Scuba diving inBikini Atoll
- Dive the famous nuclear ghost fleet of over 20 wrecks
- Be one of only a handful of divers to visit each year
- Explore the enormous aircraft carrier, USS Saratoga
- Situated within the world’s largest shark sanctuary
Contrasting idyllic natural beauty with the remnants of destructive military power, Bikini Atoll and its famous wrecks are a curious and somewhat eerie destination that elicits deep contemplation in all who visit. Rendered uninhabitable by nuclear tests, this isolated utopia is now a revered bucket-list destination for advanced and technical divers. Beneath its tranquil waters, Bikini Atoll boasts a fleet of sunken warships, providing an unprecedented snapshot of humanity’s capacity for violence. But, while adventurous underwater explorers from around the world have long dreamt of descending into this iconic lagoon, very few have ever seized the opportunity.
Wreck diving in Bikini Atoll
Operation Crossroads - a series of nuclear tests conducted by the USA after WWII - saw a dummy fleet of 95 military vessels gathered in Bikini Atoll and targeted with two atomic bombs, creating one of the most remarkable ship graveyards on the planet. Decades later, advanced and adventurous technical divers are able to explore this eerie underwater mausoleum. Nicknamed the ‘nuclear ghost fleet’, there are around 20 or so military wrecks accessible here, including action-ready warships, transport vessels, and submarines in the depths of the lagoon.
All of Bikini Atoll’s wrecks are world-class dives in their own right, but the scale and significance of some are sure to leave divers in awe. The USS Saratoga is widely considered to be the jewel of Bikini Atoll’s underwater treasure trove. At 270-metres long, this US aircraft carrier understandably needs several dives to explore in its entirety, with plenty to see at different depths. Planes, bombs, and military equipment, can be found amongst the wreckage, along with more mundane scenes, including the sick bay with its dentist chair still in situ.
Once the pride of the Japanese fleet, HIJMS Nagato is another highlight of diving in Bikini Atoll. Having survived Hiroshima, this impressive battleship was eventually brought down by the second test blast of Operation Crossroads. The 125-metre vessel now rests upside down at a depth of around 50-metres, though the bow’s imposing 16-inch guns are still visible. Other noteworthy vessels include the USS Arkansas, USS Lamson, USS Anderson, USS Gilliam, USS Carlisle, USS Apogon, USS Pilotfish, and the IJN Sakawa.
Other diving in Bikini Atoll
Having bore witness to over a decade of unprecedented violence, the beauty and biodiversity of Bikini Atoll is again a sight to behold. In fact, research suggests that the region’s reefs began to regenerate just 10 years after the first nuclear blasts, while the lasting levels of radiation resulted in little human interference, allowing marine life to flourish once more. Surprisingly, these waters now play host to clouds of reef fish cruising above a carpet of sea whips and soft corals, providing plenty of prey for larger species such as tuna, snapper, barracuda, and trevally.
In 2011, the surrounding Marshall Islands became the largest shark sanctuary in the world, and the results are obvious. Whitetips, blacktips, silvertips, and grey reef sharks make regular appearances, along with the chance of silkies, lemon sharks, oceanic whitetips, hammerheads, and tiger sharks. A site situated in the atoll’s southwest corner, appropriately named Shark Pass, is not to be missed if time and conditions allow. But, while their presence is always appreciated, Bikini Atoll’s shark diving bonafides are often overlooked, as divers who make the epic journey to get here are typically drawn by an entirely different attraction.
Diving Kwajalein Atoll
At the end of WWII, American forces took the decision to dump superfluous equipment and gear into the ocean, rather than transport it back to the US. This is particularly evident in Kwajalein Atoll, near the island of Roi, as around 150 planes were pushed off the back of barges and into the lagoon. Today, divers can find Corsairs, Wildcats, Helldivers, Avengers, Dauntlesses, and PBJ Mitchells strewn across the sand, many sitting perfectly upright. These planes make for an interesting underwater spectacle, with the possibility of seeing more than a dozen on a single dive.
Located in the south of the atoll, Ebeye Island marks the resting place of Prinz Eugene – a German heavy cruiser that is often used as the first dive during trips to Bikini Atoll. Having survived Operation Crossroads, this 208-metre vessel was taken to Kwajalein Atoll where it later capsized and sank. Remaining partially visible above the surface, this vessel offers plenty to see within recreational depths, making it perfect for a check dive.
May to September
0 - 50+
15 - 30m+
27 - 30°C
- Liveaboards source all food and drink from outside the atoll.
- As the surrounding water is an excellent insulator, it is generally accepted that latent radiation around the wrecks poses minimal risk to divers.
- Bikini Atoll’s wrecks sit within the normoxic trimix range and require decompression dives, meaning appropriate certification levels are required.
- Kwajalein Airport is located on a US Military base and taking photos is strictly forbidden.
About Bikini Atoll
Bikini Atoll lies just north of the equator in the central Pacific Ocean, roughly halfway between the Philippines and Hawaii. It is one of 29 atolls and five islands which make up the Marshall Islands, only two of which are habitable. Spread over more than a thousand kilometres, the Republic of the Marshall Islands is a sprawling archipelago formed by two parallel chains named Ratak and Ralik, or Sunrise and Sunset. Bikini Atoll lies in the north of the Ralik chain – which marks the western side of the country – and comprises 23 separate coral islands surrounding a central lagoon.
On the face of it, Bikini Atoll is every bit as alluring as it's always been, with its palm-lined beaches lapped by a tranquil lagoon. Lizards, coconut crabs and birds can also be seen sheltering amongst wild crops of pandanus, papaya, and banana. But, having bore the brunt of 23 separate nuclear detonations between 1946 and 1958, this idyllic destination remains uninhabitable, with its original populace still indefinitely displaced from their ancestral lands. And yet, out of the ashes has risen one of the world’s most revered scuba diving destinations. Home to a sunken fleet of significant historical warships, this isolated UNESCO World Heritage site attracts a handful of the most intrepid technical divers each year.
Every part of a trip to Bikini Atoll is an adventure, including the travel. In fact, it’ll take several days, multiple flights, and various transfers to reach this remote destination – but it’ll still be worth every minute. The simplest way to reach Bikini Atoll is to fly into Hawaii’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu. Direct flights to Honolulu arrive from across the US, as well as Japan, Australia, Manila, and Seoul. Visitors travelling from further afield will need to transfer through one or more international hubs.
From Hawaii, divers can then fly to the US Military base in Kwajalein Atoll, where they will need to show confirmation of their liveaboard itineraries in order to enter. Military personnel then escort travellers on the quick 10-minute journey to the neighbouring island of Ebeye, the departure point for Bikini Atoll liveaboards. From Ebeye, it takes up to 30-hours to reach Bikini – plenty of time to recover from the epic journey.
Where to stay
Several attempts to recolonise Bikini have proved unsuccessful, including the brief establishment of a land-based diving operation. Today, only a rotating crew of local caretakers reside on the island, meaning all scuba diving is done via liveaboards. Visitors will find a hotel located on the island of Ebeye and it is advised that they arrive here early to minimise the impact of travel delays.
Bikini Atoll and the rest of the Marshall Islands enjoy fairly consistent tropical temperatures throughout the year – in the high 20s on land and in the water. Northeast trade winds blow between January and April, causing choppy surface conditions and stronger waves, before the doldrums take over in May. From around July through to November, moist southerly winds can produce the most rainfall, with intense sunshine interrupted by short bursts of precipitation on most days. There is little in the way of current in the lagoon, and while visibility does vary, it is normally around 30-metres or more.
With no tourist infrastructure on the islands, Bikini Atoll has a very specific diving season, dictated entirely by when the liveaboards visit. To coincide with the best diving conditions, liveaboards only visit between May and September, typically spending the rest of the year exploring Truk Lagoon.