Diving through a cultural barrier
The first, and so far the only Bikinian woman
to dive on the ships of Bikini Atoll
tells her unique story
with some translation and editing by
photos: James D Watt
and Giff Johnson
The story of how I came to be the only Bikinian woman ever to dive the ships on Bikini Atoll actually began 37 years before I was born. It was in 1946 that officials from the U.S. government flew to my homeland to ask my people if they were willing to give up their islands "for the good of mankind" so that the American military could test nuclear weapons.
My people were moved off of Bikini and are now living on a small island in Majuro Atoll, Ejit Island (see Bikini: inside story).
When I was 14 my parents sent me away to Portland, Oregon in the United States to go to school. After four years, I returned to the Marshalls where I met my husband, Jack, an American who works for our people in our Majuro office: we were married in 1989. My education and my experience in America left me with a great desire to learn and to experience new things. In my culture, a woman has a very traditional role to fill: namely, we are expected to take care of the children, wash the clothes and cook the food. It is our duty, in our custom, to take care of the house while the men go off to work and to gather food.
When I returned to the Marshalls I felt oppressed by these expectations. I wanted to be different, I wanted to be myself, I didn't want to be constrained
by some rules that no longer made a lot of sense to me.
When Bikini Atoll opened for diving in 1996, after hearing from others how amazing the ships on Bikini were, I began to get the idea that I wanted to go back to my homeland to dive there. The first two tests at Bikini, named Able and Baker, were staged to test the effect of nuclear weapons on a fleet of ships. 42,000 men, rats, goats, radiation recording devices, and of course many ships were sent to Bikini for these tests. Half the world's supply of motion picture film was there to record the event. It was like a big show. Of course, the bombs sunk the ships.
On Bikini Atoll there are nine ships to dive on, most notably is the USS Saratoga, a 900 foot long aircraft carrier that is bigger than the Titanic. Sara has eight decks to explore. Also, we have the Nagato, which was Admiral Yamamoto's flagship in World War II from where he ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor. There are also two submarines, two attack transports, one other battleship and two destroyers.
The hardest thing about diving on Bikini is the depth of the ships. The dives range between 100 feet to 170 feet. It didn't matter, I wanted to do it: these ships belong to my people, I wanted to see them firsthand. I began to bug my husband: I wanted to get certified to dive. He finally gave in and signed us up.
In the summer of 1996, Matt and Lucy Harris, two divemasters from the UK working in the Marshall Islands, certified both my husband and I to be advanced open water divers. I am one of the very first Marshallese women to get certified to dive: But it came with a price. My father was very upset with me, and my mother and sisters were constantly telling me that the sharks were going to eat me, that I shouldn't be going in the water, that women just should not be doing these things.
One day while getting on the boat while we were getting certified, my father came over to me and yelled that he wanted me to get off the boat. It was embarrassing, but I was determined: With others watching it was very hard to turn away from him and get aboard, but I did.
After I got in about 50 dives, in early 1997, I traveled to Bikini with my husband to dive on the ships. No Marshallese woman had ever done this, in fact, since the dive program began on Bikini only a dozen or so women of any nationality have dived there.
My friends thought I was crazy, they talked to me as if I were from outer space. I always noticed, however, that they had many curious questions for me: What was it like? What about the sharks? Aren't you afraid? How hard is it to do? Sometimes I felt proud of myself, at other times I felt a bit of shame for going against what my culture and custom believed was the correct way for a woman to behave. When on Bikini, however, I experienced something that is almost too difficult to put into words.
I was the only woman on the dive boat, indeed, I was the only woman on the island: that made me nervous. In my culture this alone is a taboo; usually, there are at least two women no matter what you are doing socially. My nervousness wore off quickly when, after I put my gear together before the dive and was calmly waiting for the divemaster to tell us to get in the water, I noticed that two of the men - both journalists - were struggling with their kit. They seemed much more jittery and unsure than I was.
I was a bit concerned about using nitrox to decompress on because I had never done this before, but other than that, I felt ready to go. As it turned out, one of the men couldn't equalize, so after a 30 foot descent, he had to turn back to the boat. After watching him surface I looked below: I was about to land on the flight deck of the USS Saratoga. I had done it!
The Saratoga... Where to begin? When you go down on the aircraft carrier, sinking for the first time into the massive elevator shaft, and then swimming through the hanger deck at 130 feet, past the airplanes parked and ready to go to war, past the 1,000 and 500 pound bombs, past the rockets and the little things lying around like coffee pots, light bulbs and plates, well, it is almost like being on the moon. That entire first dive will always be remembered as a life changing experience.
I handled the 35 minute bottom time and the 45 minute decompression time without problem. When I got out of the water the only thing I could think about is: When's the next dive?
Fabio Amaral, the divemaster on Bikini, helped guide me through the wrecks during the week on Bikini. It was scary, but at the same time it was so interesting learning the history of the ships, the place they hold in the history of the world. When I went back to Majuro, the place where I now live with my husband and 4 children, the local newspaper did a small story about me. Since then, many women in my country, some of whom I don't even know, come up to me and ask about what it was like.
Before, some looked at me as if I were doing something wrong. That attitude has changed: now they treat me as if I have done something very special, something that they have to respect me for.
In the past year several other Marshallese women have been certified to dive. This is important because I believe as the world becomes more modern for my people, we have to change to survive. Diving has changed the way I feel about myself. I try to teach my daughter that there is nothing in this world that she can't accomplish if she tries hard, that she must follow her dreams and let no one tell her that she can't do something. I've already taught her to swim and snorkel. Some day, I hope, I'll be taking her down
on Sara. J
Bikini: the inside story
It was in 1946 that officials from the U.S. government flew to my homeland to ask my people if they were willing to give up their islands "for the good of mankind" so that the American military could test nuclear weapons. My elders had no idea what an atomic bomb was. They had just watched the Japanese soldiers on Bikini, all of whom had been telling my people for years that they were the rulers of the universe, kill themselves instead of surrendering to the Americans at the end of World War II. In short, my people felt that even though they were being "asked" by the Americans to move, with U.S. warships and planes resting mightily in their lagoon, they had no choice in the matter. As my elders said, when the Americans ask you to move, you move.
That was over 50 years ago. We first were put on Rongerik Atoll, 125 miles to the east of Bikini. We numbered 167 people at the time. Rongerik had been previously uninhabited for a reason: The fish in the lagoon were toxic because of what they ate, the coconuts on the island were few, and the water supply was inadequate. Our people starved on that atoll for two years; the United States left us there, forgot about us, allowed us to eat rotten coconuts and poisonous fish while they used our islands to test their bombs.
After two years, in 1948, they moved us to Kwajalein Atoll, then and now a U.S. military base, where my elders had to live in tents right beside the airstrip. This relocation frightened them; they kept asking the Americans to return them to our islands. Finally, the Americans shipped us to Kili Island, a small single island 425 miles south of Bikini.
Kili does not have a sheltered lagoon like Bikini. Six months out of the year we cannot fish there because the beaches are pounded by a heavy surf. Again, we were forgotten about and left to starve on and off for over 40 years. It was there that, in March of 1954, we learned of the Bravo shot, a hydrogen bomb test 1,000 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan. This bomb vaporized three of our islands, sent a deadly radioactive ash snowing across the Pacific, and doused Bikini with a heavy coat of radiation.
In 1968, while we were still struggling to live on Kili Island, the President of the United States told our elders that it was safe for us to go back to Bikini. My grandfather, Jukwa, just hated Kili. When I was 4 years old, in 1975, he and his two brothers took all of my relatives back to Bikini to live. And how we loved being back. Bikini is like a human to us, like a brother or a sister, and for that long period time when we were away from our islands, to my people, it was if a relative had died. Now we were back, living on lands that had been ours for centuries, land that we considered to be a gift from God.
After a short period of time, however, the U.S. scientists started making some rules for us to follow on Bikini. We were not supposed to eat the coconut crabs because they were radioactive or "poison" as we say in Marshallese. They also told us that we should only drink one or two coconuts day. These rules were hard for the adults to understand, but for myself, as an 8 year old girl, it was even more difficult. You couldn't see the poison, but they kept telling us that it could hurt us. Like myself, most of the kids just ate whatever they wanted. In 1979 they came and used a big machine to do some whole-body counting on those of us living on Bikini. They found us to have high levels of cesium-137, a radioactive element. They moved us off Bikini shortly after this discovery. My people have been off of Bikini since this time living on a small island in Majuro Atoll, Ejit Island.
The second move from Bikini was in many ways sadder than the first. This time most of us lost hope. Although we are in the process of cleaning the atoll, with the food crops being the main problem, it will take many years. My grandfather and his two brothers are dead now, buried on Ejit Island: in our custom we expect to be buried on our homeland; because of this, their deaths and funerals were very sad events for us. It was if we were just throwing their bodies into a dump.~
About Bikini Atoll
Tanks: twin steel 85's with independent dual manifold. Single 104's w/ponies also available.
Advanced open water with at least 50 logged dives.
Nitrox helpful though not required. All dives are decompression dives.
We decompress on nitrox at the 20 and 10 foot stops as we hang from bars suspended from the dive boat. Bikini does have tri-mix capabilities.
2 dives per day, 12 dives for the week on Bikini [land based operation with all food imported]. Bottom times range from 25 to 35 minutes. Decompression can be as long as 60-90 minutes. Water temperature is 85 degrees all year long. Most dive with 3 mm wetsuit with a hood, 5 mm is the most you would need.
Contacts and Information:
Email Dive Girl for recommended operators
Visit The Official Bikini Atoll Web Site