Monday, July 22, 2013

Diving the Wrecks at Bikini - Finally

July 1-5, 2013

Ever since I first met Dave, and he was trying to woo me into sailing around the world with him on Soggy Paws, Dave has been talking about sailing to Bikini and diving the wrecks there. We finally did it this past week.

This was a culmination of years of cruising in this direction, and about 2 years of gathering information from cruisers and online sources about how to dive at Bikini. According to SSCA articles we have saved in our Marshall Islands folder, in 2005 and 2006, groups of cruisers on boats cruised together to Bikini, and dove the wrecks under the guidance of the dive operation set up by the Bikini Council. But in 2007, the combination of the economic downturn, and failure of Air Marshall Islands to maintain flyable airplanes, closed the Bikini Dive operation. I don't know the exact date, but I understand that at least one group of divers got stuck on Bikini for a month, due to a broken airplane. Now the airport and related maintenance facilities, and the Dive Resort, are closed down and falling into disrepair. There is typically a skeleton crew of 4-6 people occupying the main island and maintaining the facilities owned/supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and Lawrence Livermore Labs.

For a couple of years, there was no way to dive at Bikini. But in 2009, a liveaboard dive boat-based dive operation was started. Since then, in the summer months, the M/V Windward or the M/V Indies Trader, have taken dive charter groups to Bikini. It would have been easy to book a dive trip to Bikini with the Windward, from Majuro or Kwajalein. Interested? contact Pete Mesley But this is a pretty expensive option--I think $6,500 USD per person for a 10-day dive trip to Bikini. Since there is no other way for most divers to get to Bikini, they can name their price.

Last July, after going to the Bikini website, (, we contacted "Bikini Jack" Niedenthal, a former U.S. Peace Corp worker, who has become the administrator for Bikini tourism operations. The requirements posted on the website, for diving at Bikini, say this:

The Local Government Council is allowing certain types of vessels to visit Bikini Atoll and dive on the wrecks provided definitive prior arrangements are made with Bikini Atoll Divers.

These vessels or yachts must be completely self-contained, and must include:

*adequate international communications equipment

*housing, dining facilities, and supplies (all food, water, medical equipment, etc)

*all equipment needed to fill tanks and take care of divers, including any nitrox, oxygen or specialized medical equipment

*preferably have a helicopter for medical evacuation purposes

During such visits our local government will send along a diver and up to two Local Government Council representatives--at the vessel owner's expense--to make sure that no artifacts are removed from the ships.

We told him we'd like to organize a group of boats to go to Bikini and dive the wrecks. His response was very discouraging. In addition to the transportation costs and per-diem expense of the "diver and up to 2 council representatives" ($100 per person per day), we would have to pay a "diving fee" of $125 per diver per day. And still supply all our own equipment, boats, air fills, plus feed and house the "representatives". There was ZERO interest in working with us to pull a group together. ZERO interest in negotiating the fees for a group visit to something more reasonable. Dave went back and forth a couple of times by email with Jack, but finally gave up in disgust. We figured we'd have to wait until we got to Majuro to work something out.

Meanwhile, we met Rick and Sue from s/v Panacea, who were temporarily working at Kwajalein, at the SSCA Gam last November. Rick said he was cruising to Bikini in May/June, and that they might be able to get permission to dive at Bikini from another avenue. This turned out to be via some of the contractors at Kwaj working for Lawrence Livermore Labs and the Department of Energy. They worked with the DOE rep at Kwajalein, who is responsible for Bikini, and felt they could get permission from him to dive at Bikini. But that didn't really happen. Hence our first trip to Bikini the last week of May, where we did a lot of "bommie diving", but no wreck diving.

Because there is only a lackadaisical skeleton crew at Bikini, it IS possible for a cruising boat to show up and basically just flaunt the rules and dive the wrecks on their own (surreptitiously). We know of one or two cruising boats that have done this. But that's not the way we work--that doesn't jibe with our "Clean Wake" policy. Leaving a clean wake is important to cruisers--because we have all experienced the sad situation where misbehavior by a prior cruiser has ruined things for all the subsequent cruisers. No matter how much we wanted to take a peek at the Saratoga, and how unreasonable we thought the rules were, we just don't do that.

However, we are fortunate to have hooked up with the Aussie boat Westward II while we were in Fiji. They are passionate divers, too, and were heading for the Marshalls to dive as well. We exchanged diving information last August, and got them fired up to spend the next summer diving in the Marshall islands with us. Fortunately, Stephen and Selena arrived in Majuro several months ahead of us, and took the time to go talk to the Indies Trader group personally, about organizing some dives on the wrecks in Bikini in conjunction with one of the M/V Windward's summer Bikini diving charters. Stephen spent quite a bit of time working this angle--including several emails and at least one meeting with the owner of the Indies Trader company. He finally got things to the point where he was assured that we would be able to dive if we were in Bikini when the M/V Windward was there. But Stephen could never nail down the price. The Windward had never done this before, and so hadn't really considered a diving package for cruisers. But by the time we got ready to head out to Bikini for the diving, the crew on Windward had gotten to know Stephen pretty well, and they assured him "Don't worry about it, we'll take care of you." So we went to Bikini on the second trip with high hopes.

In the end, it all worked out OK. Not only did the weather cooperate to a "T", but we got to do 5 dives on the deep wrecks, at an affordable price.

What Windward does is pick up the dive groups in Ebeye (Kwajalein Atoll), and then overnight to Bikini. Each night they anchor in the lee of Bikini island, and each day they go out to the wreck area (all the primary wrecks are within a mile box about 3 miles WSW of Bikini island). In the morning, they "live boat" a different wreck each day, and in the afternoon, they moor to the Saratoga. The Saratoga, an Aircraft Carrier, is big enough that 6 or 7 dives are needed to really explore the whole thing. So we arranged to dinghy out to the Windward each afternoon, bringing all our equipment, and do a "No Decompression Recreational Air Dive" on the Saratoga.

We were personally checked out and escorted on most of the dives by Pete Melsey, the owner/operator of Lust for Rust, the outfit that had chartered the Windward for this trip. Basically, since these dives are at the very edge (depth-wise) of the recreational dive limits, he wanted to make sure we didn't kill ourselves. Needless to say, we had the same goal!! So in spite of the excitement about finally diving the Saratoga, we did very conservative dives, staying within recreational limits, and doing much longer than normal safety stops. We were able to see much of the interesting parts of the Saratoga. The only "penetration" we did was a very short excursion into the flight deck, escorted by Pete, to see the Helldiver airplane. (pics later).

Meanwhile, the other divers, sporting mixed gas or rebreathers, and all doing decompression dives, were going all over the ship, at depths to 170 feet, for a couple of hours. Crazy stuff! If we were 40 years younger...

We ended up doing 4 dives on the Saratoga and 1 dive to see the propellers on the Nagato, the Japanese battleship that directed the Pearl Harbor attack. The Saratoga is sitting upright, and the "island" comes up to about 45 feet. The deck of the Sara is about 90-100 feet deep. We spent most of our time in and around the island. The Nagato sunk upside down. The huge propellers are within our depth limits, but the interesting parts of the superstructure that are reachable, are way to deep for us. But the props are huge and even that was an interesting dive.

Anyway, in a long-winded way...We had a great time (thanks Pete to from Lust for Rust, and Chris and Brian from M/V Windward). One more line off our Bucket List!!

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