Vanuatu

Greetings from Distant Friends….

A letter from Lindsey Watson.

Espiritu Santo
Vanuatu
South Pacific

6th October 1998

Dear CRABBSAC,

Little did I know, handing over my £99, that all this was going to lead from Horley's hair-strewn pool to the USS President Coolidge (Only one of these well known dive sites is featured in a recent Diver magazine)

Before regaling you with my tropical adventures, let me first thank the buddies who made it possible. The venerable greybeards who sped me through to Sports Diver in record time, tirelessly munching transport caff fry-ups en route to Stoney and Horsea, and selflessly breaking the ice to ease my first openwater experience. Liz and Mark who worked hard on Dorset expeditions where I dived my first wreck.

As Mark Mumford and I followed the RIB down the slip I heard him mutter "Any minute this will turn into 'Carry-on Diving'". Sure enough, as we sped like real frogmen away from the beach, the steering jammed. Next day the engine failed to start at all. Now when Liz said we were going diving on a wreck, I didn't realise that she was referring to the Tornado.

More thanks to those, male and female, who let me have such intimate access to their noses, a triumph of discipline over squeamishness which PADI trained divers never achieve. And to Debbie who generously lent me her made-to-measure drysuit (perfect fit) in spite of the known risks of kidneys and weightless legs.

While CRABBSAC were cavorting in Cornwall, I was plundering the pawnshops of Sydney amassing dive kit at bargain prices. I bullied and nagged my partner Alec onto a PADI course (previously referred to as "Seal Obedience Class"). Despite early reluctance (trying to go to the pub before the pool session, instead of the pool session, as well as after the pool session), he took to it right away and came home twittering like a budgie (narked before even getting in the sea). Alec lost his left leg years ago and is rarely seen without his kevlar limb so it took some courage to do his first beach dive from crutches. Emerging dripping and triumphant, he was blatantly gawped at by passers-by, but had the presence of mind to shout "Shark just got me!".

We had already decided to bail out of Sydney for the winter and Alec chose Vanuatu as our destination. At that point, not yet diving, he'd never heard of the Coolidge but he'd always enjoyed the musical "South Pacific" (set here).

There is even more to Vanuatu than diving (incredulous die-hard divers may skip this paragraph). We anchored at Erromango where in 1880 two Scottish missionaries were murdered by the islanders (and possibly eaten). We approached the village with trepidation as the inhabitants appeared to be chopping huge amounts of firewood - but this turned out to be sandalwood.

On Tanna Island we were thrilled to see an eight foot dugong swimming round the boat, but were less than thrilled when it tried to hump our dinghy as we rowed ashore, headbutting the hull and throwing its flipper over the gunwale and nearly capsizing us. This nearly eclipsed our trip to the smoke-belching fire-spitting volcano that afternoon. Awesome to stand on the crater's rim, like being on the set of "The Clangers".

Diving operations exist on the main islands of Efate and Santo only, so we headed for the capital, Port Vila. Here we gained vital underwater hours diving the reefs and wrecks (which even lure Aussie divers away from the Barrier Reef). The Coolidge dive leaders are understandably cold towards novices fresh out of PADI class asking to dive "The Lady" at 45 metres.

The water is warm (26 degrees). The visibility is forever, and the wrecks are all in 30 to 40 metres. But I am ever wary of complacency, having seen the caution with which CRABBSAC divers approached the Dorset wrecks and heard those tales from the incident pit. We read with morbid fascination the accounts of those lost on the Coolidge. There are no recompression facilities in Vanuatu, casualties get a low-level flight out by Hercules from Australia. About a dozen divers a year get bent, mostly thought owing to "decompression" computers which aren't designed for 40 metres plus. On the Coolidge we dived using the hyper-conservative Royal Navy tables, staying at the deco stop 20 minutes beyond the dive leader's computer has registered "all clear".

We progressed ever deeper, exploring the anchoring gear of the "Kanunda", the riveted plates of the Belfast built clipper "Star of Russia", the amazing visibility on the "Seunele" allowing us to see the whole ship as we began the shotline descent. We saw humpbacked Maori wrasse. Lionfish everywhere. A tiny Technicolor nudibranch (nothing like a beercap Karen!). Huge but delicate angelfish.

Logbooks respectably enlarged, we sailed north, stopping for a few days in a bay full of hawksbill turtles. The night sail to Santo was enlivened by a lightening display in the south and the fiery glow of Ambrym's volcanoes, seen 30 miles offshore. As I write this, we have just had an earth tremor - Vanuatu sits right on the edge of the Pacific Plate, next to the 8000 metre deep New Hebrides trench.

And so finally to the world's largest accessible shipwreck. I cannot improve on the slick prose and photography in the Diver Magazine (June 1998) - do read it. We dived with Allan Power's team (Allan no longer dives, but he walks around as divers assemble their kit, raising his eyebrows in mock admiration at the expensive equipment which has superseded the pig's bladder and hosepipe gear of his youth). They took particular care of Alec and I, as it was shore diving with crutches again, and Tony our guide took just the two of us on our own slow careful tours.

Past gas masks and helmets abandoned on the promenade deck, down to the crow's nest and massive anchor, the cargo holds full of snoozing bulldozers, the barber's chair suspended in mid-air, the eerily empty sharkcage with its "last chance" tank of air still in place.

Surgeonfish piloted us around the anti-aircraft guns while the tame moray eel, Nessie, arched her neck out from her hideyhole to be tickled. Groupers and snappers lurked at the outer edges of our vision, corals added highlights of colour, even showing red at 21 metres without torchlight. Gymnothorax Undulatus (another moray) stretched its jaws and wound its coils back into some unrecognisable piece of wreckage.

You get a perspective of this massive 22,000 ton wreck, lying on her port side, by dropping down the now vertical windows of the bridge like abseiling down a skyscraper. The bridge runs athwartships and swimming in you gaze down it as if down a lift shaft. I had an irrational thought about losing buoyancy and dropping down it like a stone. But the greatest thrill was watching Tony disappear headfirst through a narrow sea door and then, gathering gauges and ockie together, gritting teeth and following him inside. The heartrate pumped up as we swam through the smoking lounge, light filtering in still through the skylights and then suddenly Tony's torch illuminated the porcelain figures of the lady and her unicorn. Then, less prosaically, the intact red lightbulb in the coal-effect fireplace beside her.

Filled with euphoria and nitrogen, we floated back to the deco stops, spending twenty minutes enjoying the coral whilst being examined by tiny fearless fish who peered into our masks as if we were the aquarium dwellers. At 5 metres we were mugged by the waiting packs of day-glo pets; butterfly fish, triggerfish, parrotfish and the gormless looking batfish with a mouth like a Hoover. There were tiny, insistent jerks at the bread in our fingers as the little fellows got their share and then - whoosh! - everything scattered as the menacing snappers made a grab attack.

The Coolidge is an addictive wreck, but she'll gradually be closing her doors to penetration as divers' air bubbles, earthquakes and hurricanes add to the disintegration of her steel. Now's the time to dive her, and wouldn't she make a great May Bank Holiday destination?

Cheers everyone

Lindsey

This page was last updated on : 06 Sep 2011