The Marshall Islands may not be on most peoples' mental maps. But now, this Pacific archipelago, an independent, associated republic with the USA, has managed to get on August 1, 2010, its first World Heritage Site: a place with a name that'll flummox swimwear admirers everywhere, but it has nothing to do - well, it does have a relation, but not what most people think - with the diminutive, mostly female, bathing suits seen on most beaches outside the Muslim world (and there, they do exist: hidden under heavy, sink-me coverups!). I am talking about BIKINI Atoll, a piece of Pacific paradise lived by less than 200 fisherpersons and their families until 1946... when several nuke bombs fired in the next fourteen years, including the first hydrogen bomb tested in history, ripped apart segments of the 20-mile-long coral formation.
And the place has to do with Bikini Bottom, Spongebob's mythical domicile. It's the bottom of the atoll's lagoon... which makes this kiddy icon and Nickelodeon mainstay the best known "Marshallese" character in TV. (And please, while we are at this Bikini thing, no "World HER-itage" jokes please!) Anyway just for the sake of it I have presented a "swimwear" bikini, since the derivation of the name from geography to that minimal expression of textility also is, according to World Heritage official documents, part of the place's significance. Besides, the lady in the blue suit (sic) is a Puerto Rican senator (senatress?) that presides, of all things, the island's (Puerto Rico's, NOT Bikini's!!) Senatorial Committee on Tourism and Culture! Well, well, the ideal poster girl for celebrating Bikini's new heritage value...
But now sailing to a more serious tack, Bikini Atoll - whose name comes from the Marshallese words pik (surface, land) and ni (coconut tree) due to the large quantity of coconuts growing in its sandy terrain - has been included in WH thanks to two CULTURAL criteria that make this tropical place significant in world history, possibly much more than most of us would concede. One is Criterion Four, "...an outstanding example of a type of building, (...) ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history", the other is Criterion Six, "...directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary [and, mind you, sartorial!!! - my comment] works of outstanding universal significance."
On July 1, 1946, four months after the eviction of the peaceful, nature-loving Bikinians, an uranium atomic bomb exploded near the namesake island of the atoll on its east side. Nuclear test "Able" sunk several ships and in the 25th Test "Baker" - an underwater explosion - created a wild man-made tsunami beyond the wildest dreams of U.S. Navy brass. Then the radioactive lagoon was forsaken for eight years and more nuclear tests were undertaken on Enewetak (Eniwetok), 200 miles away. But the worst for Bikini was to come.
The first day of March 1954 was doubly explosive for the Americans: four heroic, militantly patriotic Puerto Ricans led by that extraordinary angel Dolores "Lolita" Lebrón (1919-2010) sauntered into the House of Representatives chambers in Washington, and peppered the ceiling with gunfire reclaiming FREEDOM! for their suffered island.
Several hours earlier, another explosive volley known as Castle Bravo vaporized a 2-mile-wide part of northwest Bikini Atoll (including two complete islands and most of a third) and sent a horrifying mushroom cloud ten miles into the air. The first and largest HYDROGEN BOMB had been tested live. The mortal ashes from the explosion reached a Japanese fishing boat whose crew, besides the enormous waves that nearly capsized their craft, was contaminated with radioactivity beyond humanly tolerable limits. Castle Bravo was 1,000 times more powerful than the dreadful Hiroshima bomb of 1945!
During the following four years, Bikini would become an eerie landscape of bunkers, cables, sunken ships, and gaping holes left by additional nuke testing. Later on, the islands were seeded with unusually straight rows of palms in anticipation of resettlement of the original Bikinians and their descendants. This never happened, and the militarily-serried ranks of palms bear witness to a frustrated return to the native land. But Bikini and its pre-1946 tranquil panoramas of palm huts, outrigger canoes, and bounties of fish, coconuts and tropical fruits, the ideal South Pacific idyll, was to be never more.