Vanuatu is quite well known in the diving world mainly because of the enormous
wreck of the President Coolidge and Million Dollar Point. These are both on the
largest island of Espiritu Santo so the other islands tend to get a little overlooked
when it comes to scuba diving. Having spent 6 months working in Port Vila it is
definitely not a place that should be overlooked.
Port Vila is the largest population centre in Vanuatu, but when you compare that to
the rest of the world it cannot be described as large. Those wanting 5-star luxury I
would recommend staying in your resorts as “Downtown” is a little rough around
the edges. Those wanting to experience Vanuatu should certainly go for a wander
around town and through the markets to experience the vibrant culture and the
wonderful friendliness of the locals even if they do have a wicked sense of
humour. In the surrounding areas there are a few walks, natural swimming pools
and waterfalls for all your Instagram needs.
Late afternoon is kava time, a root drink with sedative effects popular around the
pacific islands & apparently Vanuatu does it best (a much debated topic). If you
wish to give it a try then befriend a local and they will show the best nacamal (kava
bar) to go to as the quality does vary quite a bit. Be warned it looks and tastes like
Now on to the most important subject, the diving! Recreationally the diving is
fantastic but if you are wanting more techy diving then you may be a little
disappointed as there is very little support for longer, deeper or mixed gas dives.
The potential is there but unfortunately there still aren’t enough people wanting to
do it for it to be worthwhile for the dive shops to offer. All is not lost there are
more than enough dive sites with options to go deep to keep you depth fiends
happy. There are around 20 sites within a 20min boat ride from Port Vila Harbour
leaving you spoilt for choice.
There are 5 wrecks (2 planes 3 ships) ranging from beginner up to advanced, so
virtually everyone can experience the spooky world of wreck diving. The most
common and easily accessible is the M.V. Konanda, a 50-metre sugar cane
freighter scuttled in 1987. It sits nicely up right in the sand at 26m making for a
great introduction to wrecks. If you are a little more adventurous all the doors have
been cut off so penetration is relatively straight forward. It can get a little narrow in
there so make sure you are with a guide and have prior wreck training before going
to the interior. In the evening the Konanda is home a school of flashlight fish
having their own little disco in the inner decks. The Konanda’s cousin ship the
Semle Federsen is significantly more advanced but also more spectacular.
Originally scuttled in 1985, the devastating force of cyclone Uma pushed the
Semle from its original resting place of 30m down the slope so the props are
around 38m and the bow is at roughly 52m. Unfortunately, this means dive time is shortened which is a shame as the clarity of water around this wreck (usually
ranges from 25 to 60m) and the stunning range of fans that have bloomed on its
decks make it a truly breathe-taking dive.
For those who don’t mind low vis I can recommend The Star of Russia, an 83-
metre iron hulled square rigger built in 1874 by the same manufactures as the
Titanic, luckily its history isn’t quite so infamous. After breaking many records,
and an illustrious career it finally succumbed to the sea at its moorings in the
harbour in sometime around 1953. It sits at 36 metres but the deck is at the 27-29
metres range. Due to more traffic in the harbour and the silty bottom visibility can
be as low as 3m. This, for me, makes the experience all the better even more so
when you hear of the ships unlucky/murderous reputation when it comes to losing
its crew. I wouldn’t suggest penetration as the structural integrity of the wreck is
starting to fail due to its age but it is a must for divers in Port Vila.
If you came to Vanuatu to see ocean critters then the reef dives are the dives for
you. The two most common sites as they are the closest and most sheltered from
the swells, are Bob’s Alley and Twin Bommies. Bob’s is great for beginners as the
sandy bottom offers a nice failsafe for not so nice buoyancy control and still gets a
great range of sea life. Hawksbill and Green turtles are usually cruising around as
well as the local moray eels, sting rays and enormous napoleon wrasse. Twin
Bommies offers pretty much everything you could ever ask from a tropical dive
site. A beautiful drop off on one side often a good spot to see a school of young
barracuda and if you are lucky some devil rays just might sail past and on the other
side two large coral formations with magnificent colours and bristling with life.
Turtles, white tip reef sharks, banded sea snakes, giant moray eels, numerous
different species of lionfish and sweetlips. And for that one person in the group
that just can’t get enough of nudibranchs they will not be disappointed. Not only is
this dive site a treat in the day but its true potential is as a night dive. Green turtles
use the coral formations to sleep under and when the lights go out the squid and
bioluminescent zooplankton give a dazzling light show.
I could sit here and go on about every single dive site in Port Vila as they all have
their own little charms and frankly reminiscing about diving is helping me through
this diveless lockdown. But I feel that would be pretty excessive so I'll just go
through the best bits.
Mele reef, where do I start? Mele reef consists of a few dive sites all clustered on
the other side in Mele bay. It is pretty much like diving in a post card, the coral has
to be seen to be believed. In other sites the coral is in pretty good shape but you
can tell the effects of global warming and the yearly battering of cyclones has
taken its toll. Mele on the other hand looks fake, just perfectly healthy coral as far
as the eye can see which is usually pretty damn far as on good days the viz is
30/40+m. This is the place for shark lovers as baby white tip sharks are seen here
regularly. Bronze whalers and tigers have sometimes been sighted in the deeper parts as well.
This side of the bay is often quite limited due to the direction and
strength of the wind and can only be done first thing in the morning as by the
afternoon the chop will have picked up a little too much to be comfortable. We had
more than a few divers feeding the fish with their lunch on the return journey.
Honourable mention goes to the Cathedral. You can probably guess this dive site
as it is a very common name for open topped sea caverns but what can I say? It
looks like an underwater cathedral. At around 18m deep and 6-7m wide it’s very
accessible for all skill levels and 100% worth a visit. As with Mele, it is restricted
by weather. Swells and current could make this a dangerous site so don’t be
expecting a guarantee to be able to see this one.
When it comes to recommending somewhere to go for a diving holiday Port Vila is
surely up there for me. Having over 450 dives there, I don’t think I can recall a
particular dive where I thought “nah that was rubbish” every day was something
different. My homemade wet suit built of beer and pies was more than enough for
the 24 degree winter water making for very comfortable diving and the visibility
rarely dropped below 15m. Saving the best for the last, the one thing you should
dive in Vanuatu for is the dugongs. It is a life changing experience getting to swim
alongside these graceful creatures. If they are alone, they will not say no to a nice
back scratch and can sometimes be found using the mooring lines for a rub. If they
are with a calf, they will make a surprisingly hasty get away from divers. They are
not the most common sight on a dive and it took me 220 dives to actually see one
underwater. That said, lady luck is most certainly not on my side when it comes to
seeing cool things in the water so maybe just keep your fingers crossed.
So if you were thinking about it or you’ve never even heard of it, Port Vila should
definitely be on your list of places to dive.
Oh and drink Tusker it’s delicious.