I have just returned from a wonderful trip with Abyss to the island of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu. Our group comprised 13 adults and 7 children ranging in age from toddler to age 12.
The trip was purposely planned to dive the world-renowned SS President Coolidge – the wreck-dive on every diver’s bucket list.
Our family of 2 adults, a 10 and almost 9 year old thoroughly enjoyed the trip – we experienced beautiful beaches, wonderful snorkeling and diving and learnt a lot about the Ni-Vanuatu people and their culture.
I was worried that my kids might be a little bored while their parents were off diving but they loved having other children to play with. They tried snorkeling for the first time – ‘It was FISHTASTIC’ said my daughter, swam in their first freshwater lagoon, and got to eat and drink coconuts freshly picked from the tree. The trip was ideal for families as there were plenty of willing parents to help out and it gave a chance for couples to dive together, knowing their children were being looked after by the other parents.
Local nannies are available and the Ni-Vanuatu people love to fuss over children.
Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, was badly effected by Cyclone Pam – cruise ships have not been docking there due to cyclone damage, so the Vanuatu economy really needs our tourist dollars to support them. Espiritu Santo island was unaffected and it’s business as usual.
I would definitely attend another Abyss family trip – it allowed my husband and I to enjoy some amazing diving as well as have fun and spend time together as a family.
More detailed information on the trip below:
The Coolidge was rated in the top ten wreck diving sites in the world by the London Times in 2007.
The Coolidge sank in 1942 and is famous for being the most accessible shipwreck of its size and type. It rests in 20m of water at the top of her bow, down to 70m depth at the stern. The ship lies on its port (left-hand) side. Access is a short 50m walk from the beach and visibility is about 10-15m. Water temps are a balmy 27-29C – a 3mm or less wetsuit is sufficient.
We stayed at the Beachfront Resort, Luganville, which was child-friendly with plenty of grassed space for children to run around. The pool was warm and inviting. The staff were friendly and there was a good choice of food on the menu including fresh fish, steak, curry and pizza each night as well as daily specials.
Most of the group stayed in bunkrooms with private bathrooms in the lodge area which has a communal lounge and kitchen. Our family of 2 adults and 2 children aged 10 and 8 chose to stay in the Manta Family room with a separate bedroom and kitchenette.
The Resort is about 15 minutes walking distance from town and on the beachfront. Kayaks are available to use. A lockable dive gear wash room is also on site.
Allan Power Dive Tours
We dived with Allan Power Dive Tours. Allan has been diving the Coolidge for over 35 years. Our dive guides were local guides who were professional and friendly.
Allan Power has the closest shore entry point to the bow anchor line of the Coolidge. It’s an easy 25-50m walk (depending on the tide) from the beach to the drop-down point and then a 50m swim to the submerged bow.
You can dive the Coolidge a maximum of twice a day – morning dive left the resort at 8am, returning 11am and afternoon dive left 2pm returning 5pm. This allowed families to share babysitting so both partners could dive, and also allowed time for short sight-seeing trips between dives.
Diving the Coolidge
Most of our dive group were instructor level, with one divemaster intern (all diving on twin sidemounts), and the remainder a mixture of rescue divers and Advanced Open Water divers using single tanks.
Our first dive was an ‘intro’ dive to 30-35m – a chance to get an overview of the wreck and for our group to be assessed and divided into appropriate dive groups based on dive experience and ability and equipment. Maximum group size was 5 divers to one guide.
Upon seeing the Coolidge for the first time, we all agreed the long day of travel had all been worth it.
We swam along the side of the wreck exploring cargo hold entry points where machinery lay. Returning over the ‘top’ of the wreck we saw the starboard side of the ship with still intact glass portholes, a garbage can with a gasmask, beer bottles and plates, recovered from the wreck.
The afternoon dive was to ‘The Lady’. She is a porcelain ceramic portrait of a female figure resting on a white horse, discovered by Allan Power in 1969. Originally in the First Class Smoking Lounge, it survived falling off a collapsed wall around January 2000, and was subsequently relocated to the Dining Room. A tradition has emerged that if you dive to see the The Lady, female divers kiss the horse’s butt and male divers kiss the lady.
After seeing The Lady, we swam inside the ship, through different hatches and rooms, often having to swim single file – we swam about ½ the length of the ship, finally emerging through the chain locker near the bow. It was certainly the longest internal wreck dive I’ve ever done, and not for the faint-hearted or those who may feel claustrophobic.
On Day 2, we did a night dive, descending at dusk. We swam into the darkness, with our torches turned off. I clutched my husband’s hand tightly as we descended. I could just make out the yellow fins of our dive guide in front of us and I was reassured by the red blinking light of my friend Samantha’s dive beacon attached to her tank. We followed the dive guide into Cargo Hold 1 at 30m and the 3 of us held hands with the dive guide at the end – linked together like a human chain. We swam into pitch blackness – trusting the dive guide that we wouldn’t suddenly clonk our heads and swim into a wall. The dive guide stopped and we rotated around 180 degrees and we could just make out the silhouette of the cargo hold entry in the last few minutes of daylight. As our eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, hundreds of flashlight fish twinkled around us – it felt like we were in the night sky in space with hundreds of twinkling stars – except we were underwater – with only the sound of our breathing and the person next to us holding our hand. It seemed like a long time but was probably only 5 minutes when we emerged from the cargo hold and were able to turn on our torches.
Emerging from the murky waters, there was a barrage of “That was (insert optional expletive) awesome!” from all the divers – certainly the most beautiful and memorable night dive I have done so far.
My 4th dive, both my buddy and I had to abort due to problems equalising. However, it was lovely to explore the reef created by Allan Power at the 3m safety stop area, which includes a black-spotted yellow eel, manta shrimp, clownfish and anemones and other marine life. The 5th dive was the ‘Fly-over’ dive which involves swimming over the entire 199m length of the ship from bow to stern, and then back. When we reached the stern, we could see the crow’s nest structure but not the surface of the stern, which sits at 70m depth. This gave us a sense of the size of the ship and was certainly the longest underwater swim I’ve ever done. We also saw the remnants of the shark diving cage – built to protect divers during salvage operations.
Our last dive was my favourite. We visited the Medicine Room inside the ship, where there are still shelves of intact bottles containing powdered medicine and ampoules are visible. From here, we swam inside the ship, passing jeeps along the way, and emerged through the chain locker, near the bow. Some of the swim-throughs were quite confined. I was delighted by the sense of wonder I felt as I swam through darkened rooms and squeezed through various internal entry-points, large expanses of blue water occasionally being glimpsed as we swam past different parts of the ship.
Non-diving child-friendly things to do
Australian Aid Office
If you have space in your luggage – Air Vanuatu allows 23kg of checked luggage per person, consider bringing donating spare clothes, toys, and textbooks. These can be left at the Australian Aid Office located in the Santo Tourism office on the main street – exiting from Allan Power, turn right about 100m.
Snorkel above the Coolidge
While you won’t be able to see the Coolidge, there is some fish life to see at the drop-down point, the water is only 2m deep at this point.
We visited Million Dollar Point where the American forces dumped all their military equipment at the end of WWII – literally pushing it off wharves built near the shoreline. Our kids had their first opportunity to snorkel and could see the submerged wreckage and also and see tropical marine life.
Some of our group dived to 30m and found the wreckage interesting.
Riri Blue Hole
A stunning freshwater swimming hole with vivid blue water and a rope swing that my daughter loved. We visited here between dives.
Visit a Kava bar
Kava is the local drink and is made by pressing the roots of the kava plant. It has a sedative and anaesthetic effect, numbing your tongue, lips and mouth and giving you a relaxed feeling.
Visit the local school – just out of town on the other side of the river.
It was eye-opening for our children to see the difference in resources available to schools in Vanuatu. The local children enjoyed our visit and we left them with some stationery and books we had brought from Sydney.
Visit the local marketplace – just as you enter town, near the river
Fresh produce available to buy – fresh coconuts, avocadoes, bananas, pomeloes, papayas
Aore Island Resort
A 10 minute boat ride from Luganville, this resort is a great place to have lunch with a house reef just beyond the beach. The reef is so shallow that even non-snorkelling children can stand on parts of the reef and see fish.
This is about 1hr north of Luganville with a stunning white sand beach and azure blue water. Make sure you visit when there are no cruise ships docked. Facing the sea, there is a shallow coral reef to the left of the beach, next to the jetty, suitable for children to snorkel.
Velit Bay Plantation
Beautiful views of Velit Bay Beach and a great place to stop for lunch on the way back from Champagne Beach.
Matevulu Blue Hole
Another gorgeous blue hole, with toilet and change room facilities. No rope swing but fewer mosquitoes. Also saw fish.
Millienium Cave all day trek
For age 10 and over. 1hr’s drive from Luganville. Vanuatu’s largest cave, discovered in 2000, it is 50m high and 3-4km long, with bats and sparrows. Includes a swim in the tropical gorge and waterfall.