Bikini Atoll

By Jeanne Liebetrau and Peter Pinncock

ImageThe distinctive shape of a flight deck materializes as I descend to 30m.I imagine a fighter plane returning - mission complete. The pilot negotiates the approach, the deck crew ready for the landing, the fire fighting crews on standby and gunners scanning the skies for stray enemy aircraft. I fin over the vast deck from which hundreds of planes taken offand landed on. A fine layer of silt stirs to reveal the rivets that once held the teak planks together.

In the sponsons on either side of the deck, rows of live ammunition is stacked ready to be loaded into the tactically positioned 5” 38 calibre guns and MK2 Quad 40mm guns. The rubber focusing eye-cup on one of the 38 calibre guns is still in good nick. A colony of whip corals growing on these weapons softens the harshness of the scene and schools of coral groupers lazily swim over the piles of ammunition. In front of the bridge, the No 1 twin 5” 38 calibre guns stand, resolutely pointing to the skies. How many planes did these big guns shoot down during combat?

On the bridge, the flight deck control room and aeorological platforms are invitingly open. Further up, inside the communications room, the identification labels marking the speaking tubes to the decks below are clearly legible – Aviation Ready Room, Main Communication Station and Captain’s Emergency Cabin. A table in the navigation room is a treasure trove of historical artefacts. This is the scene on a check-out dive of the USS Saratoga CV3 at Bikini Atoll – the largest diveable aircraft carrier in the world. To put her size into perspective, she is 3m longer than the Titanic.

The Saratoga was one of 73 target vessels for the atomic tests performed on Bikini Atoll. In 1946, fully laden battleships, battle cruisers, destroyers, transport ships, landing craft and submarines were strategically placed inside the atoll for Operation Crossroads. Today, these wrecks are the property of the Bikini people. Since 1996, Bikini Atoll divers have been taking adventurous souls underwater for truly incredible exploration dives. The history of Bikini, its people, the tests and the diving is an amazing story to hear.

After WW2, the USA was the new superpower and wanted to do tests on the atomic weapons that had just destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Bikini Atoll was identified as the ideal location. It was sheltered with predictable weather, was under Allied control and only 167 people would need to be relocated. The Bikinians were approached one Sunday after their church service and were told they needed to give up their island paradise for “the good of mankind”.


Perhaps they were intimidated by the monstrous battleships that were parked in their lagoon, or perhaps the Sunday spirit had something to do with it, but soon the Bikinians and their fishing craft were shipped offto Rongerap Atoll, 201km away. Bikini Atoll was transformed into a camp for the 42 000-odd people involved in the tests, including observers and the press. The first test was an aerial drop called the “Able Blast”. The press labelled it a spectacular flop. While it missed the target ship, it managed to sink five others: the HIMJS Sakawa, the USS Anderson, USS Lamson, USS Gilliam and USS Carlisle. A day after the test, US personnel boarded the remaining ships to retrieve monitoring equipment. Radiation levels were extremely high but minimal protective clothing was worn. The world was still blissfully unaware of the invisible danger of nuclear fallout.

ImageThe second test took place three weeks later. “Baker Blast” was an underwater nuclear explosion. It was a spectacular sight as tons of displaced ocean and pulverized coral was sucked upwards into a huge mushroom cloud. This blast sank seven vessels immediately, including the submarines USS Apogon, Pilotfish and Skipjack. The USS Saratoga was badly damaged and sank a few hours later, as did the HIMJS Nagato. Other ships that were badly damaged but hadn’t sunk were later scuttled. Although the third test on Bikini was cancelled, the US continued to test further nuclear weapons in the atoll until 1958.

 

While all this was going on, the Bikinians were starving on their new island home.

The lagoon produced little fish and only small coconuts were to be found. Once again they were moved, first to a tent city on Kwajolein and then to Kili Island, where many of them still live today. In 1968, officials declared Bikini to be radiologically safe for the people to return. Few did return in 1971, but within a few years medical examinations found unacceptably high levels of cesium-137 being ingested througheating coconut and banyan fruits.

The Bikinians were relocated once again.

Through the efforts of Jack Niedenthal, legal action was taken against the US government in 1982. The Bikinians won the case and were awarded a resettlement trust fund. Bikini Island though, remains elusive for Bikinians as all food must be imported. This makes traditional living on the island unviable.

Bikini Atoll divers live in simple yet comfortable accommodation. Food is brought in by supply ship or plane, the water is safe to drink and ice-cream is on tap in the dining hall. The only other people living on the island are the Park officials who maintain the island for the visiting scientists who monitor the radiation levels in the coconut plantation. The nearest island is 201km away and there is only one flight each week to the atoll. Dive safety is therefore of paramount importance and detailed briefings include the wrecks history, the dive plan and an emergency plan. The danger of diving Bikini is not the radiation, but rather the depths.


Listening to the Saratoga’s history, it was clear that she demands a lot of respect.

 

“Sara” was the first vessel to be launched as an aircraft carrier. At 251m long, she was the largest vessel in the sea and could cruise at a speed of 22knots – the fastest at the time. Her cargo of 82 aircraft took part in many air strikes in the Pacific and were recorded as having sunk at least one aircraft carrier, two cruisers and several destroyers. Damage was caused to one battleship, several destroyers and numerous merchant ships, as well as hundreds of aircraft. She became a legend when, in the battle of Iwo Jima, she was badly damaged by five kamikaze pilots and bombs but still didn’t sink. Firemen doused her burning deck which was rebuilt in only five hours.

ImageThe second dive on Sara saw us head down her elevator shaft into the hangar deck. Rows of incendiary bombs and Mark 64 aerial bombs greeted us as we entered.

She may have been down here for 50 years, but the live ammunition still makes me nervous. Parked in a corner is a Curtis SB2C Helldiver, largely intact apart from the engine cowling that has fallen off. The dials, gauges and other instrumentation meters are frozen in position. The hangar deck ceiling has collapsed, crushing many of the planes, but amazingly there are still some fluorescent lights that survived both the blast and the sinking. Exiting the hangar deck, we were greeted by complete chaos.

Crockery and cutlery is scattered all over the place. With little time to scratch around,  we proceeded to the command tower where the compulsory decompression stops allowed us time to explore each of the decks.

The bow dive on the Saratoga is a phenomenal experience. She sits upright on the lagoon floor at a depth of 52m, with the bow curving gracefully towards the flight deck at 32m. Her heavy anchor chains lie tossed on the sands below and a giant hole is reminiscent of the stockless anchor’s size.

A healthy growth of long whip corals blurs her sharp outline when viewed from afar and I felt dwarfed by her sheer size. Lying on the sand beyond the bow are two planes that were blown offthe flight deck in the blasts.

One is a Helldiver and the other is a TB Avenger Torpedo bomber. The bomb bay of the Avenger is open and reveals her lethal cargo. Both planes resemble dead insects with their wheels protruding helplessly upright in the water.

Over that week, we managed to dive on seven different wrecks. Nothing has been removed from these wrecks - each one remains armed with tons of unexploded ammunition and massive guns. At the stern of the USS Lamson, a 104m long Mahan class destroyer, racks of depth charges are positioned for quick release into the ocean.


There are 5” 38 calibre guns, 50 calibre Bofor machine guns and 20mm anti-aircraft guns.

 

Interestingly, the red glass on the engine telegraph survived the blast.

The USS Anderson was a destroyer and she was the only vessel whose ammunition went offduring the tests. Despite this, the glass in her portholes survived, as did at least 12 torpedoes being stored on her deck. Being so close to the Baker Blast, the battleship USS Arkansas was unceremoniously dumped upside down.

The superstructure didn’t have time to fall off, resulting in her now resting on it with the turrets of the No 1 12” 50 calibre guns projecting out from underneath her deck.

Wooden crates filled with unexploded, emerald-green proximity-fused ammunition lie alongside her.

The USS Carlisle was a transport ship that was loaded with 5” 38 calibre anti-aircraft guns and Bofor machine guns, along with a consignment of ammunition. In the 1940s, transport ship manufacturing was a hurried process and many were made with inferior steel. Today, her metal parts creak eerily in the currents. The USS Apogon is perhaps the most intact diveable submarine. In fact, the Apogon was pumped out and re-floated after the blast, but it wasn’t worthwhile to maintain the pumps so she was left to sink again. On her bow, the open torpedo door reveals a 24MK torpedo ready to be fired.

In front of the conning tower stands a 5” 25 calibre gun aimed towards the bow.

The most infamous of the ships is the HIMJS Nagato. This was Admiral Yamamoto’s command centre for the attack on Pearl Harbour. The Nagato rests upside down on top of the biggest guns imaginable. With some tricky bearing and elevation calculations, these guns could fire an unbelievable distance of 33kms. The projectiles for the four twin-mounted 16” guns weighed in at 900kg each. Swimming underneath the deck is unnerving - there are several tons of once hostile steel overhead. The pagoda (bridge) was built exceptionally high to accommodate the gun director’s view. This fell offas she turned sideways and is lying alongside the upturned hull. Swimming past, I wondered which deck Yamamoto was on when he received the signal that the attack on Pearl Harbour was a success. I moved away from those horrific thoughts and headed for the four giant propellers. Nature is now in command of the props that once powered this heavyweight battleship to 26.7knots.

Lightly encrusted with red and orange growth, it’s a reminder that everything has an end. For me, this was the end of an incredible journey into the past and the beginning of hopes for a return in the future.

How to get there Marshall Islands fly to Bikini from Majuro on Wednesdays. Continental Airlines fly to Majuro either from Guam or Honolulu.

Minimum requirements

  • Divers should be comfortable with their equipment
  • Dive Insurance and Advanced OpenWater Qualification is essential
  • Average depth is 50m

For more information and contact details, visit www.bikiniatoll.com
For more underwater stories, visit www.peterpinnock.com and to view a gallery of Bikini Atoll photos, visit wwwpeterpinnock.com/gallery.

Author: Jeanne Liebetrau and Peter Pinncock