Bikini Atoll appears on the horizon late the following afternoon. We have made good time on the unusually calm Pacific Ocean and arrive a few hours earlier than expected, so are able to get in a quick orientation dive on the USS Saratoga. Probably the largest diveable shipwreck in the world, it is among the very few aircraft-carriers accessible to divers.
Swimming towards the descent line at Truk Master’s bow I look down, and it dawns on me that what I see below is not the bottom, but the flight deck of the 270m carrier!
We descend to the deck at around 30m to get our bearings. The entire flight-deck is covered by teak planks, chosen because they were solid and easy to repair.
Despite a layer of seaweed and corals it remains possible to make out individual planks here and there.
To give the pilots as much space as possible for take-offs and landings, aircraft-carriers have a tall, narrow bridge set to one side. Saratoga had four sets of 55-calibre MK9 8in double-barrelled guns, two pointing forward and two pointing aft, but only one of the turrets was left before the blast, and the smokestack has since collapsed.
The superstructure is, however, surprisingly intact. We find map, radar, coding and radio rooms, all very small and cramped.
We swim into the wheelhouse. It has no windows, only narrow slits, presumably to protect officers in their high, exposed position. Ahead of the wheelhouse is an outside navigating bridge, from where they would have a better view of the ship and its surroundings when manoeuvring.
We swim towards the upline to begin our decompression. Having stayed relatively shallow, we have racked up more than 30 minutes of deco. Suddenly my buddy points behind me and I turn.
A tiger shark is checking us out and stays for a while. We later hear that he is a common sight on the Sara – the icing on our cake.
We study a selection of blueprints and schematics of the wreck closely between dives to ensure that we visit interesting places in the most efficient manner. An aircraft-carrier is a floating city, and when fully operational USS Saratoga housed some 2800 crew.
Compartments marked include a bakery, barber shop, dentist, laundry, sickbay, blacksmith, potato-peeling room, butcher and dive-locker. Exciting stuff!
You could easily go to Bikini and dive only USS Saratoga for a week. In fact if this was the only wreck it would still be worth the trip. We did five long dives on the enormous vessel and I still felt we had only scratched the surface.
A diver over the bow of the Saratoga.
Theoretically there are several kilometres of passageways to explore, though not all levels are accessible or safe to penetrate. But from the huge forward aircraft elevator various routes are possible. A doorway invites, but beyond it looks very silty and hazy, so we deploy a safety spool and tie off first.
After swimming past the first couple of rooms the visibility opens up. We can now see the permanent penetration-line that leads further into the wreck, apparently laid by staff from the now-defunct dive-centre at Bikini Island.
We attach our safety-line to the mainline. Everything is very rusty and the floor is covered by a thick layer of extremely fine sediment. One careless hand-movement or misplaced fin-kick will destroy the visibility.
Open-circuit exhaust bubbles would dislodge a shower of rusty particles from the roof here.
We’re using JJ rebreathers, but it’s still necessary to adjust buoyancy once in a while, and even a small stream of bubbles from a mask provokes percolation.
The trick is to move very slowly and deliberately. I’m hindered by my big camera system, and for every doorway or bulkhead we pass, I have to fold the strobe arms and cautiously push the camera in front of me while taking extra care not to scratch the dome.
After only a few minutes, we find the first Easter egg. On the floor sits a US Navy Mark V diving helmet in very good shape. The original design was from 1916, but the 30kg helmet was still in use in the mid-1980s. The remaining presence of this very valuable collector’s item speaks volumes of the limited number of divers that have visited Bikini.
From the maps we know that after swimming down a flight of stairs we need to make a sharp right turn to reach our destination. My buddy on all the dives in Bikini, the famed wreck-explorer Richard Lundgren, swims ahead of me in the narrow passageway and suddenly disappears into a doorway to the left.
Is this it? Did he find it?