The Way Things Were
02 March 2014 | Rongerik Atoll
After witnessing the destructive force of two atomic bombs, Japan surrendered to the US in 1946, ending the war. The United States had the attention of the world and that same year launched a massive effort to both demonstrate and further test its nuclear capabilities. Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands was selected as the best place to do so being 5000 miles from the continental U.S. "Operation Crossroads" was to be the biggest media event of the time and foreign delegates were invited from around the world to bear witness to a 20-kiloton bomb - the very same type dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some 72 enemy battleships and U.S. veteran warships were staged inside the lagoon as if in mock battle. Sheep and other livestock were caged on their decks. Reluctantly, the 167 Bikini inhabitants agreed to a temporary relocation to uninhabited Rongerik Atoll, upwind and some 120 miles to the east. As they boarded a transport ship, the villagers watched as their houses and canoes were burned to the ground. They would not be coming home. The "Able" blast-detonated above ground-was captured by 104 still cameras and 208 video cameras. 42,000 U.S. troops watched, only 9 miles from ground zero. Then a few days later, the more impressive "Baker" bomb was detonated underwater. Billions of gallons of seawater shot skyward while the mock fleet was crushed by a 100-foot tidal wave. Ten miles away, radioactive spray and debris enveloped the onlookers. The U.S. had no idea of the long lasting effects of radiation poisoning, but Operation Crossroads was deemed a success. The idea of the nuclear deterrent had also been born. In 1948-within 2 years of being relocated to Rongerik-the Bikinians were starving. Many of the local fish that had been safe to eat on Bikini were poisonous on Rongerik, resulting in the debilitating disease called ciguatera. Coconuts were strangely scarce on Rongerik-perhaps an indication of why it had remained uninhabited for so long. Evacuated to a naval base in Kwajelein, the Bikinians were moved eight months later to Kili Island far to the south. This would prove later to be both a godsend and a curse. In 1954, the U.S. was set to show the world its latest version-the hydrogen bomb. But before dawn on March 1st, the commander in charge was notified that winds had clocked around and were now blowing from the west. Despite obvious implications for fallout, the decision was made to proceed with the test. A thousand times more powerful than Able or Baker, the 15-megaton bomb code-named "Bravo" was detonated in a huge mushroom cloud that dwarfed the previous blasts. A shockwave radiated out at 35,000 miles per hour, vaporizing small islands in its path. The blast sent a radioactive cloud of fallout thousands of miles across the Pacific. The wind carried the devastating cloud directly over six pristine atolls lying East of Bikini, and radioactive fallout rained down on Alinginae, Rongelap, Rongerik, Taka, Utirik and Bikar. Twenty one more nuclear explosions would rock Bikini's shores with an additional 46 blasts on Enewetak Atoll before above-ground testing was outlawed. Fifty six years later, Laurence and I found ourselves sailing Radiance into the lagoon of the still uninhabited Rongerik Atoll. We'd been told by the staff at Internal Affairs that we "should not go to Rongerik as it is very dangerous." Even the lady that took my permit fee at the Rongelap office quizzed me skeptically, asking, "why do you want to go there? Will you be fishing?", and finally stating, "you should not go." Considering its history and reputation among the Marshallese, it is no wonder. But, being uninhabited, it remains relatively untouched, even if still measuring "hot" on the Geiger counter. The food chain remains unsafe for human consumption, but we would not be harvesting any coconuts or fish. Crystal clear waters in a thousand shades of blue lap beautiful white sand beaches adorned with seashells and millions of sand dollars. Wildlife abounds with turtle tracks striping the beach, and trees filled with thousands of nesting boobies, frigates, and fairy terns. The biggest giant clams I've ever seen-some 4 feet across, rest in splendid colors on white sand in 30 feet of water. The coral is many, varied and healthy. Bold gray reef sharks stealthily patrol their territory. Giant schools of silvery jacks and pompano approach us unalarmed while spotted eagle rays glide by. Drowsy nurse sharks slumber under coral outcrops and - there are no people. In short, it is nature in balance and it is blatantly so because there are no people. We feel privileged to be here and witness nature's spectacle in what we've found to be one of only three places in our two years of cruising the Pacific that remain mostly unspoiled by man. The other two, Palmyra and Suwarrow, are both protected nature preserves. As I ponder this, I feel saddened that it took a nuclear disaster to effectively preserve this beautiful atoll. Fear of radiation poisoning has kept people away from Rongerik for over 50 years. But lately there are reports of unauthorized foreign fishing inside the lagoon. Who is fishing here and where are they selling the fish? As man continues to rape the planet, overexploiting natural resources and decimating species to unrecoverable levels, I wonder if nature's last hope lies in some cataclysmic event that may put things back into balance on this planet. For short of that, we're surely bearing witness to the last of the way things were�...or will ever be again.