From Wrecks to Coral Walls: The Best Scuba Diving Sites in The South Pacific Paradise of Vanuatu

Swim through shipwrecks, coral gardens and reefs, and discover dugongs and turtles in the turquoise waters of Vanuatu
Swim through shipwrecks, coral gardens and reefs, and discover dugongs and turtles in the turquoise waters of Vanuatu | © Pete Niesen / Alamy
Antonia Paget

The tropical waters surrounding the 83 islands in the Vanuatu archipelago are home to some of the best scuba diving sites on the planet. The most accessible wreck dive in the world lies just off shore near Espiritu Santo island, while the seas team with hundreds of fish and coral species. Here’s our pick of the best sites around.

Dip beneath the water’s surface and scuba divers will see a lot more than just fish in Vanuatu’s spectacular coral gardens and reefs. Dugongs and turtles are abundant here, as well as smaller creatures like critters and mantis shrimps. The real unique underwater treasures, however, are the shipwrecks.

SS President Coolidge shipwreck in Vanuatu is the largest and most accessible wreck dives in the world

The SS President Coolidge is considered to be the largest and most accessible wreck dive in the world, while relics of the American base in Vanuatu during World War II include the dump at Million Dollar Point and the USS Tucker wreck. It’s these sites that put Vanuatu on the global scuba diving map, and the country has embraced its underwater fame, adding things like the world’s only underwater post office to its repertoire. Read on to find out more about the unmissable dive sites in Vanuatu.

Fan Garden, Aore

Sea fans cling to the vertical wall in the fan garden near Espiritu Santo

This spectacular dive site, also known as Aore Wall, is only a few metres off the beach on Aore Island, near Espiritu Santo. Giant fans and hard corals cling to the vertical wall that rises up from 35 metres (115 feet) below, while shoals of barracuda and tuna swim past. Strong currents mean divers can be carried along the wall without using too much of their oxygen for a longer dive.

“This drift dive has to be seen to be believed,” says Deborah Dickson-Smith, a South Pacific Specialist Agent at Diveplanit Travel. “You’ll feel like Alice in Wonderland as you drift with the current through a forest of seriously enormous sea fans. In the shallows you’ll find nudibranchs, anemones, a variety of WWII artefacts and if you’re lucky you might also find a colourful mantis shrimp.”

This is a great site for photographers looking to practise their macro skills.

Million Dollar Point, Espiritu Santo

American military equipment lies at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean at Million Dollar Point

As a former French and English colony, Vanuatu was a key Allied base during WWII, and the legacy of the US troops stationed here lives on under the sea. When the war ended, the Americans bulldozed all their surplus supplies into the ocean after the British, French and local Ni-Van people refused to buy them. The site got its name from the estimated million dollars worth of dumped goods, including tanks, guns and jeeps, that were discarded underwater.

“It boggles the mind to swim through this wreckage, the wastes of war,” says Dickson-Smith. “This dive site of tracked and wheeled vehicles, and various other machines is in about 15–25m (49–82ft) of water just off the beach near Luganville, Espiritu Santo.”

A thriving reef has grown up among all the twisted rusting metal of Million Dollar Point, so the abundant marine life here is another compelling reason to visit.

The Cathedral, Efate

Scuba dive off Pango Point near Port Vila, Vanuatu’s capital city

Diving down into a vast underwater cavern might stir the feelings of a belief in a higher power in some people. But The Cathedral at Efate supposedly gets its name from the shafts of light that filter from the surface and create unusual dappled effects on the cavern’s walls.

“The Cathedral is a striking tall narrow cavern, about a 20-minute boat ride from Port Vila,” says Dickson-Smith. “The entrance to the cavern is tall and wide, about 22m (72ft) deep at the sandy bottom, and it gets narrower as you approach the “pulpit” at the apex. Beyond the pulpit is a narrow chimney that leads to the surface, where you can pop up, wave to the boat, before swimming back down and out of The Cathedral to check out the coral on the reef wall outside.”

The reef is home to many different species of fish, and if divers get close enough, critters like nudibranchs and leaf scorpionfish can be found hidden amongst the coral.

The SS President Coolidge, Espiritu Santo

Scuba divers can pass through the SS Coolidge shipwreck which was sunk in 1942

At just over 200m (656ft) long, the Coolidge is one of the largest wrecks in the world. Sunk in 1942 during WWII when it hit a friendly mine, the Coolidge was grounded on a steep sandbank and slipped down to where the hull now lies 30m (98ft) below. It takes several dives to explore the entirety of the former luxury liner turned troop carrier and to acclimatise to the 70m (230ft) depth at the wreck’s deepest point.

Dickson-Smith says: “Divers go to Vanuatu just to dive the Coolidge, and spend the best part of the week doing so: starting with an orientation dive, and working their way down to The Lady – a porcelain figure riding a unicorn in the first class dining room, and on to the engine room and the stern, the wreck’s deepest point. A highlight is the marine life on this wreck, an enormous resident moray eel called Nessie and the flashlight fish in Cargo Hold Two.”

Turtle Reef, Tranquility Island

Scuba dive with hawksbill turtles in their natural habitat, which has been turned into a sanctuary

This is the best place to see turtles in the whole of Vanuatu – in their natural habitat and at the dive resort’s turtle sanctuary. Also known as White Rock, Tranquility Island Eco Resort’s house reef is a gently sloping wall that drops down to 90m (295ft), so divers can descend to whatever depth to which they are qualified.

“Hawksbill and green turtles can be seen here,” says Michael Burbeary, Dive Operation Manager at the resort. “Dugongs also like to graze this area so keep your eyes open for the shy creatures. We also have many hard and soft corals and reef fishes, and eagle rays and large pelagics occasionally pass by,” adds Vicky Langford, also Tranquility’s Dive Operation Manager.

Resort staff also operate the island’s turtle sanctuary, which rehabilitates sick or injured turtles and also cares for youngsters until they grow large enough to be released into the ocean.

For a once in a lifetime experience, guests and day trippers can release turtles at Tranquility for a small donation.

The Blue Holes, Tanna

The island of Tanna is replete with blue holes – a series of underwater sinkholes and caverns

The volcanic island of Tanna is ringed with all sorts of impressive underwater features, from caves to lively reefs and impressive drop offs. The blue holes, a series of underwater sinkholes and caverns, are one of Tanna’s most popular dives.

“This is hands down my favourite dive in Vanuatu,” says Dickson-Smith. “There are several blue holes with names including Pikinini Blue Hole, Blue Hole One and Blue Hole Two.”

Dives start at the house reef at White Grass Ocean Resort and the first swim-through takes divers through a blue hole and out the reef wall.

“Blue Hole One is an almost endless swim-through,” adds Dickson-Smith. “A very small entry in the shallows leads to a labyrinth of tunnels, opening up into shallow basins, colourful coral gardens, caverns lit from above through slots, and sometimes out onto the reef wall”

Schools of tuna, fusiliers and pelagics are often seen on these dives, as well as whitetip sharks.

The Bonzer Wreck, Efate

A coral-covered wreck situated a short boat ride from shore is perfect for beginner divers

For first time and inexperienced wreck divers, the Bonzer tug boat is an ideal place to start. Scuttled upright in the shallow lagoon area of Mele Bay, this coral-covered wreck lies only a short boat ride from shore. The soft coral gardens surrounding the freighter wreck are also an impressive sight and are teeming with all kinds of fish species.

“The Bonzer Wreck is a cute little wreck about a one-minute’s boat ride from Hideaway Island Resort in Port Vila,”says Dickson-Smith. “The dive boat normally moors a little distance away so there’s a scenic reef to traverse along and steadily down before arriving at the wreck at 18m (59ft).

“Along the way lies one of the largest anemone gardens you’ll ever see, teeming with reef fish and cheeky red and black anemone fish.”

Owen’s Reef, Tranquillity Island

This figure-of-eight-shaped reef is one of the most popular sites around Moso Island, a short boat ride away from Tranquility Island Eco Resort. A variety of marine life can be found here – groupers and sweetlips are dotted around, and white tip reef sharks can be seen resting on the sandy area.

“Fields of staghorn coral, towering pinnacles, enormous brain corals and colourful soft corals and fans; I honestly lost count of how many different types of coral I saw on a single dive on Owen’s Reef,” recalls Dickson-Smith. “Owen himself [the owner of Tranquillity Island Eco Resort and the reef’s namesake] told me that a visiting marine biologist once said that he had never seen so many different species of coral on a single dive.”

The site drops down to a maximum of 25m (82ft) and is suitable for all diver levels.

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