The Afterlife Series: Painting the Shipwrecks of Bikini Atoll

As a scuba diver, I've witnessed firsthand the reckless pollution and destructive impact of human hands. Yet, I've also witnessed the incredible persistence and ultimate reclamation by Mother Nature of man-made objects that find their resting place at the bottom of the world's waters. The "Afterlife" Collection is inspired by that transformation. 

Artist Statement

Imagine the earth-shattering force of 23 nuclear explosions, echoing through the years in a single location. Picture the raw devastation and chaos as it twists metal, poisons soil, and taints waters, rendering an entire area uninhabitable. This haunting reality is exactly what unfolded in the remote and enchantingly beautiful Micronesian island chain known as Bikini Atoll, between 1946 and 1958. Ninety-five World War II ships were consigned to Bikini laden with fuel and armaments, anchored there as targets during the nuclear testing.

Now imagine that same wreckage, resting in this graveyard of sunken metal, over 76 years later. It's a mesmerizing sight, adorned with corals of every hue, embellished with the diverse textures and patterns of thriving marine life. It has evolved into a sanctuary for thousands of fish and creatures, a tribute to the endurance, resilience, and sheer tenacity of life. These former weapons of war still bear their distinctive armaments as naval ships, yet mother nature has turned them into lush, secure havens where marine life thrives. This essence of transformation inspires much of my art, including 'Afterlife' - my series dedicated to the metamorphosis of the ghost fleet of Bikini Atoll.


The "Afterlife" Collection

colourful painting of the flight deck of the USS Saratoga in Bikini Atoll

"Afterlife: The Service of Sara", acrylic on canvas, 30"x24"

The USS Saratoga (CV3) is considered to be the crown jewel of the shipwrecks of Bikini Atoll. She is a massive, over 800 foot long air craft carrier and only one of a handful of divable air craft carriers in the world. She sits upright on the sandy bottom of the Atoll at about 167feet/51 metres. The majority of our dives in Bikini were of the "Sara" as she's affectionately known by divers.

In its former life, discipline, gleaming steel, smooth metal and roaring plane engines would dominate the flight deck. After the attack on Pearl Harbour, she became the backbone of the American fleet with her planes flying thousands of airstrikes and missions in the Pacific. It took two test explosions from Operation Crossroads in Bikini Atoll to sink the Sara.

In its afterlife the flight deck of the Sara has become a serene yet huge colourful underwater city, home to turtles, coral heads, octopus and more.

There were three things that I wanted to capture in this painting - the abundance of colour, the scale and the transformation of each surface. I painted the flight deck of the Sara to suggest the colour even at those watery depths. While I wanted to show the absorption of various colours of the spectrum with predictable blues as in the distant bridge on the left half of the painting, pops of colour abound with the various corals. Smooth metal surfaces are now encrusted with coral. Even the ropes and rigging from the bridge down to the deck are alive with colour. The two divers in the near foreground are present to give a sense of scale with the towering bridge in the left half of the painting. 

painting by Grace Marquez of a plane sitting on the ocean floor in Bikini Atoll

  "Afterlife: Swept Away", acrylic on canvas, 30"x24"

On the port side of the USS Saratoga, amidst the brilliantly bright and flat ocean floor, a small dark spot catches the eye. Descending deeper, it gradually reveals itself as having wing-like features, resembling a tiny moth.

The abundance of light underwater struck me the most, even at a depth of 170 feet/52 meters, it felt as if we were not submerged. The "moth" transforms into a small fighter plane, its wingtips seemingly clipped and its nose with the propellers detached from the fuselage.

The USS Saratoga once housed numerous Hellcat fighter planes on its flight deck, but a colossal tidal wave, triggered by the underwater bomb blast of test Baker, swept many of them away to the ocean floor.

In my painting, I aimed to capture the distinct shape of the aircraft while highlighting how the precise, geometric lines of its wings have softened under the encrustation of hard and soft coral. Glass fish dart among the sea whips, their wiry shapes reaching towards the sky.

  "Afterlife: Kaizen", acrylic on canvas, 24"x30"

Kaizen in Japanese means the gradual and methodical process of continuous improvement or betterment through change. The USS Apogon was a Balao class submarine that patrolled in the various regions of the Pacific: Mariana Islands, Marshall Islands, Philippines, Midway and the Kuril Islands. She earned six battle stars for her service.

Today she sits upright at 141 feet/43 meters, and what struck me most was the abundance of life clinging to and circling along her entire length. In this painting, "Kaizen" is evident as the conning tower (the upright structure through which the crew could control the movements of the ship by giving orders) and the deck gun on the submarine's deck are obscured and become less imposing by the movement of millions of tiny glass fish that now call the wreck home.

  "Beneath Her Belly Life Grows", acrylic on canvas, 30"x24"

From a different vantage point of the USS Apogon you can scuba dive beneath her belly at the stern and see the huge propellers silhouetted against the brightness of the Pacific ocean. 

Trails of swirling, shimmering glassfish school in and around the propeller blades. Sea whip corals clasp onto her belly and reach upwards to the nourishing sky that feeds their growth. I wanted to convey the density of moving, shimmering life blanketing the belly of the Apogon. In its afterlife, the Apogon feels more maternal than militaristic.

 "Afterlife: Majestic", acrylic on canvas, 24"x30"

This painting depicts the commanding bow of the USS Lamson from the perspective of the ocean floor. Its imposing verticality becomes apparent as you approach, rivaling only the bustling movement of fish and the gentle sway of sea whips that obscure its sleek lines.

The USS Lamson managed to evade the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7th, 1941, as it was on patrol duty at the time. Throughout World War II, it navigated the Pacific Ocean, offering surveillance and participating in numerous campaigns. Renowned for its agility, speed, and complete armament, the ship earned five battle stars for its commendable service. 

I aimed to capture the wreck in its present state, adorned with vibrant hues of magenta, red, and yellow marine life. Resting upright since its sinking, the towering bow appears both monumental and alive, evoking a sense of organic grandeur.

Read more about my experience of Bikini Atoll and diving these historical wrecks.