Nearly 60 years after the last of 23 nuclear explosions in its land, air and water, Bikini Atoll again looks like the idyllic Pacific paradise it was in 1946 — a bracelet of sandy, palm-covered islets encircling an azure lagoon. But it doesn’t take long to pick up on Bikini’s enduring eeriness, says Stanford biology professor Stephen Palumbi, who visited the remote atoll for a 10-day research trip featured in Big Pacific, a documentary that aired this summer on PBS.
At one point, Palumbi was boating around Bravo Crater, a mile-wide scar blasted into the lagoon by the most potent U.S. bomb ever detonated, when the navigation system began screaming a warning. The device thought they had run aground. The boat, Palumbi says, was in 160 feet of water.
It took a moment to realize the alarm wasn’t malfunctioning. The navigation system was simply relying on maps that haven’t been redrawn since before 1954, when a bomb 1,000 times more powerful than the one that dropped on Hiroshima vaporized three islands in the lagoon, including the one where the expedition crew was.
Researcher Elora López is a 2015 Stanford Graduate Fellow.