Article

 June 30, 2016   Savannah McKenzie
From the July 2006 issue of 48° North. Story and photos by Sue Stephens

From the July 2006 issue of 48° North. Story and photos by Sue Stephens

“So, how far is Bikini from Majuro and tell me again, what exactly was it that happened there?” I innocently asked one blustery Majuro morning, while sipping coffee aboard Pegasus, our 1969 Cheoy Lee Offshore 40. We (myself, my husband, Gary and our 10 year-old daughter, Amy) had recently arrived in the Marshall Islands after a boisterous windward passage from Butaritari, Kiribati, a trip well-known to thoroughly trounce any unsuspecting cruisers heading to the Marshall Islands, thanks to the the location of the ITCZ at that time of year (December). It was in Tonga the previous October that we had decided to forego the usual milk-run escape to New Zealand for the upcoming cyclone season and instead head northwest to the Marshall Islands approximately 1,700 miles away, with stops along the way at Wallis Island (a French territory), Tuvalu (reportedly one of the smallest independent countries in the world) and Kiribati. And we’re glad we did, as some of our experiences in the outer islands of Kiribati and the Marshalls have turned out to be the highlights of our travels since leaving Bainbridge Island, Washington in 2003.

I vaguely recalled hearing about Bikini Atoll while growing up but Gary, being a huge history buff, quickly filled me in on Bikini’s history. While the story sounded both frightening and depressing, it was also history, and we’d already become quite fascinated with all the WWII history and relics we’d seen in Kiribati and the Marshalls, both ashore and in the lagoons. Bikini did indeed sound intriguing, but we didn’t really give it much more thought as we had heard it had always been off limits to yachts after the atomic-bomb testing (Bikini Atoll was the location of 23 atmospheric atomic bomb tests from 1946 through 1958. Also, there were so many other (and closer) atolls in the Marshalls to visit – Bikini lies approximately 425 miles northwest of Majuro. However, when the time came to submit our requests to visit the outer atolls to the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Majuro, we did include Bikini on our list, along with 13 or so others, “just in case”!

Welcome to the beautiful islands of Bikini

Sue and Gary at outdated sign on airfield.

Imagine our surprise a few days later when we heard an announcement on the local cruiser’s net that Jack Niedenthal, the Liaison Officer for Bikini Atoll Local Government and Manager of Bikini Atoll Divers, had officially invited all yachts to come to Bikini for the first ever “Yachties Week,” from March 1-8, 2006, which would coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Bikinians exodus from their atoll. Since in the past yachts had not been officially invited to visit Bikini, this invitation was quite surprising and met with great enthusiasm by the cruising fleet, including ourselves. We attended a very informative presentation by Jack (which included his interesting Bikini connection) and by the end of the evening we were convinced we were going to Bikini. It was also interesting to learn that Bikini Atoll Council, under the name of Bikini Atoll Divers, had opened “the world’s largest diveable wrecks” to the general public in 1996 in order to provide an economic base for a possible future resettlement of the atoll. The islanders themselves made the decision to open the atoll for tourism and are currently in control of the entire operation. This put our minds at ease about visiting the atoll and we were happy to find that the displaced islanders are the ones who profit from such a business.

While our cruising budget would suffer a hit with the $125 per dive fee charged by Bikini Divers (which is actually a very good price as the one-week rate for all 12 dives, including lodging at the Resort and food, is $2,850, excluding air fare), we quickly realized that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and there was no way we were going to miss it. While we hated to make commitments to be somewhere on a certain date (and the prepayment of our dive fees put us in the position of having to be in Bikini a few days before March 1), this was an opportunity we knew we would regret if we gave it a pass. The yachts were invited and encouraged to explore the island and the reefs at will, no official escort needed, and even yachts that did not wish to dive the wrecks were also encouraged to come visit, so a good time seemed almost guaranteed.

We began to plan our visits to the other outer atolls with an eye toward heading to Bikini a few weeks before the official Yachtie Week began, as we had been given permission to arrive early as long as we notified Bikini Divers of our proposed arrival date.

In late January, we left Majuro, having had our fill of movies, pizza, laundrymats and civilization for a while, we again beat to weather the 100 miles to Maloelap Atoll, where we spent almost three idyllic weeks enjoying this beautiful place. An entire article could be written on cruising the out islands of the Marshalls as they have so much to offer. Three weeks later, while we hated to leave Maloelap, Bikini beckoned us and so on February 12, we departed for what turned out to be a mostly pleasant reach in the usual boisterous NE trades and moderate seas. The NE tradewinds we experienced on this trip were consistent with the winter sailing conditions we experienced most of our time in the Marshalls from December through March – NE or E winds usually 15-25, day and night — and our wind generator earned its keep during those months, keeping our batteries topped off the entire time.

Three days out of Maloelap, we sighted Enyu Island, the southernmost island on Bikini Atoll, and entered the wide and relatively deep pass with 20+ knots of wind and 8-9 ft. seas. While the sun was at a good angle to theroretically see any threatening coral heads, we were sailing so fast through the pass that we couldn’t see a thing – but luckily never saw depths less than 45 feet anyway, as the chart had shown. The fishing line we were towing was suddenly quite active as we saw dorados chasing it and finally a rainbow runner took it, however, in the excitement of negotiating the pass entrance it wriggled itself free. As we approached the lee side of the island, the seas finally subsided, the wind lightened (although it continued to howl outside), and we tiredly but happily motored the last mile into the anchorage and dropped our 55 lb. Delta in 25 feet of crystal clear water. So it was we found ourselves, some 60 years after the Bomb, one of very few yachts to ever visit the legendary Bikini. The eleven additional yachts that would ultimately arrive in the next few weeks would be a history-setting record for the island. I took a still shot of this moment in my mind to capture it there forever, one I added to the many other special moments in our travels. We would explore this island before moving north the 5 miles to the main island of Bikini, where Bikini Atoll Dive Resort is located. Since we were the first to arrive amongst the cruising fleet on February 15th,  we were eager to explore some of the smaller islands in Bikini before moving up to the big island where the dive week would take place. As it turned out, we enjoyed Enyu Island so much that we stayed there for many perfect days all alone until it was time to go to the big island for the dives.

Enyu Beach

Rocky shores of Enyu.

Enyu Island, also spelled Eneu, is home to the Bikini airfield, where planes landed back in the 1940’s and where a weekly flight from Majuro still lands today on the hard-packed coral sand and grass runway. Located in the near vicinity are tons of heavy equipment, supplies (some of which are still good), milling machines, lathes, buildings, and huge generators that appear to have been abandoned (possibly after the attempt to clean up the radiation during the 70’s and 80’s). The salt air has wasted all the steel equipment, but it was still interesting to browse the junk. Some of the more interesting finds were a huge supply outbuilding which was fully stocked with parts for the above-mentioned heavy equipment, with many parts still in their original packaging. Other treasures included many rusted-out pickup trucks, one with the sticker on it from a Montana saloon, old outboards, a  20 ft. Navy skiff off some unknown military vessel, numerous ship and car batteries, and even a rusty old concrete mixing truck!

It was interesting to note that the numerous coconut trees ashore were all growing in rather straight rows, a result of the replanting after they were all blown off during the testing. We spent the afternoons exploring all the junk, shelling (incredible cowries just laying about on the beach), and snorkeling in the 100’ visibility water. Schools of needle fish would sail out of the water as we motored around in the dinghy. We marveled at the huge and varied types of fish life which abound in these waters, including emperor fish, dog snapper, unicorn fish, bumphead wrasse and, of course, sharks. Fish was definitely back on the menu as Gary and Amy trolled a 5” gold squid through the pass and back and forth near shore, with their bounty including a dog snapper and an unidentified fish which resembled a Spanish mackeral.

Some quick facts about Bikini:  It consists of 36 islets, has a land area of only 2.32 square miles, but a lagoon area of 229 square miles. It’s located at approximately 11 degrees 31 minutes N, 165 degrees 33 minutes E.  Current population consists of the Bikini Atoll Dive Resort staff (9-10 Marshallese men, only one of which is actually from Bikini), four dive masters, and assorted Department of Energy staff and scientists (who monitor and test the radiation levels ashore).

We went ashore and met Jim, the former British Special Services Officer now Head Divemaster, who graciously allowed us to use the laundry facilities, borrow their DVDs and and pretty much have the run of the place. There was even free (!) ice cream. There’s also a desalination plant ashore so there’s plenty of fresh water for drinking, hosing off and even ice. A real treat for us cruisers.

The staff was busy setting up for the upcoming season, (March-November) so every morning we’d see them take off in their heavy duty dive boat heading to work, which included attaching mooring balls to all the wrecks so the dive boats could tie up to them (they remove them when they leave each year so therefore must reattach them again upon their arrival). From Dec. through mid-Feb, only a skeleton staff lives ashore. When we asked about an area with a white picket fence surrounding it, we were told that it was to protect a very old ancestral Bikinian graveyard.

The vessels available for diving include the USS Saratoga (the world’s only diveable aircraft carrier), USS Lamson destroyer, USS Arkansas battleship, USS Carlisle attack transport, USS Anderson destroyer, USS Apogon submarine and the HIJMS Nagato (the Japanese battleship from which Admiral Yamamoto ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor). The Carlisle, Lamson and Anderson were sunk by the Able bomb and the Saratoga, Arkansas, Nagato, and Apogon by the Baker bomb. There are 12 decompression dives available, and are definitely not for novice divers, as they range in depths from 115 feet to 180 feet. Every diver must do a checkout dive before being allowed to continue, although the checkout dive is reportedly one of the best of the entire 12, as it consists of diving on the USS Saratoga flight deck and penetrating the bridge. Gary only did one additional dive after the checkout dive on the “Sara” – he chose the stern dive on the Nagato  and reported an incredible experience. The Nagato  is upside down so the sheer size of its hull was impressive, not to mention the four 23’ props. And, to top it off, an 8’ tiger shark (one of the most aggressive and unpredictable, i.e., have been known to attack humans for no reason) made an appearance to add a little excitement at the end of the dive.

Everyone had a great experience diving the wrecks – although the divemasters’ suggestion that the cruisers bring their equipment ashore beforehand to have it looked at to make sure it met the stringent requirements in place proved to be good advice as most people had one or more items that needed either repaired or replaced. They’re very strict about your equipment meeting their requirements – if it doesn’t, you don’t dive. Period.

Bunker on Romurikku

Bunker on Romurikku.

Regarding the radiation threat ashore: according to Jim, there are, of course, many different opinions on the subject of just how much radiation is actually still at Bikini and how soon the Bikinians might be allowed to return to a safe island. He assured us that it was perfectly safe ashore and while he didn’t recommend eating any of the coconuts ashore and none of the divemasters eat anything grown there, some of the Marshallese workers do and there is also a local Bikinian man who has a small experimental farm ashore and eats the produce he grows there.

The 12 boats who made the trip to Bikini (all came via Majuro, with some stopping at other atolls along the way) were:  Pegasus, Blue Moon, Interlude, Navi-Gator, Camira, Integrity, Costa Vida, Kipona, Free Bird, Indigo, and Aquila. Some of these yachts arrived in the Marshalls to wait out the Southern Hemisphere cyclone season and others had already been in the Marshalls for a year or more. The weather while we were there was almost perfect with most days consisting of blue skies and typical tradewinds out of the NE or E up to about 15 knots, sometimes more. We did have some light squalls, usually at night, but they didn’t produce much rain. We also had some ITCZ activity towards the end of our stay after we had moved north in the atoll, with 3 days of brisk (25+) squally, rainy weather, but the anchorage was well protected with minimal fetch so no problem there.

We had a couple of potlucks ashore, including a wrap up BBQ at the gazebo on the beach, which included lots of good food and music provided by cruiser musicians. We made a thank you posterboard for the staff and brought in photos of our boats, boat cards, and personal memorabilia to express our thanks for such a great time.

Time was beginning to run short as we had made plans to be in Kwajalein around March 13. Since there was still more of the atoll we wanted to explore, we sailed the 8 miles north to the small island of Romurikku, a narrow, long island that had been blasted clean of all the coconut palms by the bombs (and this island had not been replanted). There now are only thick shrubs growing here. We explored the huge bunker ashore (with 2-3’ walls) and enjoyed the great snorkeling and shelling on the beach. Some interesting finds included some 40 lb. lead bars laying on the beach. Gary was successful with the speargun and brought home a yellow snapper and a grouper for dinner. The island is well protected from the prevailing NE winds , which blew quite strong when we were there. We had hoped to actually sail over the Bravo crater before we left but, with a somewhat favorable weather forecast, we decided to make a run for the U.S. Army Base at Kwajalein Atoll, also known as the Kwaj Missile Range. We arrived there late the next day, after another wet beat to weather in 18-30 knots of NE/E wind.

Was the trip to Bikini worth it?
Absolutely. While it’s a little off the usual cruising route in the Marshall Islands, it’s a step back into time that we’ll never forget … some 60 years after the bomb.

48° N