Lady Of The Deep

In Vanuatu, Alvah Simon falls in love with another woman-- a ceramic maiden found deep inside the wreck of the luxury liner President Coolidge.. "The Roger Henry File" for November 1, 2007

Alvah Simon and Family 368

Alvah Simon and his wife Diana along with their crew Halifax the cat.

I have had a good deal of excitement this week, Diana some, and Halifax none because she is confined to the ship as per quarantine laws. But who knows what sort of excitement the cat has enjoyed?

In The Tao Of Pooh, an enthusiastic friend asks Pooh what the first thing he thinks about when he wakes in the morning is.

Pooh replies, "Breakfast."

His friend says, "Not me. I wonder what wonderful and exciting thing is going to happen to me today."

Pooh responds, "It's the same thing."

So, maybe that big slab of Wahoo made Halifax's week after all.

My week was made memorable when I planted a wet, long, and loving kiss on the lips of the most beautiful lady in the Pacific. No, not my wife. I said in the Pacific, not on it.

When the luxury liner President Coolidge was launched, it set a new standard for elegance. In the opulent smoking lounge, amidst the crystal chandeliers and brandy decanters, a ceramic casting of a beautiful maiden and a noble horse adorned the wall above the fireplace.

With the advent of WWII, the Coolidge was commandeered as a troop carrier. Although ruthlessly stripped to accommodate 5,000 soldiers, "The Lady" was left unmolested, perhaps to remind the young soldiers of more peaceful days past and hopefully to come.

On Oct. 26, 1942, the Coolidge approached the sleepy town of Loganville on Espiritu Santo Island in what was then known as The New Hebrides and is today Vanuatu. To confuse the Japanese predator submarines, the Allied military authorities had switched the sea mines from the southern to the western channel. Somehow the captain of the Coolidge did not receive this information. The first shuddering thud alerted him to the mistake, but it was too late. All speed ahead, he drove the great ship straight onto the shore so that he might safely offload his human cargo. Then the wounded behemoth groaned, slid backwards down the steep reef, rolled onto its side, and lay there sadly and silently for nearly 30 years.

In 1969, Allan Power, an Australian diver and a bit of an adventurer, came to see if he could salvage the giant propellers for their scrap value. He and his mates had a rollicking time stripping the wreck of its precious metals and war relics. But slowly he came to love the site, even revere it, and began to champion the cause of conservation instead of exploitation.

A milestone in that effort was the day he found The Lady buried deep beneath the debris and silt. Cleaned and hung back on her mantle, the maiden became the alluring symbol of the wreck and the prize every deep diver sought. Two died for that prize.

As both my money and time were constrained, I only anticipated one dive on the Coolidge. As The Lady now lies in 165 feet of water, deep in the twisted bowels of the dark wreck, I did not expect Allan or any of his highly trained and cautious guides to allow me to try for her on my first and in this case only dive.

I had scratched around my old paperwork only to find a 25-year old "Open Water" diving certificate--not exactly impressive. I must have sounded like the legion of previous divers who all claimed that "actually I have a lot more experience than that." My antiquated equipment could not have helped my cause.

But as the divers where being divided up on the beach into different teams based on experience and destination, Gary, our Vanuatan guide, gave me a slow and unabashed inspection. He noted the missing octopus regulator and no underwater flashlight, my cut-off wet suit, torn gloves, and lack of dive hood. But mostly he looked at my eyes.

"Simon," he said, "You are coming with me to see The Lady."

We left Diana and her Mexican friend Alicia snorkeling the coral reef garden on the ledge above the wreck. With 35 years and almost 20,000 dives on the Coolidge, Allan's attention has turned to underwater horticulture. He has meticulously transplanted tons of live coral, forming a walled corridor leading to the drop-off. It is a showcase of plant and animal diversity, color, and activity. It also helps him contain the over-excited divers while they decompress. Diana said it was strangely amusing to watch someone raking and rearranging the underwater environment as if they were in their home garden.

As we descended Gary pulled a loaf of bread out of his wetsuit and scattered it for the fish. The coral trout, angelfish, butterfly fish, and anemone exploded into a kaleidoscope of living color.

We slid down the guide rope to the canted deck. In line, our party pushed down the coral-encrusted wreckage to around 120 feet, then slid between open girders into the hull's interior. A turrum that looked like a Volkswagen charged up to assess our edibility. Huge groupers, red sea bass, tusk fish, and trevally circled.

Then all went dark. Down the silent corridors we swam, deeper into the darkness, listening to our private thoughts and the reassuring hum of the regulator. The glass and bronze chandeliers hung from the ceiling, which was now our wall. Gary shoved his light into one and it burned in techno-color.

Then, finally, down a narrow beam of light, I saw her--a splendid splash of elegant color in this silent black world. I didn't know what the proper protocol was, so I lead with my heart. I swam up, took the regulator out of my mouth, and gave her the kiss of all kisses. I gave her gallant steed a pat on the rump and reluctantly left her to my jealous compatriots.

The rest of the dive was good, correction--great. But I couldn't get the image of that Lady in the dark out of my mind. I call it love at first sight, but Allan calls it nitrogen narcosis.

We toured a few corridors, turned up and out through another hole rent in the deck, and followed our bubbles towards the surface far above. I still had over a thousand pounds of air, so was reluctant to retreat a second too soon. But the rule of buddy diving is that you ascend together when the first tank hits the red line, not the last.

Because of our depth and bottom time we had a long decompression in the coral corridor. I lay on the sand watching the clouds of feisty little clown fish aggressively protect their turf. Gary broke my silent revelry with a thumbs-up motion.

On shore, my dive buddies where nothing short of ecstatic--the whooping and hollering kind. I felt content but strangely reserved. It wasn't until that night, lying in the darkness of my berth, recalling the darkness of that sunken treasure, that the full joy of it hit me. A fortuitous twist, a touch of mystery, a spot of danger, and a pretty face--what more can a man ask for?

Alvah Simon-2007

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