Reprinted From the NAUI Journal of Underwater Education,
4th Quarter 1997
Dive Travel: BEEN THERE - DONE THAT!
By Captain Robert B. Gohr
If you are willing to spend about three days traveling some eight thousand miles with an overnight stop in Honolulu and another in Majuro, the capital of the Marshalls, you can end up landing on a coral landing strip on a small island in a small atoll. You then travel about the last three or four miles in a boat to yet a smaller island that could be named, Paradise. It is less than six hundred acres in size, has blindingly white sand beaches and is covered with beautiful palm trees. There are no stores, phones, or restaurants, and you will have to do without TV. There are twelve permanent residents that man a great dive operation and about another ten that maintain the equipment for the scientists that visit several times each year. Oh, must not forget the one cat, the one dog, and the silly tame gooney bird that likes to be hand fed fish, who also call BIKINI home. As to the palm trees, don't eat the coconuts as they are still a bit radioactive from the cesium in the soil! But not to worry as the danger from radiation is a thing of the past and the lagoon was declared safe for diving in early 1996. The background radiation level ashore is probably no higher than it is in Los Angeles.
After having read an article in the fall issue of Sport Diver by one of the first to dive the lagoon, I decided that, as an ex-tailhook type airplane driver, this would be unique diving that I couldn't resist. After all, there is only one diveable aircraft carrier in the world and that it is there in the lagoon. However, I had no idea who else would be diving there that week, but I knew there would be a max of only eleven others as they limit the group to 12 per week. As it turned there were only eight others with seven belonging to a production crew working on a documentary for the History Channel. An "interesting" group and all great people. The eighth diver was one Jack Niedenthal, who is Trust Liaison and Representative For The People of Bikini and is a fountain of information. He has recently created a web page at, www.bikiniatoll.com, which is extremely well done and offers insight into the people and the atoll.
Bikini is one of the 23 islands that make up the atoll and, as you probably recall, is the location of the lagoon in which the atomic tests were conducted back in 1946. Although there were many tests conducted subsequent to 46, the first two - blast ABLE being an air burst and blast BAKER being a sub-surface burst - were the ones that put the diveable wrecks on the bottom. In addition there were 26 islands before the tests, but three of the islands were
"vaporized" as a result of the blasts.
Of the nine major diveable wrecks in the lagoon, four went down with the impact of ABLE - a 426 foot merchantman named CARLISLE, a 532 foot Japanese freighter named SAKAWA, and two American destroyers, the 340 foot LAMSON and the 350 foot ANDERSON.
The five ships that succumbed to BAKER - the sub-surface blast- are the 560 foot US battleship, ARKANSAS, two 310 foot US submarines, the PILOTFISH and the APOGON, the 710 foot Japanese battleship NAGATO, and last, but certainly not least, the 880 foot USS SARATOGA (CV-3). Of interest, historically, NAGATO was Admiral Yamamoto's flagship during the attack on Pearl Harbor, but now rests, appropriately, upside down in the lagoon. On the other hand, the Japanese reported sinking SARA on seven different occasions, but she was finally sent to the bottom at the hands of her own countrymen where she remains fully upright and still a sight to see in spite of the unbelievable damage from the blasts.
There were other ships in the tests that did not sink. However, because of the high intensity of the radio activity, they were towed to deep water and scuttled.
Although I dove the NAGATO, the LAMSON, and the APOGON, the majority of the underwater time was spent on and in SARATOGA, which by itself would make the trip worthwhile. Although the ship's island structure has seen better days, you can still get into the navigation bridge. The five inch turrets before and after the island are still
intact, as are many of the 40mm quad mounts on both sides of ship. Swimming through the hanger deck is like trying to move through a very long pile of trash. But there are the remains of two SB2C Helldivers and a TBM Avenger. You will also find assorted ordnance scattered about including 1,000 pound bombs, aerial torpedoes, and a rack of 5 inch HVARs- high velocity aircraft rockets. A few feet from the mangled aircraft, there was a light fixture from the overhead of the hanger deck that had fallen with the light bulb still in one piece. It was marked "GE MAZDA ROUGH SERVICE"! I would suggest that it saw the ultimate in rough service.
Some of the articles that have been written on diving in Bikini leave the impression that you have to be a hard core, macho, tech diver to even consider going out there. WRONG! I'm definitely not a tech diver as I don't have enough rings on my BC. And I have no desire to horse around doubles. Further, at my age, I'm certainly not "macho"--- and probably never was. On the other hand, it ain't no place, no how, for fresh caught divers in that the bottom is 170 to 180 feet and most, if not all, your dives will have your computers (do take two!) yelling, "decompression". Of course we did the deep dives in the morning and then stayed shallow in the afternoon- 130 to 140 feet! But with 105 foot steel tanks that were well stuffed, you could stay on a wreck for a good twenty minutes at 140 to 150 feet and then come up to a hang bar that had a spider with numerous second stages feeding nitrox from the boat. It was the norm to hang for forty minutes after twenty minutes at depth, even with nitrox at the hang bar. On several of the 170 footers, I did take a 40 foot stage tank to insure a comfortable ascent. The bottom line in regard to safety was simply that it was paramount. As I was reminded in an e-mail post by Dr. Kelly Hill, before leaving the States, "Bikini would not be a good place to get bent." The fact that the nearest chamber is some two hundred plus miles away on Kwajalein with no easy way to get to it obviously gave meaning to his
Speaking of decompression illness, one of the members of the crew working on the documentary was using a $65,000 film camera encased in an $18,000 housing that sprung a leak at depth. You guessed it. The camera was brought up at near ballistic speed and although she did not get hit as a result, she did have an ache in her knee while hanging after a subsequent dive. Although she thought it was only a muscle cramp (could this be the denial phase?), they put her on 100% O2 and headed for the shore. After about an hour the pain had subsided but they kept her on oxygen for a couple more hours and she, fortunately, had no additional symptoms. Although this was only the middle of the week, they informed her that her diving at Bikini had been concluded for the trip.
And finally, why the title - "BEEN THERE - DONE THAT!"? I made several "landings" on the flight deck of SARATOGA while at Bikini, even flying aboard with a scooter two or three times. But, I had also logged ten landings on SARA in November of 1944 when she was steaming in the Pacific with 35 knots of wind over the deck. Thus, been there - done that!
Note: Bob Gohr made his second trip to Bikini in April of 1999 where he celebrated his 75th birthday "aboard" [in 100 feet of water] the USS Saratoga. Bob is amazing to say the least. At the age of 75 Bob did the complete week of decompression diving on Bikini for the second time. He is a good friend to all of us involved in the program at Bikini, and we hope to be honored with his presence again in the years to come. -JMN
Another Note: Bob Gohr made his third trip to Bikini in April of 2003. At the age of 79 Bob once again did the complete week of decompression diving on Bikini without a hitch. Geez. -JMN
USS Saratoga Cv-3 : An Illustrated History of the Legendary Aircraft Carrier 1927-1946 by John Fry [If you want a beautiful book on the Saratoga, buy this. It is remarkable, fantastic and a treasure for those who have served and for those who have dove on this magnificent ship].
WHERE ARE THEY NOW? The Final Resting Places of all ships used at Bikini Atoll for Nuclear Testing.
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The historical information within this site, while constantly updated, is drawn largely from the book, FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND: A History of the People of Bikini and their Islands, Second Edition, published in September of 2001 by Jack Niedenthal. This book tells the story of the people of Bikini from their point of view via interviews, and the author's more than two decades of firsthand experiences with elder Bikinians.
Copies can be purchased from this direct ordering link at Amazon.com, or you can also buy and download the Kindle edition.