Right Time, Right Place, Right Now

Espiritu Santo

Jun 5, 2001
Outside Magazine

Santo, as it is usually called, is where Michener was based. No other place in all the vast Pacific, he later wrote, made as profound an impression on him. The largest of Vanuatu's islands, it has a craggy interior that makes for rugged hiking through massive kauri trees, orchids, and moss-hung cloud forest. And Champagne Beach, with its sweep of white sand, is arguably the best in the country. But like most visitors, I'd come here for the President Coolidge, a 654-foot luxury liner-turned-American troop carrier that is considered one of the world's finest wreck dives.

The Coolidge went down so fast after striking a "friendly" mine in October 1942 that its decks are still strewn with the rifles and personal effects of the more than 5,000 men who were aboard. (Most walked ashore, and only one life was lost.) Now sitting in 60 to 200 feet of water, the ship lies on its side but is almost fully intact. The dive, along the promenade deck, down long corridors, and into the staterooms themselves if you are experienced enough, is eerily similar to the underwater scenes in Titanic. (A few miles inland, both snorkelers and divers will also want to check out several spring-fed blue holes, where visibility is so great that as you look up, fish appear to be swimming across the sky.)
I dove with Santo Dive Tours, whose owner, Alan Power, has been exploring the Coolidge for 29 years. A round-bellied Aussie locally known as Mr. President, Power is a classic Santo character—at least that's what I decided after spotting a hand-lettered memorial in his backyard eulogizing a cow who was the only victim of Japan's one wartime attack on the island's airfield.

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