Part 8: Vanuatu: Boats, bulldozers and Blocks
Bislama word/phrase of the day:
Taosin – one thousand
At 7:00am this morning we awoke with a start to the sound of Bislama blaring out at ear-aching volume across Luganville. If we weren’t aware enough that we have swapped our tranquil hideaway at Turtle Bay for perky Unity Park Motel in the centre of town then ol’ ‘DJ Roots’ pumping local tunes through massive speakers sent us the message loud and clear. It was all in the name of the local phone company and they plugged it hard. We were serenaded brushing our teeth, serenaded when we went to the market, serenaded at the cafe, serenaded at the water front; all with about 4 songs on repeat and the occasional ‘Digicel…digicel’ and ‘Hop yu likem next’.
You’ll hopefully be pleased to learn that Chris’s pet Hergut has very pretty much vanished now and he’s sure got his appetite back. Hurrah!! So with the boy able to function properly, we’re back in town for the sole purpose of doing some diving. There is much to see in these waters but the main reason that many divers come all the way out here is for two dive sites, ‘Million Dollar Point’ and ‘USS President Coolidge’. In 1942 America set up station in Vanuatu in order to use it as a staging post for the war against the Japanese speedy advances through the South Pacific. Whilst there was horrendous combat in the Solomon Islands, some 50,000 servicemen called Luganville on Espiritu Santo their temporary home. They built cinemas, barracks, medical centres, canteens, offices, jetties, torpedo boat base, naval repair centre, stores, workshops etc all to serve troops as they waited to be sent out into the fray.
However, when the war against the Japanese came to an end in 1945 and it was time for the US to return home, they had vast amounts of machinery and equipment that war budgets could not afford to ship back. They offered up what they couldn’t take home to the Vanuatu Government (which at the time was a French and British condominium), at bargain basement prices yet all potential bidders stalled in the hope that the loot would be free. A stand off arose between the countries and in the end the USA chose in spite, to dump tonnes upon tonnes of cars, trucks, jeeps, cranes, bulldozers, fork-lift-trucks, weaponry, even crates of tinned food and canned drink, into the sea just off Luganville bay. Some time after the tragic dumping, a boat attempted to plunder the haul but in their eagerness they became caught on the metal debris themselves and sank to join the junk yard. The dive site has been dubbed ‘Million Dollar Point’ in reference to the worth of equipment now resting in an undeserved watery grave.
It is an awesome dive. You wade out from the shore in the bath warm water a short way and then begin a gradual descent. Within seconds, pieces of gnarled, rusty red metal appear out of the blue and you begin to work your way down the vast sloping piles of entangled machinery. In places the haul sits as deep as 40metres and goes up to 10metres below the service. As you glide around the heaps your eyes struggle to focus on individual items, to disentangle them from the knot of objects but if you look carefully you can see everything from canteen trays to fork-lifts and the plunderous boat. Marine life has invariably enveloped this site, sprinkling it with coral. Small shoals of fish lurk in the distance, pairs of butterfly fish dart in and out of the wreckage, angel fish nibble at the algae like fluff on jeep sun-visors, nudibranch ruffle their frills along wheel edges and a huge titan triggerfish defends his territory of an upturned truck.
The USS President Coolidge was an awesome luxury cruise liner, decked out in all the glamorous mod cons of the time. When WWII spread it’s dark cloud out over East and West, there was little time for such decadence and the vast ship became a haulage vessel for military equipment and personnel. In 1942 the fully loaded ship was coasting into Segond Channel east of Luganville when it hit ‘two’ friendly American mines. It took 85 minutes to sink in which time all but two of the 5,000 crew onboard were able to escape safely. Now, the 200m long and 25m wide vessel rests on its side in 20m to 67m of water for the delectation of the diving community. It is an astounding wreck to traverse. There is a surprisingly minimal amount of life around it and coral doesn’t seem to have sprouted, but you don’t really have time to care. You could dive this wreck a hundred times and still see something new (although the dive-leader who was assigned to us has been diving the Coolidge for 18 years and stopped clocking his dives at 8,000. That’s got to get boring in anyone’s world). On our first exploration of the epic wreck we went in to Cargo holds one and two. They were, as you can imagine, stacked with military machinery. Vehicles of all kinds remaining parked for all eternity.
The dive was extraordinary and would have been better had I not suffered a rather painful reverse block (forgive me the brief explanation but this is basically where you struggle to equalise pressure in your ears and can neither ascend or descend). I was in agony and mindful of the weakness to my right ear caused by a prior barotrauma whilst cave diving in Mexico a few years ago. By the time we were sitting at our 10 minute decompression stop (sorry for the tedious dive talk, non-divers), for the first time in my diving history I was fighting the urge to bolt to the surface. Once we got back to our room and after blacking out into a slumber, Chris plied me with food and water and I was soon back to normal. We’ve refrained from diving for the last few days until my ear clears (it’s still a little blocked) but after that, the Coolidge will be my playground once more.
As per usual, when we were introduced to our dive master at Aquamarine, I placed an unrealistic order for the marine life I particularly love seeing. It usually goes something like this: lots of nudibranch (the party slugs of the sea) please, some octopus (size matters) and a seahorse or two. I have always been lucky enough with the previous two creatures but not the latter. Dave, our dive master, tilts his head at my order, ‘yes, yes and ummm, no’. Oh well, I shrug my shoulders. This was not unexpected. ‘No seahorses on Coolidge. No. But we see them when we eat lunch’. So it turns out that the shallow waters either side of the tiny jetty at the Dive Shop are teeming with seahorses and when the staff sit munching their lunch they can often see them bobbing about in the wash. Needless to say, Chris and I spent a good few hours staring into the waters looking for these limp little creatures but to no avail. Either the little cretins are hiding from us in spite or it’s a big conspiracy and they’re not even there. I’ll keep you posted on our ‘seahorse watch’.
In the meantime, we hope you’re all well and had a gorgeous bonfire night with lots of dangerous colourful explosions to ooo and aaah at.
Tank yu tumas and lots of love.