by Peter Fear, The Scuba Doctor,
first published on Tuesday, 14 February 2006
Note: Clicking on the pictures through this article will pop-up larger versions of the pictures.
An Aircraft Carrier bigger than the Titanic, Battleships, Destroyers, Submarines and much more all within a fifteen minute boat ride of Bikini Atoll.
Only one other place in the world can you dive a concentrated collection of warships and that's Scapa Flow north of Scotland in the Orkney Islands were the water is freezing, barely a single tree exists and sometimes the only way you know you are diving a wreck is when you bump into them!
At Bikini Atoll my computer couldn't make up its mind if the water temperature was 29 or 30 degrees, in visibility that at times seemed to go forever. These warships were armed, loaded and intact, sunk by Nuclear tests from the late forties through to the late fifties.
Bikini Atoll is now the ultimate wreck diving location in the world. A beautiful tropical paradise, but don't eat the coconuts.
Bikini Atoll was evacuated of its inhabitants in 1946 "FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND AND TO END ALL WORLD WARS". At least, that's the line the Americans used on these religious people to convince the original 167 Bikinians to leave their atoll paradise (for a short time), so they said.
This paved the way for the start of Operation Crossroads, the detonation of the first 2 bombs (Able and Baker) both the same size as the bomb dropped on Nagasaki to end the war and was the start of a succession of nuclear tests that would exile the Bikinians until this day and possibly forever. The operation was to determine the effect of Atomic Bombs on American Warships.
In 1954 the Bravo bomb was detonated. This was 1,000 times more powerful than Able or Baker and many times more powerful than calculated. It obliterated 3 islands and left a crater 65 metres deep, an awesome sight from the air. The fallout from Bravo, due to the wind and atmospheric conditions at the time, was responsible for many deaths and cases of radiation sickness on neighboring islands and boats.
The Marshall Islands, of which Bikini is part, is located in the central Pacific north of Nauru and the equator, east of Guam and southwest of the Hawaiian Islands. It consists of 29 atolls and 5 single islands. A glance at an atlas will give you an indication of the remoteness of the group and why it was chosen as a nuclear test site. To this day Kwajalein atoll, the largest lagoon in the world, is still used as a landing site for test missiles from Cape Kennedy. It is a secure island with a large American base and is one of the 5 main control stations in the world for GPS Satellites.
Bikini Island opened for divers in June 1996 as a tourism initiative to supplement Bikinians income. It was not long after that I decided to one day dive this unique location. In 2002, over a few beers, a group of friends and I agreed on a suitable date and booked a trip for August 2005. The reason for the long lead in time was due to the cost. The only way to get to Bikini was via Honolulu or Guam and then island hop to Majuro the capital of the Marshall Islands for the interconnecting island flight to Bikini. The trip was costed at around $8,500 so the long lead in time would allow everyone to accumulate the money.
In 2004 Air Nauru started flying from Brisbane via Honiara and Nauru to Majuro. This reduced the trip cost and travel time significantly. Combined with the improvement in the exchange rate (US Dollars) to around $6,500 AUD, there were some very happy divers. If this still sounds expensive, remember you cannot grow or eat anything off the island. All food is either flown in or delivered by supply ship a few times a year. The remoteness also adds considerably to this cost.
This initiative of Air Nauru has made not only Bikini affordable but has opened up the previously isolated Marshall Islands to Australian divers. I believe the Marshalls with many undived, uninhabited atolls will become one of the hottest dive destinations in the world. Can you imagine the undersea life on an atoll that hasn't been inhabited or fished since the end of the second world war. There are also several unexplored wrecks in Kwajalein Atoll along with the German Battleship Prince Eurgen, all now accessible by live aboard.
On Monday 8th August at 2:00 a.m. the group consisting of myself Laurent Allieres, Paul Williams, Heather Bertrand, Matt Procter and Robert Seyb from Melbourne along with Andrew Bowie from South Oz, Wayne Bowker from Mt Tom Price WA, Jeff Swann from Darwin and Gary Hawes from Gladstone Qld, departed Brisbane on Air Nauru. At Honiaria we were joined by Jeff Giddins well known in Melbourne as Scuttlebutt Charters operating from Torquay. Jeff (much to Victorian divers dissatisfaction) holidays in Tulaghi for the Victorian winter. He claims he skippers their boat to give the crew in Tulaghi a break!
Allowing for the time difference and transit time along the way, we arrived in Majuro about 2:00 p.m., headed to the Marshall Islands Resort were we would stay until Wednesday waiting for our connecting flight to Bikini.
Majuro is an interesting place. The widest part of the Atoll is the airstrip we landed on. It also has some great diving but that's another story. However, our schedule with flying and diving allowed us time on arrival to shore dive the wreck of a fishing trawler in 25mts of water in front of the Resort. A great warm up dive that surprised everyone. This was done with the assistance of Daryl and Julie from Yokwie Divers who's dive shop was located in the Resort. Unfortunately Yokwie Divers closed at the end of September so Daryl and Julie can explore the world. They will be sadly missed as they have pioneered a lot of diving in the Marshall Islands.
Our Air Marshall Dash 8 flew via Kwajalein to a grass landing strip on the Bikini Atoll island of Eneu (308 acres) where we were greeted by the dive team. Jim Akroyd, Head Divemaster and Resort Manager, Chris Story and Gen Hansen, Divemasters, Edward Maddison and Ronnie Lokiar who are Bikini Islander Dive Guides and support divers. From Eneu it is a 20minute boat ride to Bikini Island (586 acres) across it's Lagoon of 240 sq miles.
After a quick lunch in the spacious Mess Room (complete with everyone's favourite, a soft ice cream machine) and a brief tour of the Resort facilities, that includes a twelve seat cinema ajoining a specialized briefing room, a modern filling station with an excellent workshop we attend our first briefing that takes 2 hours!
Before the actual briefing for our first checkout dive on the Aircraft Carrier USS Saratoga that afternoon, there are a few rules defined. Your qualification cards are sited although copies of them had previously been sent to the island along with a copy of a form with your Diving Doctor's assurance that you are still fit to dive.
If you are not a qualified Cave Diver or proficient in fining and penetration techniques you will be restricted to limited penetrations. This did not really concern anyone as the wrecks are so big and we only have 12 dives. We would be struggling to get an overall view of each wreck.
Next, if you do not have proper dive/medical evacuation insurance you will not be allowed to dive. The DAN Preferred Plan is the only acceptable insurance policies. Remember you are in one of the remotest locations on the planet and if you have an incident it could take up to 3 days to evacuate you.
The days diving is run with military precision. Jim has a military background in UK and was a tank group commander in Desert Storm. Breakfast starts at 0700hrs, first dive briefing 0800hrs, lunch 1200hrs afternoon dive briefing 1400hrs.
Last but not least, always be out of the water by 5:00 p.m. Even swimming on our beautiful beach is restricted to not before 8:00am. Why? Outside of those hours is feeding time? Oceanic White Tips and Tiger sharks are not uncommon in the area and the dive crew can relate a few exciting encounters.
As checkout dives go, this must be the best in the world. At 880 ft long, 39,000 tons the USS Saratoga (or Sara as it is affectionately known) is the largest diveable vessel in the world and the only aircraft carrier available for diving. Sitting upright on the bottom in 55mts and rising to within 15mts of the surface. The flight deck is around 30mts.
This dive takes you over the forward elevator for a swim along the portside guns, from here it's across the flight deck to the starboard guns forward of the bridge and then into the bridge for some limited penetration. After a stop at 15mts at the top of the bridge, we make our way across to the trapeze suspended from the dive boat.
The trapeze has bars set at 9mts, 6mts and 3mts, the swim from Sara to the trapeze is done at 12mts. Hanging from the trapeze are 2 first stage regulators both with 7 second stages connected to each on long hoses. These regulators supply 75% nitrox from cylinders on the boat for your decompression. Total dive time around 60 minutes.
This is a checkout dive like no other I have ever experienced. The whole dive crew are forever vigilant checking for the slightest problem. Assessments are made if you can follow the dive plan accurately; are your penetration techniques (especially buoyancy and fining) good enough; is your gear configuration adequate and is your gear in good working order and suitable for the decompression diving we would be doing.
The end of the day at a debriefing you are bluntly but politely told if there are any problems and given advice and help to rectify them.
At first this seemed like a bit of overkill but what they are actually doing is trying to eliminate the slightest problem that could lead to a later incident. Remember you could be 3 days away from evacuation and all the dives are decompression dives.
Five of our 12 dives were on the USS Saratoga and included penetration of the hanger deck complete with Avengers, a penetration called the "haunted house" between decks through torpedo and bomb rooms. Another down to the stern to view the massive propellers, and finally for me, one of the best, the bow. Imagine sitting on the sand looking up at the bow and flight deck of an aircraft carrier!!!
The sides of Sara are almost completely covered with sea whips inhabited by a myriad of fish life. Sharks and eagle rays cruise the flight deck and surrounds and the obligatory school of batfish accompany the divers at the bridge and deco trapeze.
You could quite easily spend the whole week diving Sara and not even touch the surface of what she has to offer.
USS LAMSON American destroyer 341ft long, sitting upright on the bottom. Her hull provides a great example of the power of a nuclear explosion. Damaged and twisted. Spherical and drum depth charges, a multi level torpedo launcher complete with torpedoes ready to fire and of course guns, fish and sea whips. This vessel was used in the search for around the world aviator Amelia Earhart when she disappeared in 1937. The Lamson everybody agreed was one of our best dives.
HIJMS NAGATO flagship to the Japanese navy. 725 ft in length 39,000 tons lies on her starboard quarter resting on the gun director's tower with its observation deck and its massive guns. This is the ship from which Admiral Yamamoto commanded and gave the order to attack Pearl Harbour.
The guns on this monolith take a 17inch diameter shell. The barrels are 17mts long and each weighs 100 tons. They were so powerful that they could not be fired less than 23 degrees off the ships centerline as they would have broken the back of the ship.
We dived the HIJMS Nagato twice, covering forward and rear guns, the observation deck and gun directory (the tower like structures needed on vessels of their time, before radar, to aim and fire the guns from). The 4 massive propellers and giant rudder in about 32mts are a sight that will remain etched in your memory. Absolutely awesome.
USS APOGON American submarine, 312ft long sitting upright and intact on the bottom. What a great dive. The timber planking is gone from the deck leaving visible the intricate pipe work between the deck and the pressure hull. A starboard torpedo door is open allowing you to see the torpedo loaded in this tube ready to fire. You can put your head into a hole to view inside the torpedo room before swimming back towards the silhouette of the deck gun and conning tower enveloped in sea whips.
USS ANDERSON American Destroyer and the USS CARLISLE Attack transport.
At 348ft and 426ft in length both these dives are great dives but at Bikini there is simply so much better and more to see with so little time.
USS ARKANSAS American Battleship 29,000 tons 562 ft long that survived 2 world wars.
My number 1 dive at Bikini. Resting on its starboard quarter similar to the HIJMS Nagato this vessel is intact partly due to its reported 27inch thick armour plated hull.
This dive begins from about the rear smoke stack then forward to explore the bridge area. From the front of the bridge you swim under the hull to the starboard side in the sand and then forward towards the bow. As you swim forward the massive guns are silhouetted against the powder white sand in gin clear water with the natural light in the background. The consistency of the sand resulted from the USS Arkansas closeness to the Baker blast that sunk it.
Once past the guns you come to 4 massive anchor chains hanging from the hawsers and disappearing into the sand below. Swimming past the chain and out from under the bow at 55 metres, you turn around settle on the bottom and take time to marvel at the monstrous bow enveloped with sea whips, a memory that will never be forgotten. From here you swim up the bow and along the bottom of the hull, you note the waves in the hull that seem to stretch the length of the ship and they remind me of a crinkle cut potato chip. Then I remember this hull is 27 inches thick!
It is thought the USS Arkansas was blown stern over bow to its resting place by the Baker blast.
As I mentioned at the start of this article
"IT DOSENT GET ANY BETTER THAN THIS".
If you are an avid wreck diver and have one aim left in life, dedicate it to diving Bikinis Nuclear Fleet. It is simply awesome. For Stan Bugg and Brian Cornell — remember you may be dead tomorrow!
All the wreck diving on Bikini is decompression diving and dive times can be from 50 minutes to 95 minutes or more. The cylinders used are twin 100 cu ft 300 bar steel that weigh about 17kgs each. They are permanently manifolded and banded with steel bands set at the standard 11 inch centers. Needless to say you don't need a weight belt. These cylinders are used to ensure you have enough air to complete your decompression should there be a problem with the nitrox supply e.g. the boat mooring or trapeze may break disconnecting your nitrox supply.
Remember you could be 3 days from an evacuation if you have a problem. You do need a twin bladder wing with a harness or back plate to accommodate them. The OMS were by far most popular and worked perfectly.
You are required to assemble and disassemble your kit before and after every dive so the heavy cylinders can more easily be lifted and transported for filling.
Also required are 2 regulators set up for your twins and OMS wing. If there is a malfunction with your regulators you will not be allowed to use them again unless they can be repaired on site. They have spares for Poseidon and Apeks only. I recommend taking a spare reg. set.
A computer that can handle 2 decompression dives per day and is capable of gas switching is a necessity along with a backup timer. The Suunto Vytec and VR3 preformed faultlessly.
A torch with separate battery pack and a smaller back up torch are also essential.
A DSMB and small reel (15mts line) should also be taken in case a floating deco stop is required.
If you are a competent diver who has the right gear and can dive with twins they will take you diving at Bikini. Although they advertise you only need an advanced certificate with 50 dives they will only give you single tank experience. I wouldn't recommend it as you would miss to much.
In many ways it's not much different to diving the SS President Coolidge. It may even be safer. Maximum depth is 55 metres (bottom of the lagoon), you have got more air, you're decompressing on 75% nitrox and most of the dives start reasonably shallow.
Air Marshall Islands has 3 planes, the Dash 8 we flew up on and 2 smaller Dorniers. There are no other carriers. Unfortunately, the Dash 8 and one of the Dorniers were broken and there was some discussion with the pilot as to whether the combined weight of 11 divers and their kit would overload the remaining Dornier aircraft. It looked like a few of us would have to stay behind for another weeks diving, dam! The stampede of volunteers was unbelievable.
Unfortunately the pilot off loaded all other passengers on neighboring aiting for our Air Nauru connection to Oz with a couple of dives and lots of celebrating an unbelievable trip with the best group of divers I have ever taken away. We chucked Jeff Giddens off in Honiara (with his dodgy rebreather) to finish his working holiday and arrived in Brisbane at 8:00pm on the Friday night. After over-nighting there, I, along with Heather and Paul had to say goodbye to the rest of the group and head to Cairns where we met another group to spend 2 weeks in Palau.
Gee life's a bitch but someone's got to do it!!!!
Bikini Atoll is closed to divers from 14th November to 7th March every year. They can only accommodate 11 or 12 divers at a time. This works out that only about 400 divers per year world wide, get to dive Bikini. Estimates from the Bikini dive crew are that there are probably only about 2,000 divers world wide that have ever dived there.
Shortly after returning to Melbourne I tried to book again for 2006 as nearly the whole group were keen to return. Unfortunately, it was at the time almost completely booked out and I have been advised that it is now fully booked for 2006.
Put simply, the Americans now monopolize bookings. They pay large up front deposits well in advance.
Scuba Doctor has been lucky enough to secure 2 weeks in July/August 2007 and would you believe, the Yanks are now trying to steel them!
This trip can be for either one week or 2 weeks. Contact me or Dive Adventures for information if you are interested. Call into Scuba Doctor in Rye to view an underwater DVD of our trip expertly recorded and edited by Chris Storey, Bikini Divemaster.
The Scuba Doctor has Bikini Atoll dive expeditions arranged for October 2013 and 2014. The dive trips are ex Cairns and are a 14-day turn around allowing for 1-day steaming from Kwajalein Atoll to Bikini Atoll and 1-day return, plus 10-days of diving for 20 dives.
Warning: Scuba diving at Bikini Atoll will change you forever. Some divers on earlier expeditions with The Scuba Doctor to Bikini Atoll in earlier years simply stopped diving for a year or more after the trip. Nothing else could measure up after Bikini Atoll. Don't miss out. Book your spot today!