Scuba Diving in Marshall Islands
Who, Where and What Are the Marshall Islands?
The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) is an island country in the North Pacific ocean. It is often simply grouped with the other island countries in the area as Micronesia. The country is made up of five high islands and twenty-nine atolls that roughly form into two strips. There are around sixty-five thousand inhabitants on the islands and they rely primarily on fishing for their industry.
For the traveller: you’ll be spending US Dollars when you’re there, and it’d be wise to take mostly cash and some traveler’s cheques because cards are still a novelty out there. Getting there can be achieved by boat or plane, though both are expensive and awkward forms of transport since the shuttle flight service that ran from Australia to Majuro (Air Nauru) was cancelled due to soaring energy costs. Once you’ve arrived you’ll mostly be speaking English, although the natives will speak a mixture of Marshallese and English to each other.
Why Should You, As A Diver, Care About the Marshall Islands?
Because the Marshall Islands is easily one of the best dive spots in the world for both wreck diving and natural diving!
The fact that it is such a pain in the neck to get to has meant that the islands and atolls are relatively unspoilt and are massively diverse with flora and fauna. The dive sites are almost unparalleled in their untouched beauty, and can be seen with great clarity due to the consistently fantastic visibility underwater.
The main reason that a diver cares about the Marshall Islands, and the Bikini atoll (the swimsuit was named after the island, not the other way around!) in particular, is because of the astounding wreck diving on offer. In the early days of nuclear weapons testing the US found a remote spot in the pacific (that was inhabited, but the locals were shooed away like pests… don’t get me started on a rant!) and bombed the crap out of it with no regards to the wildlife or the fact that this was where people lived. The small plus side was that the Americans had wanted to test the effect of these super weapons on war vessels and had placed a mock fleet in the blast area. Luckily, for divers, a lot of these sank and left us with a lovely sunken fleet to explore. Included in this roster of wrecks is the USS Saratoga which is the only “divable” aircraft carrier in existence. Make sure that you’ve done a few deep courses before you head out though because the good stuff is pretty deep and will require you to go outside normal recreational dive tables – I’d advise you do a nitrox course and get at least a hundred dives under your weight belt before setting off for the Marshalls.
About The Radiation
The Bikini Atoll has had over 75 megatons of atomic bomb blasted in and around the lagoon which has left its legacy. According to recent studies, there is a build up of caesium in the soil which has been passed into the coconut trees and the surrounding food chain. This caesium is not immediately dangerous to humans, nor is the background radiation, however the studies found that living off the land and ingesting enough contaminated coconut and other food stuffs down the subsequent food chain would certainly lead to medical consequences. The upshot is that you can visit the Marshall Islands and Bikini Atoll with relative safety from radiation sickness (the background radiation is lower than that of London or New York), just don’t eat any local produce!
- USS SARATOGA – Easily one of the most recognisable names in wreck diving, and certainly one of the biggest dives on the wreck scene! She is around two-hundred and seventy metres long and weighs in at thirty-three-thousand standard tons! The Saratoga is brimming with weapons, dials, armaments and other goodies to look at, and it is the most easily accessed wreck on the Bikini atoll because, despite the wreck sitting at around sixty metres, the top point is only thirteen metres below the surface! The Saratoga is a delight to dive on and can be enjoyed by most levels of diver because of the vast differences in depth and penetration available. The Saratoga is the Marshall Island’s biggest attraction and can be dived on at least four times without repeating any section!
- HIJMS NAGATO – This is another beast of a wreck, in scope, challenge and rewards. It was the largest warship ever constructed in its day and offers a stunning dive around its huge gun emplacements (they are the biggest guns you will ever dive on!) and massive hull. The ship is two hundred and fifteen metres in length and weighs in at a vast thirty-eight thousand tons! You will have to get used to me putting exclamation marks all over this article because this thing is a magnificent piece of kit…! The wreck lies at around fifty metres deep and is inverted because it was top-heavy. Luckily the ships superstructure props the vessel up and allows divers to fully explore the deck with its massive sixteen inch guns whose barrels are over fifteen metres long! You can dive the bridge, despite it not being part of the ship anymore as it detached while sinking and settled next to the hull.
- USS ARKANSAS – Another big boy here, the Arkansas was fitted as a capital ship which meant bigger guns and more swanky quarters. The ship weighs in at around twenty-three thousand tons and a hundred and seventy metres long. She was classed as a dreadnought battleship and was initially employed in the first world war. The ship is lying upside-down in the bottom of the Bikini lagoon which means it is around fifty metres deep but the interesting things start at around thirty metres. The hull is completely smashed and crumpled which, added to the coral that lives on it, is quite a sight to behold!
- USS PILOTFISH and USS APOGON – These are the only submarines sunk at the Bikini lagoon and are both in excellent condition. The two submersibles are in upright position because they are designed to sink in such an orientation. Neither of the subs are particularly big, the Pilotfish is around a hundred metres long as is the Apogon. They are both excellent dives for wreck enthusiasts, but they also have a good covering of coral, both soft and hard which entices wildlife into the area. Because of their relative diminutive size, they are ideal for diving in one session. Penetration of these wrecks is nigh on impossible.
- USS LAMSON and USS ANDERSON – Both of these ships are well armed destroyers and are both around a hundred metres in length. The Lamson has a massive plethora of toys to examine in the form of countless guns and cannons, they are easily spotted too because the ship is sitting upright, unlike the Anderson.
- USS CARLISLE and USS GILLIAM – These are attack class transports are both extensively damaged, especially the Gilliam which has suffered catastrophic midship damage. They have a little less in the way of guns and placements to examine but they are still brimming with things to see, especially when you below deck and explore their hangars.
- HIJMS SAKAWA – This is a Japanese cruiser that took serious damage from the blast being as it was placed in the direct vicinity of the bomb epicentre. It sunk on the first explosion.
The Marshall Islands are not just a wreck diving paradise, they are also fully fledged aquatic gardens of Eden. The reefs are full of life and are well worth diving independently from the wrecks.
At the Bikini Atoll itself there is a world famous dive site named Shark Pass which is home to grey reef sharks and silvertip sharks. The reef is also packed with a variety of soft and hard corals, Jacks, tuna and napoleon wrasse.
The Majuro Atoll is a varied dive with depths ranging from only three metres right down to around thirty-five metres. There are coral pinnacles which are home to small reef fish, and further out you will see some Pacific ocean cruisers looking for lunch!
Another feature packed dive site that will amaze divers with manta rays and sharks, and keep them busy in the mean time with giant clams. On the surface the birdlife is remarkable.
This has all the usual suspects as you’d expect from a Pacific, equatorial dive site but there is a little twist; the dive site is in perfect, pristine condition having been in true isolation for fifty years. The water is crystal and the wildlife is untouched.
There are many mapped and well-dived sites in the area that you can be guided around and you will surely enjoy it, however there are many other wrecks and reefs in the area that have never been dived before! That means that the true explorer in you will be fully sated, just talk to the local dive schools about making a trip further afield to fully embrace the underwater environment.
When I write about the Marshall Islands I always wind up torn and confused. On one hand I am so grateful that these amazing wrecks and reefs exist in such a paradise on Earth, yet I am also gravely depressed and angered at the atrocities that have befallen the local populace in the name of war machine refinement. It is a double edged sword that cannot be easily dealt with, but I urge you to visit the islands and to come to your own opinion. By supporting their fledgling diving industry we can each do our part to help rebuild their infrastructure.
Have you ever been to the Marshall Islands? Do you dream of diving the USS Saratoga one day? Are you frustrated by the destruction of one of the most beautiful places on Earth, or are you happy that there is such a place at all? Please leave your thoughts and comments in the section below.
Happy (atomic) Bubbles!
By Jamie Campbell.