German Visitor Dies While Diving WWII Wrecks

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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

On Bikini
75-year-old got separated from group; first death at RMI atoll

By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Sept. 24, 2015) – A German visitor died in a diving incident in the Marshall Islands Monday, the first person to die at Bikini Atoll since the former nuclear test site was opened to scuba divers in 1996. The remains of German Hans Erich Volborth were being flown to Majuro Wednesday from the distant northern atoll in the Marshalls group.

The 75-year-old diver from Berlin was reported to have died after he separated from a group that was diving on World War II naval wrecks on Bikini’s lagoon floor.

Bikini was the site of 24 American nuclear tests in the 1940s and 1950s, including one that sank a fleet of U.S. and Japanese navy vessels.

While experienced Bikini dive master Edward Maddison and two other visiting divers descended toward the USS Saratoga aircraft carrier Monday, they said Volborth took off on his own toward the wreck and they lost sight of him, according to Martin Daly, whose company manages diving at Bikini. "Edward went looking for him but couldn’t find him," said Daly Wednesday afternoon in Majuro. Volborth did not surface and after the other divers completed their dive, Maddison searched again without finding Volborth.

The search resumed Tuesday morning and Volborth’s body was located on the lagoon floor next to the USS Saratoga, a depth of over 50 meters (164 feet). "A download of his dive profile (from Monday’s dive) showed him pausing at 20 feet, then descending to deck level of the Saratoga, then he went up quickly (to near the surface), then went back down," said Daly, who said he suspects the diver may have suffered "a medical incident of some sort, possibly a heart attack or stroke" while in the water. Daly said the diver’s tanks were 75 percent full of air when recovered.

Bikini Local Government Liaison Jack Niedenthal said the incident was the first time that a diver has lost his life at the northern atoll since divers started visiting the atoll beginning in 1996. Daly noted that all divers, including Volborth, are required to show medical clearances before they can dive at Bikini. Daly said the dive masters working for him at Bikini do their best to "baby sit" visiting divers to make sure they follow all safety rules, but occasionally situations develop with divers refusing to adhere to group dive rules, as was the case earlier this week.

Daly chartered an Air Marshall Islands plane to fly a coffin and a Majuro hospital medical representative to Bikini Wednesday to collect the body to be returned to Majuro for embalming. Volborth was insured through the Divers Alert Network, which has engaged a Guam-based company that is handling transport of Volborth’s remains from Majuro back to Germany, Daly said.

The nuclear fleet at Bikini is marked on the surface of the lagoon with buoys that are attached to ropes anchored on the lagoon floor that guide divers to and from the sunken vessels.

In 2010, Bikini was named a World Heritage site for its historic role in the first post-World War II nuclear weapons tests by the United States, which ultimately tested 24 nuclear weapons at Bikini. The second test in 1946 was an underwater blast that used U.S. and Japanese naval vessels as targets. Among the many vessels sunk by the "Baker" nuclear test were the USS Saratoga aircraft carrier and the Japanese battleship Nagato, which was the flagship for Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto during World War II.

Bikini Islanders opened the atoll for divers in 1996 and operated weekly dive trips to the atoll until 2008, when unreliability of domestic air service forced cancellation of their program. In recent years, private operators, including Daly, have used vessels to take international dive groups to Bikini.

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