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 Kwajalein 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:^)
I left Honolulu on September the 18th, which was a Wednesday. On the way to Kwajalein, the Continental Air Micronesia 727 stopped at Johnston Island, where a chemical weapon incinerator is being built and tested by the US Army. We then crossed the international date line, and stopped at Majuro Atoll. Majuro Atoll is the capital of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), which is now an independent country. (Formerly a US Trust Territory.) Kwajalein and Bikini atolls are both part of the RMI. As the plane flew towards Kwajalein, the weather deteriorated all the way. Not a good sign.
(If you ever dive Bikini, Kwajalein is easy to add on to either end of the Bikini portion. You fly to Bikini from Majuro, but the plane stops at Kwaj on the way. By doing Kwaj first, I did not add any travel time to the trip and there basically was no difference in the total airfare. And the plane that leaves Bikini usually stops at Kwaj on the way back as well, so you can do it either way.)
We landed at Kwaj in the midst of a pretty good little rainstorm. Kwajalein is a coral atoll that consists of a large number of islands scattered around the rim of the largest lagoon in the Pacific. The largest island is also called Kwajalein, and houses a large US Army facility and the airport. If you do not have official business on the main island, you talk to RMI immigration and then are to get quickly off the island.
I was met at the airport by Steve Gavegan, who is the dive operator (Kwajalein Atoll Dive Resort Inc., or KADRI.) Steve got us a taxi to the dock, then we took a small boat over to Ebeye Island. Due to the storm, the waves were running about six feet, which did not make for an auspicious beginning for this leg of the trip.
But we made it to Ebeye, and Steve took me to the hotel in a van. Ebeye Island is a fairly small island (about one square mile or less) where the natives who work on Kwajalein Island live. There are around 12,000 folks on Ebeye Island, so it is very crowded and getting more so. The median age is about 14 years, and the streets are full of children. There is one hotel, called the Anrohasa. I paid about $90 per night for a double room. The room was small, but clean, and had a new TV/VCR which could pick up the two TV channels of Armed Forces Radio Television Service from Kwajalein.
One recent improvement to the hotel was the addition of a power generator. This was appreciated as the generator on Ebeye was running at half capacity. Therefore power was switched between halves of the island every six hours. So the hotel's generator ran when that half of the island did not have power, and fortunately kept the air conditioning and TV going. (Most of the days were pretty warm and humid, though not oppressively hot. Say in the high 80s much of the time.)
The other problem caused by the power plant situation was that the power plant runs the desalinization plant. With the power plant at half capacity, there was a water shortage and the water was out in the hotel room much of the time. Reportedly the US Army was bringing over some water on barges.
There really is no entertainment on the island, or anything much for tourists to do. There is a restaurant at the island's main dock, and the hotel has a bar/restaurant that had a pretty decent band playing several nights. If you stay in one of the triple rooms at that end of the hotel, I understand the band can be pretty annoying. I couldn't hear it from my room.
In general when I wasn't diving, I stayed in the room and read or watched whatever was on AFRTS.
Anyway, the next morning (Friday) Steve came by the room to get me and we went diving (finally!)
Steve normally uses a small dive boat with twin outboards that gets to the dive sites pretty quickly. The boat was waiting for two new engines, so we went out on a fishing boat instead. It was slower, but had the advantage that the crew fished most of the time so there was usually something to eat between dives. Definitely a good trade-off - I didn't mind the slow boat since I was not in any hurry to get back to Ebeye anyway.
I had signed up for 2 dives per day with Steve, which ran about $85 per day. He was a good sport to take me out and dive with me, even though I was his only customer at the time. Some other folks have told me that if you pay extra, he will do 3 dives per day, but 2 was plenty for me.
I brought all of my gear, and Steve had weights when needed and Scubapro 72 cu foot tanks. I wore a full 1/8 inch wetsuit, which more than kept me warm in the 84 degree water.
It still wasn't a really nice day, but the seas were down to a couple of feet and it wasn't raining. We did two dives on the Prinz Eugen. The Prinz Eugen is a German pocket battleship that escorted the Bismarck on her infamous maiden voyage. After the war, the Eugen was used as a target ship for the Able and Baker blasts at Bikini. The ship survived the blasts and was taken to Kwajalein to be decontaminated. However, it sprang a leak and sank upside down just off Enubuj Island. The stern is out of the water, and the hull plating is badly deteriorated. Two of the propellers had been out of the water, but one of those has been removed and is on display in a German museum. The 3rd propeller is in the water just below the surface, and is used for a pretty famous and standard video or photo shot. You can swim over to the hull and get pictures of yourself with the propellers, which makes for a pretty nice momento.
For the first dive, we went to the bow and back, though we did not drop to the bottom at the bow. (I believe the bottom at the bow is around 110 feet or so. We stayed shallower than that.) Most of the large guns are visible, as well as some torpedoes. The propeller in the water is pretty spectacular from beneath. The ship is pretty awesome, and the clear water adds to the effect. The visibility that day was 40 to 60 feet, which was sub-par for that time of year. But with international dive travel, sometimes you pays your money and you takes your chances. On the second dive we went to the amidships area and back. We looked into some of the compartments and portholes along the way, but did not go inside. In general we did not do anything adventurous on any of our Kwajalein dives, which was fine with me. (After all, there would be plenty of that on Bikini.)
The next day Saturday we saw some improving weather with relatively flat seas and some actual sunshine. We tried a couple of reef dives of the SE end of the main island. Both of these were drift dives, with a moderate current. The reef was pretty level down to about 60', where it dropped off steeply. The reef life seemed pretty lively to me, though I am told it is quite tame by Palau standards. But we saw a barracuda, some white-tip sharks, a big tuna, turtles, and a quietly sleeping nurse shark with its head in a rock. The second dive was pretty similar, with a fair amount of sea life and a gentle current to carry you along.
On Sunday, the weather continued to cooperate and we did two more dives on the Prinz Eugen. The water was a bit clearer, and again we mostly looked at the lower superstructure with maximum depths of around 85 feet.
Monday, the weather turned cool and breezy again. We made our first dive on a Japanese schooner off Ebwoj Island. This wreck is called the "Phantom Maru", though there are several wrecks of unknown identify that are called that. The wreck is also called the Shell Island wreck. This wreck was sunk by the US during the war while Kwajalein was a major Japanese base. There is extensive damage at the stern. The ship is about 110 feet long, and the maximum depth during the dive was about 90 feet. The ship has become home to lots of fish, and a couple of really nice sea anemones. For our second dive we did another reef dive on the ocean side, and saw a manta ray, a turtle, and a sturgeon.
My last day diving was Tuesday, and the weather was getting worse. We had about 4 foot seas and decided to do just one dive. We dove another "Phantom Maru" schooner, which is also called the North Loi wreck. The schooner is pretty similar to its cousin, and this was another enjoyable dive.
On Wednesday, Steve picked me up at the hotel and we took a boat back to Kwajalein Island. The Bikini divemaster, Fabio Amaral, met me at the airport and I was off to Bikini.
Looking back on diving at Kwajalein, would I do it over? Sure - I have always wanted to dive the Prinz Eugen, and I enjoyed the other dives. I also got adjusted to the new time zone, and got warmed up for the more demanding dives at Bikini.
Would I go back? That is harder to say. Given my limited travel budget, there are places I would like to visit first before returning to Kwaj.
Steve says there are plans to build a real resort on a small island near Ebeye, which would make for a much more enjoyable stay. However like many plans in this world, those particular plans are awaiting money. I did not have great luck with the weather, but that is unusual at that time of year. If you know anyone who ever worked on Kwajalein they will tell you at great length how great it was. And Steve is a pleasant fellow who will try very hard to please you. If I go back to Bikini, I definitely would consider spending several days at Kwajalein again.
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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