Bikini Atoll: A Nautical History Haven in the Marshall Islands

Size does matter. It matters a lot. The gargantuan flight deck of the USS Saratoga materialized out of the blue and I found myself...

Size does matter. It matters a lot. The gargantuan flight deck of the USS Saratoga materialized out of the blue and I found myself testing my regulator’s flow capacity at only 50 feet (15 m).

I was privy to a mere fraction of the 880-foot-long former floating airfield stretched out before me, yet I could vividly imagine bringing in my Hellcat from a successful mission. Half a dozen reef sharks flew in formation over the massive deck as if circling to land. Everywhere you looked nautical artifacts made their appearance; navigation equipment, admiral’s china, clocks, even a bugle adorned the vessel.

All this in the first 20 minutes of our checkout dive — Day One.This was supposed to be a nice leisurely swim above the flight deck of the world’s only fully loaded divable aircraft carrier. You know, the divemasters watch you get suited up, evaluate your watermanship skills, and then decide how to schedule the week’s dives.

Nonetheless, trying to keep everyone focused on the “checkout” proved tougher than herding cats. This wasn’t some run-of-the-mill ship sanitized and all cut open for diver safety. It’s “Sara,” our country’s first fleet aircraft carrier, and virtually all our pioneer naval aviators flew off its decks. The Sara also took part in scores of WWII battles across the Pacific, earned eight battle stars and could not be destroyed by the Japanese, despite hits by kamikazes and being reported sunk multiple times. It took not one but TWO atomic bombs from our own Army/Navy to finally put it on the bottom.

We eventually made three more dives on Sara and visited six other ships, barely scratching the surface of this subsea fleet. It’s not only the size of the nuked Bikini fleet that overwhelms you but also its historical significance.

About the Marshall Islands

Bikini Atoll is one of 29 atolls scattered throughout 750,000 square miles (1.95 million sq km) of blue Central Pacific Ocean that make up the Marshall Islands. More than a thousand small islands dot this immense area. Despite the number of islands, the total land area is only about 70 square miles (182 sq km) with a mean elevation of 7 feet (2.1 m).

As you might expect, the waters teem with marine life. Nearly 200 species of coral, well over 250 species of fish, all five species of marine turtles, and nearly 30 species of marine mammals make a home here. Much of the vast marine environment has yet to be systematically studied so additional species are likely to be found.

On the tiny landmass live 70 species of birds, seven species of lizards, and one native mammal — the Polynesian rat. It’s likely Micronesian seafarers sailed into the Marshall Islands between 2000 and 500 B.C., though little is known about them.

The Marshalls never unified under one top dog but certain chiefs did manage to control several atolls at a time. Like other rulers across the Pacific they had absolute control over their subjects and the land. In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas (a treaty that split up the world outside of Europe between Portugal and Spain) gave “ownership” of all Micronesia to Spain. The Marshall Islands were off the main trade routes so the Spanish didn’t even lay eyes on them until 1525.

There was little interest in colonizing, so another 263 years passed until an English captain named John Marshall sailed by. The islands eventually took his name. During the early 1800s many visits from whaling and trade ships stressed the relations between natives and the Europeans, and so these islands were considered hostile territory.

In 1885, Germany appropriated the islands and controlled them until 1914 when the Japanese took over at the start of the First World War. After the war, the Japanese were given control of the islands courtesy of a mandate by the League of Nations. They heavily colonized and began fortifying military bases throughout the Pacific, with the exception of Bikini where they established a small weather station. During the Second World War, furious battles were fought all around Bikini with a particularly nasty engagement at Kwajalein in 1944. By the end of the war in mid-1945, the United States had a firm hold on the Pacific. And soon, the peaceful out-of-the-way atoll of Bikini was to become the focus of the entire world.

Able and Baker Changed Everything

It was 1946, and despite the two atomic bombs recently dropped over the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, much of the world (read Soviet Union) was unconvinced of the awesome destructive power of the new weapons in America’s arsenal. So the powers that be decided that a little “show” was in order, and a virtually unknown atoll in the Marshall Islands took center stage.

Forty thousand U.S. military personnel and a fleet of 240 ships descended on the lagoon and the lush island paradise of Bikini, for what was to be known as Operation Crossroads. The peaceful natives were removed and the island was stripped of vegetation for scores of concrete bunkers. In the lagoon a force of 73 obsolete and captured warships were prepared with full battle readiness for the tests.

On July 3, 1946, and again on July 25, two nuclear bombs known as Able and Baker (about the size of those dropped over Japan) were detonated over and in the lagoon. Able was an air blast dropped from a B-29 and Baker was an underwater eruption that produced the most famous nuclear explosion film/photograph of all time.

As soon as the war ended, we located the one spot on earth that hadn’t been touched by the war and blew it to hell.

— Comedian Bob Hope commenting on Operation Crossroads.

On a side note, soon after the initial tests, two Frenchmen by the names of Heim and Reard designed a new two-piece bathing suit that became known as the “Bikini.” It took a while but the style became very popular in the mid-1950s. It was proclaimed that this “swim” suit was going to have the same effect on the male libido as the bombs had on Bikini Atoll.

Amazingly only 14 of the ships sank directly but those that were still afloat had become so contaminated that they had to be scuttled shortly afterward.

Bikini Today

Looking at the island of Bikini now you would never suspect such a malevolent history. It’s an absolutely gorgeous coconut palm-studded landscape with miles of deserted pink and white-sand beaches. The background radiation in the lagoon and on the sunken ships is less than what we received from our long plane flights from California. The lush coconut palms however have a problem; large amounts of cesium-137 have been found in the plant life and the coconuts have a slight glow at night. Well, not really, but the presence of cesium-137 makes them less than ideal for long-term consumption. In fact, all food and produce have to be brought in by supply ship or air. The fresh water is produced from desalinization and is safe to drink.

A Wreck Diver’s Dream Come True

Yeah, yeah, the water is blue and clear and the sand is white like sugar and the palm trees sway in the warm tropical breezes. And the fish life abounds here, but Bikini is all about shipwrecks. There are primarily nine ships and one submarine that make up the week’s dive itinerary. Depending on the group, there is some leeway on how to dive them.

Bikini is not a “resort course” destination. Most dives are beyond recreational limits (average depth 150-165 feet [45-50 m] with up to 45 minutes of deco time) but the warm clear water without appreciable currents makes for a nearly narcosis-free excursion. These ships went down fully armed and fueled. Live ammunition is commonly observed and leaking oil can be encountered from time to time. There are cables, debris, silt, and more than a fair share of obstacles to watch out for. It’s important that divers use good buoyancy control, maintain awareness of their dive plan, and follow proper deco procedures.

The sunken ships read like a who’s who lineup from naval history. An aircraft carrier, battleships, a cruiser, destroyers, several aircraft, and two submarines lie on the bottom of the lagoon, all within range of advanced sport divers.

One of the most provocative ships is the HIJMS Nagato. This Japanese battleship was the flagship of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor. You can swim by and touch the bridge where he stood and gave the order “Climb Mount Niitaka,” which signaled the raid to begin on December 7, 1941. As with most battleships, Nagato lies upside down because these dreadnoughts are very top heavy from the massive armor topside and almost always turn turtle when they sink. Even though the Nagato sits on its decks, it is a most impressive sight, from the four giant props to the massive 16-inch guns pointing toward the sand.

The Nagato was the last surviving large capital ship of the Japanese Imperial Navy and considering its role in starting the Pacific war, it is no surprise that it ended up in Crossroads — with considerable effort by a combined American/Japanese crew — as nuclear fodder.

The USS Arkansas is the American battleship in the Bikini lineup and it’s one of the oldest. The career of the USS Arkansas started before WWI in 1912. It was in the Atlantic on December 7, 1941, engaged in convoy duty. It participated in both theaters of WWII by providing support at the Normandy invasion and then saw action in the Pacific at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Considerably smaller than the Nagato, it represents old-world dreadnought technology and although it too lies upside down, its very distinctive sickle-shaped hull is a dramatic sight.

The two American destroyers, Anderson and Lamson, are small enough to take in the whole ship on a single dive. Make no mistake though; these highly decorated veterans (15 battle stars combined) saw action throughout the war. Anderson lying on its port side and Lamson settled upright make fantastic dives, with scores of interesting sights to eat up the 25-minute bottom times allowed on most dives.

Looking at the relative size of these escort ships, you realize the breed of sailor it must have taken to keep these “tin cans” near the large, fast aircraft carriers moving in mountainous open ocean waves.

The American fleet submarine Apogon also sits upright and looks very much intact. A hole has opened up in Apogon’s pressure hull and if you stick your head in you can view inside the forward torpedo room.

If you visit the USS Bowfin in Pearl Harbor you can get a good take on what life was like below the waves during WWII. Next to the Bowfin, in Pearl Harbor, is a submarine memorial listing all the boats that didn’t come back. Each of the many plaques gives a brief story on the sub and lists the names of the sailors lost. As you might expect, most of the vessels were lost with all hands somewhere in the Pacific. The closing epitaph on each one is “On Eternal Patrol.” As we are reminded periodically, the price of liberty is indeed high.

Bikini Atoll’s head of diving operations is Jim Akroyd, and he and his crew run a stellar operation with some very lively and informative briefings. Since there are only about 20-odd people on the island at any given time, it feels very much like a nonmoving live-aboard.

This destination is not easy to reach, nor is it for someone who wants duty-free shops, golf courses, or happenin’ nightlife. But for those who want to explore some of the finest historical wrecks in the world, Bikini is a “must-do” dive destination.

What About Radiation?

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s Bikini Advisory Group preliminary findings issued in 1996 contain the following statements about background radiation on Bikini: “It is safe to walk on all of the islands. Although the residual radioactivity on islands in Bikini Atoll is still higher than on other atolls in the Marshall Islands, it is not hazardous to health at the levels measured. Indeed, there are many places in the world where people have been living for generations with higher levels of radioactivity from natural sources — such as the geological surroundings and the sun — than there is now on Bikini Atoll. By all internationally agreed scientific and medical criteria the air, the land surface, the lagoon water and the drinking water are all safe. There is no radiological risk in visiting the lagoon or the islands.”

Story and photos by Joseph C. Dovala