February 1946, a US representative visited the remote atoll of Bikini and basically asked the islanders, "Hey, do you mind if we borrow your island for a while, it's for the good of mankind?" The 167 Bikinians thought about it, and then responded with something along the lines of, "well sure, as long as it's for the good of mankind."
They were quickly relocated to a barren island and left to starve while the US began testing atomic weapons on their atoll.
As part of the tests, the Navy anchored a magnificent fleet of historic ships in the lagoon to see what would happen. Sure enough, they sank, and while the Bikinians still don't have their island back, divers have some of the best wrecks in the world.
|Quad 21-inch torpedoes on the USS Lamson at the bottom of Bikini Atoll.|
|The 2nd Crossroads bomb, Baker.|
The Able and Baker bombs yielded the equivalent of about 20,000 tons of TNT, similar in strength the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The stated purpose of the operation was to evaluate the effectiveness of atomic bombs for naval attacks.
Crossroads was a mammoth operation involving over 42,000 U.S. military and civilian personal. In its day, the target fleet would have been the 4th or 5th largest navy in the world. To record its destruction 104 still cameras, 208 motion cameras, and 18 tons of film were assembled, more than half the world's stock of film at the time.
To this show was invited not only the American public, but also observers from 11 other nations, including the then Soviet Union. Crossroads was intended to draw a line in the sand (ocean), to demonstrate the efficacy of the world's ultimate weapon.
Able sank only five of the 77 ships in the target array, and all of the badly damaged ships were within 1000 yards of the blast. Of 114 press members gathered for Able, only 75 stayed for the second blast, Baker.
|Sailors try to scrub away radiation.|
As for the wrecks on the bottom of the lagoon, only time would render
them safe for exploration, just as it would take time for the world to
grasp the implications of the atomic age.
|Bikini Atoll: paradise lost, at least for now.|
The atomic bombs of Operation Crossroads certainly weren't good for Bikini, but it was the much more powerful hydrogen bombs of Operation Castle that rendered the island uninhabitable.
|The 15 megaton Bravo blast.
Three islands of Bikini were instantly vaporized, but it wasn't until hours later that deadly radioactive debris began raining down on inhabited atolls in the northern Marshall Islands.
Bravo was detonated in 1954, in 1969 the US proclaimed the island again inhabitable and began preparations to move the Bikinians back home. It wasn't until 1975 though, after some Bikinians had already returned, that scientists worked out the island was still badly contaminated.
Radioactive cesium-137 was present in the soil in small amounts, but was dangerously concentrated in anything grown on the island. The Bikinians food supply was poisoned, and again they had to leave.
The US Government and the Bikinians are still trying to work out a final plan for resettlement. The US wants to treat the soil with potassium fertilizer to prevent the plants from taking up the cesium. The Bikinians don't trust that solution and instead want to scrape the top level of soil from the island and have it replaced.
While the negotiations continue, the Crossroads wrecks have been
declared radiologically safe and their titles transferred to the
Bikinians. The dive operation is the first attempt to make commercial
use of Bikini's legacy, and is currently the only activity on the
|The bridge of the USS Saratoga.
Why swim through the dark, collapsing interior of a man-made artifact when you could be out enjoying nature's magic on the reef?
Wrecks are often beautiful places, creating an oasis of life on otherwise barren sandy bottom. There is also something inherently interesting about seeing any human edifice out of context, to swim down corridors once walked by admirals. And in the end, that is really what makes diving wrecks different than diving any natural creation, the sense of historical context.
Bikini is one of the premier wreck diving locations in the world. Nowhere else in the world is such a collection of magnificent and historic ships accessible to divers. Bikini has the only divable aircraft carrier in the world, the USS Saratoga, a hero of WWII. And, the Japanese are represented as well.
The great battleship Nagato was the only Japanese capital ship to survive the war, but along with the Saratoga, and several other magnificent ships, it too succumbed to the atomic blasts of Operation Crossroads. They all rest together now on the bottom of Bikini's lagoon, the warm, clear, tropical waters making the diving not just possible, but a delight.
In diving wrecks though, especially when penetrating them, divers
face many challenges and complications not found in regular diving.
|Following lines in the Saratoga.
To protect themselves, wreck divers trail lines that can be followed back to the entrance and employ a host of other safety techniques. It is a serious activity that requires special training and equipment.
As usual, I have all of the gear, but only some of the training.
Luckily, during my week on Bikini there were some experienced wreck
divers there who were willing to work with me.
The final trick to diving at Bikini is the depth. The lagoon is about 50m (165ft) deep which puts most of the wrecks just beyond the commonly accepted limits for recreational diving.
In order to get significant bottom times, all the diving on Bikini is decompression diving. A direct ascent to the surface from a decompression dive results in an unacceptable risk of getting decompression sickness, the notorious "bends." Instead, divers make a staged ascents, stopping at different depths for proscribed periods of times to let the nitrogen accumulated at depth off-gas.
Like wreck diving, or diving in a cave, decompression diving carries significant risks because in an emergency the diver isn't able to make a direct ascent to the surface. A small problem can quickly become a big problem.
Because these risks are even further magnified by Bikini's remote location, the dive operation uses an elaborate system with an impeccable safety record. Divers at Bikini do their decompression stops on a fixed set of bars and breathe a surface supplied gas rich in oxygen.
A typical dive at Bikini involves 30-45 minutes on a wreck, and then
1-1.5 hours on the deco bars. To answer the obvious question, yes,
it's worth it.
|Hanging out on the deco bars.|
There is only one flight a week (Wed) to Bikini, so the diving is a seven day 12 dive plan for US$2,750. These were my 12 dives:
|#||Date||Max Depth||Dive Time||Wreck|
Warm-up dive, but with our late delivery by Air Marshall Islands, it was on the verge of becoming a night dive. A short deco, but done with sharks circling.
Swim *under* the bow and then out to the sand to see planes blown off the deck. Minor penetration to the catapult control room.
Penetrations into the hanger deck, marine living space and the bridge.
Stern, props and guns, then a quick look at the bridge.
Penetrate from the stern, hanger deck and marine living space.
Bow, 18" guns, and then a tour of the bridge.
Penetrations to the Command Information Center, "china closet," and admiral's quarters.
Tour the whole exterior, lots of sharks.
Penetrations to crew space, pay masters office.
Tour the whole exterior.
Penetrations to the hanger deck and captains quarters.
Bury my dive computer in the hole gouged by the stern, view props, and then the "catwalk" tour.
|Propeller blade of a helldiver bomber in the hanger deck.|
|Catapult control room.
America's first fleet level carrier, she was originally conceived as a cruiser but was propitiously converted in order to conform to a pre-WWII treaty. She was launched in 1925, an age when the battleship was still thought to rule the seas.
The Saratoga Opened the attacks on Guadalcanal and Tarawa before moving east to launch night strikes against the Japanese home islands. In her 17 years of service there were 98,549 landings on her deck.
In WWII she survived two bombings, two torpedoings and five kamikazes attacks, but succumbed to Operation Crossroads' Baker shot.
Like most of the ships in Operation Crossroads she was equipped with a
typical load of live munitions before the tests. Bombs and the planes
that would have carried them still litter her mammoth hanger deck.
|500 pound bombs.||Helldiver cockpit.|
|The command bridge.
||16 inch gun.
Like most battleships, the Nagato was top-heavy so she sunk upside-down. Her keel and huge screws are new easily accessible while the mighty guns lie just off the sand.
Amazingly, as she came to rest on the bottom the superstructure broke off and now lies fairly intact next to the hull. The bridge where Yamamoto gave the infamous command, "Tora, tora, tora!" is an easy swim through.
|The works of man.||And nature's decorations.|
|Depth charge launcher on the stern.
On Dec 6, 1944 after her sister ship, the Mahan was sunk, a kamikaze
came in low from the stern and hit the Lamson's smokestack with its right
wing before cartwheeling into the superstructure. She just barely
escaped sinking but then at the end of the war was consigned to her
final fate in Operation Crossroads.
|Me, posing with an antiaircraft gun.|
|Conning tower of the Apogon.
The Apogon herself participated in eight war patrols and sunk 3
Japanese vessels totaling 7,575 tons. She was moored in midwater for
the tests, lightly damaged by Able, and sunk by Baker.
Sources: The vast majority of the above historical information comes from, The Archeology of the Atomic Bomb: The submerged cultural resources assessment of the Sunken Fleet of Operation Crossroads at Bikini and Kwajalein Atoll Lagoons written by the US National Park Service, Submerged Cultural Resources Unit. Any errors are I'm sure mine, not theirs.