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Strange Geographies: Exploring a WWII Shipwreck

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I'd like to think I know a thing or two about the Second World War, but there's only so much you can learn from history books and Ken Burns documentaries. To really delve deep, you have to go back to the battle sites -- unfortunately, the places where many of the European Theater's famous battles were fought are now unrecognizably encrusted with development (or were cities and have long since been rebuilt). The Pacific Theater, however, is a different story: many battles were fought on water, making them more or less immune to development (until they invent floating shopping malls). Much of the wreckage is still there, and is as reasonably intact as anything can be after being shot down, crashing into the ocean and being squatted in by weird sea creatures for 60-odd years.

For the intrepid scuba diver, therefore, many parts of the South Pacific are like a living, underwater history museum. Imagine a major WWII battle in the European Theater after which no one had bothered to come in and pick up all the ruined tanks and jeeps, broken equipment, dropped trash. I was lucky enough to dive a few of these sites in Vanuatu recently (you can read about my land-based Vanuatu adventure here), and though they're not exactly battle sites, they're plenty interesting. During the war, Vanuatu was a major American base of operations, from which the Allies launched naval and air attacks against the Japanese in the nearby Solomon Islands. Vanuatu itself never saw any major wartime combat, but evidence of the war is still everywhere, from the Quonset huts and military-built roads that dot the landscape of Espiritu Santo island to the underwater wreckage sites of the SS Coolidge and Million Dollar Point, both of which I had the opportunity to see up close.

The S.S. President Coolidge

Built in 1931, the Coolidge was a trans-Pacific luxury liner which had the misfortune of being completed right as the Great Depression was setting in. It enjoyed just ten years of ferrying America's few remaining rich people around to vacation destinations in the South Pacific before the Second World War cast its shadow over the country, and the Navy decided that the Coolidge should probably start ferrying soldiers around rather than rich people, so they painted it gray, bolted massive guns onto it and sent it into non-combat action.

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Just one year later, this massive ship would lie at the bottom of the Segond Channel in Vanuatu. There are several ways to enter the Segond Channel, and the Coolidge's captain figured -- unwisely, as it turned out -- that he'd come in the back way, to avoid a squadron of Japanese submarines which turned out not to exist. Instead what happened is the Coolidge hit a cluster of American mines which, laid just days earlier, were meant to keep unwanted Japanese warships away. (Those never showed up either, incidentally.) But the captain hadn't gotten the memo, and the Coolidge hit two newly-laid American mines on its way into the Channel. As the ship began to list to one side and take on water, more than 5,000 troops were forced to abandon it, leaving massive amounts of supplies behind -- guns, helmet, jeeps, tanks, rations, medical supplies -- all of which sank with the ship in 70-to-240 feet of water about 100 yards from shore, all of which is still there today, inside this massive ship which lies gently crumbling on its side.

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Soldiers abandoning the sinking Coolidge

Naturally, the Coolidge is a haven for divers. Not only is it staggeringly large -- nearly 200 meters from bow to stern -- it also has the peculiar distinction of being both a luxury liner, home to two swimming pools, several stately dining rooms and promenades and a soda fountain, but a military ship as well, with huge guns welded to the hull and stacks of shells and equipment everywhere. It is, quite literally, like swimming in a military museum. (Albeit a military museum encrusted with 60 years of coral and fish poo. But still.) I dove the ship four times in two days and still only saw a tiny fraction of it. Here are a few of the things we found:

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Our dive guide wearing a helmet and holding a rifle

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Large shells

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The remains of a jeep in the ship's massive cargo hold

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A heavily-encrusted typewriter. I outlined the keyboard and the carriage return -- can you see it?

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Leaving the cargo hold

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An amazing shot of the Coolidge's stern by Dr. Richard Harris

The Coolidge at Night

Diving the Coolidge at night has to rank as one of the most surreal experiences of my life. Absolutely unphotographably amazing. Briefly: we descend, just my diver friend, the guide and myself, in the dull green afterglow of dusk. By the time we reach the ship itself, the light is gone. We navigate over the side of the ship with flashlights, past schools of sleeping fish to the massive, gaping black hole of a cargo hold, switch off our lights, and drift inside. In the hold, it's anything but dark: thousands upon thousands of blinking, bio-luminescent flashlight fish wink all around us, a surging constellation of flashing green lights. We hang there amidst them, transfixed, for what seems like hours; I lose all track of time and, with these infinite winking points as my only light reference, space.

bowmandsa2.jpgJust as I'm starting to feel like the Star Child at the end of 2001, suspended in this otherworldly Milky Way, and noticing how the bubbles from my exhalations make little bio-luminescent sparks that co-mingle with the fish (or are they stars?), it suddenly occurs to me that this sort of disconnection from reality, experienced at 120 feet below the surface of the ocean, inside a cavernous shipwreck, in darkness so profound I can't even read my air pressure gauge, could in fact be pretty dangerous. Whereupon, as if reading my thoughts, the dive guide switches his light on, the flashlight fish hightail it in one massive hive-mind cloud to a deeper and darker part of the ship, and we three aquanauts begin our slow ascent to the surface -- where we're greeted by the actual Milky Way, which in this part of the Southern hemisphere is a great bold stripe across the middle of the sky, unpolluted by the glow of city lights for a thousand miles.

Beach of Broken Things

No more than a mile from the Coolidge site is one of the world's quirkiest dive sites, and a WWII buff's playground. It's called Million Dollar Point, a great gift to divers everywhere that's the result of an act of supreme bitchiness on the part of the American government. After the war, the US had tons and tons of equipment on Vanuatu that it would've been far too expensive to ship back home, so they decided, as governments sometimes do after such conflicts, to auction it off. The British and the French controlled Vanuatu in a strange governmental arrangement called the Condominium, in which the country had two entirely separate courts, parliaments, even two sets of road rules, in which British citizens drove on the left and French citizens drove on the right. (How everyone in the country wasn't killed in head-on collisions is beyond me.)

In any case, the British and the French were the main bidders in this massive auction of American equipment, but by all accounts the bids they made were pathetically low (though to be fair, both of their homelands had recently been devastated in the war against Germany, and they certainly had other financial priorities). Insulted, the Americans decided that instead of taking one of the low-ball offers that had come their way, they would just dump all the equipment into the sea. Which is exactly what they did -- thousands of tons, and millions of dollars' worth, in 70-120 feet of water just fifty yards from shore. The dive site is now called Million Dollar point (though in today's money it might actually be Billion Dollar Point), and it's an amazing junkyard of military equipment, most of which was in perfect working condition until it was tossed unceremoniously into the ocean. Truck parts and Coke bottles from the 40s are still washing up on the beach to this day.

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Your humble blogger, "driving" a bulldozer that clearly hasn't been functional in some time.

Finally, for you scuba enthusiasts out there, I thought I'd include this little YouTube video I made of all the wreck and reef dives I did in Vanuatu. The Coolidge was just one of 5 wrecks we dove; it just happened to the most historically interesting (and the largest, and best, and ... you run out superlatives pretty quickly when discussing the Coolidge).

You can check out more Strange Geographies columns here.

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10 Legendary (and Probably Made-Up) Islands
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Often, islands come to represent places of extremes: they serve as utopias, purgatories, or ultimate dream vacation destinations. When it comes to mythological islands, utopias are especially popular. The Greeks had their Fortunate Islands, or Islands of the Blessed, where the luckiest mortals whiled away their time drinking and sporting. The Irish had a similar concept with their Mag Mell, or Plain of Honey, described as an island paradise where deities frolicked and only the most daring mortals occasionally visited. 

But mythology isn't the only engine creating islands that don't actually exist—some of these legendary land masses popped up on maps after miscalculations by early explorers who interpreted icebergs, fog banks, and mirages as real islands. Some of these cartographic “mistakes” may have been intentional—certain islands depicted on medieval maps might have been invented so they could be named after the patrons who funded the explorations. Even explorer Robert E. Peary wasn't immune: Some say he invented "Crocker Land," a supposedly massive island in the Arctic, to secure funding from San Francisco financier George Crocker. Crocker Land didn’t exist, although that didn’t prevent major American organizations (including the American Museum of Natural History) from sponsoring a four-year expedition to find it.

Much like the fictional Crocker Island, here are 10 more imaginary isles, all of which have a place in world history, literature, or mythology—despite not having a place on the map.

1. Isle of Demons 

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Supposedly located off the coast of Newfoundland, this landmass (sometimes depicted as two islands) appeared on 16th century and early 17th century maps, and was named for the mysterious cries and groans mariners reported hearing through the mist.

The island was given a somewhat more solid identity after 1542, when nobleman and adventurer Jean-François Roberval was instructed by the King of France to found settlements along the North Atlantic coast. He brought his niece, Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval, along for the voyage, but she began a passionate affair with one of Roberval's officers. Annoyed, Roberval put his niece (and maybe the officer—accounts differ), as well as her nurse, ashore on an otherwise unspecified "Isle of Demons" in the St. Lawrence River. Marguerite gave birth on the island, but the child died, as did Marguerite’s lover and nurse. However, the plucky Marguerite survived alone for several years, using her firearms against the wild beasts. After being rescued by Basque fishermen and returning to France, she reported that she had been beset "by beasts or other shapes abominably and unutterably hideous, the brood of hell, howling in baffled fury."  

Marguerite’s story appears in several historical accounts, including versions by Franciscan friar André Thevet and the Queen of Navarre. Still, the location of the “Isle of Demons” on which she landed has never been found for certain. Maritime historian and veteran Atlantic sailor Donald Johnson thinks he has identified it as Fichot Island, close to the Strait of Belle Isle at the northern tip of Newfoundland. Johnson notes that Fichot Island lies on Roberval's course, and is home to a breeding colony of gannets—a type of seabird whose guttural cries, heard only while breeding, may have been taken for the sounds of demons.

2. Antillia 


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Also known as the Isle of Seven Cities, Antillia was a 15th century cartographic phenomenon said to lie far west of Spain and Portugal. Stories about its existence are connected to an Iberian legend in which seven Visigothic bishops and their parishioners fled Muslim conquerors in the eighth century, sailing west and eventually discovering an island where they founded seven settlements.  The bishops burned their ships, so they could never return to their former homeland. 

According to some versions of the legend, many people have visited Antillia but no one has ever left; in other versions of the tale, sailors can see the island from a distance, but the land always vanishes once they approach. Spain and Portugal even once squabbled over the island, despite its non-existence, perhaps because its beaches were said to be strewn with precious metals. By the late 15th century, once the North Atlantic was better mapped, references to Antillia disappeared—although it did lend its name to the Spanish Antilles.

3. Atlantis 

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First mentioned by Plato, Atlantis was supposedly a large island that lay "to the west of the Pillars of Hercules" in the Atlantic Ocean. It was said to be a peaceful but powerful kingdom lost beneath the waves after a violent earthquake was released by the gods as punishment for waging war against Athens. There have been many attempts at identifying the island, although it may have been entirely a creation of Plato’s imagination; some archeologists associate it with the Minoan island of Santorini, north of Crete, whose center collapsed after a volcanic eruption and earthquake around 1500 BC. 

4. Aeaea 

In Greek mythology, Aeaea is the floating home of Circe, the goddess of magic. Circe is said to have spent her time on the island, gifted to her by her father, the Sun, waiting for mortal sailors to land so she could seduce them. (Afterwards, the story goes, she would turn them into pigs.) Some classical scholars have identified Aeaea as the Cape Circeium peninsula on the western coast of Italy, which may have been an island in the days of Homer, or may have looked like one because of the marshes surrounding its base.  

5. Hy-Brasil 

Also known as Country o'Breasal, Brazil Rock, Hy na-Beatha (Isle of Life), Tir fo-Thuin (Land Under the Wave), and by many other names, Brasil (Gaelic for "Isle of the Blessed") is one of the many mythical islands of Irish folklore, but one that nevertheless made several appearances on real maps.   

Like the Mediterranean's Atlantis, Brasil was said to be a place of perfect contentment and immortality. It was also the domain of Breasal, the High King of the World, who held court there every seven years. Breasal had the ability to make the island rise or sink as he pleased, and normally only let the island be visible when his court was in full swing.  

According to legend, Brasil lay "where the sun touched the horizon, or immediately on its other side—usually close enough to see but too far to visit." It first appeared on a map made in 1325 by Genoese cartographer Daloroto, who depicted it as a large area to the southwest of Ireland. (Later maps placed it farther west.) Its shape was usually drawn as a near-perfect circle, bifurcated by a river. Numerous explorers searched for the island, and some, including Italian navigator John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), even claimed to have found it. 

Today, scholars think Brasil may have been a reference to Baffin Island, or to now-sunken lands visible only when sea levels were lower during the last Ice Age, or else an optical illusion produced by layers of hot and cold air refracting light rays.  

6. Baralku 

Among the indigenous Australians of the Yolngu culture, Baralku (or Bralgu) is the island of the dead. The island holds a central place in the Yolngu cosmology—it's where the creator-spirit Barnumbirr is said to live before rising into the sky as the planet Venus each morning. Baralku is also the spot where the three siblings who created the landscape of Australia, the Djanggawul, originated. The island supposedly lies to the east of Arnhem Land in Northern Australia, and the Yolngu believe their souls return there after death.

7. Saint Brendan's Isle  

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This piece of land was said to have been discovered by Irish abbot and traveler Saint Brendan and his followers in 512, and to be located in the North Atlantic, somewhere west of Northern Africa. Brendan became famous after the publication of the Latin Navigation of St Brendan, an 8th/9th century text that described his voyage in search of the wonderful "Land of Promise" in the Atlantic Ocean. The book was a medieval best-seller, and gave the saint his nickname, "Brendan the Navigator." The island was said to be thickly wooded, filled with rich fruit and flowers. Tales of St. Brendan's Isle inspired Christopher Columbus, among others, and had an important influence on medieval cartography. Sightings were reported as late as the 18th century.

8. Avalon 

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First mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century Historia regum Britanniae, Avalon is the place where the legendary King Arthur's sword is forged, and where he is sent to recover after being wounded in battle. The island was said to be the domain of Arthur's half-sister, sorceress Morgan le Fay, as well as her eight sisters. Starting in the 12th century, Avalon was identified with Glastonbury in Somerset, in connection with Celtic legends about a paradisiacal “island of glass.” Twelfth century monks at Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have discovered Arthur’s bones—although later historians believe their “discovery” was a publicity stunt to raise money for Abbey repairs. 

9. Island of Flame 

In ancient Egyptian mythology, the Island of Flame (also known as the Island of Peace) was the magical birthplace of the gods and part of the kingdom of Osiris. It was said to have emerged out of primeval waters and to lay far to the East, beyond the boundaries of the world of the living. Associated with the rising sun, it was a place of everlasting light.  

10. Thule

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For the Greeks and Romans, Thule existed at the northernmost limit of their known world. It first appears in a lost work by the Greek explorer Pytheas, who supposedly found it in the 4th century BC. Polybius says that "Pytheas ... has led many people into error by saying that he traversed the whole of Britain on foot … and telling us also about Thule, those regions in which there was no longer any proper land nor sea nor air, but a sort of mixture of all three of the consistency of a jelly-fish in which one can neither walk nor sail, holding everything together, so to speak." Later scholars have interpreted Thule as the Orkneys, Shetlands, Iceland, or possibly Norway, while the Nazis believed Thule was the ancient homeland of the Aryan race.  

Bonus: People Used to Think California was an Island  

Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, many Europeans believed that California was an island. Like other islands on this list, the place was reported as being a kind of paradise. In fact, the name "California" first appears in a romantic novel penned by Spanish author Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo, who described it as an island filled with gold and precious gems, populated by a race of Amazons who rode griffins.  

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Five Years via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
The Town Built On Asbestos (Population: 3)
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Five Years via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Welcome to Wittenoom, Australia, where the weather is beautiful, the scenery is unparalleled, and toxic substances seep from the earth.

Located in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, Wittenoom was once one of the top blue asbestos mining locations in the world, causing families to flock to the area for jobs. Also known as crocidolite asbestos, blue asbestos was a valuable commodity used for fire protection in ceiling tiles, insulation, electrical work, battery casings, and more. But it was also an incredibly dangerous one—all types of asbestos can cause fatal illnesses, but because crocidolite fibers are as thin as a strand of hair, they’re easily inhaled and may be responsible for more deaths than any other type of asbestos. In Wittenoom—where workers once held asbestos-shoveling contests, and families thought it safe to let their kids play in the stuff—thousands of former residents have died from asbestos-related causes.

The mining industry in Wittenoom was halted in 1966, not necessarily for health reasons, but for economic ones—the company which owned the mines was $2.5 million in debt. Health concerns weren’t really addressed until the late ‘70s, when the government started taking steps to shut the town down completely. Buildings were demolished, the airport was closed, and residents were urged to leave. By 1992, less than 50 citizens remained, and by 2007, it was down to eight. Today, just three brave souls still call Wittenoom home.

Why would three people stay in a town that’s still riddled with cancer-causing materials, a town with no electricity or water, one that has literally been erased from maps by the government because of the danger it poses? They all have different reasons.

Peter Heyward, a resident for more than two decades, stays for the nature and the “silent stillness” of the surroundings. “The hills, the plains, the openness, the quiet. I love the country," he told Australia's The Age in 2007. Since so many buildings were razed, he now has a perfect view of Hamersley Mountain Range.

Mario Hartmann stays put largely because he was unimpressed with the amount of money the government offered to buy him out—$40,000 plus $10,000 in moving costs: “What can you buy with $40,000? They'll have to offer $400,000, what it takes to buy a house somewhere else.”

This year, Lorraine Thomas, a 30-plus year veteran of Wittenoom, told WA Today she refuses to let the potential presence of asbestos scare her away. "It's only the dust that's dangerous," she said, a threat she believes has dissipated after the mines' closures. An official report begs to differ, calling the risk to tourists (of which there are still up to 40 a day) and residents alike "extreme."

Neither Thomas nor her fellow residents have any illnesses relating to the asbestos that still looms large in the area.

For a closer look at the ghost town's holdouts—filmed when there were still eight people residing there—the short documentary Wittenoom is worth a watch:

Wittenoom from Caro Macdonald on Vimeo.

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