My 20 highlights from travelling to Bikini Atoll and diving the "Nuclear Ghost Fleet"
A group of us with Dan’s Dive shop recently travelled to Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands to dive the ‘nuclear ghost fleet’ shipwrecks. Yah - sounds kind of post-apocalyptic right? Sort of. It was like diving a cemetary of warships - but a beautiful one at that! These ships all served in WW2 and some even in WW1. After WW2, from 1946 - 1958 the U.S. government conducted a series of nuclear weapons tests in the atoll. You can imagine what the effects might have been from the various bombs detonated in the lagoon, from underwater and from the air. The area has been untouched for decades due to the radioactive contamination.
Colourized photo of the Baker nuclear test in Bikini Atoll July 25, 1946. You can see all the ships in the lagoon used in the test on the horizon line. Copyright U.S. Dept of Defense.
This trip had been booked since 2017 and scheduled for April 2020 and postponed three times due to the pandemic. Three years and several new medical requirements later, we were finally able to travel to this remote part of the world. We focused on diving the wrecks created by Operation Crossroads in which two bombs were detonated in the lagoon - Test Able and Test Baker in July of 1946.
It’s definitely a commitment in time and finances with multiple flights to get to Bikini Atoll BUT - it’s well worth it for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
1. Sunrise over Honolulu airport
The Marshall islands are located about midway between Hawaii and Australia. To reach Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands our group (mostly Canadians) flew from our respective provinces to Honolulu. From Honolulu, we caught the island hopper flight that hits all the major islands in the Marshall Islands before it ends on the other side in Guam. (Some of the other divers coming in from Asia flew in from the Guam side to join us). Right now, United Airlines is the only airline offering flights to the Marshall Islands (so keep that in mind with travel insurance because they do cancel flights periodically and that would suck).
While waiting for our early morning flight, the first of several flights that day, I was making my way with my dive buddy Lucas from one terminal to the next to enjoy the breakfast benefits of his business class seating at the lounge. 😀 The sun was just rising and peaking out over the hills surrounding the airport. It was as if Godzilla himself was setting the sky ablaze with a breath of fire! I love Godzilla stories and the myth of how Godzilla was spawned by the nuclear tests in Bikini so this was very much on my mind! This felt like a good omen.
Sunrise in Honolulu. It was like Godzilla himself was setting the hillside ablaze!
2. Landing at a US Military installation on Kwajalein island in the Marshall Islands
Majuro was the first stop on our island hopper flight. They had us take all our carry-on luggage out of the overhead bins to check for bombs before boarding more passengers for the next leg onto to Kwajalein Atoll.
Kwajalein island is the largest of the 100 islands in Kwajalein atoll at 1.2 km (3/4 of a mile) wide and 5.5 km (3.5 miles) long. The entire island of Kwajalein is effectively a U.S. Army garrison and was our point of entry in order to get to Ebeye island where our boat awaited us. This was something I had read about and was excited to see! (Can you tell I'm fascinated with the military? Probably from watching too many Hollywood movies). The U.S. has hosted a naval base there since WW2 and today it's the site of various orbital rocket launches for SpaceX and is even a missile support site with radars and control systems.
We waited a good 15 minutes before they allowed us to disembark because of the torrential downpour that had just started on our landing. Once the rain passed, we made our way down the airstair and were accompanied by military personnel and “processed” in what our guides affectionately called “the cage”. It was a white concrete building with a high pitched metal roof and lots of ceiling fans to combat the sweltering heat. Chairs filled the big room with a clear area down the middle to walk down.
My sketch of the interior of the "cage" where we were processed upon arrival in Kawajalein
A military official ordered us to line up and to place our carry-on bags on the floor in neat lines. Everything was a line.The chairs were all in neat lines. Line up to find a seat! Who needs to use the latrine? Line up! First they processed the contractors there on official business including a guy from the U.N. we chatted with from our hotel in Honolulu. He looked more like one of those “under the radar contractors” hired for “special missions” in the movies. Others were local Marshallese who lived and worked in the islands or U.S. citizens who lived on the base and likely worked in the hospital or schools there.
We weren’t allowed to take any pictures so I sketched while we waited to see Marshallese customs officials dressed in shorts and flip flops. They took our sponsor papers provided by Master Liveaboards indicating that we were just passing through and would embark in nearby Ebeye island.
Our transport vehicle to the ferry was provided by an American contractor who trained the military dogs on the base. He and his family had lived there for 20 years already and his daughter was born there and attended school there. He said he loved it there but that "island fever" was very real and he was looking forward to a vacation to Italy to get off the island. In our short drive from “the cage” to the ferry where our bags were waiting for us, we glimpsed clean, well manicured lawns of orderly homes in a row with tropical plants landscaping the spaces in between and sun tanned people riding their bicycles down wide open streets.
3. The ferry from Kwaj (Kwajalein island) to Ebeye island
Once we were “processed” at the airport, we were escorted to the ferry that would take us to Ebeye island to catch our dive boat - the Taka Master of Master Liveaboards. The ferry terminal was small and busy and full mostly of local Marshallese and some foreign nationals. Our dive guide Jimmy was there; a strawberry blonde Englishman with a pleasant personality to match his hair colour. He was spending six months as the tech guide and dive director aboard our boat.
All bags were checked by security before we lined up again to board. A gorgeous Belgian Malinois officer checked all the bags of disembarking passengers. She was efficient and her handler told her she was almost done and getting some relaxing time and water very soon!
My sketches while waiting at the ferry terminal in Kwajalein. LEFT: The security checkpoint. TOP RIGHT: A beautiful Malinois officer waiting to check bags. BOTTOM RIGHT: Marshallese women in their "Guams" or the colourful loose fitting dress commonly worn there.
Outside, the ferry building, the first sign we saw warned of eating reef fish from prohibited areas and to avoid eating certain parts of any other fish to reduce any risk of eating contaminants. That was a bit sobering but I didn't plan on eating any fish there and they didn't serve us any on the boat.
The ferry itself was actually a (former) military boat. Its markings indicated its point of origin from Norfolk, Virginia.
The ferry that transports passengers to and from Kwajalein and Ebeye
There were lots of Marshallese waiting in line to board. They gave priority boarding to the young kids travelling back home to Ebeye island presumably from a day at school on Kwaj. We lugged our bags and it was everyone helping everyone out to get all the coolers of food, luggage, gear, a mattress, and boxes onto the boat. I could see all the other uniformly painted grey military boats docked as we left Kwaj for Ebeye island. A lot of the passengers dozed off heading home after a full shift of work on Kwaj. I welcomed the ocean breeze as it was a hot day even with an overcast sky. In the distance there was the distinct white line of waves crashing against the shallow reef between islands.
My sketch of the passengers inside the Kwajalein to Ebeye ferry
4. The 30 Hour Crossing from Kwajalein Atoll to Bikini Atoll
Ok, so this memory wasn’t so much a highlight as it was a memory that IMPRINTED ON ME - forever! Once we were on Ebeye island, we met the rest of our wonderful crew and got all our gear onboard. I really underestimated how remote this part of the world was and the effort it would take to get there. I thought that because Bikini Atoll and Kwajalein Atoll were both part of the Marshall Islands that they would be much closer to each other. The Marshall Islands are in fact spread out of 357,000 square miles of the Pacific north of the equator. That's a lot of miles of open ocean!!!
LEFT: GPS showing 164 nautical miles left to get to Bikini Atoll after eight hours already travelling up Kwajalein Atoll during our crossing. RIGHT: You know it's going to be a rough ride when they serve motion sickness pills alongside coffee condiments. Lordy!
We departed from Ebeye island travelling Northwest. We kept in the safety and shelter of the leeward side of the islands in the atoll for about eight hours. From there it was open sea and another 21 hours until we would arrive at the relative safety once again of Bikini Atoll. The waves were hitting us starboard side so our Captain decided to veer ever so slightly North (adding another hour of travel time) so that the ride would be a bit more forgiving than being broadsided. Note - TAKE THE BONINE! These were 6-9 foot waves hitting us from the side with almost a full day of it, I was miserable and WRETCHED. It was enough for me to make certain I took the Bonine WELL BEFORE it got rough on the way back. Thankfully our travel back was much calmer with only three foot waves.
Our Liveaboard experience:
This was my first time diving with Master Liveaboards. I really enjoyed it and look forward to diving with them again.
5. The technical dive operation
The dive operation was excellent. There was plenty of room on the dive deck and we each had our own spots and bins for the duration of the trip. There was ample room to break down and build our gear each day.
We attempted to do our checkout dive while still in Ebeye with a dive on the German cruiser, the SMS Prinz Eugen. Unfortunately, the winds had picked up while we were prepping for the dive and within minutes dragged the boat and anchor at least a 100 feet away from the dive site. They tried to anchor twice without success so instead, the Captain decided to depart Kwaj Atoll early. He wanted to beat the increasing winds and a coming storm. All our gear was secured instead for the crossing to Bikini Atoll where we would do our check out dive right on the flight deck of the USS Saratoga.
Checking our gear over in anticipation of our checkout dive in Ebeye. Photo by Hsiaochung Lee.
Because of the remoteness of Bikini Atoll and the Marshall islands in general, it’s very expensive and takes time to get anything shipped there. We requested our gas mixes, sorb and any rental gear needed well advance. Master Liveaboards orders their helium six to 12 months in advance for it to arrive in time to supply each group. They had plenty of O2 onboard for diving and for emergencies. Trimix was mixed at 18/40 or 16/45. The logistics and costs to get anything delivered to that part of the world and to store it on the boat is crazy so helium was only available to the rebreather divers. The open circuit divers however had plenty of O2 for their very long deco stops.
For me, each day started with a cup of coffee at about 7:00 am and then quiet time to build the rebreather and pack the scrubber before breakfast. After breakfast, Jimmy gave us a briefing at about 8:30 am for our first dive of the day. The briefings were a good mix of the history of the wreck while in service and in its current state with specific sections or spots suggested as the objective for that dive.
Before getting into the water, all the rebreather divers went through a checklist review with one of the dive masters to ensure all our gear was functioning and we had performed all our tests.
LEFT: Jimmy giving a dive briefing of the plane off the USS Saratoga stern. MIDDLE: The wrecks dived during our trip. RIGHT: Jimmy going through the rebreather checklist with Matt before his dive.
The dive platform was wide and could accommodate two divers getting into the water at the same time with assistance if needed. I’ve never been so pampered with as much or as little help as you want getting into or out of the water. I was on vacation so I opted to get pampered! I got help with my bail out bottles (tanks we carry in case there is an issue with our rebreather) and fins.
The Taka Master dive crew helping to get divers into the water from the dive platform
Waiting for Lucas on the deco bar as he checks his computer before descending. Photo by Matt Mandziuk.
A deco bar was placed at 20 feet with an emergency bottle of O2. It was perfect to check gear before descending and also great for prepping gear to be removed once on the surface.
After a dive, as soon as you step back up onto the dive platform, our deckhand Willy was ready to hose the saltwater off you and your gear. Roxy, the Chief Stewardess was waiting patiently to hand you a drink as soon as you sat down.
After dive one, there was a four hour surface interval during which we rested, had lunch from noon-1:00pm and tanks were filled as needed. At 2:00pm it was time for our second dive brief followed by the dive. Dinner was usually at 7:00pm. It was a relaxed pace given the depth and length of our dives. Once diving was done for the day, there were plenty of ways to hang drying gear. I hung all my loop hoses above my spot for easy drying overnight. It was great to have a set spot, rhythm and routine for each day.
6. The crew aboard the MV Taka Master
The crew was definitely a highlight of the trip. They were welcoming, friendly and competent. Safety was a big priority in addition to ensuring we enjoyed our trip. We ran a fire drill before departing Ebeye and twice we had to muster on the lounge deck when the sensors were set off unexpectedly by something in the kitchen. A false alarm is a not a hassle when it comes to safety and truth be told, I'd rather the sensors be sensitive than not!
Someone was always around if you needed a hand with something and at times I felt as if they really didn't want us to labour over anything. On our crossing back, I had slept through 24 hours of it and missed all the meals. Ricky the chef made me a special chicken rice soup to help my stomach. It's small touches like that which can really make a trip memorable.
Some of our fantastic crew aboard the Taka Master.
Our divemasters were great! They were accommodating, fun and informative. Jimmy and Gavin were our dive guides and gas blenders/fillers. Jimmy gave us thorough dive briefings, with lots of specs, photos and history of each wreck. He was clearly a naval history junkie. Both Jimmy and Gavin were doing a six month contract with Master Liveaboards in Bikini. They both mentioned how this experience affords them the ability to be able to dive these pristine wrecks. They were just as excited as we were to do the dives. We were this boat’s first group of the season and the first group from their backlog of trips that had been booked and rescheduled from 2020.
Jimmy and Gavin, our dive guides getting ready to enter the water
I love meeting people from all walks of life through diving. Gavin was former military and was even a jungle survivalist trainer among other things. We had amazing conversations in the saloon about some of his experiences. You’d think that someone with that kind of background history might be a little hardened, jaded or reserved but he was so incredibly cheerful and funny! I looked forward to his “dad” jokes after each dive.
There was also Munson who was Marshallese and had thousands of dives in Bikini Atoll and Truk Lagoon. His brother in fact was working with the Master Liveaboard operation in Truk Lagoon. He was also our spotter when we were at that 20 foot mark at the deco bar and kept an eye open for our approach. He would often free dive down to the deco bar to check if we wanted him to sherpa tanks back to the surface for us and was always around to toss a line out, help with fins and anything else we needed in water.
Munson our in-water support keeps watchful eyes for divers as they start to ascend
7. The Captain dove with us daily!
The captain himself dove with us every day - something I’ve never actually seen on a liveaboard! He was the most experienced diver on the boat for detailed briefings on penetrating these wrecks and had been diving in Bikini Atoll up until the pandemic shut down the world in 2020.
Captain Fergie was a skilled guide and calm presence underwater. He would observe everyone and always seemed to be where you needed him to be. At one point while diving the Saratoga, I had to bail out from my rebreather to open circuit. This is our back up system that we switch to if we encounter a problem with the rebreather at depth. I was at the base of the mooring line already and my buddy had just started his ascent above me. I switched to open circuit (my back up tanks) and began my ascent, watching the massive flight deck fading below me. I was prepping my next bottle on the way up for the 70 foot stop and when I looked up, Captain Fergie was hovering in front of me, ready to donate his long hose should I need it. I smiled through my regulator and nodded and gave him the ok sign to let him know everything was fine. When you’re diving in such a remote part of the world where any sort of help is hours away - having someone like Captain Fergie with eyes on the back of his head is appreciated and an incredible asset!
LEFT: Captain Fergie ready for a dive. RIGHT: Captain Fergie sharing points of interest for a penetration dive in the USS Saratoga.
Captain Fergie deserves special mention for diving with us and for being an exceptional leader for his crew and an observant and ultimate host on the boat - anticipating all our needs and noting the smallest things to make our trip that much better.
8. Nights chilling in the Saloon common area
Being able to relax each night in the saloon after dinner was perfect after a day of diving. We had time for us to check our videos and photos from the day’s dives, time to socialize and discuss the dives, time for me to journal and for a couple of nights, watch WW2 themed movies so that we could actually see the context of what we were diving! One movie was “Greyhound” with Tom Hanks. It was incredible seeing in the movie a VERY similar destroyer ship in action to what we dove there (the USS Lamson). Getting a sense of the context of each wreck and how they operated within the fleet added to the experience of diving them. As more time passes I’ve become more and more of a WW2 history junkie and it’s all because of diving. I actually want to know the stories behind each of the wrecks I dive.
Relaxing with the crew in the saloon after a full day of diving and dinner!
9. The food
Because the options for fresh produce and meats are limited on Ebeye island where the kitchen crew stocks their food supplies, I commend our chef for being highly creative. Nothing is actually grown on Ebeye so everything is shipped in. The reality of finding and keeping fresh fruits and vegetables “fresh” is a challenge in that part of the world and even more so for a liveaboard. So, a lot of our veggies were consumed as soups (DELICIOUS!) or were canned or frozen.
I’m also a simple breakfast person and can pretty much eat the same thing every day for breakfast so I wasn’t at all bothered by the same daily sausages or bacon, oatmeal, french toast and cut fruit.
Dinner and lunch always had two protein options, a soup, a veggie option and lots of rice or some potatoes for each meal. Unlike some of the more glamorous parts of the world where liveaboards have access to any and all fresh fruits and veggies, loading up for a trip to Bikini is a different beast entirely.
I think experiencing any and all or lack of, is part of the experience of traveling to different parts of the world. Having said that - I LOVED all the meals PLUS the ice cream for dessert - because diving requires dessert!
10. No wifi
I went fully off the grid while I was there and it was fantastic! I didn’t miss a thing 🙂 however, Star Link was available to the crew (and the guests in very limited quantities for anything urgent). Some of our divers had brought satellite phones with them to stay in touch with family.
We met up with our sister ship, the Truk Master who was there in the lagoon already with a group of divers. It makes sense for the sister ships to have a brief overlap while at Bikini for things such as supply and gear handoffs and any dive site updates. They came onboard to hand off the Star Link equipment and to pirate some of our potato chips and food before beginning their journey to do the crossing back to Ebeye in Kwajalein atoll.
I had already mentally prepped for being off the grid for our 12 day trip. It allowed me to unplug, be present to journal a lot and actually reflect on my dives and the time there.
11. The moon over the absolute blackness of the lagoon
Picture it - we’re the ONLY boat in the lagoon. In fact we’re the only boat in the entire atoll for hundreds of miles in any direction. The silence each night save for the lapping of waves against the boat was incredibly soothing. There were no lights on any of the remaining islands in the lagoon because there are no inhabitants except for two caretakers we saw on our day trip to Bikini island.
The moon was the sole source of light beyond the lights of our boat. I could almost imagine what it might have been like for the Micronesian wayfarers to travel these vast distances on their canoes or traditional outriggers from island to island using only the moon’s light and the stars to navigate.
Catching a bright moon and the clouds in the darkness of Bikini lagoon
Diving the wrecks of the Nuclear Ghost Fleet:
Operation Crossroads was conducted on July 1 and July 25, 1946. The “Able” detonation on July 1st was set off in the air from an altitude of 160 metres (520 feet) and the “Baker” detonation was blasted underwater at 27 metres (90 feet) These tests were conducted to see the effects of the atomic bomb on their naval vessels. The wrecks were well preserved considering the impact of the detonations and the fact that they’ve been in saltwater for over 76 years. Visibility was easily 33 metres (100 feet) and more on each dive. All of the wreck depths are at technical dive limits.
I could easily spend a full blog post on each wreck but will share instead a handful of the many highlights.
More than half our dives were on the Saratoga aircraft carrier because at over 271 metres (888 ft) in length with a 32 metre (106 ft) beam, there was a lot of her to explore! She’s only one of three aircraft carriers in the world that you can dive.
My rough (not-to-scale) sketch of the USS Saratoga wreck and some points of interest.
The Saratoga survived the first bomb blast of Test Able but sank with Test Baker. She was only 300 metres (984 ft) away from the bomb centre and was hit by massive waves (measuring as high as 29 metres / 94 feet high) caused by the underwater blast. A pressure wave cracked the hull and the flight deck cracked from the stern. She sank stern first 52 metres (170 feet) to the bottom of the lagoon.
Our checkout dive was on the flight deck and I could it see below me from the deco bar as I checked my gear (fantastic visibility yes). The mooring line is tied to the port side just in front of a gun platform.
Lucas following Jim on the flight deck of the USS Saratoga with Jimmy and Lee on the left at the measurement tower placing their stage bottles. The tower was placed on the flight deck by scientists to take measurements of the blast. Photo by Grace Marquez.
The top of the flight deck area starts at about 27 metres (90 feet) and is covered in colourful hard corals that support life and provide home for a variety of marine life. The flight deck was so long that from the bow mooring line you could make out the bridge across the deck and couldn’t see past midship to the stern area even with the excellent visibility.
The bridge superstructure sits midship along the starboard side of the flight deck. The frame of the superstructure is still intact with sections of its walls opening up. Overlooking the open plane elevator, the bridge is one of the highlights of the flight deck.
Me at the base and Jim above me checking out the upper levels of the bridge superstructure. Photo by Hsiaochung Lee.
LEFT: Port side forward gun mounts on the USS Saratoga. Photo by Hsiaochung Lee. RIGHT: Me, hovering above the plane elevator at the base of the bridge superstructure taken from the vantage point at the top of the bridge. Photo by Jim Josiak.
Another vantage point of the bridge with divers Lee and Siyang hovering above the plane elevator. Photo by Grace Marquez.
Twin 5-inch guns from their gun turret on the flight deck of the USS Saratoga. Photo by Matt Mandziuk.
The USS Saratoga offers a lot of incredible penetration opportunities as well. It would be easy to spend the entire trip on the Saratoga alone.
13. The Grumman F6F Hellcat plane
During Test Baker’s underwater detonation, the massive waves washed away some of the Hellcat planes that were on the flight deck.
One of several hellcat planes originally on the deck of the USS Saratoga washed overboard with Test "Baker". Photo by Grace Marquez.
We did one dive on the stern of the Saratoga to see the hellcat plane that sits on the ocean floor on her port side. I recall during our descent, seeing the shape of the Saratoga to my left gradually getting more focused and to my right was a dark blotch on the ocean floor. As we continued descending, the familiar shape of wings and a cockpit started to form.
A closer view of the hellcat plane with the cockpit illuminated. Photo by Grace Marquez.
Jimmy our divemaster placed a light inside the cockpit to help illuminate and define its shape. The plane was swarming with glass fish and covered in sea whip corals. There were so many it was hard to tell at times what was plane and what was fish! Everything seemed to be moving.
From there you can explore the massive props and then swim around and up onto the massive crack in the stern section of the flight deck. The deck has started collapsling inwards along the crack. The entire stern starboard section gun platforms are laying on the sea bed on their sides
Glenn exploring the giant crack and collapsing flight deck of the USS Saratoga's stern. Photo by Grace Marquez.
I’ve only ever dived one other sub and that was the Japanese WW2 I-169 in Truk Lagoon. By comparison, this one was larger, more intact and truly distinguishable in shape as a sub sitting upright.
The Apogon is a Balao-class sub, a new class built from 1946 onwards which could dive deeper, carry more fuel so travel farther distances and conduct longer missions. The Apogon is named after a type of cardinal fish found in tropical and subtropical water. All Balao-class subs are named after fish. I love the things you learn as a diver. 😀
You descend on the bow of the Apogon and she’s covered in whip corals and lots of resident glass fish and angel fish. Schools of tuna also swim past you as you swim along her length from bow to the props.
The bow of the USS Apogon is covered in a thick forest of sea whips and glass fish. Photo by Grace Marquez.
My dive buddy Jim swimming back to the bow along the starboard side of the USS Apogon . Photo by Grace Marquez.
Because she isn't too long, it's a good dive from the bow to the props and back. The swim along her length reveals how sleek she is and you'll be rewarded at the stern with a stunning view of the props suspended above the sea bottom.
Her conning tower is fully intact and upright. It was much taller and larger than I'd imagined it would be. Like all the other wrecks in the lagoon, she is covered in a non-stop movement of marine life.
15. USS Lamson (DD-367)
The USS Lamson escaped the Pearl Harbor attack on 7th December 1941 as she was out on patrol duty. She prowled the Pacific providing coverage and engaged in action on various campaigns. She was sleek, fast and highly manoeuvrable with full armament. She earned five battle stars for her service in WW2.
The Lamson is a Mahan class destroyer ship - which means she was one of only 18 ever built with marked improvements over previous destroyer ships including 12 torpedo tubes. She was undamaged during her service until she was hit by a kamikaze pilot during the retaking of the Philippines.
The Lamson sits fully upright at a depth of 52 metres (170 feet) measuring 104 metres (341 feet) in length with a beam of 7 metres (24 feet) - long and sleek like a barracuda. She was sunk by Test Able. Most of her superstructure - masts, bridge and stacks are gone but she has her large guns, depth charges in their tracks, torpedo tubes. In and amongst the wreckage midship you’ll find the bridge telegraph surrounded by other instrumentation and lots of table corals.
Me, hovering above the tangled midship wreckage of the bridge, masts and stacks of the USS Lamson. Photo by Matt Mandziuk.
We descended on the mooring line tied to her bow and she appears out of the blue, tall, resolute, majestic and absolutely covered in thousands of swirling, shimmering glass fish in and amongst the safety of sea whip corals. She’s smaller than the other wrecks so you have ample time to explore her from bow to stern. There are numerous swim throughs to enjoy on this wreck.
The bow of the USS Lamson covered in sea whip corals and thousands of glass fish. Photo by Matt Mandziuk.
16. IJN Nagato
It was from the Japanese flagship Nagato that Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto gave the order to bomb Pearl Harbour with the coded command “Climb Mount Niitaka”. As a super dreadnought, Nagato was the first class of ship in the world to have massive twin 16” guns as part of her armament. There were two pairs fore and two pairs aft so eight in total.
The Nagato was the only Japanese battleship to survive WW2. She was awarded to the U.S. after the war and then selected for Operation Crossroads. The Nagato survived the Test Able bomb blast and rode out the tsunami sized waves of Test Baker. However, she had a starboard list caused by Test Baker and five days later she sank to the sea bottom laying upside down at a depth of 52 metres (170 feet).
The Nagato is 225 metres (738 feet) long with a beam of 34 metres (113 feet). She is massive and second in size only to the Saratoga among the Bikini wrecks.
Matt descending onto the massive propellers and rudders of the upside down Nagato wreck. Photo by Grace Marquez.
We descended on her stern and the first thing we saw were her props, her rudders and then her massive exposed hull beyond. Because of her size, each team chose one section to spend time on - either the props and then dropping down and underneath her stern to see her twin guns suspended above the ocean floor OR to swim to the midship to check out the pagoda mast laying intact on its side and back. I opted to dive the props because I wanted to see her twin guns.
The twin guns didn’t disappoint. Suspended from the upside down deck at 50 metres (164 feet), they're much bigger than they appear in photos and you feel their presence on either side of you if you hover between them.
Me, checking out the twin 16" guns of the Nagato wreck. Photo by Matt Mandziuk.
Close up of one of the twin 16" guns of the Nagato wreck covered in colourful coral. Photo by Grace Marquez.
17. USS Anderson
The Anderson was one of 12 Sims class Destroyer ships built for the US Navy in 1939. The Sims class was longer than its predecessors and started the trend of larger ships for wartime construction. She earned 10 battlestars for her service.
Jim at top left swims beside one of the anti-aircraft gun platforms on the USS Anderson. Photo by Grace Marquez.
She was sleek at 106 metres (348 feet) long with a beam of 11 metres (36 feet). She was a fast destroyer and had a cruising speed of 35 knots. She sank with Test Able and came to rest on her side at a depth of 52 metres (170 feet). The wreck is largely intact with her 21-inch torpedoes, depth charge racks and her main guns. She is completely forested with vibrant soft corals and sponges.
18. Abundance of marine life
Has life returned to the waters of Bikini Atoll? This was something I really wanted to find out. Yes! Life has returned to the waters of Bikini Atoll. The wrecks are infrequently dived and only by a handful of divers at a time which makes it perfect for the undisturbed return of marine life. The wrecks have truly become artificial reefs to allow for life to flourish.
A section of the USS Anderson is completely covered in sea whip corals and fish. Photo by Grace Marquez.
Because the interior of the wrecks don’t see much light, most of the life is to be found outside the wrecks, on every surface exposed to the sunlight. Our group saw turtles, reef sharks, schools of tunas and jacks, octopus, angelfish, giant clams, soft and hard corals including whip corals and table corals, clusters of bubble tip anemone and many other types of fish. A Manta even made an appearance during deco, dancing midwater and showing off its wings and white belly.
Colourful hard corals cover the deck of the USS Saratoga. Photo by Grace Marquez.
The cockpit of a hellcat plane in Bikini Atoll is encrusted with colourful corals and swirling glass fish. Photo by Grace Marquez.
Giant clams, hard and soft corals and bubble anemone cover a wreck in Bikini Atoll. Photo by Hsiaochung Lee.
Sea whip coral, home to thousands of glass fish along the starboard side of the USS Lamson. Photo by Grace Marquez.
We did see the periodic shiny oil slick on the surface from the leaking Nagato wreck. These ships had fuel in them when the U.S. attempted to blast them to kingdom come but Mother nature has given these wrecks an important role in their afterlife as artificial reefs. This is only fitting after the radioactive poisoning that those nuclear tests caused to the area.
Some time on land (Bikini island and Ebeye island)
19. A little exploration and a BBQ on Bikini island
Midweek during our trip, we took an afternoon break from diving to off-gas and go ashore. Bikini Island was always in sight wherever we were moored or anchored and we were definitely curious about this abandoned island.
In the skiff heading over to spend the afternoon on Bikini Island at top left. You can see the thin white line of waves breaking on the very shallow reef on the horizon.
When the U.S. government identified Bikini Atoll as the most suitable spot for their nuclear testing, they had to relocate the Bikinians. The relocation happened several times as the other islands originally deemed suitable were smaller and couldn't sustain the islanders. There wasn't a shallow reef to fish from nor could they grow anything there with the contaminated soil. Bikini Atoll and its dots of small islands continues to be deserted with only a handful of caretakers living there.
The former BPD Bikini Repair shop with their memorable sign "We can fix everything except broken heart". Photo by Hsiaochung Lee.
From 1996 to 2008 there was a small dive operation on the island. The local Marshallese governing body allowed accommodation to be built for a maximum of 12 dive guests. We walked around the very quiet remains of the resort with rooms even named after the wrecks and the bomb detonations - such a strange sort of adult theme park historical naming approach. Mind you it worked because I don't think anyone would have forgotten what room they were staying in!
LEFT: Tile work and dirt in one of the bathrooms of the former resort on Bikini Island. MIDDLE: A ceiling fan in the the resort room named "Able" for the first test detonation in Operation Crossroads. RIGHT: Me feeling a bit creeped out with my germophobia kicking in as we explored the abandoned buildings.
Walking around was both eerie and beautiful in how it was all forgotten and abandoned. The sparkling turquoise blue water, golden sand and breezy green palm trees were like a paradise but there was definitely a feeling of a ghost town in and amongst old buildings. All the man-made buildings and businesses were uninhabited but showed signs of a human presence like the handwritten “Complacency kills” note on the wall of the dive shop. By contrast, the ancestral cemetery near the beach didn't feel sad or empty; more at peace.
The resort was effectively shut down and abandoned again when Marshall Airlines ceased all operations to Bikini Atoll without warning, stranding all the guests on the resort at the time. It took three weeks for them to find some sort of passage off the island.
LEFT: Exploring the cluster of buildings on Bikini Island. RIGHT: One the many abandoned buildings with its doors wide open to the elements.
(LEFT: A comfy hammock under the shade of trees along the beach with a view of the Taka Master on the water. MIDDLE: Bikinian Ancestral Cemetery. RIGHT: Captain Fergie lost in his thoughts while watching the Taka Master from shore.
Isn't it still radioactive there? That's the other question we're asked a lot and one we were also curious about. One of our divers had brought a small geiger counter to see if there was still any residual radiation. All measurements were well within normal - both on the boat and on the island. The only spot on the island where the reading jumped a bit higher began at the tree line of the jungle.
After exploring, we enjoyed a late lunch BBQ prepared by the staff there complete with a little floral Hibiscus bouquet picked off the bushes.
LEFT: Ricky the chef preparing our BBQ lunch. MIDDLE: Lisa picking fresh hibiscus to add a little colour to the buffet setting. RIGHT: Lunch is served in the old Bikini Sunset Bar overlooking the beach.
Lunch was served in the old gazebo which used to be the Bikini Sunset Bar. The staff did an incredible job putting together a BBQ lunch for us. After lunch some went for a swim, others went back to exploring the island and some relaxed by the beach until we decided to head back to the Taka Master.
20. Exploring Ebeye island
Once our diving was over, it was time to secure gear for the crossing back to Ebeye island in Kwajalein Atoll. Fortunately, winds were in our favour this time and it only took 28 hours and was a fairly smooth ride.
From the time we disembarked to the time we actually caught our ferry back to Kwaj, we had several hours to explore Ebeye island. Ebeye island is only 80 acres or 32 hectares in size and is densely populated with over 12,000 inhabitants. This was a strange stat to learn because it didn’t feel densely populated while we walked around however, most of the islanders I would imagine work on nearby Kwajalein during the day.
The main cross street was located close to the ferry and there were simple general stores, a fish market, small bake shops, a couple of modest grocery stores or shelves of food located in other stores like a repair shop.
LEFT: The green building on the right is the fish market as seen from the ferry landing. RIGHT: Jim checks out a small all in one grocer/printer/laundry.
There was one and only one hotel on the island. Hotel Ebeye is where foreign nationals stay while conducting business in Kwajalein. It was a welcome place to cool down out of the sun, use their inexpensive wifi service and grab lunch at the restaurant on site. The languages spoken around us while we were having lunch were mainly American English, Marshallese and UK English. Again, it reminded me of one of those very local hotels where top secret opps take place in some far away country.
LEFT: With Lucas standing underneath the Hotel Ebeye sign. RIGHT: Siyang and Lee reconnect with the world using the wifi in the Hotel Ebeye lobby.
Many of the smaller shops away from the main area are homes with a simple storefront. One of those shops was a seamstress by the name of Clare. She had pretty skirts worn by a lot of the local women hanging in the window. I couldn’t resist popping in to check out the colourful skirts. I ended up buying one that was a fun patchwork of colours. I loved Clare's free spirit and cheerful disposition. 😀 No retirement for this hardworking seamstress and she told me that she had moved there 6 months ago after being on Majuro for five years. She was Filipina and I wondered how she had found herself there considering Ebeye is quite out of the way. She was thrilled to learn I was born in the Philippines and asked more about me.
LEFT: With Clare, a seamstress I met in Ebeye in the colourful little storefront shop of her home. RIGHT: Detail of the patchwork skirt made by Clare that I fell in love with!
The rest of the walk around the island took us past a cemetery along the water’s edge, young school kids playing basketball in the schoolyard, a high school, lots of concrete block homes (one with a Sponge Bob sheet hanging in the window) and past old celebration banners marking some key moment in Marshallese history. I was hoping to see a glimpse of the royal palace of the Ebeye king but we didn’t make it down that road. Yes, there is a king and royal family on each and every island in the Marshall islands.
Happy group shot with Jimmy and Gavin waiting for the ferry after a great trip!
Captain Fergie seeing us off before we boarded the ferry in Ebeye.
Soon it was time to get back on the ferry to start our journey home. Captain Fergie came down to the tin-roofed ferry landing to see us off. As I write this, I find myself getting a bit melancholy again, reliving that time when we say goodbye to new friends and leave with a taste of wanting more.
Patience pays off
With the delays and multiyear postponement of this trip due to the pandemic, I almost backed out. I’m soooo glad I didn’t. Sometimes it’s hard to be patient in our “on-demand” society but this was worth the wait (not to mention I probably wouldn’t be able to afford it now with everything having gone up in price since it was booked). It was a unique, special and incredibly memorable trip as far as being able to literally dive into its history. Few have been able to dive this spot and it definitely has that undisturbed, “forgotten paradise” feel both on Bikini Island and underwater.
Time capsule full of many lessons
I'm an optimist and I try to see the world through rose-coloured glasses but the impact on all the human lives and the environment there isn’t lost on me. We have the luxury as divers to be able to “enjoy” these wrecks but the repercussions of the nuclear tests had generational ripple effects for the original Bikinians. They were relocated off those islands with many of their descendants now living on Ebeye, Majuro or even in the U.S., displaced from their original birthrights - their own land. Food security, lack of housing and employment are major issues. It definitely made me pause to think about those with power and those without and how that impacts the quality of your life.
It’s a privilege to be able to visit Bikini Atoll - a Unesco world heritage site and to dive the incredible “nuclear ghost fleet” wrecks. I’m grateful to be able to learn about this part of the world and their history in person.
Bikini Atoll - both above and underwater - is an incredible time capsule that’s worth learning about and honouring everyone impacted by the historic events there.