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Diving Espiritu Santo Vanuatu

A Local’s Guide to the Best Diving Espiritu Santo 

The island of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu is considered to be a world class diving destination. It has everything you could ask for in terms of dive sites – crystal clear waters, deep drop-offs and canyons close to shore, dozens of shipwrecks and planewrecks and an abundance of amazingly good coral reef. There are around half a dozen dive companies in Santo that provide diving services, most of them based in Luganville or nearby Aore Island. The rest are based in Turtle Bay. Before we go into the details of who to dive with an why, let’s take a closer look at some of diving Espiritu Santo hotspots. 

Espiritu Santo Shipwrecks

The SS President Coolidge

One of the jewels in Santo’s diving crown is the SS President Coolidge, a 22,000 ton luxury ocean liner (converted to American troop carrier) which was sunk by mines just near Luganville during  WW2. Incredibly the mines were set by the Americans themselves in order to protect the harbour from Japanese submarines (apparently the ship’s captain, Henry Nelson, was unaware they were there!). The ship was purposely ran aground, saving the lives of 5,340 men (only 2 died). It has since settled back down onto the reef on its side.

As a diving Espiritu Santo hot spot, the Coolidge is massive. It’s nearly 200m long from end to end with the bow resting in waters around 20m deep and the stern resting in waters 60m deep. You can literally swim to the bow from the shore in less than a few minutes. There are almost 60 different dives you can do on the wreck ranging in depth and complexity.

The Coolidge has consistently been voted by divers as one of the most accessible and best wreck dives in the world. There are guns, cannons, jeeps, helmets, trucks and personal supplies left by some of the soldiers, as well as the beautiful porcelain statue of “The Lady”. Diving Vanuatu on the Coolidge delivers on the “Wow” factor.

The USS Tucker

The USS Tucker is a great alternative wreck dive to the SS Coolidge. It’s a US Destroyer that is approx.100m long, originally displacing 1,500 tons. Like the Coolidge it was a casualty of a (friendly) mine that split the ship in two. It’s now resting in about 20m of water and is home to an abundance of fish. Although the wreckage itself has been thoroughly ransacked over the years, it’s still a great dive site with lots of fish and wildlife.

It sits on a white, sandy bottom in clear water, close to the mouth of the channel between Aore Island and the main island of Espiritu Santo (about a 30 min boat ride from Luganville). The mooring point at the dive site is on the wreck’s stern which is largely intact, the middle is scattered far and wide while at the front there is a piece of wreckage that still looks like the bow of the ship. Lots of colourful soft corals and seafans cling to wreckage and schools of snapper and jacks circle the exterior. Under the wreckage there’s large schools of tiny glassfish. Batfish, angelfish and coral trout populate the larger overhangs.

The Henry Bonneaud

The Henry Bonneaud was a 45m coastal trading tramp that was purchased by the original dive center on Bokissa Island and then intentionally scuttled on 19 December 1989, only a few hundred meters from the main beach, It’s now covered and surrounded by marine life and vibrant coral. The wreck allows for easy penetration and visibility is often 30 – 40 meters., making it the perfect introduction to wreck diving. Also at night, hundreds of “Flashlight fish” swarm about the wreck like stars. Maximum depth is 45m. 

MV Tui Tawaite

The 32m long salvage tug MV Tui Tawate was originally used in the recovery of the oil from the SS President Coolidge. It was then abandoned in Santo where it was eventually scuttled in the crystalline waters of the Segond Channel, just off the Coral Quays Resort. While not as internationally renowned as other Santo wrecks, the Tui Tawaite offers divers an artificial reef teeming with marine life. Strong currents and the relatively deep depth of the dive (around 45m) can make this is a tricky dive for inexperienced divers. The wreck sites facing south-west and is sitting upright in the water.

Sub Nets

Although not technically a wreck dive this is still a fascinating dive. During WW2, large chain nets ran the length of the channel to Aore Island to block submarines during the war. As a result of the nets collapsing, coral has grown on them, effectively turning them into a string of artificial reefs. They now feature beautiful hard corals and gorgonian fans as well as plenty of marine life.

Espiritu Santo Plane Wrecks

Corsair Fighter

Thanks to the hundreds of Allied fighter planes and bombers stationed in Espiritu Santo during WW2, there are numerous plane wrecks to dive on around Espiritu Santo. In the Turtle Bay area, there is a rare birdcage Corsair fighter half way between the coast and Mavea Island at a depth of 32 meters. It’s a fully intact plane, sitting perfectly upright on a sandy bottom and you can actually sit in the cockpit and pretend to fly the plane. Apparently, it was operated by the Royal New Zealand Airforce during the Pacific campaign in WWII. Both Eco-Dive and Turtle Lodge run dive tours to this plane. 

Dauntless Dive Bomber

Near Aore Island you can dive on a small 2-seater spy plane, a McDonald Douglas Dauntless Dive Bomber which is located at the edge of the drop off into the Segond Channel on Aore Island. This single seater rests on the bottom broken into three sections.  The propellor blades give an indication of the impact.  A multitude of of small fish species live inside the twisted wreckage while all around the area corals, fish and bombies tempt the photographer. Because the plane wreck is very close to shore visibility can vary dramatically depending on the tide and wind.  There is apparently a large resident moray in the area. Depth 22m to 28m.

Plane Wreck – Palekula Bay

This F4F Wildcat Plane Wreck at Palekula Bay, about a 20 min boatride north of Luganville (past Million Dollar Point) is fully intact and rests upside down with its landing gear down, which indicates it crashed on take-off or on approach to land at the nearby fighter strip.It rests on a sandy bottom up against the reef, little is known about it but it makes for an interesting dive. US Marine Observation Squadron 251 was set up in 1942 at Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides with sixteen F4F-3 Wildcat fighters modified for long- range photographic missions. This wreck is rarely visited and Aore Adventure Sports is the only operator to dive it. It rests upside down fully intact against reef in about 18m of water. Depth 12m to 20m

Million Dollar Point

Another Espiritu Santo diving hot spot is Million Dollar Point, just north of the Coolidge. It’s a former dumping ground for thousands of tons of US construction equipment during WW2 (hence its name). How did this happen? At the end of World War II, the Americans offered all their trucks, cranes, tanks, machinery to the resident French and the English for a very low price but they both refused, reasoning the Americans would have to leave it behind anyway and then they could simply obtain it for free. To spite them the Americans decided to bulldoze the whole lot into the sea. 

Schools of juvenile fish and many varieties of coral have now made this enormous junkpile their home and the nooks and crannies are a macro-lover’s dream with colorful nudibranchs and feather stars. Most of the sea life can be seen in the first 15-25m of water just off the beach, along with the wreckage of the Dedele, a small inter-island trader boat.

Reef Dives (Luganville & Surrounds)

Fan Gardens, Aore Wall

A  drift dive through a forest of seriously enormous sea fans. Sometimes called ‘Aore Wall’, because of it’s close proximity to Aore Island, this dive may allow you to discover nudibranchs, anemones and a variety of WWII artefacts in the shallows as well as a colourful mantis shrimp. Bigger fish inhabit the deeper drop offs. It’s a great site for photographers looking to practice their macro skills or for those wanting to let the current do the work.

Cindy’s Reef

Just off the northern point of Aore Island lies Cindy’s Reef, a beautiful and relaxing drift dive over an expansive reef area consisting of very colourful coral bommies. The dive site features a gently sloping reef, which offers an array of soft and hard corals as well as anemones and clownfish. And hidden within the corals are colourful nudibranchs, mantis shrimps, and pipefish. All up a very tranquil yet vibrant dive experience. Its accessibility to divers of all skill levels and its rich marine biodiversity make it a must-visit Espiritu Santo diving site.

Chails Reef

Located just off Tutuba Island, Chails Reef is well protected, calm and has a maximum depth of only 20m which makes it the perfect dive for beginners. There are caves, swim throughs, chasms, crayfish, and spectacular hard and soft corals. The vis is generally excellent and current is minimal. lots of marine life from crayfish to anemone clownfish, turtles, and the occasional leopard shark.

Fantasy Reef

Fantasy Reef is named for its breathtaking underwater landscapes. The reef’s topography is a mix of coral gardens, overhangs, and swim-throughs. As you descend, the sheer density and variety of corals become evident, from massive brain corals to delicate branching corals. Marine life at Fantastic Reef is as varied as its coral structures. Schools of trevallies, batfish, and barracudas can often be spotted patrolling the area. The nooks and crannies of the reef provide refuge for smaller creatures, including blennies, gobies, and a plethora of crustaceans. Macro photographers particularly treasure this site for its wealth of subjects. It truly is a a diver’s paradise.

Richard’s Place

Richards Place is a relatively newly discovered seamount in the middle of Aore Bay. It’s only accessible by boat. Depth ranges from 10 -27 meters.   Huge gardens of staghorn coral hide a multitude of fish species.  Every turn has something new to offer including turtles, reef shark & large schools of fish that follow you around beautiful coral gardens.

Mal Mal Reefs

This pristine reef system surrounds an uninhabited island not far from the wreck of the USS Tucker. It’s located in 15m deep waters approx. 40mins boatride SW of Luganville. It’s a kaleidoscope of coral, colours and schools of fish – big eye trevally, giant trevally, dog tooth tuna and barracuda. In the shallows, there are huge coral bommies and small caverns filled with lobsters and plenty of macro life while at the reef drop off,  you may spot various species of reef sharks, rays and the odd turtle.

Tutuba Point

Tutuba Point is a spectacular reef with both hard and soft corals, caves, swim-throughs and beautiful marine life. This is a drift dive with fantastic visibility ranging between 40 – 50 meters. Turtles, reef sharks and Napoleon wrasse are often visible. The site is located on the northern tip of Tutuba Island and is a short boat ride away from Luganville. Maximum depth is 25 m.

Bokissa Reef

Bokissa Reef is situated off the coast of beautiful Bokissa Island, which itself is a 30 min. boat ride NE across the channel from Santo. It’s zoned a marine park reserve, however the resort and dive centre that was based on Bokissa has long since fallen into disrepair and the reef has not been afforded the protection it used to have in past years.

Nevertheless, it’s still one of Santo’s hidden treasures, a spectacular reef shelf that plunges dramatically into the deep blue, covered with an array of colorful coral formations (soft corals, gorgonians, sea fans) plus plenty of marine life. The visibility here is outstanding, and divers often see reef sharks, barracudas, and even the occasional passing manta ray. Small crevices and overhangs along the wall are teeming with life, making it ideal for macro photography. Definitely a must-see Espiritu Santo diving site for visiting divers.

Reef Diving (Turtle Bay & Surrounding Islands)

With names like The Pinnacles, Pilota Wall, North Unicorn, Rainbow Reef and Shark Point, the diving around the islands and reefs of the east coast of Santo promise adventurous experiences filled with big pelagics (wahoo tuna barracuda and sharks). There are over half a dozen islands that make up the inner lagoon of Turtle Bay plus another half a dozen outer islands scattered along the coast behind Turtle Bay. All offer extensive fringing reef, canyons and drop-offs.  Most of these dive sites have only recently been surveyed thanks to the efforts of Kevin Bowden (original owner of Eco-Dive) and Turtle Bay Lodge Dive Centre based at Turtle Bay. Here’s a quick summary of a few of the dive sites.

Pinnacles – Rising up from the depths, the pinnacles feature a spectacular diversity of coral and marine life.  Count on seeing turtles, rays, moray eels and more.

Pilota Wall – Starting from 5m and dropping steeply all the way down to 45m, Pilota Wall is just of Pilota Island (about a 2o min boatride north of Turtle Bay. It features gorgonian fans and corals of all varieties, there are turtles and colourful reef fish in the shallows along with an array of nudibranchs and anemones. A perfect dive for dive photographers looking to practice their macro skills.

Shark Point – Located on one of the islands just north of Turtle Bay, Shark Point is all about the critters. Not just an abundance of fish life. (unicorn fish, barracuda, bluefin tuna, colourful reef fish) but also eagle rays and black and white tip reef sharks. Diving below 20 meters offers sightings of the larger predators.

Nautilus Night Dive – a fascinating night dive at the reef’s edge where you can observe nautilus rising up from the depths to feed on smaller invertebrates.

Dive Companies Espiritu Santo

There are currently five different companies on Santo offering diving tours. 

Allan Power Dive Tours 

Although the legendary pioneer of diving the President Coolidge, Allan Powers , died in 2019, his name and legacy live on in a newly formed dive company that bears his name. The company, Allan Power Dive Tours run by David Mariner, has not only taken on Allan Power’s name but also his dive site area opposite the Coolidge wreck, along with Coral Quay’s old site next door as well ( Coral Quays Dive folded just after Cyclone Harold in 2020).  They are currently in the process of building an integrated dive centre, restaurant and accommodation area on the site to cater to future divers of the Coolidge. A new website under Allanpowerstours.com will be launched shortly. 

Pacific Dive Santo

Probably one of the most experienced dive operators on the island, Jack Powers and his company Pacific Dive Santo  have been running tours to the Coolidge and other wrecks since 2017. Jack’s company, based out of the Espiritu Hotel in Luganville, is one of the few to offer not just recreational diving but also a whole range of technical dive courses as well. In fact, Jack recently completed his SDI – Scuba Diving International & TDI – Technical Diving International Instructor Trainer Workshop with the aim of turning Pacific Dive into a Professional Development Centre, a one stop shop for all levels of training, from Open Water to Technical Diving to Professional Levels. Pacific Dive are also one of the few dive centres set up for spearfishing and freediving adventures as well.

Eco-Dive Vanuatu

Eco-Dive Vanuatu was pioneered by South African diver Kevin Bowden, who spent may hours exploring the east coast and islands around Turtle Bay with his team of divers in a bid to discover a whole new series of dive sites for Santo divers. And he succeeded, however he has since sold the company to a new operator (Daniel) who until recently was operating out of a small backpackers resort (Eco-Dive Bungalows) behind Turtle Bay Lodge . However he has now left this premises and plans to open a new dive centre farther north on the river at Turtle Bay. At the time of writing this blog, those premises were still under construction, so best to contact Eco-Dive direct via their facebook page to confirm if they are still operating.

Aore Adventure Sports Diving

Paul White and his team at Aore Adventure Sports Diving are not only one of the most professional dive companies on the island but also the most experienced, with over 24 years in the dive industry both in Vanuatu and Australia. They know the dive sites around Santo like the back of their hands. Paul’s PADI 5 Star Dive Center is based on Aore Island and they not only run open water courses but also offer recreational dives to dozens of different dive sites, including the SS President Coolidge, Million Dollar Point, WWII ship and plane wrecks,  as well as some pristine reefs exclusive to Aore Adventures only. Paul’s pride and joy is a custom built 8 meter twin engine Stabicraft vessel, Full Boar, which was custom built for Aore Adventure Sports, by Stabicraft Marine New Zealand and set up specifically for diving, light game fishing and island cruising for up to 10 passengers and crew.

Turtle Bay Lodge Padi Dive Centre

This PADI registered dive centre is relatively new to Santo and is based at Turtle Bay Lodge. It’s run by Mick Burberry and Vicky Langford, two very experienced dive instructors with decades of diving experience. Turtle Bay Lodge Dive Centre  offer something for everyone, daily diving, beginner dives and a wide range of PADI courses. Best of all you can “try dive” in their pool or in a nearby blue hole! They currently have two dive boats available to take divers out to the myriad dive sites on offer along the east coast and nearby islands – Big Fella John and Wee John – one a large inflatable with twin 200hp engines on the back (formerly owned by Coral Quays Diving) and the other a two story aluminium flat bottom skiff designed to take over a dozen divers in calm weather. 

Our suggestion for accommodation for dives based in and around Luganville is Dec Stop Lodge. Reasonably priced rooms, an on site restaurant bar and pool and walking distance to town. On the east coast we recommend Turtle Bay Beach House or Turtle Bay Tree House, a holiday house complex located on the water at Turtle Bay. Self contained cottages, apartments and beach houses for a great value for money price and within walking distance of Turtle Bay Lodge.