Tuesday, 18 Sep 2018

Bikini Atoll. Republic of the Marshall Islands

Bikini atoll

Fifty years ago, few would have thought of setting foot on Bikini Atoll, let alone diving there. But from the dust and detritus of more than twenty nuclear-weapons tests, the lagoon at Bikini Atoll has emerged as one of the Pacific’s greatest wreck-diving sites.

“I first heard about Bikini from a writer/photographer friend, Eric Hanauer, who had made a trip there when Bikini first opened up for diving,” Doug Toth recalled. “Eric wanted to make another trip so he could dive again with the divemaster (Fabio Amaral) who’d pioneered the dive operation there, as he was retiring. My wife and I decided to tag along. I must admit that I didn’t know a lot about Bikini. I’d heard that there was some excellent wreck diving, including an aircraft carrier. The history of the place intrigued me, especially as I read up on it.”

 

 

Bikini Atoll. Republic of the Marshall Islands - photo 1

Bikini Atoll. Republic of the Marshall Islands

Bikini Atoll indeed has a rich, if at times ignominious, history. The atoll (a mass of coral that encircles a lagoon) comprises twenty-three separate islands and a 240-square-mile lagoon, and is situated in the central Pacific, roughly 2,200 miles southwest of Honolulu. While the larger Marshall Islands were explored by Spaniards and Germans, who saw potential for the production of copra oil (from coconuts), Bikini Atoll’s more isolated location and dry climate discouraged any colonization … that is, until the Japanese military established a watchtower on the island at the outset of Japan’s entrance into World War II.

While Bikini and its 200-odd citizens were spared combat, they eventually faced displacement when it was decided that their home would become the site of weapons testing to, in President Harry Truman’s words, “determine the effect of atomic bombs on American warships.” Concurrent with the onset of testing, it had been determined that Bikini Lagoon would become the final resting place of a number of vessels from the US fleet, including the USS Saratoga, an aircraft carrier; and the much-maligned Nagato, flagship of the Japanese navy in 1941, when Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto and his staff planned the Pearl Harbor attack. In 1946, the first of twenty-three nuclear bombings was conducted. Early tests included the famously photographed BAKER blast, which ultimately sank both the Saratoga and the Nagato.

Bikini Atoll. Republic of the Marshall Islands - photo 2

Bikini Atoll. Republic of the Marshall Islands

For nearly forty years after the last test bombing in 1958, Bikini Atoll was off limits for visitors. In 1996, however, the lagoon was opened to limited recreational diving and sport fishing by a coalition of islanders and outside operators who were brought in for their expertise in tourist operations. (The islanders have control of the tourism operation; it’s hoped that revenues from tourism will ultimately allow displaced generations of Bikini islanders to return there to live, as lingering radiation has made their former agricultural/fishing way of life impossible.) “The diving operation is fabulous,” Doug said. “For those not experienced with wreck diving it can be intimidating, especially as these are mostly deep, long decompression dives, one hundred to 190 feet. But everything is so well planned out, and there’s so much preparation before each dive, that you’re made to feel very comfortable. And it doesn’t hurt that there are bathtub-like conditions—warm all the time, no current, no surf, and very clear.”

Bikini Atoll. Republic of the Marshall Islands - photo 3

Bikini Atoll. Republic of the Marshall Islands

The dive program at Bikini Atoll has a fittingly military regimentation. Guests visit for seven nights, and over the course of their stay, take twelve dives, ranging from sixty to 110 minutes. A number of craft are visited, including the USS Lamson (a destroyer), the USS Arkansas (a battleship), and the USS Apogon (a submarine). For wreck enthusiasts, the focal point of the trip is the aircraft carrier Saratoga. “The Saratoga is the first dive, which occurs on the day you arrive,” Doug continued. “In the pre-dive briefing, you get a detailed review of the ship itself. They even have little plastic models of the ship, so they can illustrate exactly where you’re going to begin and end your dive, and what you’re going to see. (A series of films is also shown in the course of the week, to give visitors a historical context for what they’re experiencing.) Soon after, you’re in a boat, heading out to the dive site. The Saratoga dive is one of the shallower dives, about a hundred feet or so. From the surface, you can see the carrier. The immensity of the craft is overwhelming.”

Bikini Atoll. Republic of the Marshall Islands - photo 4

Bikini Atoll. Republic of the Marshall Islands

Initially designed as a Lexington-class battle cruiser, the Saratoga was constructed by the New York Shipbuilding Company between 1920 and 1925. The “Sara” was commissioned in 1927, and at 880 feet in length and nearly 40,000 tons in weight, is the largest divable ship in the world as well as the only divable aircraft carrier. Visitors to Bikini Lagoon can access several points of interest on the Saratoga, including the bridge, the flight deck, and the hangar, where her planes—Helldiver bombers—waited for action. Several Helldivers and their 500-pound bombs remain on display. “The dive to the hangar is one of the highlights of the trip,” Doug continued. “You’re within the interior of the ship, and it’s a huge, huge space. The divemasters guide you through with lights, pointing out facets of the planes and the ship. It’s fascinating.

“There are so many wrecks in close proximity at Bikini, all in this big fishbowl,” Doug added. “When you see these ships, you can’t help but imagine what it must have been like to be on them when they were above water. What it must have been like to watch them being sunk, what it must have been like to witness the detonation of the nuclear bombs. One of the biggest surprises I had on the trip was my wife Bonnie’s response to the experience. Typically, she has little interest in war history; I think this tends to be more of a male thing. She really enjoyed discovering the history of the ships and the tests at Bikini Atoll, and seeing them firsthand brought all that history back to life.”

Bikini Atoll. Republic of the Marshall Islands - photo 5

Bikini Atoll. Republic of the Marshall Islands

DOUG TOTH is cofounder and co-owner (with Dean Garraffa) of Atomic Aquatics (www.atomicaquatics.com), which markets a range of innovative diving products, including the world’s first titanium regulator. Trained as a marine biologist, Doug worked as a dive instructor part-time before eventually turning his interests to mechanical design, and the creation of dive equipment. “I’ve never forgotten how much more difficult it was to train new divers with equipment that was overly complicated, uncomfortable, or difficult to use,” Doug said. “Reliability and safety are expected, but the gear should also be simple, functional, and fun to use—and that’s our goal.”

Bikini Atoll. Republic of the Marshall Islands - photo 6

Bikini Atoll. Republic of the Marshall Islands

IF YOU GO TO BIKINI ATOLL

Getting There: Bikini Atoll is reached via Majuro, Marshall Islands, on Air Marshall Islands (69 26-25-3731; www.airmarshallislands.com). Majuro is served via Honolulu on Continental Airlines.

Best Time to Visit: Bikini Atoll is open for diving from March through November.

Accommodations: Bikini Atoll Diving (+69 26-25-3177; www.bikiniatoll.com) is the sole operator on Bikini Atoll.

” Fifty Places to Dive Before You Die   by Chris Santella

  •  
    4
    Shares
  • 4
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  

1 thought on “Bikini Atoll. Republic of the Marshall Islands

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *