by Peter Fear, The Scuba Doctor — October 2006
Note: Clicking on the pictures through this article will pop-up larger versions of the pictures.
Recently much has been published about the scuttling of the USS Oriskany, a 27 metre (911 feet) long aircraft carrier as the world's largest artifical reef and diveable wreck. But for me, the 268 metre (880 feet) long USS Saratoga (CV-3) at Bikini Atoll will always be the Number 1 aircraft carrier dive in the world.
Video showing scuba diving on the USS Saratoga (CV-3) aircraft carrier at Bikini Atoll
Credit: Loneshark Productions.
After World War II the USS Saratoga was assigned to Operation Crossroads at Bikini Atoll to test the effect of the atomic bomb on naval vessels. The USS Saratoga survived the first atomic blast (Test Able, an air burst) on the 1st July 1946 at Bikini moored 2,000 metres from the from the detonation point. It caused her wooden flight deck to catch fire, which was extinguished.
It was 8:35 am on the 25th July 1946 and the beginning of the end of the USS Saratoga came very dramatically. The second atomic explosion at Bikini Atoll (Test Baker, an underwater burst) was centred 27 metres below the water and 300 metres or so away from the USS Saratoga. Less than a sixth of a second after the explosion, a pressure wave of 5,900 psi hit the hull of the ship.
Eleven seconds after the atomic bomb exploded, a wave estimated at 29 metres (94 feet) high crashed into the starboard bow corner of the 268 metre (880 ft) long aircraft carrier. So powerful was the wave, it lifted a large stockless navy anchor 54 metres from the seabed and another 16 metres out of the sea so that it crashed down onto the ship causing damage to the flight deck. The same wave lifted the bow of the 43,000 ton vessel 13 metres (42 ft) into the air.
Water poured over the aircraft carriers deck, washing away five aircraft, a number of vehicles (including two tanks) and some other equipment. The wave from the explosion also caused the ships funnel and foremast to collapse while the pressure wave made a huge 15 cm indentation in the starboard side of the hull (for almost half its length) as well as cracking the hull in the same area. The flight deck collapsed from the stern more than 60 metres towards the bow under the weight of water that had flowed across the ship.
The combined effort of these two waves and another two tsunami sized waves pushed the USS Saratoga 500 metres away from the origin of the explosion before the wind blew it back 300 metres. The USS Saratoga started to sink, water entering its 1000 airtight compartments via the large crack on its starboard side and hundreds of other smaller pressure fissures. By 3:45 pm, eight hours after the explosion, the USS Saratoga sank stern first, its bow slowly disappearing from view. The USS Saratoga was sitting upright on the sandy bottom, 54 metres below the now calm waters of the lagoon.
The USS Saratoga (CV3) affectionately known as 'Sara' began construction in September 1920 as a Lexington class heavy cruiser in Camden, New Jersey. Before completion conversion of the hull into an aircraft carrier was approved and Sara was launched on 7th April 1925 and commissioned on 16th November 1927.
Before the second world war the USS Saratoga's duties were in developing the role of the aircraft carrier for modern warfare. She featured in the 1931 movie Hell Divers, about a pair of competing navy pilots. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, Sara was quickly put into service in the Pacific and sent to relieve the garrison at Wake Island. However with a top speed of 34 knots Sara was delayed by the slow speed of its oiler and after receiving reports that the Japanese had landed on Wake they were recalled.
The Sara survived being torpedoed on two separate occasions and another being direct hits from five Kamakazies in three minutes that killed 123 of her crew. Throughout the war she served in the battles of Guadal Canal, Iwo Jima, Midway and Rabaul as well as with a British force in Sumatra and Java.
With the arrival of large numbers of Essex class carriers, the USS Saratoga was surplus to post war requirements and was assigned to Operation Crossroads at Bikini Atoll, to test the effect of atomic bombs on naval vessels.
At that end of her service, Sara held the record for aircraft landings on a carrier at 98,549 and had seven battle stars for her WW2 service.
Diving the USS Saratoga is a unique experience and during a seven night stay on Bikini you can expect to dive Sara six times which hardly touches what Sara has to offer. However what it does give you is the feeling that you just have to have more. The same feeling that many who have dived and returned continuously to the SS President Coolidge in Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu gives. The Sara dwarfs the Coolidge, but Bikini Atoll also has the battleships HIJMS Nagato, USS Arkansas (BB-33) and many other wrecks, most of which you could spend your entire holiday diving.
With the top of the bridge area at about 12 metres and the flight deck at 27 metres, the fully intact the USS Saratoga can be dived by all experienced divers.
The Scuba Doctor has Bikini Atoll dive expeditions arranged for October 2013 and 2014. The dive trips are ex Cairns and are a 14-day turn around allowing for 1-day steaming from Kwajalein Atoll to Bikini Atoll and 1-day return, plus 10-days of diving for 20 dives.
Warning: Scuba diving at Bikini Atoll will change you forever. Some divers on earlier expeditions with The Scuba Doctor to Bikini Atoll in earlier years simply stopped diving for a year or more after the trip. Nothing else could measure up after Bikini Atoll. Don't miss out. Book your spot today!