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Diving Bikini's Nuclear Fleet

Trip ReportJames Hipkiss

The nuclear wrecks of Bikini Atoll are universally recognised as one of the top ten dive sites in the world. Sadly there is no longer a dive operation on Bikini, but back in 1999 when there was, I had the opportunity to experience diving this incredible submerged museum to the atomic age. Lying 4500 miles off the west coast of the United States, at the northern end of the Marshall Islands, Bikini Atoll was the site of the fourth and fifth nuclear bomb detonations, in mid 1946. 73 target ships were assembled in the atolls lagoon and subjected to two atomic blasts in Operation_Crossroads.

Nine of the target ships remain on the 50m deep lagoon floor, a couple of miles offshore in the depression left by the second (Baker) test. In May 1999 Chris Lewis and I, both experienced technical wreck divers, made the pilgrimage to the Marshall Islands. The journey to Bikini took us from London, Heathrow, over the glacier covered mass of Greenland, across the USA for a short stop at Los Angeles and then on to Hawaii. Here we had a day to explore the museums and monuments at Pearl Harbour before continuing our journey to Majuro, capital of the Marshall Islands, crossing the International Date Line on the way. With our body clocks now completely messed up, we managed a few beers and an overnight rest before the weekly Air Marshall Islands flight out to Bikini, still 600 miles of island hopping away. The landing strip at Bikini is on the island of Eneu, with an eight mile boat ride to Bikini Island itself.

The substantial excess baggage cost to transport our diving kit from Majuro to Bikini had precluded the option to add the weight of a case or two of beers for the week ahead (not that drinking and diving should be mixed). Big mistake! We arrived to discover that the boat skipper had just consumed the very last of the beer supplies on the island! Even more distressing was the later realisation that we were never actually charged for the excess baggage!! The diving operation was set up to cater for up to 12 divers, with air conditioned accommodation, air compressor and nitrox (oxygen enriched air) mixing facilities. With the nearest recompression chamber 1700 miles away on Johnston Island and a once weekly flight in and out of Bikini, diving practices had to be completely safe. All the wrecks were permanently buoyed and decompression stops were carried out a trapeze suspended from the dive boat, with oxygen rich surface supplied gas. As it turned out, Chris and I were the only divers there for the week!

There are only a handful of inhabitants on the island; a couple of environmental monitoring people, a few caterers and cleaners and the few running the diving operation. The main dive boat, Bravo, was broken down when we arrived, leaving only a landing craft to dive from (and transport us from the airstrip), at least for the first part of the week. Lucky there were only two of us! The most celebrated of the ships sunk in the lagoon are probably the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, the battleships USS Arkansas and HIJMS Nagato. These ships are all huge and necessitate quite a few dives on each to gain a reasonable appreciation of them. As I mentioned, Chris and I were the only divers there, so our guide, Anton, was able to indulge us. We dived the Saratoga 5 times, there being so much to explore on this 900 foot long aircraft carrier, with access to the aircraft hanger decks, still with aircraft present in varying states of preservation, in the company of 1200lb bombs and the like!

Other dives took us through the accommodation and recreation areas, barbers shop, radio and other control rooms and the bridge area as well as to an Avenger aircraft lying on the lagoon bed someway off the aft port quarter, returning to the main wreck along a line of anchor chain to take in the enormous propellers. The upper superstructure of this wreck rises to within 12m of the surface from the 52m at the propellers, making for some truly spectacular diving! The Japanese battleship Nagato, Admiral Yamamotos flagship at Pearl Harbour, lies upside-down with her four massive props and twin rudders uppermost. The decks are suspended a few metres away from the lagoon bottom by the central superstructure, enabling access to the giant 18 inch guns and their turrets in-between. Some excellent dives through the passages and rooms within the ships interior were undertaken. The bridge structure has been broken off, presumably striking the bed of the lagoon as she rolled over, and lies stretched out to the port side of the wreck, making it easy to explore.

The US battleship Arkansas sustained significant damage from the undersea (Baker) detonation and the massively thick armoured hull can be seen crumpled like paper from the shock wave. She again is turned turtle with the large main guns protruding from between the decks and lagoon bed. The lesser well known, smaller wrecks make equally good dives but are easy to explore in one or two visits. During the week we also dived the destroyers Lamson Anderson, the transport Carlisle and the submarine Apogon. All the wrecks, to varying degrees, exhibit damage demonstrative of the immense power of a nuclear blast. A very unique and sobering experience. As the week progressed, the visibility in the lagoon improved and on a number of the dives we could see that we were regularly being watched by cruising sharks. The main dive boat was encouraged back into life, making the 2 mile journey to and from the wrecks a lot more comfortable than the landing craft! Entertainment on the island was pretty non-existent.

The small collection of buildings that remain of the settlement, built to accommodate the US military during the nuclear tests, includes a small cinema which we had all to ourselves. Sadly though, not a great selection of films. We were fed pretty well in the rather basic canteen, the two of us with plenty of choice of where to sit each mealtime. The bar, situated picturesquely on the white coral beach overlooking the azure blue waters of the lagoon, was completely dry! At the end of the week, we were sad to leave behind the stunning wrecks and classic tropical island scenery of Bikini Atoll, but very glad of a few cold beers when we reached the scruffy environs of Majuro, our first stop on the three day journey home.

These were the days before the advent of consumer digital camera technology and between us, Chris and I obtained a collection of not particularly high quality but memorable still and video images from above and below water. Some of Chris' stills have been included here.

The video story I made of the trip as a personal record can be viewed at: https://vimeo.com/37944683 (17 mins long well worth a watch if you're a wreck diving fan). We both feel very privileged and fortunate to have had such an opportunity and amazing experience."