(The full article can be found on the Aril 2011 Edition of IFSN)
Deep, warm blue water, a stone through from the beach is a freediver’s dream.
With this in mind we have planned our first Apnea Australia FreeDiving expedition this season.
We have chosen Vanuatu as our destination because of the opportunity to freedive the SS President Coolidge, Million dollar point and the amazing Blue holes of Espiritu Santo Island.
The group consisted of 4 keen freedivers that were training hard to get the most from the Stage C course that was held during the trip, Myself and Ally- My wife and a keen freediver herself.
We arrived in Vanuatu a week before the group to check the sites and to run a Stage B course. While touring Santo (Vanuatu’s second largest island and the best dive location) we found a location where the sea floor drops to 90m straight off the beach. To add to the experience – that awesome little island off Santo is inhabited by real tribal locals.
Upon arrival we took the crew to the hotel and briefed them on the plan for the coming days – we had a tight schedule that included 2 water sessions a day and theory. As the Stage C course is aimed at advanced techniques each day had specific goals (depth and technique-wise).
Freediving in Vanuatu is great! All of us were used to freediving in cold water (around the 20 degrees) and were stoked to be able to jump into the water with thin wetsuits or board-shorts. The water temp’ was about 28 degrees!
We were extremely lucky with the weather! Except for an hour of rain every day (we were in the water anyway so it was not an issue) we had blue skies, minimal winds and around 20m vis’.
Getting to vanuatu is cheap - the whole expedition, including the course ended up well under AU$2000 ex’ Sydney.
Santo as a freediving destination offers a wide variety of options, from shallow coral gardens to steep drop-offs.
SS President Coolidge
The SS President Coolidge is199m luxury ocean liner that was converted into a troop carrier. As an ocean cruiser the boat used to carry 850 passengers but when she was used by the navy she carried over 5000 troops!
In October 26 1942, On her way to drop all the Malaria remedy and the troops on Santo, it hit 2 mines and began sinking. The captain ran her aground and all but 2 people survived. The boat then sank back and now lies with the bow at 18m and the stern in close to 70m of water.
Freediving the wreck is an experience! the sheer size of the ship and the limited visibility (we had around 15m vis’) means that you can only glimpse small portions of it. for example, the front canons are between 18-25m and are an awesome dive. Another great dive is the salvage holes at 24m. They allow you to dive inside the wreck and see old jeeps and trucks.
The highlight of the wreck is of course the stern at 62m with the name of the boat. I had the pleasure of freediving it. More on this dive later...
Million Dollar point
Million Dollar Point is located less than a kilometer to the east of the Coolidge. At the end of the war, the Americans had insufficient space on its ships returning to the US to fit all the masses of equipment that had accumulated in Vanuatu. The American Army lined up all the surplus equipment on the shore with engines running. Hand throttles were slammed on and bricks placed on accelerators and the equipment rumbled into the water, disappearing into water 35 metres deep just a few metres off the shore. From that day on, the site received its name due to the (then) value of the equipment dumped into the water.
Freediving this site provides hours of fun! from 2m’ deep to 35m and more. Fish are abundant, including big jacks and trout. Spearfishing is not allowed on this spot. In the middle of the site lies another wreck that provides great swim-throughs.
Oyster island is located on the east side of Santo and provides amazing snorkelling. The first time we jumped in the water we were blown away by the quality and amount of the corals. Swimming between 6m high walls of coral with the occasional reef shark was great and the near perfect vis’ added to the experience. Depth varies between 2-20m and more.
Our secret spot :)
We have found a beautiful island with pristine white sands, turquoise water, untouched coral and an amazing 90m drop-off 10m from the beach!
Visibility was great - around 20m and we had an inquisitive shark checking us out every morning when we dropped the line at 40m, before disappearing into the blue.
We spent beautiful 4 days freediving the island and became friends with the local family. The father used to bring us coconuts to drink, strange local fruits and more. We were also allowed to visit their village and look inside their houses. Every day we arrived with presents for the children and produce for the adults. The villagers are divers too and it was a great experience to watch them freediving with old masks and hand made harpoons.
The blue hole
The blue holes of Santo are famous for their crystal clear water. The deepest hole is 16.5m deep and lies inside a tropical forrest. This beauty comes with a price - Mosquitos attack you and give you a high motivation to jump into the water. We practiced FRC (Exhale diving) and no fins in this session. Freediving in fresh water enabled us to use less weights but we needed wetsuits as the water temperature is 24 degrees.
Spearfishing in most of the beaches in Santo is allowed. Permission from the custom owner of the land is critical and must be arranged in advance.
Even though this trip was not aimed at spearfishing we discovered that the outer reefs can be very good for spearing large fish. Our next expedition will include a few days of spearfishing in locations that are rarely visited by spearos.
There are plenty of other spots that we will explore on our next expedition in June.
The Stage C course is our highest level before the instructor course and in it we focused on the individual limiting factors of each student and tried to find ways to overcome them. On this group- students freedived to depths of up to 45m
One afternoon, after finishing our dives, we sat with Rehan - the owner of Aquamarine Santo (the dive centre we worked with) and talked about one of the most famous photos of the Coolidge: a scuba diver hovering next to the stern of the ship with the name of the ship visible.
The shot was taken at 62m...
We said that it could be great if there was a similar shot, but with a freediver instead of a scuba diver.
I suggested that I freedive the stern the next day and to our great joy- Rehan and all the crew from Aquamarine volunteered to assist with logistics, safety scuba and photography.
Rehan - Video and Photography
Phil - Tech diver on the bottom
Dave - Would guide me from the line to the actual stern
Michael - Surface backup.
Freedive crew - Jasmine, Scott, Dave, Kyle and Ally were assigned with roles:
Scott would follow me down to around 30m with a video and return to the surface. As soon as he got to the surface Dave would take the camera and dive to around 30m and follow me on the way up to the surface.
Kyle and Ally would be safety divers for Scott and Dave.
Jasmine would play safety for me on my last 15m.
At 62m - Rehan would wait with a video camera and film the bottom section of the dive. I planned around 10-15 seconds of bottom time to allow Rehan to get good footage.
The morning of the dive, after a safety brief for the Scuba and freedive crew, we headed to the coolidge.
After a stretching session and some breath work we swam out to the far buoy, located at 55m. We all performed our warm-ups. I performed one last warm-up to verify correct weighting and then we allowed Phil to take the guide line and dive down to the bottom. On the bottom dave tied the line close to the stern at 58m. Once tied - he sent up a marker to indicate that we could tighten the line and create a vertical line.
At this stage Rehan dived and I had 8 minutes to relax and prepare for the dive.
When the time came I began my dive. I kicked a few times and then allowed myself to be pulled down by the weight. I felt completely relaxed as I have already performed much deeper dives in the past and just enjoyed the glide. At some stage I heard “yelling” and assumed I was close to the bottom. I opened my eyes and saw the ship! It was an amazing sight!! Dark blue water, huge ship and 3 scuba divers with big eyes and smiles...
I swam towards the divers and was “shown the letters”. Unfortunately, since the dive was not really planned, nobody cleaned them for a while and I could hardly make out the letters... Never mind - I posed to the camera and after around 15 seconds began the swim towards the surface.
At around 25m I met Dave with the camera and soon after that Jas’ was in front of me.
Once on the surface and after my recovery breaths and surface protocol everyone were excited. The dive took 02:37 and felt really easy and comfortable.
Around us - a few local fishermen with custom out-rigger boats were a bit shocked to hear that I just freedived the stern of the Coolidge.
I would like to thank Aquamarine and my freedive crew for doing a great job! I think this was a great ending to a great course and an awesome week in Vanuatu!
We can’t wait to be back in June!!!