This trip has been a long time coming. A really long time. A brief history of my journey to dive the historic wrecks in Bikini Atoll:
- Approx 2014/2015 : Read about the wrecks in Bikini Atoll and commit to myself to dive them
- Jan 2017 – Booked a trip to Bikini for Jul 2018
- Apr 2017 – Re-booked to Aug 2019 to allow time for rebreather training.
- Open Circuit is not the best dive technology for Bikini.
- Apr 2017 – Original Rebreather course canceled mid-course due to weather
- May 2017 : Reschedule Rebreather “MOD1” course
- Mar 2018 – Take Rebreather “MOD2” course (required for anything deeper than about 130-150 feet)
- Dec 2018 – Diving in Chuuk (aka Truk Lagoon) in preparation.
- Ask a fellow diver to join the trip to Bikini and he replies that “the risk is too big since there isn’t a chamber on board and if somebody gets bent, they need to return.” Foreshadowing indeed.
- Aug 2019 – Make the trek to Kwajalein and then on to Bikini.
- Conduct three dives on the USS Saratoga and a relatively inexperienced diver gets bent and we have to return to Kwajalein.
- Published “Bikini Atoll Scuba Diving (Kind Of)”
- Sept 2019 – Book a follow-on trip for Aug 2020 (Dirty Dozen trip which helps ensure qualified divers)
- May 2020 – Aug 2020 trip deferred to Apr/May 2021 due to Covid
- Jan 2021 – Indications that 2021 will be deferred
- Apr 2021 – Rescheduled due to Covid travel restrictions to Aug/Sep 2022 (conflict with Leslie’s Birthday)
- May 2022 – Rescheduled due to Covid travel restrictions to May/Jun 2023 (conflict with our 23rd Anniversary)
- Feb 2023 – I decide to reschedule to Jun 2023 to be home for our Anniversary
- Dodge the proverbial bullet as the flights for the original May/Jun trip dates are canceled due to a typhoon around Guam
- Jun 2023 – Finally get to dive the wrecks of Bikini Atoll
Needless to say, it has been an epic journey to dive the wrecks at Bikini Atoll. They say that “the journey is more important than the destination” but I’m not sure I entirely agree. 🙂 I am very glad I finally got to dive the wrecks and it is worth the effort to go dive them at least once.
Why are the wrecks at Bikini so alluring and why would I go to all the effort to dive them?
The answer is somewhat complex and also ethereal since I have a deep interest in history and physics. After WW II, the US government and military had a keen interest in understanding the effect of atomic weapons on Naval warfare. We saw the impact on land at Nagasaki and Hiroshima but did not understand how the “atomic age” would impact battles on the ocean. WW II had been a turning point in how war was conducted and won and the importance of Naval warfare had become evident, especially in the Pacific Theater.
For the atomic tests, the military needed a location that had predictable weather, in a territory controlled by the US, had a protected anchorage, be free of extreme cold and storms, had few inhabitants, was not close to a major city, and was within 1000 miles of an airbase. Bikini fit the bill.
The US relocated (more like forced) the 167 natives from their island home in the remote Bikini Atoll and proceeded to build up facilities to test atomic weapons. Between 1946 and 1958, the US detonated 23 nuclear devices over seven different locations in the Bikini Atoll. The largest nuclear test ever conducted by the US was code named Castle Bravo on March 1, 1954 and was 15.5 Megatons. It was 250% of the expected yield of 6 Megatons and was 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki nine years earlier in 1945. The island has yet to be cleared for natives to return. There are some Department of Energy personnel who stay on the island on a regular basis but no permanent inhabitants.
Able / Baker
The first two tests were code named “Able” and “Baker” in mid-1946 and were part of Operation Crossroads and were the first detonations of atomic weapons after Nagasaki in August 1945.
The US military assembled 95 target ships and put them into an array in order to judge the effectiveness of the weapons against different types of ships and at different distances from the epicenter. It included both US ships and vessels that we acquired at the end of WW II. The vessels included two aircraft carriers (Saratoga and Independence), two cruisers, thirteen destroyers, eight submarines, and a lot of other auxiliary vessels. Of note, there were three surrendered German and Japanese ships (Prinz Eugen, Sakawa, Nagato). We’ll discuss two of those vessels in follow-on posts.
Able was detonated about 500 above the target (they had painted the target ship in bright orange but missed – it was dropped from 28,000 feet in the air and was off target by 1,500 to 2,000 feet). It actually did not cause a lot of damage.
The Baker test bomb was suspended under a ship and detonated 90 feet underwater. It caused a significant amount of damage due to the shockwave, flooding of ships, and nuclear fallout. It carved a 30-foot deep and 2000 foot wide crater in the ocean floor and a 94 foot high tsunami. Eight of the ships in the target array were sunk.
In the diagram above for Test Baker, #10 is the USS Saratoga, #3 is the Arkansas, #7 is the Nagato, #2 is Apogon.
As a result of the first two tests, quite a few of the ships survived. There are about a dozen wrecks to dive in Bikini Atoll but a majority of the ships were taken away for decontamination which failed miserably and were sunk.
There was a third deep water test scheduled after Baker, code named Charlie. However, it was canceled primarily because the Navy couldn’t decontaminate the ships after the Baker test (that is another whole debacle). That test was rescheduled and code named Operation Wigwam and was conducted off the cost of Mexico in 1955 (there is an interesting tale here as well but that won’t be revealed until I get to do a dive that is on my list.
Getting There / Getting Back
Getting to and from Bikini Atoll is quite a challenge. The “normal” process involves the following steps:
- Get to Honolulu (I flew LAX-HNL)
- If you have more than a 12 hour layover, then collect your bags and get in a taxi to a hotel
- There is a tradeoff between convenience (have the airline hold your bags overnight) and peace of mind (get to HNL with some slack time to collect your bags in HNL and re-check to MAJ/KWA for the morning flight)
- Take a 7am flight from Honolulu to the capital of the Marshall Islands (Majuro) which is about 5 hours and then to Kwajalein which is about an hour flight
- Go through the Army base in Kwajalein, collect your bags, take a bus to the port, and then take a 30 minute ferry to Ebeye
- Exit the ferry and take a skiff to the live-aboard boat
- Transit 30 hours to Bikini on the live-aboard
Generally, the live-aboard vessel will stay in Ebeye the night of arrival, conduct 1 or 2 dives on the nearby Prinz Eugen in the morning, and then depart for the crossing to Bikini.
The trip is complicated by a few factors: (1) Carting around 200 lbs of gear in/out of airports, taxis, ferries buses, etc. is a challenge (2) transiting through an active US military base (3) the ONLY airline to fly to the Marshall Islands on a regular basis is United and (4) the flights do NOT occur on a regular basis. In fact, the United flight takes two sets of pilots and a mechanic on the Island Hopper route. There are special seats in 1A/B and 2 A/B for the second set of pilots to rest.
It is generally advised to arrive in Kwajalein / Ebeye a few days before your boat leaves for Bikini; however, that is not always practical. In our case, given the United Airlines flight schedule, we could either (a) arrive about 5 days early and twiddle our thumbs in Ebeye where there is one run-down hotel and nothing to do or (b) arrive the day of our embarkation on the boat.
Every diver but one chose option (b) and one diver that chose (b) had his baggage “left” or abandoned in Honolulu. It is a real risk and everybody has to make their own risk/reward tradeoff decision. The trip that departed on the other vessel while we were in Bikini had 5 of the passengers not get their bags and scuba gear. This is a BIG problem if you are conducting technical dive operations.
We finished our final two dives and then started the long 30+ hour journey home later that night after dinner. We knew we were in for quite a ride since the seas were increasing and the wind was picking up.
The video below will give a little bit of an idea of our ride home. This was NOT during the worst part of the trip.
Once we got back to Ebeye, we discovered that United was having a “United moment” and a meltdown.
Our “Island Hopper” flight was delayed by a few hours (no big deal) and we didn’t get to Honolulu until about 4am but my 1pm flight from HNL-LAX was completely canceled (along with a bunch of other flights). While we were still in Kwajalein, the United gate agent said “the runways are shortened due to construction and we are weight limited so either a bunch of passengers take a $1500 credit or we start taking bags of the plane.” We all had an “oh crap” moment when we were on board and saw a bunch of our bags being taken OUT of the cargo hold. It turns out that they were moving the heavy bags to better balance the plane but we did not know that until we got to Honolulu and our bags arrived.
While I was in Honolulu, I took advantage of the extended layover and toured the Balao class submarine, USS Bowfin. I will write a separate article about that.
I eventually got home but almost everybody on the trip had delayed flights and baggage issues at some point.
The boat / dive operation
I had booked my trip with Dirty Dozen Expeditions. There was good reason for this. When you book directly with Master Liveaboards, you don’t generally know who all the other divers are or their experience conducting technical dives. As I found out on my first attempt, this can result in returning to Ebeye if a diver gets decompression sickness.
There is no guarantee, but Aron and the team at Dirty Dozen vet the divers and generally know them personally and their capabilities. In this case, one of the divers had organized the trip and myself and one other diver were the only two divers not already known to the group. Fortunately, it was a great group of divers and I’ve made some lifelong friends after the trip.
We were on the Truk Master / Solomons Master boat. They currently have two vessels going to Bikini but I believe that is for this season only.
I was lucky enough to get my own cabin. This is not the norm and only happened due to the number of divers and buddy pairs. The boat itself is nice, but not luxurious. It is starting to show it’s age and can definitely use some time in dry dock to spruce things up. However, the crew more than made up for any small issues with the boat.
Conducting technical, deep, decompression diving in a remote location like Bikini is not easy. Every gas fill I had was perfect and the crew efficiently handled all the gear and cameras associated with this type of diving. Dive ops were very smooth and well coordinated.
Most people would get their rebreather on and then have their bailout tanks handed to them in the water. I like to put all my tanks on before splashing and the dive support team learned the particular nuances of each diver and their unique equipment needs. The dive deck is well suited for technical divers and they put down metal beams off the dive deck for extended decompression stops at 20 feet and 10 feet. All of the wrecks that we dove had mooring lines that we would tie into.
In addition to the deco bar, the boat had dropped tanks of 50% on a down line off the boat and configured additional O2 tanks on the deco bar. It is reassuring to know that the dive operation knows how to work with technical divers — especially in very remote locations like Bikini.
Given the remote location and challenges of food storage, the meals on-board is excellent and plentiful. Hot breakfast was around 7am and pastries and cereal were available beforehand. We then had our first dive and post-dive snacks, lunch and then a second dive followed by more snacks and then dinner/dessert. Almost all meals are “family style” buffet with plenty of choices and food.
On the day that we visited Bikini Atoll, we had an excellent BBQ!
Other than the Prinz Eugen, all dives in Bikini are technical dives involving decompression. Given the limited amount of Helium, the only way to dive Trimix is to dive on closed circuit. Anybody diving Open Circuit will be diving Air. For our trip, all the guests were diving CCR and we had quite a variety from rEvo to Meg to AP to JJ to Choptima, etc. We were all diving pre-mixed 16/45-ish for Diluent and 18/45-ish and 50% for bailout in AL80s.
I brought four bags of gear including my carry on. The total weight was about 170 pounds.
The big Pelican case is my rEvo rebreather. The smaller Pelican case is my underwater camera housing, strobes, lights, etc. The rolling duffel has all my scuba gear, spares, etc. The backpack has my computer, camera, Lithium batteries, etc. Somewhere in that I have a small handful of clothes.
I took a 5mm wetsuit. Some people dive in drysuits but most were in some kind of wetsuit. I get cold easily and with 2 dives at 2 hours each across multiple days, I’m glad I didn’t have “just” a 3mm wetsuit even though the water temp is about 82F.
One thing to note: you need to have spares for pretty much everything.
The boat does not stock a bunch of technical diving gear. This means spare rebreather parts, O2 cells, batteries, etc. You do not want to go to the effort of getting to Bikini only to not dive due to a failure of something simple but un-replaceable. There is no 7-11 and no dive store “down the street.”
Bikini Land Tour
To give divers a break and to ensure some additional off-gassing, they generally plan an afternoon trip to Bikini Atoll. There is one dive in the morning and then they take everybody ashore in skiffs. I will write a separate post about our excursion, but it was really interesting.
Wreck divers usually have a hierarchy of a wreck’s “status” based upon how it sank (or , at least, that is how I look at it). At the top of the list are wrecks sank during a wartime battle. Below that are wrecks that sank in an accident of some sort. Below that are wrecks that were sank on purpose for divers and/or artificial reefs.
Bikini wrecks don’t really fit into any of those three categories and there is something unique about them. This, along with the challenges of diving here, are part of the appeal. There is also the historical significance of some of the wrecks.
- The USS Saratoga (CV-3) was the third designated aircraft carrier and had teak wood on the top of the flight deck.
- The Nagato was a Japanese super-dreadnought battleship (multiple 16″ guns that are 55 feet long) and the lead ship for her class. Admiral Yamamoto gave the order to attack Pearl Harbor from her bridge.
- The Prinz Eugen (now sank outside Kwajalein) is the only surviving German capital ship from WW II.
It is a little debatable but there are about 10-12 wrecks to dive on a typical Bikini Atoll trip. Some are just melted hunks of steel. I did 15 dives on the trip across 8 different wrecks. I originally had thought about building a photogrammetry model of the entire Saratoga wreck; however, there were multiple impediments to doing that.
Instead, for most of my dives on the Saratoga, I worked on photogrammetry of the surrounding airplanes and a few other key areas on the wreck. Below is a preview of one of the airplane models:
I plan to publish detailed posts for each of the wrecks listed below. I will add links to the table of wrecks as I post them.
I somewhat acted as the unofficial “trip photographer” so I have quite a few photos to share in the upcoming posts for each wreck.
For any serious wreck diver, I highly recommend making the trek to Bikini if you haven’t already. Of course, most serious wreck divers already know that. The depth of the wrecks is definitely beyond just recreational and you need to be comfortable with extended decompression; however, they are not so deep that you pay a huge deco penalty and the water is warm with relatively little or no current. The wrecks also have a large historic significance along with the history of Bikini.
In short – go to Bikini but be prepared for some logistical challenges.
“If it was easy, everybody would do it.”