'Dive and Dispatch'
The Sunday Age M Travel 8 April 2012

Kerrin O'Sullivan sends mail from the world's most unlikely post office.

It's perhaps my most peculiar postal experience to date. Speedo-clad and clutching a postcard, I'm swimming through Vanuatu's clear turquoise sea in search of the world's only underwater post office.

Located within the Mel Reef Marine Sanctuary, Vanuatu Post's Underwater Post Office is off lovely Hideaway Island. Just 5 minutes by ferry from mainland Mele Beach, this tiny coral atoll has a small resort and day-tripper facilities for divers. Its unique post office, however, has become a tourist drawcard in itself.

Since opening in 2003, Vanuatu Post estimate more than 100,000 visitors have donned mask and snorkel and, with postcard in hand, taken to the water for the experience. Annually, thousands of cards find their way from the island to every corner of the globe.

At a seafront kiosk shaded by coconut palms, souvenir waterproof postcards are for sale. Plastic-coated, they sport a colourful underwater photo of the submerged post office complete with fluorescent fish, psychedelic coral and aquamarine-hued water. An HB pencil with water-resistant lead, is provided to write your message. It's hard to believe the card is waterproof, let alone that it will ever re-emerge in an Australian letterbox.

Clasping goggles, I ask posting directions from a local woman in a brilliant orange Mother Hubbard dress. Rinsing wetsuits beachside, she grins and waves her arm in the direction of the horizon. The Post Office, apparently, is 50 metres offshore, marked by a floating flag. Curiously, the flag is absent today, and a snorkelling safari is needed to search for the submarine Post Office.

Warm crystalline seawater laps at the shore's edge; white coral crunches and shifts underfoot. Mental note to self: next time pack reef shoes if posting mail in Vanuatu.

I duck-dive and scan the ocean floor but the jazzy iridescence of tropical fish distracts, allaying imaginary fears of sea snakes and reef octopuses. Three metres below, a submerged cabin resembling a giant soft-drink can comes into view, with "Vanuatu Post" emblazoned in bright blue.

It's like a strange apparition - a submarine postman wearing scuba mask and tank is waving from a window, a stream of fizzing bubbles rising to the surface. He stamps the postcard, with an embossing device instead of ink, and points to the adjacent letterbox weighted to the sea-floor. The letter posted, he gives the "thumbs up". Breathless, I surface, bemused by the whole surreal episode.

Back on shore at Hideaway's beach bar, a barman in a hibiscus-print shirt pours local Tusker beer and explains there are currently four Vanuatu Post staff with scuba accreditation. The underwater branch is manned daily for about an hour, and longer on days when cruise ships are in nearby Port Vila.

"In Vanuatu, we go to great depths to deliver the mail," the local dive-instructor jokes.

It's true. Ten days later the card, splashed with tropical colour, surfaces in an Australian letterbox, bone-dry, and telling its watery tale from Vanuatu.

© 2012 Kerrin O’Sullivan