Experience

Also on Divernet: Appointment with the President, 20 Best Wreck Dives in the World

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https://taucher.net/diveinside-insolvency_proceedings_at_scubajet-kaz9246
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This week, it looks like DPV manufacturer ScubaJet has begun insolvency proceedings. PADI has distributed half a million dollars in their Project Aware campaign. Dorset coastguard have called off the search for a missing diver. And the Pearl Fleet has commented on a viral video of a shark-dive that didn’t go so well
https://taucher.net/diveinside-insolvency_proceedings_at_scubajet-kaz9246
https://divernet.com/scuba-news/conservation/padi-aware-distributes-500k-in-mission-hub-grants/
https://www.scubadivermag.com/raid-launches-ots-full-face-mask-programme/
https://www.scubadivermag.com/dorset-coastguard-call-off-search-for-diver/
https://divernet.com/scuba-news/health-safety/search-for-diver-off-dorset-stood-down/
https://divernet.com/scuba-news/health-safety/pearl-fleet-hits-back-as-maldives-shark-dive-slammed/
Diving Into The Darkness Link:
https://www.scubadivermag.com/affiliate/mzsd


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#AskMark hi! I was hoping you could help me understand the interchangeability of a DSMB and a simple SMB if I only plan to use it when I deploy it during my safety stop at 5 meters. I used the simple version for this purpose during my last liveaboard and despite occasionally having to reinflate at the surface due to some air escaping while being deployed underwater, it didn’t seem to be too problematic and so I was wondering if it’s necessary to have a DSMB for this purpose? The issue for me is that somehow I tend to end up misplacing my SMB quite often and so the price difference between the two makes it a more acceptable loss when it’s replacing the SMB regularly rather than the DSMB at double the cost
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Diving Into The Darkness Website:
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@emilyZA460
#AskMark hi! I was hoping you could help me understand the interchangeability of a DSMB and a simple SMB if I only plan to use it when I deploy it during my safety stop at 5 meters. I used the simple version for this purpose during my last liveaboard and despite occasionally having to reinflate at the surface due to some air escaping while being deployed underwater, it didn’t seem to be too problematic and so I was wondering if it’s necessary to have a DSMB for this purpose? The issue for me is that somehow I tend to end up misplacing my SMB quite often and so the price difference between the two makes it a more acceptable loss when it’s replacing the SMB regularly rather than the DSMB at double the cost
#scuba #scubadiving #scubadiver
LINKS

Become a fan: https://www.scubadivermag.com/join
Gear Purchases: https://www.scubadivermag.com/affiliate/dive-gear
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Website: https://www.scubadivermag.com ➡️ Scuba Diving, Underwater Photography, Hints & Advice, Scuba Gear Reviews
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What's the Point of Fancy dSMBs? #askmark #scuba

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