Text and Photography by Pete Mesley
Bikini Atoll. Without a doubt, the undisputed top wreck diving destination on the planet! I seem to remember when I first started diving back in 1989, I would sit round and listen to members of our dive club in South London, salivating at the concept of diving Bikini Atolls, Saratoga, an aircraft carrier and one of the worlds largest diveable wrecks. Only a brave few divers ever ventured to this remote place deep within the Marshall Islands. Costing a small fortune to get to, Bikini was only a destination for the Elite (and stinking rich!!). It was a place every diver dreamed of getting to.

It only took 22 years of my diving career to finally fulfill a lifelong dream. I flew from my home in Auckland, to Cairns, then onto Kwajalein via an island hopper, which stopped at 4 other Micronesian Islands. 27 hours later, getting into Kwaj late in the afternoon our group cleared customs, were escorted to the ferry terminal by US military officials, boarded a military landing craft and headed for Ebeye Island a short distance away. Being an American Ballistic Missile testing base, the Americans just don’t want people to be there, but under the agreement they have to offer through fare for travelers. Martin, the owner of the vessel that we were heading out on who is an Ozzi, ex commercial diver from way back, met us at the wharf in true Ozzie style, with a chilly bin full of ice cold Heineken! That was more like it!! Loaded our kit in minutes, we were off.
It took us a little over 28 hours steaming to cover the 240 miles to Bikini. On the way we sailed past Rongelap Atoll. This was only a short distance away from Rongerik Atoll. This is where the Americans relocated the entire population of Bikinians (167) in March 1946, in preparation for Operation Crossroads. Rongerik was originally uninhabited because the Bikinians believed it to be too small to live on (it is one sixth the size of Bikini) and there wasn’t enough food and water on the island to sustain life. Well, they were right! By July that same year medical officers from the US visited the islands. They were shocked to find that the people were critically malnourished and literally starving to death. Immediate preparations were made to transfer them 300 miles west of Bikini to an atoll known as Ujelang. It just so happened that the Americans chose another nuclear testing ground in Enewetak Atoll, 120 miles north east of Ujelang. Even after all the buildings were erected for the Bikinians to move into on Ujelang Atoll, it was decided that the Enewetak people would, instead, be moved to Ujelang Atoll. It took two years of suffering on Rongerik until the Bikinians were finally moved to Kwajalein. They were housed in tents beside an airstrip until they finally found an Island for them to live on.
Above: Bow section of the USS Saratoga

Below: Curtiss "Helldiver" plane lying upside down just off the starboard section of the Saratoga

We arrived in Bikini in the afternoon the next day. Eddy, the local dive guide, and I laid the shot onto the bow section of the Saratoga. After securing the line we headed off along the endless deck towards the bridge area. Swimming along the flight deck you can really feel the expanse of the ship. We dropped down into the forward elevator shaft heading aft. Coming into view was a fully intact Curtiss “Helldiver”, Canopy open wings in the stowed position with live bombs in the bomb bay just a little forward of the plane. This is what it was all about!!
{image of Saratoga bow}

Just off the starboard side of the ship lying on the sand were two more Helldivers. These had been secured on the deck during the blast but were torn off their chains and came to rest some 40 odd meters away from the wreck.
(see image below)
Above: Located deep within the Saratoga, a perfectly preserved dentist chair sets as if still in wait of patients.
The Saratoga, first commissioned in 1925, was a 40 thousand ton, 268 meter long aircraft carrier. She did tours in the Pacific, Nicaragua, San Diego, Hawaii, Guadalcanal and Marshall Islands. In 1944 she was commissioned to train aviators for night operations. In Feb. 1945 she carried night fighters during the Iwo Jima invasion and raids on the Japanese home islands. After the war in 1945 she transported servicemen back home to the states, was then decommissioned and brought in for target duty for atomic testing in Bikini.

The interior of the ship is vast to say the very least. Permanent lines have been laid in some areas from the past operation and still hold well after 6 years of inactivity. With 7 decks of passageways, rooms, storerooms, accommodation, galleys, etc etc you could spend the rest of your diving career on this ship and never grow tired if diving her!!!

One of the dives that totally blew my mind was the Dentists surgery and sickbay. We entered through the bomb loading door situated on the starboard side of the ship just forward of the bridge area, dropped 2 decks into the Middle Half Deck. Swam 50 meters down long corridors, then dropping down a staircase into the Second and Hangar Deck. We then backtracked and swam another 15 odd meters, passing the Sick bay on our right, then finally into the dental office. Three dentist chairs sat in the room, completely kitted out with drills, rinse bowls, even head phones for the patients. Perfectly preserved. Everything was covered in the finest red rusty silt, probably highly radioactive if you dug deep enough into it!
Above: One of many MkIV diving helmets found deep within the holds of the Saratoga

Below: Supersonic shock wave crumpling the hulls of nearby ships during Baker blast

The wreck is just so impressive. Countless planes, bombs, artifacts, plates, bowls, jugs etc lay untouched since 1946. Even Mk 5 standard dress helmets sit alongside each other in one of the hundreds of store rooms in the ship.
{helmet shot}

Saratoga along with another 20 odd other ships sank as a result of nuclear testing.

After the abrupt end of the Second World War with America dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima (August 6 1945) and then on Nagasaki three days later, these were the second and third atomic bombs, in history, detonated on earth! So little was known about atomic warfare. The US president at the time, Harry Truman, issued a directive to army and navy officials that joint testing of nuclear weapons would be necessary “ to determine the effect of atomic bombs on American warships” This project was to be held in Bikini Atoll named Operation Crossroads. 242 ships (150 support and 95 detonation ships), 42 thousand men, 156 airplanes and hundreds of thousands of tons of equipment, ordinance and materials were shipped to Bikini Atoll. This was to be the most public and reported nuclear tests ever undergone. Even though there was considerable interest by scientists excited about assessing the full effects of atomic energy in the field, it was still for the sole benefit of the military. Their main goal as to make stronger, deadlier nuclear weapons.
Ninety-Five ships were to be prepared for the blast, 4 battle ships, 2 aircraft carriers, 2 cruisers, 11 destroyers, 8 submarines, numerous amphibious/auxiliary vessels and three surrendered German and Japanese vessels. 20 ships would be placed in square mile clusters from the drop zone.

The initial 23-kiloton bomb, named Able, was to be detonated 158 meters above sea level. This test was to assess the effects of pressure, impulse, shock-wave, velocity, optical radiation and nuclear radiation of this particular bomb. This airburst was meant to duplicate the conditions of the Hiroshima bomb drop, this time, over water. With an airburst, the radioactive matter would rise high into the stratosphere and become part of the global environment with little significant local fallout. Many of the closer ships received doses of neutron and gamma radiation, lethal to anyone onboard the ship during the blast, but the ships themselves did not become radioactive. Within a day, all the surviving target ships had been re-boarded by personnel for inspection and data analysis. Able sank 5 ships, Gilliam, Sakawa, Carlisle, Anderson and Lamson.

The second explosion, Baker bomb, we detonated twenty-four days later on July 25 1946. This bomb was suspended 27 meters underwater. The underwater fireball took the form of a rapidly expanding hot "gas bubble" which pushed against the water, generating a supersonic hydraulic shock wave which crushed the hulls of nearby ships as it spread out. On the surface, the shock wave was visible as the leading edge of a rapidly expanding ring of dark water, Close behind the slick was a visually more dramatic, whitening of the water surface.
Above: Massive props of the Nagato are silhouetted against the sun rays

Below: The impressive 16.1-inch guns located in the stern section of the Nagato

At the bottom, it started digging a shallow crater, 9 m deep and 610 m wide. At the top, it pushed the water above it into a "spray dome," which burst through the surface like a geyser.

During the first full second, the expanding bubble removed all the water within a 150 m radius and lifted two million tons of spray and seabed sand into the air. As the bubble rose it stretched the spray dome into a hollow cylinder or chimney of spray 1,800 m high, 610 m wide, and with walls 90 m thick.

As soon as the bubble reached the air, it started a supersonic atmospheric shock wave, which, like the crack, was more visually dramatic than destructive. Brief low pressure behind the shock wave caused instant fog, which shrouded the developing column in a "condensation cloud", obscuring it from view for two seconds. The Wilson cloud started out hemispherical, expanded into a disk which lifted from the water revealing the fully developed spray column, then expanded into a doughnut and vanished. The Able shot also produced a Wilson cloud, but heat from the fireball dried it out more quickly.

Ten ships were sunk as a result of Baker bomb. They were LSM-60 (the ship that the bomb was positioned under), Arkansas, Pilotfish, Saratoga, YO-160, Nagato, Skipjack, Apogon, ARDC-13, Prinz Eugen. I was really excited to dive the Japanese Battleship Nagato. Eddy and I laid the initial shot line and we descended onto the stern section of the ship. With 30 plus meters viz you could easily see the sand from the top of the hull and all 4 propellers. It was a grand sight.

We dropped over the port side of the ship and under the hull. There looming out of the darkness were two massive 16.1” guns. Eddy swam up towards the barrel ends and his body was dwarfed by its massiveness.

Below: The massive bridge section of the Nagato laid perfectly on the sand dwarfs an inspecting diver
We came back out and swam along the port side of the hull at deck level at a constant 45m depth. Then, as we swam along, the bridge came into view. What used to tower above the surface of the ocean, some 30m high, the bridge now sits perfectly placed along the sand to one side of the ship.

The battleship Nagato was launched November 9 1919 and Jewel of the Imperial Japanese Navy. She was lead ship of her class and the only battleship in history to mount 16.1” guns on her decks. She displaced 42 850 tons, 221m long, 34m wide and was capable of doing 27 knots.

Swimming over the bridge section I came to the exact spot where Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto gave the order to lead the attack on Pearl Harbour. A humbling experience. Swimming now forward towards the bow section I turned round and just sat there enjoying the view of the entire bridge section.

Above: A diver posses for a photograph above the immense 21" torpedo tubes on the wreck of the Lamson

Below: Silenced for an eternity, the Oerilikon 20mm AA antiaircraft gun off the Lamson now provides life to the Bikini marine inhabitants

Another outstanding wreck that we explored was the USS Lamson. A 1500 ton 104m long Mahan Class destroyer, first launched on the 17th June 1936. The Lamson did tours in the Caribbean, Pacific and Hawaii.

On that ill-fated day on the 7th of December 1941 when Pearl Harbour was attacked, the USS Lamson was returning from patrol duty out at sea during the Japanese attack. After an unsuccessful search for the Japanese task force, the destroyer later patrolled Hawaiian waters departing Pearl Harbor 6 January 1942. Later heading to Guadalcanal, moving onto doing tours in PNG, New Britain and the Philippines. After fighting off numerous suicide plane attacks and being patched up after being badly damaged she spent the rest of her term on patrol and air-sea rescue work off Iwo Jima Island. She would soon participate in Operation Crossroads in Bikini.
Below: Ready for action against the silent submarines, multiple depth charge racks line the stern section of the Lamson
Below: Our vessel, Indies Trader passes Rongerlap Atoll on the 25-hour route to Bikini

With consistently good visibility in the Lagoon the Lamson could be seen as we descended down the shotline. Secured in the amidships I made my way down towards the stern of the ship. First landmarks that burst out into view were the amazing 21” torpedo tubes. The ship had a total of 12 torpedo tubes on the deck of the ship. Moving on I came across two Oerilikon 20mm AA antiaircraft guns, mounted on each side of the narrow destroyer. It was easy to see that in this ships heyday it could hold its own with all the armament it carried.

Heading further towards the stern I swam past two 5”/38 Cal dual purpose antiaircraft guns. Their dual purpose allowed them to shoot not only low angle, surface targets but also high angle aircraft targets.

Finally getting to the stern of the ship, she was an awesome sight alright. The depth charge racks were still fully intact with even a few depth charges still laying on the deck. The wreck was silhouetted perfectly against the talcum power like white sand.

Over the following days we made numerous dives on the Saratoga and Nagato. We also dived a submarine, one of the 3 sunk during the blasts. The USS Apogon, a 95m long, 2390 ton, Balao-Class Submarine first launched in March 1943. She sits perfectly upright on a lifeless sandy bottom. Not a lot of life is encrusted on the wrecks, just long sea whips and tight sponges which gives the wrecks a little colour. Here Eddy looks at one of the stern torpedo tubes with loaded torpedo in the spout!

During the trip we completed over 35 hours in the water over 7 days, diving 4 of the 20 odd wrecks in the Lagoon. A place certainly worthy of multiple return trips. We will be back!

About the author

Pete Mesley is a prolific wreck diver and seasoned photographer, organizing specialized trips to some of the most spectacular and out of the way locations globally. Offering full technical support for rebreather and open circuit divers not to mention one of the only diving operators that brings qualified hyperbaric physicians with him as medical support on all of his trips. For more information about his “Lust for Rust” diving excursions visit his site