In September of this year, I went on a 3-part dive trip, starting in Santa Barbara, California, continuing on to Kwajalein, and winding up at Bikini Atoll. Here is a trip report on the Bikini portion that I promised some of you and am inflicting on the rest of you. If you don't want to read the whole thing, I'm sure your e-mail reader has a delete button somewhere handy! l:^)
After five days on Ebeye Island at Kwajalein, I was taken back to the airport on the main island to await the Air Marshall Islands (AMI) flight to Bikini. I checked my bags, and was met by Fabio Amaral, the Bikini divemaster. He had been on Majuro for a couple of weeks, and was returning on that flight.
You and your bags are weighed before getting on the plane. The plane is a 17 seater and is able to carry only so much weight, so divers are allowed 75 pounds of baggage. You can also get away with a bit more weight in a carry-on. I was carrying 160 pounds (!) of baggage, so I had reserved an extra weight allowance. Normally the charge is $3 per pound extra, but it is only $0.60 from Kwaj to Bikini then $1.50 from Bikini back to Majuro. Somehow the agent at Kwajalein came up with a charge for $25, which less than I was expecting so I paid it without comment. I got even luckier at departure from Bikini as the agent there weighed everything and never asked for any money (whew!)
Oh, you wonder what the heck I was carrying to add up to 160 pounds? Fair question. Since I was diving both Kwaj and Bikini, I had a single tank Scubapro classic BC for Kwaj and a doubles plate with two sets of wings (primary and spare) for Bikini. Also a single cell cave light, a Nikonos V (no strobes), a JVC VHS camcorder with Ikelite housing, a full 3 mil wetsuit, a 3 mil shorty, 5 regulators including one oxygen clean, 3 dive computers, tools, spare hoses and miscellaneous parts, batteries, charger othes, etc. etc. etc. Traveling lightly - NOT! Just wanted to be sure I had everything I could need at Bikini, though it did turn out that they are reasonably well stocked with some spare and rental gear.
In the Kwaj terminal, I also met Terence Fails of Blue Water Scuba in Nashville, Tennessee. BWS organized the Bikini trip, and it was good to see a familiar face. After takeoff, we passed over the Prinz Eugen and those with cameras available got good shots of that. Sadly my Nikonos V (which was doubling as a land camera) was packed away. It was a pretty nice day as we left Kwajalein, but as before, as we flew on the weather deteriorated. Again, it was not a good sign.
As we approached Bikini, the cloud cover increased and became
We finally descended below the clouds, and approached the landing strip. I thought we were going to land in a pasture, but it turned out (of course) to be merely crushed coral. On Wednesday September the 24th, we land and the bad news starts.
The dive operation is located on the main island of Bikini, but the airstrip is located on another island whose name escapes me. The seas were too rough for the Marshalls Dive Adventures (MDA) boat to dock and pick us up. Fortunately there is a construction camp (International Bridge Corp.) on this island that does work for the Bikiniians. The IBC guys put us up for the night in a couple of their bunkhouses, and fed us in their mess hall. They even entertained us with a continuous stream of movies that evening and the next day, and one of the IBC guys took us out in a truck for a tour of the island. It was interesting to observe the neat rows of palm trees presumably planted by Uncle Sam. For information on the island and its history check out http://www.bikiniatoll.com/. It has quite a wealth of information about the past and present of the island, and a fair amount of information on the diving operation. Also links to such sites as the USS Saratoga Association and the Imperial Japanese Navy page.
On Thursday the seas are still pretty rough, and Fabio considers some possibilities. One option is to drive to Bikini Island at low tide over the reef. It is a pretty rough ride, but doable if the low tide is sufficiently low. It wasn't.
Another option was to bring the MDA boat over and have the rubber runabout ferry us out. It was too rough for that.
A third option was to load us up on a landing-craft style boat that was on a trailer, and back it into the surf between waves. And that is what we finally did. When we got to Bikini island, the dock there was reasonably well protected from the waves and was a floating dock to boot, so unloading was no problem. We then got checked into our rooms, and were to meet back for a late afternoon checkout dive on the Saratoga.
The buildings on Bikini were built for the use of the US Department of Energy, but they only go there now a couple of times a year for radiation survey work. MDA has use of some of the buildings and there are six that are of interest to divers.
(1) The air fill station/dive shop. I never had to go in there as the guys cart all the tanks around and all you have to do is get ferried to the boat where your tanks are waiting.
(2) The convenience store. Beer, soft drinks, snacks, souvenirs, and miscellaneous stuff. Open pretty much whenever you need by request. (VISA and MC accepted!)
(3) The pool hall/classroom. We didnt use the classroom as they are still setting it up to be used for pre-dive briefings and watching videos.
(4) The dining hall which was where the video was set up while we were there. There are also 4 or 5 rooms in this building, but they are not air conditioned.
(5) A four-plex of single rooms, air contitioned. I stayed in one of these. I basically had a single bed, a chest of drawers, a couple of small tables, and a bathroom. It was simple, but clean, and the air-conditioning worked and it even has hot water. (On Ebeye there was only water part of the time, and no hot water.) And you can drink the water at Bikini, bottled water is unnecessary.
(6) A four-plex of slightly larger double rooms, also air conditioned.
After settling in, we met at the dining hall for our dive briefing. Our two divemasters were Fabio Amaral and Reuben Rundle. Fabio is a nice guy who is very interested in running a good operation, and Reuben is a very capable divemaster as well. We also met Rod (an Aussie) who was in charge of the kitchen, housing, and most of the hospitality type stuff. A nice fellow as well. Edward Maddison is a Bikiniian divemaster, but he did not dive with us as some of his gear was rented to the two Italians (next paragraph.)
In addition to the three divers from BWS in Nashville, there were a father and son from Australia and two Italians. The Italians had learned the hard way not to check your baggage through to Majuro. It did not make it and they had to rent much of their dive gear from MDA.
After the briefing, we got in a minivan which took us down to the dock. We got on the dive boat (the "Bravo") and began rigging gear while the boat headed out.
Due to the depths and lengths of the dive, they request you follow a minimum deco schedule even if your computer shows less. Two minutes at thirty feet, five minutes at twenty feet, and ten minutes at ten feet. They have surface supplied nitrox (about 70%) for deco for up to four divers, and a deco ladder for everyone to hang from. Generally the Italians and the Australians used the surface system, and the rest of us (who were all tech certified) carried stage bottles with about 70% nitrox and used our oxygen clean regulators. Made me feel somewhat better about carrying all of that heavy crud with me!
So we made our first dive on the famed Saratoga in about five to six foot seas. (About an average day in the Gulf of Mexico.) The Saratoga has three buoys, one bow, one stern, and one on the island. We went down the line to the island, then down to the deck. On the Saratoga, the elevators to the flight hangar deck are in the middle of the deck, which is kind of interesting. We looked at some of the guns, then went up to the bridge and captains quarters. The size of the ship was amazing. That one dive made the whole trip worthwhile. Stats on the Saratoga are 880 feet long, bottom at 190 feet, flight hangars at 120, flight deck at 90, and bridge at around 40 feet.
From there on out the routine was pretty much (1) Breakfast, (2) Morning briefing and dive, (3) Lunch, (4) an hour or two of spare time, (5) Afternoon briefing and dive, (6) Dinner, (7) Evening movie and last but not least (8) Sleep like the dead.
The next day Friday, the weather had improved and the seas were down to 2-3 feet. We dove the Apogon for the morning dive. The Apogon is a US sub that is about 312 feet long, and sits upright on the bottom at around 170 feet. There are some holes in the hull here and there. But there is lots of light at that depth, and the wreck is in very nice shape overall.
For the afternoon dive, we dove the Saratoga's flight hangar. We saw the planes, bombs, and torpedoes that have all been featured on several television specials. There was a light fixture that contained an intact GE bulb proudly labeled "Rough Duty." That was worth quite a chuckle.
The next day Saturday the weather improved further and the ocean was nearly calm. It was to be battleship day, with our first dive on the Arkansas which is upside down like the Prinz Eugen at Kwajalein. The Arkansas is 560 feet long, and sits on the bottom in 170 feet of water. The bow is very impressive. Our afternoon dive was on the Japanese battleship Nagato, which is also upside down at about the same depth. The Nagato has some very large guns, and the stern area is massive with four large propellers and two large rudders. It is about 700' long.
On Sunday the dive magazine weather finally took over and the ocean was as flat as a lake. The morning dive was on the amidships area of the Nagato. There is lots of superstructure in that area, and more large guns. The afternoon dive was on the bow of the Saratoga. The bow is just enormous. We went into the windlass room, and did a short penetration into the auxiliary bridge area. Since the wrecks are rapidly rusting in the warm salt water, you get q ite a bit of percolation from the ceiling inside the wreck.
Monday was our last full day of diving. The morning dive was on the stern of the Saratoga to see the rudder and one of the props. We then swam along one of the decks back toward the island, and came up that line. The second dive was on the USS Lamson, a 340 foot long American destroyer. The wreck is deep, but you can easily see the whole ship in one dive. It still has depth charges and torpedoes visible.
Tuesday was our last day of diving. We did a morning dive on the Saratoga, where we visited the flight hangar again, and spent some more time on the island. Then after about an hour surface interval, we did a reef dive nearby. We saw several large tuna, and a couple of gray reef sharks.
After we were done diving, we headed out towards a pass to the open ocean that was a couple of hours away. On the way, the crew put out lure lines and dragged in several large yellowfin tuna. When we got to the pass, the tuna heads were cut off, put on ropes, and used to attract sharks. They served this function very well! Very quickly, several hundred sharks were all over the place. Several times, the crew pulled the head out of the water and the shark came with it. The crew also rigged the video cameras into a PVC pipe frame and lowered them into the middle of the shark frenzy. The footage is just awesome.
It was a long ride back, but we ate some very good tuna steak that evening.
On Wednesday we packed, rode back to the other island, and boarded the AMI plane back to Majuro. Later that evening Continental Air Micronesia returned us to Honolulu.
Would I go back - heck yes, once I can get the money together. The diving is good, the dive operation is well set up, and the hospitality is great. How many places in the world (not including live-aboard boats) can you leave your dive gear on the boat all week long and leave your room unlocked to boot?
If you have any other questions, feel free to e-mail me.
Also, if you are interested, Central Pacific Dive Expeditions is a good source of information. They have a web site http://www.cenpacdive.com/ which has a lot of information about diving in the Marshall Islands.
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