National Park Service
The Archeology of the Atomic Bomb
A Submerged Cultural Resources Assessment of the Sunken Fleet of Operation Crossroads at Bikini and Kwajalein Atoll Lagoons
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Daniel J. Lenihan

Making the sunken fleet at Bikini into a marine park carries with it two inherent concepts that are common to all park lands. One is to preserve something of value for future generations and the other is to create "pleasuring grounds" for the present.

The values worth preserving in Bikini are tied to history and archeology and the natural diversity of life forms on the ships which now comprise artificial reefs in the lagoon. The ships' more immediate role as pleasuring grounds for recreation are due to their dramatic appeal as diving attractions for use by a large and growing international population of scuba divers. Additionally, they have educational value as the focus for an interpretive program aimed at the full spectrum of potential park visitors--divers and nondivers.

The socioeconomic implications of a marine park of this magnitude are considerable. The fact that a displaced society might use the atomic pollution of its environment virtually as the focus for its reestablishment and revitalization is also significant as a model beyond the immediate case of Bikini.


There is precedent in Micronesia for World War II period shipwrecks serving as stimuli for economic growth. Truk Lagoon is by far the most dramatic example, although significant visitation also occurs for purposes of wreck diving at Guam and Palau. In the latter cases, however, the shipwrecks in Apra Harbor and the lagoon at Palau are secondary to the excellent reef diving which is the primary attraction for sport divers.

Other parts of the world have capitalized on shipwrecks for diving/recreation attractions, including the Great Lakes region of North America. Fathom Five Provincial Park in Tobermory, Ontario (now a federal park), was one of the first to focus specifically on ship remains as a diving attraction. Others in the Great Lakes include Isle Royale National Park, a natural area (a unit of the U.S. National Park System) in which shipwreck sites were inadvertently included when the offshore boundaries were established. These sites have became the focus of much attention from divers, and a sophisticated program of custodianship for the shipwrecks as resources was put into effect by park managers. Other shipwrecks have become important to the local economy of certain Great Lakes communities. The State of Michigan in particular has been very active in establishing state bottomlands preserves to ensure that a degree of protection and control be accorded shipwrecks.

There are two reasons that Great Lakes parks have focused on shipwrecks in advance of most marine areas. First, the cold fresh water preserves both metal and wooden vessel fabric much better than does salt water. Second, there are no dramatic natural resources to compete for diver's attention as is the case in coastal marine parks. The State of Vermont with similar resources in Lake Champlain has likewise developed an underwater preserve system oriented to shipwrecks.


Unique things have special appeal as park attractions. The sunken ships at Bikini are unique in several ways besides being the only ships sunk by nuclear weapons. They include the only aircraft carrier in divable waters. Just the size of Saratoga makes it an awesome site to behold. It is virtually intact with planes and armament easily accessible at depths within the community standard for sport diving.

Additionally, the selection of vessels which lay on the lagoon floor have unusual historical significance. It is rare to have several warships within range of divers, let alone ships as historically significant as Saratoga and Nagato. The U.S. battleship Arkansas, two submarines, the badly damaged remains of two U.S. destroyers, Anderson (recipient of 10 battle stars) and Lamson, two transports, and a floating drydock, a yard oiler, and several landing craft round out an unparalleled underwater museum of WW II relics.

Underwater visitation by nondivers is one of the greatest areas of potential growth in marine parks. Forty passenger submarines have been found commercially viable in several parts of the world; this particular one is in Guam. (NPS, Joe Strykowski)

Most of these sites are at depths that are at the outer limits for safe sport diving. They are not, however, undivable and are certainly within ranges that the advanced diving community of ardent wreck divers would find extremely attractive. Although Saratoga sits on the lagoon bottom at 180 feet, it is important to note that the flight deck is at only 100 feet and many fascinating dives can be made to its island, reached at depths as shallow as 70 feet. Pilotfish and Apogon, Baldo-class submarines, may be the focus of a thrilling overflight dive which does not exceed 150 feet. In many other locations each would be considered a main attraction in its own right. The beached LCT-1175 would make a good snorkel or shallow-water dive for novices.

Besides the unique shipwreck population, Bikini has an appealing coral reef environment which has had little disturbance since the testing, making it unusually intact compared to many places in Micronesia. Even the large numbers of sharks outside the reef may be a draw to certain advanced divers and underwater photographers.

Other aspects of Bikini which make it appealing as a dive site are the proximity of all the ships to each other and the fact that they are all within a 15-minute boat ride from Bikini island in a relatively protected lagoon.

If there were a commercial diving facility on the island, it is hard to imagine a more logistically feasible diving resort. There is not a great deal at this point to hold the attention of the nondiving public, but that might be remedied by orienting the interpretive efforts on the whole island to a nuclear theme. Many pioneer studies have been conducted on Bikini regarding radioactivity, and there are few other places in which as much has been learned about living with the nuclear age, as opposed to dying with it. An interpretive center or museum which included artifacts from the ships and others brought from abroad could capitalize on that theme. If the physical remnants of the blockhouses and experimental agricultural stations are preserved, they could be a focus of interpretation efforts by Bikinian Park Rangers or commercial tour guides.

It would be important also to maintain the written legacy of what happened at Bikini in the form of an archive located on the island. This should become part of the patrimony of the Bikinian people rather than being accessible only in far-flung libraries around the globe, including material that has become declassified at Los Alamos and other centers.

Underwater monuments are appropriate in some cases. (NPS)


One of the most critical aspects of park management is protection of the resources which form the basis of the park. For our purposes, these can be divided into the natural, cultural, and scenic values associated with the shipwrecks of Bikini. These include systemic factors such as the ecological health of the lagoon, which should be the focus of ongoing environmental monitoring. They also include the specifics of visitor use of the dive sites, which is the focus of our present discussion.

The most effective tools for site protection are the right balance of education and enforcement. Most attrition to the underwater environment of Bikini can be mitigated simply by ensuring that visitors are aware they are in a marine-protected area. Because a large percentage of the potential visiting public comes from nations that have been exposed to marine park concepts, education will be an especially important part of the resource protection process. Sport divers visiting Bikini should know that they are in a park, that there exist clear enforceable regulations, and that they are expected to live by them.

The other necessary part of the equation is enforcement of these regulations when any flagrant violations occur. It is important that an enforcement officer is available to the guides and that infractions are reported and impartially dealt with.

Whatever rules are decided on, it is critical that removal or disturbance of artifacts on the ships is prohibited. It seems strange to think of "disturbing" ships that have been the target for atomic bombs, but what is really being preserved is not the ship but rather a historic scene, i.e., the shipwreck. It is possible in very short time to remove much of the magic and ambience of a shipwreck with crowbars and hammers.

Exhibits in a visitor center can be useful for interpreting shipwrecks to nondivers or prepping divers for visits to sites. (NPS)


A basic tenet of park management is that the visitor experience can be significantly enhanced with an imaginative interpretive program. Educational devices also help protect the resources because informed visitors tend to be more respectful of resources they understand.

Package of materials experimented at Isle Royale National Park includes generic brochure on all the wrecks, topside foldout on a particular wreck site, and plasticized underwater trail guide. (NPS)

Among the devices that have been most successful in underwater parks are brochures that explain the nature of the resource and messages that help alert the diving public to what they are seeing and why it is significant. This may include large-format line drawings of shipwreck sites and plasticized schematics for use underwater. These orient divers (thereby also increasing the safety factor) and help them comprehend what can be an overwhelming number of visual stimuli on a complex underwater wreck site.

Short, edited video tapes of each site with a narrative lasting 5-10 minutes can also prepare visitors and raise expectations of what may be seen on the dive. It also permits the narrator the opportunity to identify hazards or point out fragile features which should not be disturbed.

Foldout brochure that includes line drawing of a particular wreck, historic photo, and other pertinent data to be consulted by the visitor before diving. (NPS)

A visitor center which housed both a museum of nuclear testing and various exhibits should not be prohibitively expensive and would enable tourists to understand the full significance of what transpired at Bikini. Part of it should be devoted to the portrayal of the traditional pre-test Bikinian lifestyle and the subsequent plight of the displaced population. This may also be attractive as a mechanism for preserving local knowledge of traditions which may be easily lost. Although the personal recollections of older generations of Bikinians are the greatest repository of these folkways, there exist a number of anthropological studies that may also provide some help in this regard.

It would be an intriguing challenge for an interpretive program to convey to the visitor a multifaceted experience--one in which they had some feeling for what traditional Bikinian lifestyle was like in contrast to what happened during the period Bikini played a part in an international postwar political theater.

Three-dimensional models of shipwrecks on the bottom can be used effectively in a visitor center. This example is of the USS Arizona at the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. (NPS, Larry Murphy)

Though billed as an "experiment," it is clear that Crossroads was also a "statement." How the tests were viewed variously by Americans, Japanese, Europeans, and the developing Soviet block nations provides fascinating subject matter for an interpretive program.

It is important too that the full significance of the testing is apparent to both diving and nondiving visitors. Part of this can be accomplished by a diorama of the lagoon showing the ships in place on the bottom and "play-on-demand" historical footage that shows how they got there.

Lastly, firsthand visits by nondiving visitors should be carefully considered. The use of submersibles for transport of visitors in a tour bus arrangement has been commercially successful in recent years in Guam, Cayman Islands, Hawaii, and Saipan, among other places. The protected nature of the lagoon and the presence of such dramatic historical remains would make this a potentially lucrative enterprise in Bikini. It has the important aspect of being attractive to the large populations of visitors who do not dive or in which only one member of the family dives.

National Service is experimenting with special earphones that visitors could use which allow them to hear wireless communications from a guide in the water or in a boat on the surface. (NPS, Larry Murphy)


It should be understood at the outset that diving is not a risk-free activity. Diving on deep shipwrecks is especially risky and penetrating them at depth offers another magnitude of hazard. This report is not designed to begin to address the legal complexities of liability, claims, etc., that might devolve from visitor injury on a shipwreck at Bikini. We can only offer some observations on how to make this as safe an experience as possible, and leave legal advice to legal experts. Assuming that a decision had been made to offer the ships as a diving attraction, it is then the responsibility of the Bikini Council to inform the visitor of hazards, provide reasonable and prudent recourse to a person who has been injured, and to recover the remains of a victim of a fatal diving accident.

Anyone diving in the park should sign a registration and release form which ensures that they have been warned of the risks and understand what rules they must abide by to afford the greatest degree of protection to others. This includes conduct on the surface in boats as well as on the dive.

Perhaps the most problematic area comes in trying to evaluate the competence of visiting divers, and it is strongly recommended that no attempt be made to do this by the management agency beyond the most standard practices. The latter would include asking to see a valid diver certification card and having the card number recorded on the registration form. Attempts at trying to evaluate visitors' equipment, decompression protocols, etc., are not recommended. Divers adhere to widely differing philosophies and approaches, which are difficult to evaluate. Assuming direct oversight of their activities could only increase whatever degree of liability that may exist while doing little to increase visitor safety, possibly even hampering it.

The most critical area of interaction for the site managers would be in the area of accident management. It should be mandated that all boats have radio contact with a shore facility which is constantly monitored and that first aid and oxygen administration equipment are available on all craft. The maintenance of a recompression facility on the island would be ideal; however, it may also be unrealistic because such facilities take considerable maintenance and are useless without trained operators in continual radio contact with medical professionals. It may be more realistic to develop a reliable air evacuation program with the military at Kwajalein and negotiate a protocol for access to their recompression facilities.

Daniel Lenihan takes radiation readings on the lagoon bottom next to Saratoga. (NPS, Larry Murphy)


The special risk areas for diving that need to be addressed at Bikini are those related to live ordnance and radiation. There is no question that various types of bombs and projectiles are still intact on the vessels, and that radiation was a serious problem on the ships shortly after the tests. The issue at hand is how much of a hazard these factors now present a visiting sport diver.

The U.S. Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) experts who have examined some of the most accessible and obvious bombs and projectiles felt there was indeed some risk, but that it was not excessive. It was their opinion that if someone tried hard enough at Bikini, he or she could hurt themselves, for example, by intentionally disturbing some of the items that they personally observed in the hanger deck of Saratoga.

There is some question after consulting the archives that entire explosive trains were left intact, i.e., that either the initiating charge or major working charge was left inert in many cases. Whether or not this is true, the potential for injury of an individual is still present because even an armed initiating charge can be lethal if discharged in the vicinity of the diver.

It was the opinion of the National Park Service diving team after consulting with the Navy experts that there is an acceptable level of risk involved in the ordnance at Bikini from a park management perspective. Although live ordnance is present and could possibly be activated by vigorous intentional disturbance, it is unlikely to be a problem to any but the most reckless of park visitors. Any situation in which inadvertent disturbance might cause a detonation would be considered an unacceptable risk, but that prospect appears very unlikely. The EOD experts did safe one bomb which they felt presented an unreasonable hazard. EOD operations at Bikini are discussed further in a 1990 internal U.S. Navy report by Lt. David Rattay.

The question of radiation on the ships is going to be a major concern in the mind of any rational sport diver who first considers the possibility of diving Bikini. This is an area in which myth can be as powerful an inducement to behavior as reality, since most societies are far from having come to any sense of resolution over this issue. Suffice it to say that it was not the least area of concern for the NPS team when it conducted its own risk assessment before going to Bikini.

Again, from the perspective of nonexperts who are called upon to interpret the findings of specialists, it is our opinion that external radiation is not a significant hazard on the ships at Bikini. The NPS team carefully scrutinized tests conducted by Holmes and Narver, read the assessment by Lawrence Livermore Labs, and personally took beta and gamma detection instruments on several dives through the ships and to the sediments in the bottom of the lagoon. There were never any signs of radiation danger past what one might expect from living day-to-day in most parts of the continental United States. (A very concise and authoritative document by W. L. Robison comprises Appendix III of this report; it is recommended to any reader interested in further information on this subject.)


The threat of pollution from a massive release of fuel oil is an area of concern expressed by the Bikini Council, particularly in the event of structural collapse of the ship's bunkers. The problem should probably be seen as follows: We can assume in the worst case that there are significant quantities of oil present in some of the ships--indeed some is visibly seeping slowly from Saratoga and other vessels in the lagoon. The question of how much is more problematic. Although we may know original fuel loads, we do not know how much was lost is the wreck event. One must therefore assume the worst case until proven wrong.

This leaves the option of recovering the ships, recovering the oil, stabilizing the oil so it cannot come to the surface, or no action. Probably the worst option would be the attempt to salvage the ships. Besides being enormously expensive, the attempt would almost certainly cause a massive release of any fuel present because of the deteriorated condition of the vessels. It would also result in destruction of a major historical (and economic) resource for the Bikinians. Recovering the oil through "hot-tapping" may be possible but carries some risk of incurring a major spill and would be moderately expensive at the least.


One important element in any diving park is a mooring system for dive boats. This enables the managing agency to increase safety by controlling points of access to the wreck sites and natural attractions while diminishing impacts from anchor dragging.

A good moor is essential to a safe dive in deep water. It also establishes a physical presence on the site by the managing authority and helps orient the visitor by ensuring that he or she begin their dive at a known point. The buoy attachment also provides a reliable line to follow back to the dive platform and may serve as a stable reference point for decompressing divers.

Regulations as to how many boats may attach to one mooring cable, how they are "rafted off" to each other, etc., also allows the Bikinians to indirectly establish preferred carrying capacity of the sites.


To responsibly assess park values at Bikini, we have had to scrutinize carefully the negative aspects, including any hazards to users. It is clear that Bikini offers far greater rewards and somewhat greater risks to the diving public than most diving attractions. They are by no means unreasonable risks, however, and there is no expectation that outdoor parks be sanitized, risk-free environments. Should a diving oriented marine park be instituted, it is important to be clear and honest about both the rewards and dangers and to provide as controlled an environment as possible for the divers to enjoy this experience.

Management control of underwater sites can be enhanced by installing mooring buoys with appropriate visitor use guidelines. (NPS)

There are several important benefits to a marine-park-based tourist economy. It is nonconsumptive of resources, but does not necessarily preclude multiuse concepts where, for instance, traditional fishing practices could still occur in most portions of the lagoon. It is environmentally sound if support bases on land are engineered correctly and the development of park cultural interpretive programs would provide another motive for reestablishing traditional lifeways. Besides being informative to visitors, a living history approach might help the youth of Bikini better understand their own heritage and present them with additional options for personal lifestyles.

If such a focus is adopted in a resettlement program, it should be done with great forethought and planning. Assistance should be requested from agencies and institutions that specialize in marine park planning from the nations most likely to form the reservoir of potential visitors. The following procedures are recommended:

1. Establish a park concept development committee which includes park professionals from other nations and concession managers. Include American, Japanese, and Australian tourism specialists.

2. Follow this with a park planning group to operationalize whatever concepts are decided upon.

3. Develop a dependable corps of Bikinian rangers or wardens.

4. Send Bikinian ranger trainees to American and Canadian marine parks which manage shipwrecks for periods of intensive training so they can learn techniques and options for protection, interpretation, and diving accident management. Possible candidates are Fort Jefferson National Monument in Florida, Tobermory in Canada, Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, and Channel Islands National Park in California.

5. Establish a visitor center/contact station which orients newcomers to the park theme and regulations.

6. Explore the range of options for interpretation, including a model of the lagoon bottom with ships, graphic displays of the wrecks using line drawings, photos, and videotape programs in the visitor center.

7. Ensure that Bikinian culture is given a prominent role in the interpretive prospectus and that the history and significance of the Bikinian nuclear experience is not memorialized from only an American perspective. Living history programs should be considered.

8. Contact commercial tourist submarine specialists and discuss what would be involved in establishing a submarine concession at Bikini. Consult with U.S. National Park Service concessionaire specialists for advice on setting up contracts for such services.

9. Consider a 3D video viewing center for nondivers. Request assistance from National Geographic Society and others in the technical aspects of obtaining footage and setting up a viewing center.

10. Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams should be requested to continue examining the sites for any ordnance that presents exceptional hazards to visiting divers.

11. Contact experts in industry and government who have knowledge of petroleum products' potential for pollution after longterm immersion in order to explore possible means of stabilization or control.

12. Develop dialogue between Bikinians and parks and recreation programs affiliated with universities.

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Last Updated: 22-Sep-2008