18 Oct 2000
Fly to Bikini Atoll.

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.

The Bikini

Bikini: From the Latin bi- meaning "two," and -kini: "square inches of Lycra."

Really, the bathing suit was invented in France and was first called "The Atome," as in "the world's smallest bathing suit." That name didn't stick, so Louis Reard called his version "the bikini" to capitalize on the publicity surrounding the bomb testing. The rest is history (so to speak).

19-24 Oct 2000
Quad 21-inch torpedoes on the USS Lamson at the bottom of Bikini Atoll.

Operation crossroads:

July 1, 1946, Operation Crossroads, the atomic bomb "Able" is dropped by the B29 Dave's Dream. As intended, the bomb explodes 515 feet above the lagoon at Bikini Atoll. It is 710 yards from its intended target, the USS Nevada, and only 50 yards from the unfortunate USS Gilliam.

The 2nd Crossroads bomb, Baker.
(archives photo)

Detonation + 0.5 seconds:
The fireball is 1,500 ft in diameter and expanding rapidly.
Detonation + 1.25 seconds:
The shock front hits the lagoon surface and crushes the Gilliam flat. The explosion turns water into vapor and forms a cloud that climbs at 200 miles an hour.
Detonation + 3 seconds:
The shock front is a mile away, 185 feet high and creating winds of 165 miles an hour.
Detonation + 30 seconds:
The mushroom cloud is a mile and a half high, thousands of tons of water are sucked out of the lagoon and thrown into the air.
Detonation + 10 minutes:
The radioactive rain begins to fall.

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.

It disappointed.

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.
(archives photo)
Even the navy misjudged the tests. They thought that with just a good hosing off, the surviving ships would be salvageable. But in the end, only eight ships would really escape Crossroads. The rest were so poisoned with radiation that the navy quickly gave up their cleansing attempts and scuttled them.

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 today:

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.
(archives photo)
As US scientists looked on expecting a yield of three megatons, the Bravo bomb exploded with a force equivalent to 15 million tons of TNT, a thousand times more powerful then the bombs dropped on Japan.

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 atoll.

The diving:

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.
Even the strongest warship is eventually a fragile wreck, nature's untiring assault renders them ever more delicate. Just the bubbles from a diver's breath can be enough to trigger a collapse, and an errant kick can stir up silt reducing visibility to zero. A trapped or lost diver has few options as their air is slowly consumed.

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:

#DateMax DepthDive TimeWreck
118 Oct35.4m/
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.
219 Oct51.6m/
Swim *under* the bow and then out to the sand to see planes blown off the deck. Minor penetration to the catapult control room.
319 Oct43.4m/
Penetrations into the hanger deck, marine living space and the bridge.
420 Oct50.3m/
Stern, props and guns, then a quick look at the bridge.
520 Oct43.6m/
Penetrate from the stern, hanger deck and marine living space.
621 Oct52.9m/
Bow, 18" guns, and then a tour of the bridge.
721 Oct33.8m/
Penetrations to the Command Information Center, "china closet," and admiral's quarters.
822 Oct51.9m/
Tour the whole exterior, lots of sharks.
922 Oct40.6m/
Penetrations to crew space, pay masters office.
1023 Oct46.5/
Tour the whole exterior.
1123 Oct43.2m/
Penetrations to the hanger deck and captains quarters.
1224 Oct58m/
Bury my dive computer in the hole gouged by the stern, view props, and then the "catwalk" tour.

The ships:

USS Saratoga

Propeller blade of a helldiver bomber in the hanger deck.

Catapult control room.
The flagship of Bikini's nuclear fleet, the Saratoga is the only divable aircraft carrier in the world and at over 270m (880ft) long she is larger than the Titanic.

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.

HIJMS Nagato

Perhaps the most notorious ship on the bottom of the lagoon at Bikini, it was from the bridge of the Nagato that Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto commanded the attack on Pearl Harbor. Launched in 1919 she was the first battleship in the world equipped with 16-inch guns. Ironically, she was the only Japanese ship of any significance to survive the war, but was forfeit in the surrender and put to a symbolic death in Operation Crossroads.

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.

USS Lamson

Depth charge launcher on the stern.
The Destroyer Lamson is most famous for spending the first month of her maiden voyage leading the search for Amelia Earhart. She was 103m (341ft) long and armed with quad 21 inch torpedo tubes as well as K-type depth charge projectors.

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.

USS Apogon

Conning tower of the Apogon.
The Apogon was one of a class of 132 submarines that waged a terrible war of attrition on the Japanese merchant marine. The underwater hunters effectively cut off the supply lines from captured territories in the South Pacific back to the home islands.

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.

25 Oct 2000
My week on Bikini over, we wait by the grass strip to see if Air Marshall Islands is in the mood to show up. Sadly, they choose this day to arrive on time and I'm all too quickly back in Majuro.

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