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Wreck in Depth: USS Saratoga (CV-3)

The third installment of our historical wreck series brought to you by shipwreck diving travel specialists at Dirty Dozen Expeditions. Are you ready to make the jump?

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By Martin Cridge
Header image courtesy of US Navy

Marc Mitscher pulled the control stick of his aircraft to the side, bringing his plane around and lining up for the first ever aircraft landing on the USS Saratoga (CV-3). Stretched out below him was the 264 m/866 ft flight deck of the newly commissioned carrier.

Marc Mitscher on the deck of the USS Saratonga CV-3
Marc Mitscher on the deck of the USS Saratonga CV-3. Photo by US Navy.

Mitscher would go on to lead the U.S. Fast Carrier Task Force during World War II on a number of daring missions including Operation Hailstone, the fast carrier attack on Truk Lagoon in February 1944. But in January 1928, he was concentrating on bringing his aircraft safely down onto the flight deck of Saratoga. After his successful landing, the rest of his air group followed, and Saratoga went on to conduct her first shakedown cruise before heading to the Pacific via the Panama Canal. Although she was originally designed to pass through the canal, Saratoga knocked down a number of lamp posts on her way through the locks due to the large overhang of her flight deck. 

Saratoga would spend the rest of her career assigned to the Pacific Fleet, although she would occasionally take part in exercises or fleet reviews on the east coast during the interwar years. 

USS Saratoga (CV-3) transiting the Panama Canal on 4 March 1930
USS Saratoga (CV-3) transiting the Panama Canal on 4 March 1930. Photo by Naval History & Heritage Command.

Saratoga was laid down at the Camden, New Jersey yard of the New York Shipbuilding Corporation in September 1920, originally as a Lexington class battlecruiser. In February 1922, the Allies adopted the Washington Naval Treaty, which aimed to prevent a post-World War I arms race. The treaty placed restrictions on the number, size, and armament of certain naval vessels as well as which types of new vessels could be built. As a result of the treaty’s restrictions, the Navy scrapped their plans to build six Lexington class battlecruisers. Part of the treaty, however, allowed two vessels that were already under construction to be converted into aircraft carriers. 

USS Saratonga
USS Saratonga (CC-3) under construction, 1921. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

So, on  July 1, 1922, the Navy selected Saratoga and her sister Lexington to become the fleet’s first aircraft carriers. Japan followed suit and converted the battlecruiser Akagi and the battleship Kaga into aircraft carriers. Aircraft carriers weren’t exempt from the Washington Naval Treaty’s limits on the size and armaments of naval ships. Per the treaty, the vessels were limited to 36,000 tons maximum standard displacement, which included 3,000 tons for antiaircraft and torpedo defenses. This benchmark proved difficult to achieve, and both the Saratoga and Lexington exceeded their limit while the treaty was in force.

USS Saratonga in a dry dock
USS Saratonga in a dry dock at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard on 17 November 1930. Photo by US Navy.

Saratoga became the Navy’s first purpose-built fleet carrier to be launched when she glided down the slipway into the Delaware river on April 7, 1925. She was commissioned for the first time at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on November 16, 1927, and sailed for the first time under the command of Captain Harry E. Yarnell. While the original role of aircraft carriers was perceived to be fleet reconnaissance, anti-submarine patrol, and spotting for the big guns of capital ships, the  Navy spent the interwar period developing tactics and multi-mission capabilities of aircraft carriers through a number of fleet training exercises and war games. 

Naval Aviation grew to become a key component of fleet battle tactics and was constantly developed to improve and project the fleet’s strike power over the horizon. Other scenarios were played out in exercises that developed the Navy’s ability to attack other aircraft carriers and shore bases, as well as to offer support for amphibious operations. In one fleet problem exercise in 1938, Saratoga successfully launched a surprise air attack on Hawaii in what was an almost identical scenario to the Japanese attack in December 1941.

The Aftermath of Pearl Harbor

At the start of the Pacific war, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Saratoga was in San Diego, having  just completed a dry dock and maintenance period. After embarking her air group, she managed to get underway within 24 hours of the Japanese attack for her first mission of the war—carrying reinforcements for the U.S. garrison on Wake Island. Ultimately, the mission was cancelled before Saratoga could reach Wake, and the island fell into Japanese hands.

View from directly opposite the damage showing torpedo bulkhead No. 1 and the forward edge of the hole. Photo by Naval History & Heritage Command.

In January 1942, the Japanese submarine I-6 torpedoed Saratoga for the first time, forcing her to return to the west coast for repairs. Returning to the fleet just before the Battle of Midway, the fighting was finished by the time she reached Pearl Harbor where she loaded replacement aircraft for both the Hornet and Enterprise so that they could replace the planes they lost in the battle.

Torpedo Damage Diagram. Photo by Naval History & Heritage Command.

By August 7, 1942, Saratoga was in the Solomon Islands supporting the U.S. offensive on Guadalcanal. At the end of August, Saratoga was torpedoed for a second time, this time by submarine I-26. After repairs at Pearl Harbor, Saratoga returned to the South Pacific.

Saratoga spent most of 1943 operating from Nouméa in New Caledonia supporting operations in and around the Solomons. She was, for a while, the only operational U.S. carrier in the Pacific. In November, Saratoga supported the U.S. offensive in the Gilbert Islands and Nauru before heading back to the west coast for a much needed refit.

January 1944 saw Saratoga back in action, this time supporting operations in the Marshall Islands before joining the British Eastern Fleet, which was operating in the Indian Ocean. During operations with the British, Saratoga carried out a number of successful raids on both Sumatra and Java during April and May.

In June that year,  the Saratoga was back in dry dock at the Bremerton yard in Washington, and when she emerged in September, she had a new, special role. Saratoga was chosen to develop night fighting tactics and to train pilots for night fighter operations.

Saratoga on fire after a kamikaze attack. Photo by US Navy.

In 1945, Saratoga returned to frontline duty, and in February was tasked to provide air cover for the amphibious landings on Iwo Jima. On February 21, she was hit by kamikaze planes and bombs in two separate attacks by the Japanese. Although the forward part of her flight deck was seriously damaged, she managed to recover her aircraft before retiring from the operation and returning to the U.S. for further repairs.

During the repairs, the Navy decided to convert Saratoga permanently into a training carrier. The aft aircraft elevator was welded in the up position and all its associated machinery was removed. A larger forward elevator was fitted and its operating machinery upgraded. Finally, parts of the hangar deck were converted into accommodations and classrooms. Saratoga spent the remaining months of the war as a training venue for pilots operating out of Pearl Harbor. 

Once the Japanese had surrendered, Saratoga took part in Operation Magic Carpet, the repatriation of American servicemen. In the end, she took over 29,000 American servicemen home, more than any other ship. Since Mitscher’s first landing in January 1928, over 98,500 planes had touched down on Saratoga’s flight deck, setting a U.S. Navy record. 

USS Saratoga (CV-3) during Operation Magic Carpet in 1945. Photo by US Navy.

As a result of technical advancements made during the war, the Saratoga had become obsolete, and she was selected to take part in Operation Crossroads, the first atomic tests at Bikini. She departed from the U.S. mainland for the last time on May 1, 1946, sailing out under the Golden Gate bridge from San Francisco for her date with destiny at Bikini Atoll.

For test Able, Saratoga was deliberately positioned some distance from the planned zero point so that she could be used later in test Baker. After the Able test she suffered some minor damage, mainly from fires on her teak-covered flight deck, but these were soon extinguished. 

Some of her crew even moved back onboard the ship for a couple of weeks while preparations for the Baker test were made. Despite being placed in the expected fatal zone for the Baker blast, some of these crew members left their kits and personal belongings onboard, believing the Saratoga wouldn’t sink.

But she did.

USS Saratonga (CV-3) sinking in Bikini Atoll, 25 July 1946. Photo by US Navy.

Diving One of the Largest Shipwrecks in the World 

As built, Saratoga‘s official standard displacement was 36,000 tons (43,055 tons full load), and she was 270 m/888 ft long. Modifications to the vessel in 1945 increased her full load displacement  to 49,552 tons and her overall length to 277 m/909 ft, making her one of the largest diveable shipwrecks in the world. 

The Saratoga now sits upright in 51 m/167 ft of water with the top of her superstructure reaching 18 m/60 ft and the flight deck averaging 27 m/90 ft. 

USS Saratonga schematic. Courtesy of Dirty Dozen.

First dives on the Saratoga are truly awe-inspiring. This is a big wreck, and just orienting yourself  can take a number of dives.

The effects of two atomic explosions, war damage, and general deterioration from over seventy years of resting on the lagoon bottom are now starting to show, with parts of her superstructure, hull, and flight deck collapsing in recent years. None of this, however, diminishes the impressive nature of this wreck.

After the Baker bomb exploded underneath LSM-60, the Saratoga was hit by a number of massive tidal waves which lifted the mighty vessel and smashed into her sides, causing serious damage to her side plating. Two million tons of coral, sand, and water were thrown up into the air by the explosion, which then came crashing down onto the flight deck.

Five-inch guns on the flight deck. Photo by Martin Cridge.

Saratoga was built with an unarmored flight deck. This maximized hangar space and was more easily repaired but was obviously not as strong as an armored deck. Although original reports by Navy divers after Saratoga sank said that the flight deck was largely intact, it was seriously dished from the aft elevator to the stern over the hangar deck area. It’s likely that it was seriously damaged and would have been unusable had the ship not sank. Now, large parts have collapsed onto the hangar deck below. 

A plane inside the collapsed flight deck of Saratoga. Photo by Aron Arngrimsson.

A number of planes and various pieces of military equipment were staged on the flight deck for the Baker test. The planes were all swept off the deck during the test, and the remains of some of them are now scattered around the Saratoga on the seabed, some still in surprisingly good condition. Planes were also stowed on the hangar deck, although these are now mostly inaccessible due to the collapse of the flight deck over the hangar. It’s still possible to see into the cockpits of some of them, but these planes are now, sadly, in poor condition. 

500-lbs bombs. Photo by Aron Arngrimsson.

Some of Saratoga’s main ship armaments were removed prior to Operation Crossroads, but a representative number were left onboard, including 2x twin 38 caliber 5″ dual purpose gun mounts, a number of single 5″ dual purpose gun mounts on the sponsons down each side of the ship, along with an array of 40mm Bofor and 20mm Oerlikon guns.

Lots of munitions were also onboard when the Saratoga was sunk. These include 159 kg/350 lb and 227 kg/500 lb bombs, air drop torpedoes, rockets, 5” gun cartridges, and depth charges, all of which can still be found scattered in and around the wreck today.

Forward of the forward aircraft elevator, the flight deck is still largely intact apart from a small area towards the bow. This is one of the  areas where Saratoga was hit when she was off Iwo Jima—in February 1945—and was hastily repaired. Now the damaged area allows access to the bow area under the flight deck, including the emergency radio room—with all of its vacuum tubes and dials—and the lamp locker with some lamps still in place.

Saratoga Bridge. Photo by Aron Arngrimsson.

Inside the Saratoga

The interior of the Saratoga is vast, and probably no more than 10% of the ship has been properly explored since her sinking. The Saratoga was heavily compartmentalized, and the majority of her watertight doors and hatches were closed when she sank, hindering today’s explorations. Most of the penetrations go forward from the forward elevator shaft at various levels.

Illustration of penetrations inside the elevator shaft. Photo by Aron Arngrimsson.

In some areas, permanent lines have been laid, but care is still needed, as a fine silt is present that is easily stirred up within most parts of the vessel. Needless to say, excellent buoyancy skills are a must to avoid silt outs, and divers need to be constantly aware of their surroundings. Divers with the necessary skills and experience who do venture inside are richly rewarded with a number of unique sights. A maze of passageways lead off in all directions to storerooms, workshops, galleys, pantries, mess decks, accommodation decks, and bathrooms.

Operation Station – Command Information Center on Saratoga. Photo by Martin Cridge.

You can visit the Command Information Center, the nerve center of the ship when it was operating at war. The cabins and bathrooms used by Admirals and Captains are nearby. Divers can visit the ready room where pilots were briefed on their upcoming missions, and the machine shops packed with lathes, grinding wheels, bench drills, and metal- and wood-working tools. Probably the most impressive area, however—especially for those not suffering from dental-phobia—is the dentist’s surgery and sickbay. Three dentist chairs sit in the surgery, complete with dental drills, instruments, and rinse bowls. Everything is almost perfectly preserved, and if it weren’t for the fine layer of silt covering everything, the room would look like it was just waiting to receive its next patient.

Dentistry in the Saratoga. Photo by Aron Arngrimsson.

Elsewhere on the ship, countless artifacts lay scattered around, including plates, bowls, jugs, Coca Cola, bottles, and other debris, much of which has laid untouched since 1946. In store rooms, shelves full of spare parts are still crammed with items including gauges, thermometers, valves, and fittings.

Two of the more interesting and unique items for divers to see are the U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmets and standard dress drysuits. The US Navy Mark V diving helmet is one of the most well known diving helmets in the world. First introduced in 1916, it was used until 1984 and can still be purchased new today.

Dive Helmets inside the dive locker on Saratoga. Photo by Aron Arngrimsson.

All too soon, however, it is time to head back to the surface. Instead of planes, divers can see reef sharks and eagle rays cruising up and down the flight deck and turtles munching on the coral and algae. Large shoals of jacks, trevally, and rainbow runners will swim around divers as they head back up the mooring line to the surface. While divers complete their deco, they will peer out into the blue to see if the tiger sharks will turn up, and often they do. If they are really lucky, some mantas may cruise by, or even the odd whale shark or tiger shark.

Tiger shark cruising around the deco bar. Photo by Aron Arngrimsson.

Capt. Martin Cridge—Without Martin The Dirty Dozen Expeditions wouldn’t exist. A few years back, Aron and Martin spent a full year diving together in Truk Lagoon. One evening, after a day of demanding dives, they sat, had a beer, and came up with their ideal CCR wreck dive itinerary.
The first ever Dirty Dozen trip was the result of that beer and the rest is history. Martin has lived in Truk for eight years with his family and works as the skipper of our expedition vessel in Truk and Bikini.


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The Top Stories of 2022

We kick off the New Year with 10 hand-curated stories from our growing sea of content. They represent some of the most read, important, and fun stories from the last year. We hope you will enjoy them!

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Header image by InDEPTH art director SJ Alice Bennett. Two Dirty Dozen rebreather divers exploring a sunken armored tank at Chuuk Lagoon.

Greetings tekkies and mission-oriented divers,

January marks our fourth full year publishing InDEPTH, and it has arguably been our best year yet for content. In 2022, we published 113 new stories, and conducted seven surveys with our partner, The Business of Diving Institute—yes, it’s all about the data!

Rebreathers, of course, were the hot topic in 2022, particularly as helium prices continued to rise and availability was limited in some areas. In response, we offered a variety of stories on rebreather diving including in-depth looks at various units.

This burgeoning interest in rebreathers comes at a time when diving professionals from around the world will be headed to Malta this coming April for an industry, governmental and scientific symposium called Rebreather Forum 4. If you are professionally involved in rebreather diving, we encourage you to attend. 

I would like to thank our readers and subscribers, for your continuing interest and support. We want to be your number one, go-to source for serious diving content, and we will continue to work hard to win your loyalty! I also want to thank our many contributors from the global tech community, whose work and labors of love are represented here and elsewhere in InDEPTH. Thank you for your contributions! Special shout to our phenomenal, go-to picture makers and writers Jason Brown, Stratis Kas and Fan Ping! Keep your eyes on them people!

Lastly, I want to thank our illustrious sponsors, who make InDEPTH possible! Please join me in giving a big shout out to; Azoth Systems, Buddy Dive Resort, DAN Europe, Dirty Dozen Expeditions, Dive Rite, Divesoft, Extreme Exposure, Fathom Systems, Fourth Element, Halcyon Dive Systems, O’Three, OZTek, Shearwater Research, and The Human Diver. Thank you!! We hope that you will support these depth full diving brands!

In what has now become a tradition, we kick off the New Year with 10 hand-curated stories from our growing sea of content in The Top Stories of 2022. They represent some of the most read, important, intriguing and fun stories from the last year. We hope you will enjoy them!

We would appreciate it, if you would take a few minutes to complete our annual Reader’s Survey. This will help us deliver better content to your inbox. Our thanks in advance for your help!

 We have some exciting stories planned for 2023, so stay tuned!

Safe diving,
Michael Menduno/M2
Editor-in-chief

Here are the results of our 2022 surveys that we conducted with the Business of Diving Institute: InDEPTH’s 2022 Surveys .

There’s also a FREE DOWNLOAD of aquaCORPS #6 COMPUTING for you at the bottom of the page!


Divers Helping Divers: Next Stop Ukraine

June 1, 2022


1. Will Open Circuit Go the Way of the Dinosaur?

Closed circuit rebreathers have arguably become the platform of choice for BIG DIVES. So, does it make any sense to continue to train divers to conduct deep, open circuit mix dives? Here physiologist Neal Pollock examines both platforms from an operational and physiological perspective. The results? Deep open circuit dives may well be destined to share the fate of the Spinosaurus. Here’s why.

And if you’re wondering exactly, how many “deep” open circuit dives you’d have to conduct—you are using helium aren’t you?—to pay for a rebreather, training, and necessary experience dives, you’re in luck! Rebreather instructor and tech Instructor trainer Guy Shockey does the math in: The Economics of Choosing CCR Vs OC

Want a deeper understanding of how your rebreather’s scrubber works? Get a copy of John Clarke’s geeky new monograph, “Breakthrough: Revealing the Secrets of Rebreather Scrubber Canisters..” Dr. Clarke was the scientific director of the US Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU) for 27 years.

Helium Technical Diving

2. The Price of Helium is Up in the Air

With helium prices on the rise, and limited or no availability in some regions, we decided to conduct a survey of global GUE instructors and dive centers to get a reading on their pain thresholds. We feel your pain—especially you OC divers! InDEPTH editor Ashley Stewart then reached out to the gas industry’s go-to helium market expert Phil Kornbluth for a prognosis. Here’s what we found out.

3. The Diving Industry Is Run By Middle Aged White Blokes. Our Future Depends on Making Them Uncomfortable.

Ahead of Women’s Dive Day, July 16, 2022 UK instructor and course director Alex Griffin examines why the industry appears to have trouble attracting and retaining divers from diverse backgrounds—and what we all can do about it. It might make you uncomfortable.

4. How Deep is Your Library?

Technical diving requires a deep body of knowledge that must be kept current. So, it seemed appropriate to ask, what books should tekkies have on their shelves? To answer that question, we turned to DAN’s nerdy risk mitigation coordinator cum cave diver, Christine Tamburri to suss out suitable tekkie tomes. Here is what she uncovered. Feed your head!

5. The Challenge for the Technical Diving Community? Connecting Divers With the Environment

While tech diving has come a long way in terms of extending our underwater envelope, enabling tech divers to truly go where no one has gone before, environmental consultant and educator, Alex Brylske, Ph.D argues that as a community there is still room for significant improvement in connecting divers with the environment. In the process, he details the results and meaning of InDEPTH’s survey of Sustainability in the Scuba Diving Industry and offers suggestions for moving forward.

6. Celebrating Wes Skiles

We explore and celebrate the extraordinary life and work of cave diving pioneer, explorer, conservationist, and underwater cinematographer/ photographer Wesley C. Skiles with a collection of curated interviews, portraits and perspectives from Fred Garth and Bret Gilliam, Julia Hauserman, Jill Heinerth, Todd Kincaid, Emory Kristof, and Bill Stone. We also feature nine essential Skiles films, some of his National Geographic photos, and a bevy of articles and content from the National Speleological Society-Cave Diving Section (NSS-CDS).

7. The First Helium-based Mix Dives Conducted by Pre-Tech Explorers (1967-1988)

More than 20 years before the emergence of technical diving, a handful of intrepid cave divers who were perilously pushing the limits of air diving, began experimenting with helium mixes for deep diving. Some succeeded, several were injured, and one almost drowned. Though some of their tales are known, no one had produced a definitive chronology until Woodville Karst Plain Project (WKPP) board member and explorer Chris Werner set out to clarify the record. Here, for the first time, are the origins of the “mixed gas” aka “technical diving revolution” that irrevocably altered the course of sport diving.

8. When Easy Doesn’t Do It: Dual Rebreathers in Extended-Range Cave Diving

Rebreather technology has enabled cave explorers to extend their underwater envelope significantly deeper and longer. As a result, a number of teams are pushing beyond the practical limits of open circuit bailout and so have turned to bailout rebreathers. But not without challenges! Tech instructor and DAN Europe editor Tim Blömeke dives into the latest research and field experience and explains what’s happening.

 9. Can We Create A Safety Culture In Diving? Probably Not. Here’s Why.

How do we improve our safety culture in diving? Is it indeed something that we as a community of divers can affect? Human factors coach Gareth Lock argues that there is no magic bullet and, in fact, that the sports diving industry needs to make a fundamental shift in how it manages diver safety if we are to improve safety. In other words, we still have a ways to go. The retired British Royal Air Force officer explains why.

And without question, the MOST FUN story of 2022, err, it actually dropped DEC 2021—we had it in the can. Call it:

10. Shitwrecks

We teamed up with some potty-minded wreckers to explore the poop decks of shipwrecks around the world, giving a new twist to the term, “Water Sports.” We offer these heady bits.

Note that InDEPTH featured a number of new shipwreck, cave and mine exploration projects in 2022, see: InDEPTH’s EXPLORATION ARCHIVES

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Download some early tech history with a digital copy of aquaCORPS #6 COMPUTING (1993) sponsored by our friends at Shearwater Research!

“Yes! I shall design this computer for you. And I shall name it also unto you. And it shall be called … the Earth.” Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy

aquaCORPS #6 COMPUTING was published in June 1993 following the magazine’s first technical diving conference, TEK.93, held in Orlando, Florida in January of that year. The issue focused on dive computing and included interviews with nitrox computer developers Randy Bohrer (Bridge), Kevin Gurr (ACE), Paul Heinmiller (Phoenix), an interview with Karl Huggins (EDGE), and a story about commercial decompression software developed by decompression engineer, JP Imbert. Note that there were no trimix diving computers at the time.

There was also a review by Dr. RW Bill Hamilton and John Crea, of four ten newly-released desktop mixed gas decompression programs. The cover of the issue shows a visualization of decompression risk that was rendered by David Story on a high-end Silicon Graphics workstation. The issue went on to envision the future of dive computing and provided a tekkie guide to the newly emerging Internet, and its implication for diving.

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