Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Bikini Shuts Doors To Sunken WW II Fleet...and Epic Shark Diving

Mounting financial losses have forced closure of scuba diving at Bikini Atoll — the premier tourist destination in the Marshall Islands — after 13 years of operations.

The inability of the national carrier Air Marshall Islands to get passengers to and from Bikini in the past eight months when both its planes were crippled with mechanical problems, coupled with skyrocketing fuel prices, undermined a profitable scuba diving business that lured visitors from Europe, America and Australia to this former nuclear test site, Bikini Atoll Divers manager Jack Niedenthal said Tuesday night.

Air Marshall Islands, a government-owned airline, did not fly from October until earlier this month, stranding dozens of divers late last year who had to be evacuated from Bikini by ship after planes repeatedly broke down. Although Bikini has been open for a new season since February, the national airline did not resume flights until early May and only two groups of divers have managed to get to Bikini this year.

Bikini was heavily booked in advance for both 2008 and 2009. But since airline disruptions began hurting Bikini in late 2007, the tourist destination has been hit with a wave of cancellations by divers wary of being stranded on Bikini if the now one-plane airline suffered a breakdown.

Conde Nast Traveler Magazine called Bikini Atoll one of the "Top 50 Worldwide Island Escapes." It was also the sight of a two-hour, live broadcast feature in 2004 by the Discovery Channel during its annual “shark week” program, and has been featured in dozens of dive articles since opening its fleet of World War Two wrecks and large shark population to divers in 1996.

Niedenthal said the Bikinians’ U.S.-invested resettlement trust fund has been hit by losses, dropping from just above $100 million to “the low $90s (millions)” and as a result the Bikinians could no longer sustain financial losses from the dive operation in the face of both poor air service and spiraling fuel costs.

“After 13 great-though-challenging years as one of the premier wreck diving and fishing tourism sites in the Pacific, Bikini Atoll will be closed to tourists as of June 11,” Niedenthal said. “We have made this decision due to the situation of our local airline, Air Marshall Islands, and also because of the rapid rise in the world price of fuel, which has made all of our operating expenses just skyrocket beyond our means.”

In August, the Bikini council will meet to plan out its 2009 budget and decide whether to reopen Bikini for diving next year, he said.

“Given the challenges our trust fund is facing because of the recent poor performance of the U.S. stock market and a recession-bound U.S. economy, the prospect of opening next year appears very doubtful,” Niedenthal said.

Closing down the Bikini dive operation is “very hard on the Bikinian leaders and our people as all of the proceeds from the operation have gone toward purchasing food” for the displaced Bikini Islanders, who live dispersed on three different islands in this western Pacific nation.

The first nuclear tests at Bikini in mid-1946 sunk a target fleet of American and Japanese warships, including the world’s only dive-able aircraft carrier, the USS Saratoga.

Billionaire Paul Allen’s mega-yacht Octopus spent a week at Bikini in February, and one dive group flew there last week — the only divers to visit the atoll since last October.

They could be the last ones to enjoy Bikini lagoon’s underwater secrets.

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