Vanuatu: WWII History and Stunningly Beautiful Tropical Islands


Most won’t remember James Michener’s famous collection of stories, Tales of the South Pacific, based on his experiences as a U.S. Navy lieutenant commander during WWII while stationed in Vanuatu (formerly called New Hebrides). The stories were later turned into a Broadway musical and two films. Vanuatu was the inspiration for those tales and for good reason — this is a stunningly beautiful tropical island chain.

Located west of Fiji and southwest of the coral triangle, this archipelago of 83 islands offers divers warm water, diverse marine life and outstanding visibility.

The main island, Efate, is home to the capital, Port Vila. Epi is a popular island as well and features black and white sand beaches. Espiritu Santo is the largest island and offers a host of diving venues. The reefs begin in relatively shallow water and feature hard and soft coral, sponges, anemones and over 450 species of fish.

The Diving

Diving in Vanuatu offers sheer walls, caverns, swim-throughs and amazing water blue holes connected by underground caverns. Vanuatu features a number of wreck dives, the most famous of which is the SS President Coolidge, one of the largest wreck dives in the world.

The SS President Coolidge, in Espiritu Santo, is a must-see. This luxury liner turned U.S. troopship during WWII was sunk by mines in 1942. Swim through the wreck and investigate its Jeeps, helmets, trucks, guns, ammunition, cannons and many other WWII artifacts, as well as other details that hint at the ship’s former glory. This is a wreck dive like none other.

The Star of Russia lies at the bottom of Port Vila and remains relatively intact. Built by the designers of the Titanic, the Star of Russia provides a host to a large variety of fish species while providing you with a fascinating wreck to swim through.

Twin Bommies features a sheer wall and two “bombora” formations filled with grottos and teeming with fish life. The depth ranges from 32’ at the top of the reef to more than 60’along the drop-off.

Pango Wall is one of the most diverse reefs in Port Vila. On the outskirts of Pango Point, this gently sloping reef reaches down to infinity, housing anemones, nudibranchs, mushroom coral, and gorgonians. Hawksbill turtles, yellow fin, wahoo and barracuda are occasional visitors. Visibility of 98-130’ is common at this site.

Mele Reef has a stunning drop-off filled with brilliantly colored coral and fish life along the wall. It’s a marine sanctuary surrounding Hideaway Island so the sea live is protected and abundant.

The Cathedral features shafts of light cascading from the ceiling into a vast cavern. Swim through a chimney to the entrance of the cavern to explore the walls and investigate the marine life that lives within.

Getting to Know Vanuatu

Vanuatu offers a wide variety of accommodations, with the ritziest on Santo or Efate. You won’t find worldwide chain hotels or mega resorts as most accommodations are boutique hotels.

These islands, once called New Hebrides, played a role in WWII, so you can still find many historical sites and leftovers from the troop activity, making it an ideal spot for history buffs.

Getting There and Getting Around

The airport in Efate has flights from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands. Epi has two small airports with domestic flights.

Minibuses are common and function more like taxis, as they have no fixed route. Taxis are available as well as car and scooter rentals. Traveling between the islands can be arranged by small plane or boat.

Quick Facts

When to Go: Diving is possible year round. The summer season runs from November to March with an average temperature of 82⁰F. Winter is from April to October, the average temperature is 73⁰F.

Average Surface Water Temps: 72-82⁰F

Average Visibility: up to 130’

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