My, What Lovely Scales You Have!

by Anthony Stewart for Nat Geo 9/48

Curator of fishes, the vested Dr. Leonard Schultz, takes measurements of a parrotfish from Bikini Atoll in 1948. Bikini Atoll is a coral reef in the Marshall Islands, whose inhabitants were relocated in 1946, after which the islands and lagoon were the site of 23 nuclear tests by the United States until 1958. Before and after the Navy’s blasts, 70,000 marine life specimens were collected for testing, some of which you see in jars behind the good doctor. At this point, they had determined that surviving fish showed no anatomical changes, but they were concerned about future sterility and abnormal growths caused by radiation. The article states that “eventually, with the passage of time, the fish population will return to normal.”

getty images

While fish returned, the Atoll’s residents did not. In March 1946, the residents gathered their personal belongings and  were transported 125 miles eastward to the uninhabited Rongerik Atoll, one-sixth the size of Bikini Atoll. A deep-rooted traditional belief that the island was haunted by the Demon Girls of Ujae, as well as inadequate food and water (and fish that made their legs go numb), made the move a complete failure. Families were moved to other islands and moved again.

In 1970, three families were resettled on Bikini island, totaling about 100 residents. But scientists found dangerously high levels of strontium-90 in well water, and the residents were carrying abnormally high concentrations of caesium-137 in their bodies. Even coconut crabs retained high levels of radioactivity and could not be eaten. Women noticed genetic abnormalities in their children. They were evacuated in 1980.

At this point, the atoll is occupied by a handful of caretakers. Marine life, despite being radioactive and sharks perhaps missing dorsal fins, seem to have thrived in the absence of humans.