Just in case you missed the first part of Toomer Does Bikini (which you can read here), I was on Pete Mesley’s Lust for Rust trip in Bikini Atoll. I had taken you from leaving Heathrow with my two (crazy) mates all the way to Bikini and our “check out” dive on a 220 metre warship called the Prinz Eugen. I sound like one of those American dramas – “Last week on 24….”!!
On surfacing from the Prinz “Organ” as it was affectionately christened by Mr Mesley, we decided quite rightly to begin our journey from Kwaj to Bikini. To say there was a buzz in the air would be an understatement. I hope it was excitement and not radiation.
So we battened down the hatches and began the 30 something hour trek to Bikini. I reckon most of us thought that part of the journey would be boring, but with the Mesley /Mitchell road show we were entertained all the way and time just flew by. Again my feeling of remoteness returned when I decided to photograph the sunrise at 5 am and could see no other signs of life anywhere. No land, no boats, no birds, nada. It was liberating being there.
Arriving in Bikini Atoll is something like I imagine arriving at the gates of Valhalla. It’s not nice. It’s not good. It’s not brilliant. It is simply awesome, and I mean that in the English way not the American way. Whilst standing on the bow I looked around at my friends, and there was this amazing look on all our faces. Was that a tinge of green on McCamley’s cheek?
Later that afternoon we decided to walk on the beach and take it all in. I will never have the ability to explain how I felt as my command of the English language is just not good enough. We were really there.
At 5 am the following morning the boat was alive! Cameras were being readied, rebreathers went through final preps, lights and scooters were assembled. We were moored at the “Nagato”. The two hundred-and-twenty-one-metre-long big ass pride of the Japanese Imperial Fleet warship was just underneath us!
The Nagato lies upside down in around 50 metres of water. She has 8 sixteen inch guns on her, which were at the time of her launch the biggest guns on any naval vessel. And they didn’t fail to impress. They seemed to stretch on into eternity as Andris and I finned gently down the length of them.
Because the ship is upside down it became real fun swimming upside down ourselves thus giving the feeling that we were cruising along her decks. She has penetration holes everywhere and we were all very keen to see what treasure was inside. Again we were impressed beyond belief. We found all sorts of items that reminded us of what life must have been like on this vessel. The odd boot, missiles still in their racks, bombs, chairs. Simon Mitchell managed to find some soldier’s gas mask rolled up in a corner.
After spending nearly an hour in the 50 metre zone we left the water mesmerised and began what will become an all too familiar return to the boat via the deco station and a 100 or so minute decompression obligation.
The afternoon dive was a shallower dive than the Nagato. Pete explained that the dive would be our regular afternoon dive. This was because there would be a much shorter decompression obligation than on the deeper morning dives. We were all wondering what shallow tub we would be diving and then Pete got this little smile on his face. The all too familiar “Come on Man” echoed from his lips as he started to roar with laughter.
Our shallow bimble was to be the US Saratoga.
I learnt to dive in 1996 with my friend Steve Axtell and a then young instructor called Phillip Short. They regaled all sorts of tales about diving trying to impress my biker buddies, and me when Phil blurted out the name Bikini. It was winter and he was not wearing one so I guessed he was referring to the atoll. I remembered my Dad talking about it and the cold war. So as soon as I got back home I started looking at the place. While doing my research I met a guy in America that sold me copy blue prints of the Saratoga. You know James May from Top Gear gets that tingle in his testicles when he drives a car that rocks his world? Well upon seeing those prints I understood what he was on about. The Saratoga is an aircraft carrier lying bolt upright on a snow white, sandy seabed in 52 metres of blue, warm radioactive water.
While waiting for the familiar cry of ‘the pool is open’ I may have actually done a little wee – again!
The Saratoga is a wreck diver’s heaven. Over the next seven days we repeatedly dived all over the wreck. Penetration after penetration. Pete’s briefings were really awesome and he told us where to find (or guided us to in some cases) the real hidden treasures of the Saratoga. We entered a room that had two diving helmets in it which was enough to take your breath away, but the insane thing was the shelves full of thermometers and gauges that you passed on your way to this little room. We entered bomb elevators, found aircraft with folded wings, and my personal favourite was a dive through the tool room. Lathes and grinders and all sorts of engineering machinery were just sitting there, perfect in almost every way.
Our final dive on the wreck included a scooter dive under the hull at the rear of the ship. The props were there and they were enormous. Huge blades towered up into the sunlight; it’s awe inspiring. And then there was the wildlife. And the emphasis is on the ‘wild’! The sharks on the Saratoga were a little, well; territorial, I suppose you could say. I couldn’t remember when I last had to aim a scooter at a pair of sharks to get them to bugger off. These two had their nictitating membranes drawn and their jaws thrust forward. The last time I felt like dinner I was on the sardine Run in South Africa and it was just as uncomfortable as I remember. Fortunately scooters are hard to swallow.
By that point Andris and I had become a brownish colour, and not from a suntan; it was rust. We laughed hard through our JJ mouthpieces as I flicked the rust off the back of his unit and we found large rusticles buried all over our kit.
The most hilarious thing about our ‘shallow dives’ on the Saratoga was that we amassed more decompression obligations on this wreck than any other!
I remember getting to the surface on day one and while still wearing my unit all 11 divers on board started talking about the carrier. I looked at my friend Pete McCamley and we walked up to Mr Mesley, we shook his hand and admitted that even if we had to go back to Britain right then it had been worth all the effort and finances to get there.
The Saratoga is, quite simply, the best wreck I have ever had the privilege of diving. I am in a very, very, very small club. And I am smug! Really, really smug!
In Part 3 we will look at the final wrecks in Bikini and also our little road trip to Shark alley where I nearly lost my fingers and Simon Mitchell nearly lost his toes. All good fun!
Paul is the Director of Training at RAID. To find out more about the courses that RAID offers, visit www.diveraid.com.