The world-famous SS Coolidge Dive is on many divers’ bucket list. Some even say it’s the best wreck dive in the world. Before diving the SS Coolidge, I didn’t understand why. I thought it would be another overrated dive spot.
So when we visited Espiritu Santo, we only planned a couple of dives there. There are many great things to do in Santo. I didn’t want to spend my entire stay just scuba diving. But I am infinitely grateful that we added one more dive at the Coolidge from our initial plan. Diving the Coolidge is not overrated. It deserves a spot on your bucket list.
If you’re planning a trip to Vanuatu and considering scuba diving the SS Coolidge, read on for more information on:
- why the SS Coolidge is one of the best dive sites in the world
- the number of dives to plan there
- the different options to dive the SS Coolidge and the budget
- the best places where to stay on Espiritu Santo for scuba divers
- when it is the best time to dive the SS Coolidge
Are you covered for scuba diving by your travel insurance? I recommend avoiding bad surprises if an incident happens. If you don’t have insurance, you may be interested in reading more about DAN and WorldNomads*.
Why the SS Coolidge dive is a bucket list dive
I am not particularly a fan of wreck dives, although I’ve dived a few shipwrecks before. And after diving the SS Yongala wreck, one of the best scuba diving sites in Australia, I could not imagine any other wreck dive could be more impressive. I was happily surprised to love our dives at the SS Coolidge wreck a lot more than I expected. What’s so special about it?
The SS Coolidge wreck has a fascinating history
I heard a lot about WWII at school in France and visited many historical places linked to it. But I had no concrete idea of what a luxury cruise ship rehabilitated for the war could look like, and what equipment could be found in it. The SS Coolidge wreck gave me a history lesson underwater, and it was interesting to learn more by browsing the books and by asking thousands of questions once we were back to the dive shop.
I regretted not reading more about the SS President Coolidge as it would have undoubtedly enhanced the experience. The book The Lady and the President: The Life and Loss of the S.S. President Coolidge* is reputed for being one of the best to get all the information about the ship.
To sum it up, the 200-meter long boat used to offer world cruises to nearly 1,000 wealthy vacationers in the 1930s. But it was all changed for WWII. When it reached Espiritu Santo as a troop ship in 1942, it had more than 5,000 men on board. Not aware of the mines, the Captain changed the itinerary to enter Santo’s harbour through a larger channel. The boat hit two mines and sunk near the coast. Most men could safely reach the beach, sometimes even walking, before the vessel sank. Only two men lost their lives in the SS Coolidge.
All the boatload sunk with the ship. As you explore the wreck, you get to see many artefacts such as weapons, helmets, munitions and even vehicles. During the dive, I could not stop thinking about how much war is a waste of everything. I had a similar feeling when we were snorkelling Million Dollar Point.
I saw species I had never seen before on the SS Coolidge
I am usually not a fan of deep dives as you use more air and also have a limited time when you plan a no-decompression dive. It usually means less time underwater, hence fewer chances to see amazing things. So I was surprised by how much we could see during our SS Coolidge dives.
There were no fish in all the videos I had seen of the SS Coolidge. So it came as a surprise to see many corals and fish. The highlight of our SS Coolidge scuba diving trips was to spot a couple of marine species that we had never seen before – and didn’t even know existed!
Have you heard of the electric clam, also nicknamed “the disco scallop”? It is only found in the tropical waters of the central Indo-Pacific region, and it looks fantastic. What about the flashlight fish? I discovered them a few years ago at Noumea‘s aquarium and never imagined being able to see them underwater. I advise to keep the surprise for your dive, but if you want to check out what it looks like, watch this video.
The SS Coolidge wreck is easy to access
The SS Coolidge dive can be done from shore from a beach that’s only a short drive away from Luganville.
I always find it more comfortable to equip on land.
Diving the Coolidge from the shore also offers the opportunity to do one dive per day, so you are not too tired. It is ideal if you want to explore the other great things to do on Espiritu Santo, such as having a dip in the blue holes or resting on the beautiful beach of Port Olry.
We appreciated having a long surface stop between two dives. It makes a difference when you plan to go to deep sites. And we could learn more about the wreck by chatting with the team which made our second dive even more interesting.
Another plus was our safety stop. It was very relaxing to wander in the coral garden in just five metres of water. It was one of the best safety stops ever!
How many dives to plan on the SS Coolidge?
That’s a hard question to answer. Some divers are at more than 15 dives and can still list places they haven’t explored. We initially planned two dives there and ended up doing three. I would not recommend doing less than three dives and the night dive is a must-do. However, note that you won’t be able to do them all in one day. The divers we met who planned three dives in one day had to go to Million Dollar Point for their second dive.
You can find a list of the most popular dives with great descriptions on Allan Power Dive Tours website. The ones we did are:
Cargo Holds 1 & 2 + Promenade Deck (max. depth: 30 metres)
This is the usual first SS Coolidge dive and an excellent introduction to the wreck.
There are many war relics to see such as helmets, munitions, and guns. We also saw a lot of marine life with big schools of fish and the amazing electric clamp as well as a few flashlight fish.
The photo of the barber’s chair is not a technical mistake: I chose to feature it as I saw it underwater. The ship lays on its side at the bottom. Sometimes, you have to rotate what you see in your mind (or physically rotate your head) to understand what you are looking at.
We mostly stayed outside the wreck during this first dive and only went in from a large entrance. The boat was so big that it hardly felt like we were inside.
The Lady (max. depth: 39m)
The Lady of the SS Coolidge wreck is one of the most photographed underwater icons. It is a porcelain sculpture in relief of a woman riding a white unicorn. You don’t get many opportunities to see a piece of art like that underwater.
It was initially located in the first-class smokers’ lounge at around 60 metres deep. But after it fell off, they restored it and placed it back in a more accessible room at a depth of 40 metres.
Surprisingly, the Lady was not what I loved the most during this dive – although it was great to get to see this icon. I really enjoyed the full penetration dive opportunity. We took narrow passages through the ship which made it an amusing and sensational dive. After seeing the Lady, the guide took us to the medical supplies room and the toilets. This exploration gave a taste of the size of the wreck and how much of a labyrinth it is.
I was surprised when our guide offered to dive the Lady for our second dive on the SS Coolidge. We are both experienced divers (around 100 dives in many different conditions) with Rescue certifications, excellent buoyancy, and low air consumption. But our certifications limit us to a depth of 30 metres. From the dive plan, it did not sound like a challenging dive. We would stay only for two minutes at a deep depth.
We are conservative divers, and we did not like the idea of going beyond our certification even if it sounded like it was within our experience. There are evident risks of going beyond your certification limits, but some risks are not obvious. Although we haven’t completed the Deep Diver certification, we have read a lot about it. We are aware of the impact of a decompression dive if something goes wrong (you have to do a stop and cannot go up to the surface slowly like during a no-decompression dive) and the risk of gas narcosis for example. We were going with a guide who dives there every day and judged we were experienced enough to follow his dive plan. But we did not consider the risk of not being covered by our travel insurance. I wished our guide knew this as it would have impacted our decision. There was no peer pressure at all, and the decision was all ours, but we did not realise this danger. I do not want to dive without insurance, especially in a foreign country. I learnt a lesson from this experience.
My tip is simple: if you wish to dive the Lady (or any other sites deeper than 30 metres), get certified for deep diving and decompression dive. Certifications are there for a reason, and it is silly to take chances. Plus, it is a gamble not to be sure you are covered by your travel and/or scuba diving insurance. FYI, although we did not hold a wreck certification, we were covered by our insurance for penetrating the wreck with a guide. It’s always a good idea to double-check the conditions with your insurance.
The night dive (max. depth: 30m)
It would be a mistake to miss out on a night dive at the SS Coolidge wreck. Without a doubt, it was the best of the three dives we did on the SS Coolidge and the best night dive I have ever done.
We swam back to Cargo Hold 2 and the Promenade Deck that we explored the day before. But it looked very different as we went down in the almost complete darkness without turning our torches on. Although it sounds scary, I stayed relaxed all the way. We could see each other a lot better than I expected. And the luminescent plankton around us looked so amazing that I didn’t feel like I was diving in the dark at all. It was easy to follow the group as you just had to follow the trail of magical light created by their fins. The closest thing I know to describe it is the shiny powder the fairy leaves behind in Walt Disney’s introduction. Imagine this but in bright blue. Although that was enough to convince me a night dive is a must-do there, the best part of the show hadn’t started yet.
The flashlight fish show was a surprise for us, and you may want to keep it that way for you and jump to the next paragraph. But if you’re too curious, you can read on and watch this video. We could actually see a lot more fish than what’s on this video. The flashlight fish have bioluminescent organs that look like a glowing pocket under their eyes. They can turn them on and off almost every second. The fish produce their own light to confuse predators, attract food and even communicate. When you get close enough, they look like two badass scary eyes staring at you. I hold my partner’s hand so we could share this special moment in the dark, and check on each other quickly. If you set an alarm on your dive computer to be notified when you reach your 30-metre limit, you can even relax a bit more. I could have stayed there all night long if I didn’t only have a 200 bar tank.
A guy in our group did his first night dive ever with us that day. He didn’t do too bad, although it seemed challenging for him to keep its depth without any visual reference. And entering the water without the torches can be impressive for your first night dive. We met another traveller who almost panicked and felt very uncomfortable when she was in the dark 30-metre deep. She had a hard time and only continued diving to please her buddy. So I recommend doing a few night dives elsewhere before if you have the opportunity, you will only enjoy the show more!
The Coral Garden
We spent quite a long time at the Coral Garden as it is where we did our safety stops. Because the guides dive multiple times every day and had different dive profiles, we even did a decompression stop. It was a lovely place that I would rank high on my best safety stops list.
The night dive there was also excellent and entirely different from what we could see during the day.
From what I understood, the Coral Garden was created by Allan Power. So you only get to do your safety stop there if you dive the SS Coolidge with this dive shop.
The Engine Room (max. depth: 50m)
We didn’t dive to the Engine Room as it’s way deeper than what our certification allows. So why is it on this list? I like to ask people what their favourite spot is when we don’t get to experience all the dive sites. The Engine Room was often mentioned. You get to see one of the enormous propulsion motors before entering the control room where the gauges and levers are still in good form. If you are certified and have the equipment to reach this depth, I guess you shouldn’t miss it!
The different options to dive the SS Coolidge Wreck and the budget
You need to organise your dive with a local dive shop to access the SS Coolidge wreck. From what I’ve understood, they all have their private access to the wreck – some right in front of it and some a little bit further. Although it’s a shore dive, you cannot go to the beach by yourself with your gear to access the wreck.
You can dive the SS Coolidge wreck from a boat, but it will double your budget.
There is a multitude of dive shops in Santo that can take care of your SS Coolidge dive. I don’t know them all so this article does not pretend to do a comparative review. However, I am sharing here my experience combined with the results of the research I did when we planned our SS Coolidge dive.
Allan Power Dive Tours
We did our SS Coolidge dives with the team of Allan Power Dive Tours*. When I asked fellow scuba divers about diving the SS Coolidge wreck, this dive shop was always mentioned. They have been around for more than 35 years, and Allan Power is known to be the caretaker of the Coolidge. We trusted the number of positive recommendations we heard from fellow scuba divers.
We had a great time with the local divemasters from Allan Power Dive Tours. They always divided us into small groups of 2 or 3 people maximum. Their access is right in front of the Coolidge, so we didn’t have to swim for long at all. If you do two dives in one day, there is an extended surface interval where you go back to Luganville for lunch.
Back at the dive shop, we loved talking about the SS Coolidge wreck with Allan himself. He was a very quiet chauffeur when we were at the site, but when you start asking questions about the boat, he opens up and becomes a lot more talkative. His passion and knowledge about the ship are second to none. It certainly was a bonus to learn so much about the boat.
You might be able to organise training with them to get the skills you need for the deepest dives, but it’s not apparent on their website.
Allan Power Dive Tours have a minimum of four divers required for the night dive, which made it a bit harder for us to organise. They only offer SS Coolidge dives and Million Dollar Point dives in Santo. As we were moving from one accommodation to another, they let us leave our bags in their house which was very convenient.
Budget estimate with Allan Power Dive Tours: 20,400 VT for three shore dives with equipment
We appreciated that they gave us a package for six dives (200 VT discount per dive) although we did three dives each. Plus, there were no extra fees for paying by card. When we dived in 2018, it cost 5,000 VT per dive, and the equipment hire was 2,000 VT per dive. The night dive was at the same price.
We didn’t dive the SS Coolidge wreck with Coral Quays*, but we explored coral reef sites with them. I’ve noticed they were chosen by some of our local dive shops who organise international trips, which I believe is a sign of seriousness.
The team was fun and competent, and the equipment was in good condition. They are reputed for being very safety conscious: don’t expect to go over the maximum depth of your certification with them or to do a complex dive on your first day. We wouldn’t have been able to dive the Lady with them (see below for details) – which I think should be the norm more than the exception. They have gear for technical dives to cover the difficult dives on the wreck. They offer SDI/TDI dive course if you want to learn new skills that are necessary to dive some spots on the Coolidge.
I also really appreciated this dive shop as they take on their own time to clean the reef from the Crown of Thorns Starfish invasion.
They offer both shore dives and boat dives to many dive sites around Santo. Also, they don’t have a minimum of divers for organising a night dive. It can be a significant advantage if you are not flexible in your planning. They picked us up for free from Luganville to drive to their resort which is a bit out of town.
Budget estimate with Coral Quays: 20,630 VT for three shore dives with equipment
The prices were very similar to Allan Power Dive Tours. However, the major difference was that we had to pay 50% of our booking in advance when we dived the local coral reefs with Coral Quays. We only paid after completing the SS Coolidge dives at Allan Power Dive Tours.
A shore dive was 5,000 VT (with a 200 VT discount if you do more than five dives) and the dive equipment rental (BCD, Reg, Wetsuit) was 1,550 VT per dive. Boat dives were more expensive (9,000 VT for a single dive, 14,000 VT for a double dive). And we had to pay 5% extra for the card fees (included in my budget estimate).
Aore Adventure Sports
They are a PADI 5-star dive resort on Aore Island, just in front of Luganville. Aore Adventure Sports* only offer boat dive and have their own mooring at different spots on the wreck which supposedly eliminates long surface swims. The surface interval is done on the boat so you can finish your day of diving early in the afternoon. From our email exchange, they seemed to be safety-oriented too. We did not consider diving from a boat because of the price difference.
Budget estimate with Aore Adventure Sports: 31,000 for three boat dives with equipment
In 2018, I found that it cost 15,500 VT for a double dive. Equipment hire cost 3,000 for the two dives. A single night dive was 11,000 VT, plus 1,500 VT for the gear.
There are many other dive shops in Santo, but they didn’t make it to my selection.
The best places where to stay on Espiritu Santo for scuba divers
We booked our place in Luganville with Airbnb, slightly out of town. It was a cheaper option, and we liked the idea of interacting with locals.
We hesitated a lot with Deco Stop Lodge* that our friends recommended. They are a diver-friendly lodge with a place to wash, hang and lock up your diving gear. When we dived with Allan Power Dive Tours, we picked up a couple of divers there every time. They were satisfied with their accommodation.
Coral Quays Fish and Dive Resort* has a dive centre on-site, so I expect them to provide all that diver needs. I have seen foreign dive shops choosing them again and again for their international trips to the SS Coolidge wreck for both diving and accommodation.
Aore Adventure Sports & Lodge* have excellent reviews on Trip Advisor* for both the diving and accommodation. It was more expensive to do boat dives to the SS Coolidge wreck, so we didn’t opt for this resort. We did spend a couple of nights on Aore via an Airbnb booking and had a relaxing stay. However, there weren’t many things to do on the island, and you’d have to travel to Luganville for most activities.
The Espiritu* has a central location in Luganville, very close to the market and all the shops and restaurants. They also have a dive shop at their hotel (Pacific Dive*). It’s ideal to rinse and store your gear, but I don’t know their reputation.
The best time to dive the SS Coolidge wreck
When you are an experienced diver
The SS Coolidge wreck is a deep dive site. You start the dive by going down to at least 20 metres to reach the highest part of the wreck. You will need at least an Advanced certification to go deeper than 18 metres.
Of course, you can choose to get your Advanced certification with a local dive shop. But I would not recommend it. Diving in Vanuatu is expensive, so it’s not financially attractive. Plus, you won’t be used to deep diving which could dramatically impact the length of your dives. I remember how short my first deep dive was (at Wolf Rock, Australia) and how I could see the air gauge dropping! It would be a waste to go all the way to Vanuatu to dive the SS Coolidge if it’s only to stay underwater for a short time.
You will get the most out of your dives at the SS Coolidge wreck if you are an experienced diver. Indeed, you will have longer dives as you consume less air. And you will be more at ease to go inside the wrecks into narrow passages if you master your buoyancy.
At night, ideally when there is no full moon
Make sure you plan to dive the SS Coolidge at night. As explained earlier, it is a must-do. If you can, it’s better to plan your night dive out of the full moon as you need as little light as possible during the first part of your night dive. Remember? You don’t even turn on your torch as you go down there.
You cannot go for a night dive before doing a day dive with the operator. So talk to them about your wish to do a night dive early to organise your dives accordingly.
Avoid the cyclone season
The SS Coolidge wreck is well protected and close to shore. It can be dived comfortably all year round as the water temperature is around 27°C in winter.
But there is a hot and humid season in Espiritu Santo, from November to April, that you may want to avoid. The highest risk of cyclones is from January to March. By planning your SS Coolidge dive between June and November, you should minimise the risk of unfavourable weather.
Have you dived the SS Coolidge when you visited Santo? Share your experience in the comments below!
Where is the SS Coolidge wreck on Espiritu Santo?
The SS Coolidge wreck is located in the south of Santo just outside Luganville, the second biggest town in Vanuatu. You can fly to Espiritu Santo directly from Brisbane, or from Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila.
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