The USS Saratoga is the premier wreck of dozens of WW2 shipwrecks scattered around the Marshall Islands of the South Pacific Ocean. After an illustrious naval career, she became one of many victims of the H-bomb tests held on Bikini Atoll during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. The object of the exercises was to see the effect of a direct nuclear bomb attack on a naval fleet. Over 240 naval vessels including the captured Japanese Flagship destroyer, The HIJMS Nagato (which led the attack on Pearl Harbor) descended on the Marshall Islands. Code-named Operation Crossroads, the H-bomb tests proved devastatingly more powerful than expected. The detonations, named Able and Baker proved to be a thousand times more violent than Hiroshima. The ‘Test’ fleet was obliterated and instantly sunk and 85% of Bikini Atoll’s 3 islands were vaporized. The local Bikinians were witness to two suns in the sky at the same time and subject to nuclear fallout. Much of the observing flotilla of naval vessels in attendance, thought to be a safe enough distance away, was subsequently subjected to nuclear fallout and radiation as well. The radiation contamination was so severe that many additional vessels were lost even if not physically damaged and were sunk or scuttled.
The USS Saratoga was commissioned in 1927 and was the first fast track aircraft carrier of the US Navy. Based in San Diego, she was involved in numerous famous WW2 battles including responding to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Midway, Flagship to the 1942 Guadalcanal assault, the battle of Iwo Jima and countless assaults along the Japanese coast. She survived heavy attacks that included being torpedoed, a bombed out flight deck, hanger deck fires, and 2 starboard side bomb detonations. She was rewarded with 7 Battle Stars for her service before de-commissioning in 1945 at the end of the WW2.
During the ‘Able’ detonation, the first of the H-bombs the USS Sara survived an air burst, with only minor damage. However, she was mortally wounded by an underwater blast set off under a landing craft 500 yards from the carrier when the second H-bomb ‘Baker’ was detonated, on 25 July 1946. Salvage efforts were prevented by radioactivity, and seven and a half hours after the blast, with her funnel collapsed across her deck, the Saratoga slipped beneath the surface of the lagoon. She was struck from the Navy list on 15 August 1946.
Only recently within the last few years has this underwater sleeping goliath and others been made accessible to divers. The Atoll has been considered safe for human inhabitants to return for some time now yet fears still exist that contamination levels are dangerous.
The Dive Site
The USS Saratoga is the largest divable shipwreck in the world. She is a mammoth of a wreck and is bigger than the Titanic at 880 ft+ long with a 106 ft beam, displacing 39,000 tons.
She ranges in depth from 40 ft on the bridge to 190ft on the ocean floor. The flight deck lies at 90 -100 ft and aircraft hanger with Hellcat fighters lined up ready to go is at 125 ft. Torpedo rooms are at 160ft depth where 500 and 1000 lbs bombs lie scattered across the decks. The bow and crew quarters can be visited at 140ft. The mighty engine room is cavernous and technically challenging to get to. There are countless deck levels and elevator shafts leading to further hangars and passages full of airplanes, guns, bombs, depth charges, torpedoes and other military equipment. Additionally, numerous Hellcat fighters lie strewn around wreck on the ocean floor.
All the diving is conducted by Bikini Atoll Divers who have put together an impressive and intensive diving program, which includes 5 dives on the Saratoga over a seven day period. Your first dive is a check-out deco dive to the USS Sara flight deck at 100ft! Most if not all the dives are decompression dives and border on the realm of technical diving, ranging in depth from 100 to 190 ft. Dive times including decompression stops range from 75 to 110 minutes with bottom times of 30 to 45 minutes. EAN75 is used on decompression stops.
Fifty years after the USS Sara roamed the sea surface reeking havoc and destruction, she now lies at peace and enveloped by coral reversing her role as destroyer to creator of life. Marine life is abundant and prolific. There are over 250 species of hard and soft coral which display an explosion of colour and variety. Dozens of sharks cruise the crystal clear waters acting as guardians to the silent underwater goliath and her neighboring wrecks.