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Strandings Cost Bikini Islands Dive Operation Dearly; 'It’s Really Hurting Our Reputation' News Service
October 18, 2007 14:01 EST

MAJURO, Marshall Islands -- Australian and American scuba divers are being evacuated from Bikini Atoll following the grounding of all of the national airline’s planes — the second time in as many months international divers have been evacuated from the former nuclear test site.

The Bikini Atoll Dive program chartered an Air Tugaru Casa aircraft from neighboring Kiribati Monday to get the eight divers off Bikini and back to Majuro. Air Tugaru flew into Majuro Monday afternoon and was scheduled to fly the eight divers back to Majuro on Tuesday so that they could connect to a Continental flight on Wednesday to Honolulu. The special flight was organized through Air Marshall Islands, which since problems developed on one of its planes last week Wednesday has no planes in the air.

Not everyone, however, was anxious to get off Bikini, according to Bikini officials. Two divers from The Netherlands were enjoying their diving at the northern atoll so much that — despite the uncertainty over the service of Air Marshall Islands — they extended for another week. AMI officials indicated that one of their two planes are expected to be flying later this week.

The fleet of U.S. and Japanese World War II-vintage naval vessels sunk by the first nuclear tests at Bikini in 1946 has drawn thousands of divers to Bikini over the past 11 years.

Bikini dive official Jack Niedenthal estimates the latest airline disruption will cost the Bikinians $50,000 in airline charter costs and refunds to disgruntled divers — some of whom have come from as far away as Europe to dive on the World War II fleet of sunken naval vessels at this former nuclear test site.

Coupled with the $100,000 that the dive program lost through cancellations and refunds following a halt to air service in August, the airline woes have cost the Bikinians nearly their entire anticipated profit for 2007, money that is used to support the islanders who 60 years after the first nuclear tests are still living in exile.

“We were completely sold out from August to November,” said Niedenthal.

Since the August stranding of divers at Bikini, there have been about 30 cancellations of fully paid reservations and other divers who couldn’t get to Bikini had to be reimbursed, he said. “Although we have no control over the problem, it’s really hurting our reputation,” said Niedenthal of the airline hiccups impacting the 11-year-old dive operation.

Both Air Marshall Islands planes were grounded with engine problems for three weeks in August and September, and have been down again since last Wednesday, October 10. In late August, the government was forced to dispatch its marine surveillance patrol boat to Bikini to bring back a group of visitors from Australia, Canada and Europe — a 36-hour trip over the open ocean. This time, Air Tugaru will fly the eight divers from Australia and the U.S. back to Majuro. But dive manager Lani Kramer said that the earlier group of evacuees actually enjoyed the extended boat ride back from Bikini on Lomor. “They said they loved the trip on the patrol boat,” she said.