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Atomic Coconuts And Remote Control Sharks at the Graveyard of the Pacific Fleet

Text and photography by Doug Perrine

 

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Gray Reef Sharks
Gray Reef Sharks, Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos, Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Pacific Ocean Image #: 000507
The coconut described a high lazy arc over the tropical reef, framing a small island on the barrier reef before plopping into theTF shallow cerulean water on the outside of the lagoon. A split-second after impact, a geyser of water and foam erupted from the ocean, as if a grenade had exploded. This was no ordinary coconut. It was loaded with cesium 137. Coconuts like this one had been responsible for completely de-populating Bikini Atoll.

The evacuation of the Bikini Islanders in 1978 due to the hazards of ingesting radioactive coconuts was their second exodus from their traditional homeland. The first occurred in 1946, prior to the "Operation Crossroads" series of 67 atomic tests, 23 of which were detonated in Bikini Lagoon. The tests started with the "Able" and "Baker" blasts, and concluded with the 15-megaton "Bravo" hydrogen bomb explosion - the most powerful nuclear test ever conducted above ground.

In addition to contaminating the islands of Bikini Atoll with radioactivity, the tests sank 21 ships, including the battleship Nagato, from which the attack on Pearl Harbor was launched, and the U.S.S. Saratoga. At 880 feet, the Saratoga is the largest diveable shipwreck in the world. It was the first aircraft carrier ever built, and is the only aircraft carrier in the world accessible to sport divers.

Head divemaster Fabio Amaral, a big gregarious bear of a man, proudly wears a t-shirt which proclaims "Size Does Matter." On the back is a diagram of the Saratoga with a caption that explains "Saratoga is larger than the Titanic." If you have adequate training and experience, and are willing to adhere to his rigid and carefully worked-out procedures, Fabio will take you on dives to wrecks lying as deep as 180 feet, involving up to an hour of decompression. One thing which Fabio will NOT do, however, is take you on a dive at Shark Pass, which is where the coconut landed after I heaved it over the side of our boat.

A cesium-laced coconut could easily kill a man - if he was foolish enough to sit directly underneath a tall tree. It would also be possible to contract radiation sickness from consuming a large number of coconuts over a period of many years, drinking well water, or eating anything grown in the soil of Bikini Island. For this reason, all of the food is imported, and water is produced by reverse osmosis from seawater. Background radiation at Bikini has declined to a level lower than that in most major cities during the half-century since the tests. The worst radiation hazard is from the tropical sun, which can fry you in short order. The lagoon is essentially free of radiation, even inside the shipwrecks.

Fish are perfectly safe to eat, and in more than 50 years with essentially no fishing taking place, populations have returned to healthy levels rarely seen anymore elsewhere in the world. "Healthy" does not even begin to describe the population of gray reef sharks at Shark Pass, though. Well over a hundred sharks gathered around our boat each time we went there, and many more sharks are scattered along the reef all the way around the lagoon.

Generally, a large concentration of sharks in a particular area is a good indicator of an abundant food resource at that spot. However, while there is certainly no shortage of fish around Bikini, there does not appear to be an especially copious supply at Shark Pass. Furthermore, while not emaciated, these sharks are definitely not ‘fat and happy’. A leaf or jellyfish drifting by prompts a mad rush to the surface by up to two dozen sharks competing to reach it first. A slap on the water with a paddle incites a boiling frenzy. And if you toss a coconut into the water, you might be forgiven for thinking the coconut had exploded.

No, in this case it seems evident that there is a shortage of food relative to the number of sharks present. The aggregation probably serves some social purpose - an idea which is bolstered by the fact that all of the sharks we saw were female, save for one lucky male. However, it does not appear to be a breeding aggregation . The sharks are present all year round. They did not appear to be pregnant, and we only saw one with a bite mark that could possibly be a mating scar. Because of its position on the shark’s body, the scar could just as likely be a wound incurred in a competitive feeding situation.

"You guys are professionals, you’ve got the boat chartered, do what you want," said Fabio, "but there’s no way I’m taking anybody diving there." And so we found ourselves anchored at Shark Pass, gearing up at an extremely measured pace, each of us probably subconsciously attempting to be the last person ready to enter the water. Eddie Maddison, a Bikinian with over ten years experience diving the wrecks, and expat divemaster Brad Watson eyed us warily, wondering if we were really going to go through with our crazed plan. Finally, veteran shark photographer James D. Watt tentatively stepped out to the edge of the platform and dipped his mask to rinse it. Two sharks shot out from beneath the boat and made a grab at the mask. "Let’s re-think this idea," said Jim.

An attempt to photograph the sharks by hanging a camera over the edge of the platform produced similar results. Five sharks hit the housing at once, ripping it out of my hand and sending $5,000 worth of photo gear to the bottom ten feet below. Eventually the camera was retrieved. When I processed the film I saw that one shark had hit the housing hard enough to take its own picture - and it wasn’t just a bump. The mouth is opened most of the way around the 9" dome port, extending almost up to the handle I was holding.

Fortunately we had realized in advance that the best way to photograph these sharks would be by remote control, and had come with the appropriate equipment. However we still experienced problems as sharks bit through shutter release cables and knocked off video eyepieces. On the last day, an 8-foot tiger shark came in and nearly swallowed two camera housings. We also saw a few silvertip sharks offshore, and a number of blacktip reef sharks. Silky sharks are sometimes seen feeding on baitballs out in the blue water.

A normal week of diving at Bikini Atoll includes six days of diving the wrecks, and a half day trip (weather permitting) to Shark Pass to view (from the boat) the feeding frenzy which is incited when a few fish scraps are dropped into the water. After viewing this demonstration, any thought of making a giant stride entry at Shark Pass will vanish from your mind. However, it is possible by group consensus to arrange a dive elsewhere on the barrier reef, where you will still be assured of seeing plenty of sharks, not to mention an extremely healthy and vibrant coral reef. Whether this is worth giving up a wreck dive depends, of course, on your priorities as a diver. For "wreckies and tekkies" it’s hard to compete with intact submarines, battleships, and a carrier with eight decks and a hold full of airplanes. The cargo hold in the Saratoga is so large that dogtooth tuna school inside it.

For shark and reef-diving the potential of Bikini Atoll has barely entered the exploratory phase. A little information on the sharks of Bikini can be found at www.discovery.com/stories/nature/sharkweek99/sharks.html. An excellent source of information on the wrecks, the history of Bikini, and nearly everything associated with it (including the namesake swimwear) is the comprehensive website at www.bikiniatoll.com.