Jan 29, 2012 - Mike's Top Ten: No. 9

January 29, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Photo of the Week
Title: The Garden Window - The wreck of the Shinkoku Maru is known for her remarkable
corals. This view out the starboard windows in the pilot house is but one example.
Truk Lagoon©2008
Just a Few Words First
     This weeks Dive Blog Report is a continuation of my personal top ten dives in my life (so far). In part I, you heard about my  experience on the USS Perry in Palau.  Read here if you missed it.  In this issue I will tell you about a dive I made to the stern of the "SS President Coolidge" in Vanuatu to retrieve 20 seconds of footage for my first documentary aptly named, The Wreck of the SS President Coolidge. Read the blog to find out more.
     Also within this blog, I have included a Photo Tip of the Week  on diving with a non-photographer and the complications that can arise. Find out how not to loose your spouse or loved one as a buddy.
     If you haven't already, please sign up for my Dive & Photo Newsletter here. I should have a new edition out this week. Within the newsletter you will find stories and current events in diving and marine conservation and updates on what is happening in my part of the dive world.  Here is a copy of the last edition.
     Just a reminder to all of you who are planning on attending the Beneath the Sea Dive Expo in New Jersey this March, I will be presenting and conducting a photo workshop on wreck photography.  I will also be conducting presentations on my documentary film, "The Wrecks of Truk Lagoon" and one on "Wreck Diving with Sand Tiger Sharks of NC". Click here for more details or check out the newsletter above.

     Yesterday Jan 28, Olympus Dive Center managed to pull off a dive trip on board the M/V Olympus, to the U-352 and the Spar. Reliable word has it the visibility was around 20 or so feet. Not bad for the end of January. Why did I not dive with the Olympus some of you might ask? I have no excuse. Guilty as charged for not wanting to dive in winter water. Shame on me.
Happy Diving,
-Mike Gerken
Mike's Top Ten Dives
No. 9
SS President Coolidge Stern
The stern of the SS President Coolidge.
(Photo courtesy of Richard Harris©www.divedoc.net)
     At 650' in length, SS President Coolidge was at one time know as the largest accessible shipwreck in the world. That was until Bikini Atoll opened up and divers started getting a glimpse of the WWII era aircraft carrier, the USS Saratoga. Regardless of what wreck is the largest, the Coolidge is immense in more ways than one. I had the privilege of getting acquainted with this historical wreck in 2006, while taking an extended leave of absence from my job in Truk Lagoon (see previous blog).
     My dear friend, Jennifer Spry, at the time was the manager of the dive operation, Aquamarine in Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu. Santo, as the island is known for short, was home to the location of a large US military facility in the south pacific during WWII known as Luganville. Jennifer had been telling me about this incredible wreck, the 'Coolidge' for some time and I figured I had to see her for my own two eyes.
     The Coolidge was a luxury passenger liner that was built in the early 30's and cruised exotic locations all over the world. When WWII started the 'Coolidge' was converted to a troop transport ship to ferry men and supplies from the US to the Pacific theater of battle. On October 26, 1942, the 'Coolidge' struck a friendly US mine while entering the channel leading in to Luganville. The captain grounded the ship and more than 5,000 crew and army personnel safely evacuated the doomed ship before she sunk 90 minutes later.  Miraculously, there was a loss of only two lives in the sinking. Today, the Coolidge is one of the most famous wreck dives in the Pacific Ocean if not the world.
The SS President Coolidge in her heyday.
     When I arrived in Vanuatu in May of 2006, my goal was to shoot some video of the wreck, take a few still images and drink a few local beers for the next four months. What happened instead was, I became enthralled with the scope of the history and physical size of the wreck not to mention, the incredible array of WWII artifacts that are readily seen on the site. With a little coaxing and help from Jennifer, I set out to produce the documentary, The Wreck of the SS President Coolidge.  My beer drinking days on a lounge chair were now numbered.
The SS President Coolidge moments after striking
 a mine and running aground.
     Each day I was to visit a new segment of this behemoth wreck and capture the highlights and add them to the film. The wreck when she sank rolled on her side and slid off the reef only a few hundred feet from shore with the bow sitting in about 90' of water and the stern in a precarious 225'. Collecting shots from the forward section of the ship was fairly simple since depths were less than 150'. I scratched off the forward cargo holds, laden with machinery, from the shot list first, while footage of the dining room and super structure followed next with the engine room and galley to come later.

     As the months rolled by, I collected hours of video, but had yet to make it to the stern in about 210'-220' of water where the Coolidge name is still legible on the fantail. At those depths, carrying a 30lb underwater video system while carrying enough gas to make the dive required a little coordination and planning with the assistance from the dive shop staff. 
The stern of the 'Coolidge'.
     One of the owners, Barry Holland, volunteered to make a dive with a few of his staff the day before the shoot to scrub the letters on the stern clean off debris so they would appear legible and bold for the shot. This was no small task since they would have to use trimix in order to stave off narcosis and to shorten their decompression time. (To learn more about trimix click here.) The Helium gas used to make trimix is very expensive on the mainland and even pricier after it has been toted out to a remote Pacific island nation. I was grateful and  indebted to Barry and his team for doing this and helping make this film the best it could be. 
     Later that day, Barry returned from the dive with a big grin on his face which indicated the mission was successful and that they had a good time in the making.  The following day it would be my turn to head down to the stern to get the footage needed to wrap this project up.  We would be carrying twin tanks with trimix, a single bottle of 32% nitrox for getting to and from the stern, plus a tank of pure Oxygen for accelerated deco at 15ft.  In addition, I would be humping my trusty Sony VX-2000 video camera housed in a Sea & Sea housing. By the way, this water proof housing was rated to only 200 feet which is another reason why I waited until the last dive before taking the camera to the stern at 220'. If it should flood at least it would happen at the end of the shoot.
"The Lady and Her Unicorn", the jewel of the 'Coolidge'.
     I explained to Barry that I was going to be very focused on shooting video and I would need him to watch my back extra close, since my attention would be distracted from the skills required to safely accomplish this deep dive.  Holding a camera steady, composing a shot and making sure everything is working is complicated enough, but when you add the strict dive times and depth limitations to the tasks  it can only make matters worse, especially when you are contending with an already fogged mind from narcosis. Barry was to be the lead and I would follow him to the letter without question.
     Early the next morning, Barry and I, along with some of his crew, headed down to the beach and began kitting up for the dive. "Gas on", check; "reg test", check; "camera working", check, as we went down the list one item at a time. Once all was set we began to wade in to the water with all our gear on and my camera in hand. We would have to swim several hundred feet on the surface carrying full gear. If you have never had to swim on the surface without the use of SCUBA while wearing 200 lbs of gear, I highly recommend it. By time we made it to the buoy we just floated on our backs for a few minutes until we caught our breath. Being over exerted before you even start your dive is not a good thing. After a short rest it was time to go.
The engine control room.
     After a simultaneous flick of our thumbs to the down position, we began our long decent to the stern. We headed down the line until we had a visual of the wreck and then headed straight for the stern. With camera rolling and fins fluttering pretty soon the starboard side prop shaft came in to sight. The props was removed some years ago during a salvage operation, but the scene was impressive all the same. I then took a few wide angle shots before proceeding to the fantail to get the 20 seconds of footage that was an absolute must to complete this film. With my depth gauge reading 220' my head was spinning just a tad especially since we were having to fight a moderate current and my breathing rate was up.
     I instructed Barry to pose in front of the letters, but not to look in to the camera. I needed a model in the shot for scale and to add a human element. After taking a few pan shots with a few different takes, it was time to start our ascent. We looped around the fantail deck where a 5" cannon took the place of deck chairs that once held pampered guests looking out over the vast expanse of the ocean behind them. I kept the video camera running and made sure I stayed close to Barry. At this point he controlled the entire dive. I barely looked at my dive computer and just kept filming.
The telegraph repeater with the last command,
"Finished With Engines".
     With the Coolidge lying on a steep angle, the ascent, rather than straight up, took place while diving the length of the wreck from the inside. The further we swam up the wreck the shallower it got. It is easy to get side tracked and stay down too long with an ascent such as this. Barry being the pro that he was kept us on our planned route stopping only briefly to look at artifacts deep within the wreck. At one point he pointed to me and indicated to stop holding 2 fingers up. At first I wondered why is he stopping since we were still deep inside the wreck. After looking at my depth gauge I realized why. We were at 110' and it was time for our first deco stop! This was the first time I ever made a 110' deco stop while still inside a wreck.

     After a few minutes we then proceeded up the wreck towards the shallow end of the bow. The closer we got to the surface the clearer my head became and I had more time to reflect on the awesome dive we just experienced. I was very confident that the footage I shot of the stern was acceptable, but I wouldn't know for sure until I got it on to my computer.
Diving the 'Coolidge' isn't all rusty metal.

     Once Barry and I made it to the tip of the bow, we were still at approximately 80' and finally had to leave the wreck and start our swim up the steep bank of the Segond Channel towards the beach. What is nice about performing deco dives on the Coolidge is you get to do your stops on the reef on the way up rather than gripping an anchor line and whipping in the current. There are plenty of marine creatures and corals to preoccupy your time as you watch the minutes tick off your mandatory stops.

     Finally we make it to the final stop at 15' where we switch to O2 and relax doing fin pivots in the sand and watch marine life do their thing. The excitement of the dive was still fresh. Not only did I get the final clip to my film I also received a grand tour through the deep end of the wreck. I'd say one of the highlights besides the stern was the sniper rifle that Barry pointed out to me inside the wreck with a scope still attached. Since it is illegal to remove artifacts from the wreck items such as these are common sight. For a history buff such as myself, that is a thrill.
The immense spare anchor.
     After what seemed like an eternity, we finished our last minute of deco and with a flick of our thumbs pointed up we ascended to the surface. With masks now removed, I could smile fully and Barry looked at me with a grin and said, "How's that?" Fantastic may have been my reply or another superlative of the same meaning.  I couldn't thank him enough and wished I had a bottle of Champagne to celebrate the moment, but I didn't think to pack one.
    After tossing our gear in to the van we raced back to the shop to share the details of the dive with all the staff and Jennifer. Pretty soon after that I was back in my room downloading the footage I had taken. I quickly realized that the effort put forth to obtain 20 seconds of footage was well worth it. This dive would become the final scene in the film and was a perfect way to end it.  Some of you may note the divers swimming past the rudder with only a single tank on there back. Those divers had dived the Coolidge extensively and proved they had the skills to do a bounce dive to 180'.  Some have asked me why were they allowed to do this. I cannot answer that except they were very competent divers and Aquamarine's safety record had been nearly spotless. They ran a safe operation. (Aquamarine has since then has been sold and I have not returned since 2006, therefore I  cannot comment on performance since this time.)
A rare color image of the SS President Coolidge.
    After I left Santo a few weeks later I returned to the states to do some research on the ship by collecting archival film and stills from museums and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). I spent the next several months completing my first documentary that was produced on a shoestring budget. The result was a historical presentation on the SS President Coolidge like none done before. There is little hope of this version ever making it to broadcast since most everything you see today is shot in high definition (HD) while this footage is in the standard format (SD). Regardless, the documentary has gone on to become a cult classic with 'Coolidge' aficionados from Australia and New Zealand where in that region the wreck is considered the sport divers "Mount Everest". The 'Coolidge', although known somewhat throughout US dive circles, has yet to attract a wider audience from the States. I'm hoping one day this will change and tourism in Vanuatu will start attracting visitors far and wide. This wreck should not be missed if you have the opportunity. She is a show stopper and deserves a place in my top ten.
The final scene from the documentary film,
"The Wreck of the SS President Coolidge".
The DVD,
The Wreck of the SS President Coolidge


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