Bikini Atoll, in the North Pacific Ocean and part of the Marshall Islands, is famous for the Operation Crossroads nuclear tests, which took place between 1946 and 1958. The islands have made a slow but steady recovery, however, and it’s now possible to scuba dive at Bikini Atoll.
Where is Bikini Atoll?
Part of the Marshall Islands, Bikini Atoll is in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean. It’s one of the most remote places on Earth, and thus a destination that most divers can’t experience. Flights to Bikini stopped in 2008 when Air Marshall Islands went out of business, leaving the crushed-coral runway to fall into disrepair. The best way to get to Bikini Atoll is via Kwajelein (a U.S. military base), also in the Marshall Islands. Passengers are only allowed off the plane if their trip is pre-arranged. Passengers are escorted to the ferry port and taken to Ebye to pick up the charter. From there, it’s 24-plus hours by sea to Bikini.
Before the nuclear tests, the 23 islands spanning 34 square miles were a paradise surrounding a deep lagoon. The atoll featured rich fishing reefs that supported 40 local families. Today, the island has no residents and is under military control. The only regular visitors to the islands are scientists and the four to six caretakers who live nearby. The soil still contains significant levels of cesium 137, meaning that visitors cannot eat any produce grown on the island — especially the coconuts. These days visitors mostly travel to Bikini Atoll onboard the luxury charters that anchor in the lagoon.
What makes it famous?
In 1946 the United States was the world’s only nuclear power. The previous year had seen the U.S. Air Force dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force Japan’s surrender. These attacks stunned the military and scientific establishments, harboring much more power than they’d originally hypothesized. Both communities were keen to understand more about the new weapon’s capabilities.
The main driver of the Bikini Atoll tests was the U.S. Navy, which was worried that nuclear weapons would make their fleet obsolete overnight. Anxious to show their service was indispensable, the military organized the tests to prove that modern warships could withstand the A-bomb. Taking over the remote atoll at Bikini, the idea was to bombard a collection of surplus ships with two of the U.S. Air Force’s new bombs.
The Navy also wanted to show that their sailors could survive a nuclear attack. So, they packed $450 million worth of target ships with livestock, including goats, cows and guinea pigs. Local inhabitants were moved to the nearby island of Kwajalein for their safety, with the promise that they’d be able to return in six months.
On July 1st,1946, the first nuclear attack on ships at sea was Test Able, which commenced when a bomber called Dave’s Dream dropped a 23-kiloton nuclear weapon on the fleet below.
Although spectacular to see, the results were disappointing. Only five ships sank and none of those were the big battleships. The U.S. Navy was quick to point out the sturdiness of their ships. What they didn’t know at the time was that the bomber had missed its target by almost half a mile (700 m). Had the bomb exploded over the Nevada as planned, it would have obliterated at least nine ships.
Second round of tests
About a month later, the Navy tried again, and the underwater nuclear explosion Baker was everything Able wasn’t. Nine ships in total, including two battleships and an aircraft carrier, all sank in the lagoon.
The results were catastrophic, resulting in serious radioactivity and environmental damage. Warships that didn’t sink had to be decontaminated and repaired if they weren’t too radioactive to approach safely. The Atomic Energy Commission later described Test Baker as the world’s first nuclear disaster.
Sadly, the U.S. military ignored its agreement with the islanders and continued to use Bikini Atoll as a nuclear testing ground for several years after the 1946 tests. The 1955 Operation Castle, the largest ever U.S. nuclear test, left the island uninhabitable for decades. The island remains uninhabitable with its original residents moving to neighboring islands as well as other countries. As of February 2013, there were 4,880 living Bikini islanders: 1,250 living on Kili, 2,150 on Majuro, 280 on Ejit, 350 on other Marshall Islands, and 850 in the United States and other countries.
Is Bikini Atoll safe for visitors?
Seventy years on, the islands have, remarkably, begun to recover. Marine life seems to be extremely resilient to nuclear radiation and the lagoon is now a haven for coral and rare fish.
A small amount of radioactivity remains on the island, however, so tourists cannot stay there. Water, plants and seafood remain contaminated. Despite this, the 13 shipwrecks that sit at the bottom of the lagoon have attracted recreational divers from far and wide and several liveaboards now operate to provide access.
Main dive locations
Unsurprisingly, the massive 36,000-ton aircraft carrier USS Saratoga is the biggest attraction, sitting upright and almost perfectly preserved.
At a depth range of 49 to 164 feet (15 to 50 m), the Saratoga is the shallowest wreck in Bikini Atoll, with the main penetration on the hangar deck. It rests top-up, making this a good first dive on a visit. Bring camera equipment to capture stunning views of the fully-intact flight deck, pilot house, and gun batteries. For experienced wreck divers, less than 10 percent of the wreck has been explored, offering lots of opportunity for discovery.
The HIJMS Nagato, known as the former jewel of the Imperial Japanese fleet, capsized within a few weeks of both tests and currently lies head-down in 180 feet (55 m). The bridge sits right on the sand. Highlights include the massive 16-inch guns and even-larger rudders and props. Though initially saturated in radiation, the wreck is safe to dive for those technical divers qualified to reach its depths. Even though it is upside down, the Nagato offers plenty of areas for penetration, although its placement makes navigating disorienting. As with any wreck, make sure you are properly qualified before attempting this dive.
The USS Carlisle offers sobering views of A-bomb damage. Both sides of the ship are visible, giving divers sharp, contrasting views of the heavily damaged port and undamaged starboard. At 171 feet (52 m), this dive suitable only for technical divers. As with other deep dives in the atoll, you will want to be multi-gas certified and experienced. Divers using rebreathers will benefit greatly from hauling their gear all the way out to Bikini Atoll. Be sure to bring any backups you need.
Click here to explore the rest of the nuclear ghost fleet and learn more about each wreck.
By guest author Simon Everrett
Guest author Simon Everrett is the head of marketing at InsureandGo