AFTER SEVERAL FALSE STARTS, the USS Kittiwake finally sank on 5 January this year. The sand had barely settled before the first divers were making their way down to explore the ship. Grand Cayman’s most eagerly awaited underwater attraction was well and truly open for business.
By the time I arrived two weeks later, Kittiwake fever had gripped the diving community. Everyone wanted to check out the new wreck site, and I was hard pushed to find any free boat spaces.
Trina Christian, Executive Director of Cayman Islands Tourism, told me that the USS Kittiwake project had begun more than eight years ago.
The original concept had been to create a Shipwreck City, consisting of at least five wrecks shared out among all three Cayman Islands. The first of these, the Russian frigate renamed mv Keith Tibbetts and sunk off Cayman Brac 15 years ago, should have been followed
by new wrecks every seven years but, as Trina explained, the Tibbetts sinking had highlighted various problems that they were keen not to repeat.
The more thorough approach from then on had slowed down the whole process. “We have a big history with divers,” Trina told me. “They are extremely important to the islands – diving is one of our main activities.”
The new wreck was there to maintain the interest of visiting divers.
Trina was keen to point out that it had been no easy job finding the right vessel. The 2290-ton Kittiwake was decommissioned on 30 September, 1994, and transferred to MARAD (US Maritime Administration) in Virginia.
The ex-submarine rescue ship was eventually handed over to the Cayman Islands in August 2009. The Dominion Marine Group was employed to environmentally clean and prepare the ship for sinking, which took it more than three months.
In December, 2010, she began her final journey to Grand Cayman, arriving eight days later on Christmas Day.
The Kittiwake was donated to the Cayman Islands as part of the US ship disposal programme, though it still cost around US $750,000 to sink her. Negotiations, administration, cleaning, transport, sinking and ongoing maintenance doesn’t come cheap.
Divers are charged US $10 per dive on the wreck, and snorkellers pay $5. An annual pass costs $31 – “we initially printed 500 and they’ve already sold out,” Trina told me.
The 76m wreck now lies parallel to the shoreline at the northern end of Seven Mile Beach. “We were lucky that it sank on the keel, with the prop completely exposed,” said Rod McDowall, operations manager of Red Sail Sports.
Opening the sea-cocks flooded three watertight compartments. Water was pumped in for four hours until the level reached a series of 10 holes, then it took just 30 seconds to finish the job. The shallow depth restricted sideways movement on the way to the seabed.
The Kittiwake was supposed to be 5m from the surface, though it seemed more like 2m to me. I was told that this was because the sandbank had shifted since the initial hydrographic survey.
Why this particular site I asked Rod. “George Town usually gets the crap beaten out of it, but the Kittiwake should be sheltered where it is,” he said.
I had my reservations. I really liked the idea that both divers and snorkellers could enjoy the wreck, but it now lies very close to the surface, and vulnerable to the elements. “The Kittiwake is built like a tank, with 1.5in steel plates,” Rod assured me. “It was specifically chosen for the job. When it digs further into the sand, it won’t go anywhere.”
With some help from the tourist board, I managed to organise four dives on the Kittiwake with three different dive centres.
On my first dive, with Dive Tech, I was paired up with George Town shop-owner Karin Amort, who seemed more than happy to model for me during the dive.
From the dive-boat mooring we followed the big anchor-chain until the Kittiwake’s bow loomed ahead of us. I noticed that the wreck had a slight tilt to the port side.
We finned along the hull until we reached the huge bronze propeller (I wondered how long it would be before someone tried to salvage it) at a depth of 20m. The Kittiwake had only one 3000bhp engine, capable of 15 knots’ maximum speed.
As we ascended to the deck levels, I could see 50 or more exhaled bubble trails rising to the surface.

THERE WERE MORE UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHERS than I had seen on any wreck before. Everywhere I looked, dome ports and flashguns were being pointed in all directions.
We explored decks 1 to 3 – there are five in all. The washroom still had the shower cubicles and mirrors on the wall. Other internal features included a lathe, rows of gas storage cylinders with gauges, and a trouser press.
We ended our dive by the strange-looking water-cannon, featured on the cover of this issue. Trina said the Kittiwake’s real guns had been removed, and the water-cannon fitted just for fun.
Nick Buckley, the owner of Deep Blue Divers, took me out on my second outing. I never quite worked out Nick’s set-up, as there seemed to be three different dive centres sharing one building and one dive-boat.
Guide Patrick took me around the wreck, and this time I managed to cover a lot of ground and thoroughly explore the upper deck levels.
I got some nice shots from inside the recompression chamber and by the aft deck-winches. I even ventured into the dark confines of “Shaft Alley” on the lowest level, deck 5.
Rod McDowall managed to shoehorn me onto Red Sail Sports’ dive-boat for my third encounter, and Brit lass Sarah Lown guided me around the bow area.
I got some shots of her in the bridge and in the captain’s quarters.
The shiny stainless-steel ship’s wheel kept reflecting back my flash lights, making it very difficult to get a good picture. Trina said that this wheel was not the original – it came off a tugboat that had been built in the same year as the Kittiwake, and at the same shipyard.
I returned to Dive Tech for my last dive, which seemed apt, because owner Nancy Easterbrooke was one of the driving forces behind the wreck’s acquisition and sinking. South African Anton Swanepoel was the perfect guide and model, happy to pose in all sorts of positions for me.
By now I knew my way around the wreck and could navigate straight to where I wanted.
The mess area was the last place I needed to photograph. The tables and chairs had been removed but the metal frames remained. The stainless-steel kitchen units were also on display.

SOME DIVERS MIGHT FIND THE KITTIWAKE too clinical, but for me this was all part of the attraction. Everything was shiny and new without any sign of rust (though some internal paint was starting to flake off).
The Cayman Islands claim to offer some of the cleanest waters in the Caribbean, and certainly on all my dives visibility exceeded 30m on the wreck. Most of my pictures don’t look as though they were taken under water.
I liked the fact that the ship hadn’t been stripped bare. There were still plenty of internal features to make a dive interesting, and these features would conveniently double up as homes for flora and fauna.
Rod was especially keen on tracking marine-life growth. This was very early days for the wreck, but I did see pairs of thumb-sized juvenile surgeonfish darting around inside, and squid hovering by the stern. I’ll be checking out the monthly update online.
PADI Open Water divers are allowed on deck levels 1-3 and AOWDs on all five levels. The www.kittiwakecayman. com website is helpful for visitors.