I WAS IN EAGER BEAVER MODE, and had already released my seatbelt buckle as the jet taxied along the runway towards Cayman Brac’s terminal building, which, to my surprise, was in the middle of a major refurbishment.
The garden-shed-sized hut shared by Customs and the check-in desk (including baggage-weighing machine) was being made into a slightly bigger hut with an additional wooden canopy (aka the new Departures & Arrivals Lounge).
This would at least give waiting passengers some shade from the sweltering sunshine. I even spotted a few plastic chairs dotted about. This was way too much luxury for my liking.
I had visited the Brac a few months earlier, my interest lying mainly in the Keith Tibbetts at the north-eastern end of the island. This 100m-long wreck, formerly known as Patrol Boat 356, was an old Russian missile frigate sunk as a diver attraction on 17 September, 1996.
I can remember reading the story in DIVER 15 years ago. Diving superstar Jean-Michel Cousteau had “ridden” the sinking ship all the way down to the seabed.
The intact Tibbetts, complete with gun turrets, rocket-launchers and comms/radar tower, has proved to be a huge hit with visiting divers.
It has always been on my “dives to do before I die” list, so I was chuffed when I finally got the chance to photograph it.
Thanks to my hectic schedule, I had time only for one measly dive on the wreck, and unfortunately on that occasion the Brac Reef Divers hardboat had been jam-packed with middle-aged divers who seemed intent on churning up as much sand and sediment as possible into the aquasphere.
My photographic tally for the whole disappointing dive was a total zero. I wasn’t happy. I had fins, flaying arms, exhaled bubbles and big blobs of backscatter in every picture. I even had one guy swim rudely in front of me just as I was taking a picture.
The family-owned Brac Reef Beach Resort is totally geared up for divers.
It has two rectangular accommodation blocks (40 rooms in total) fronted by a swimming pool, an open-sided bar and a white sandy beach.
The newly refurbished rooms are a nice comfy size, and as standard have a fridge, TV, air-con, shower big enough for four (this could get interesting) and a sea-view balcony. Food is buffet-style eat as much as you like.
The set-up promotes a typical eat, sleep, dive existence because, to be honest, there is not a great deal else to do on the island. The dive centre can get very busy during peak season (winter months) and it’s not unusual to have three or four dive-boats each carrying the maximum 20 divers every day.
Normal schedule is an 8.30-departure two-tank morning followed by a single-tank 2pm dive, seven days a week.
I particularly liked the fact that there was iced water and a seemingly endless supply of crisps and chocolate-chip cookies onboard.

AN OPPORTUNITY FOR A Tibbetts return date arose sooner than expected so, déjà vu, here I was stepping off the plane again. But there were a few catches – my dive clock was already ticking.
I had a grand total of 24 hours to make amends for my previous disaster. Brac Reef Divers Operations Manager Mick Maher had kindly agreed to lay on a special dive-boat just for me, complete with local Brac-born divemaster Darryl “BJ” Walton to act as my model. So this time I would be guaranteed two dives on the wreck with no sand-frenzied divers about. What could go wrong
Unfortunately, there was one other serious hiccup; all was not well in the Philpott Camp. I had picked up a nasty nose- and ear-bunging infection that worsened throughout the night, and by the time I reached the Brac I could barely clear my ears.
In a panic I raided Brac Reef Beach Resort’s on-site supermarket/gift shop/diver drugstore and bought throat sweets, nasal decongestants and a range of fast-reacting drugs in a bid to shift the blockage. I spent the morning pacing around the dive centre trying to blow through my blocked nose, but my ears just wouldn’t clear. Sod’s Law was working at its best!
After five hours of sucking and blowing, I finally gave up and told the dive centre to cancel my dives.
As I sat down to lunch, I tried blowing through my blocked nose one final time, and to my relief I heard a distinctive pop. My ears had finally cleared.
The Tibbetts has been through some rough patches over the years, and the once intact wreck now lies in two pieces.
Mick explained that a massive hurricane that hit the Caymans in 1998 had caused that damage.
The bow, foredeck gun and remains of the bridge now lie on the port side with the comms/radar tower, aft gun and stern still sitting upright. In the middle is a huge debris field with bits of superstructure, twisted metal, engines and pipework strewn over the sandy seabed.
I had a pretty good idea which areas of the wreck I wanted to photograph, so Darryl and I went through my to-do list. Normally I have time for around five or six set compositions during a 45-minute dive. I usually take 10-20 shots in each position, which covers both close-up diver shots and silhouettes.
I also made Darryl swap his standard black-skirted mask for a nice clear silicone alternative. If dive pros wore brightly coloured equipment, it would make my job a whole lot easier.
Miraculously, I had managed to clear my ears all the way down to the bow, which at 25m was the deepest part of the dive. But as I set up Darryl for a wide-angled shot I noticed that his mask was steaming up, and I couldn’t get a clear view of his eyes.
The problem persisted at the foredeck gun, through the enclosed cabin area, across the debris field and onwards and upwards to the stern gun; in fact, the whole dive was another total wipe-out!
We finished off by the comms/radar tower at around 10m, and then made our final ascent up the mooring line to the boat. The mask catastrophe aside, the underwater visibility had been around 30m, we had plenty of mid-afternoon sunlight, there was very little current and, best of all, there were no other divers in the water, so if I had just been enjoying the experience without a camera it would have been a pretty amazing dive.
The Brigadier Type II-class frigate was built in Russia at the Zelenodolsk shipyard and assigned to Cuba during the Cold War era.
Financial cutbacks left her abandoned in 1992. A few years later the Cayman Islands authorities bought her for the princely sum of US $200,000 and towed her to Cayman Brac, deemed the best spot for the new wreck site.
The vessel was renamed the mv Keith Tibbetts in honour of a local politician and businessman of that name.
Plenty of Tibbetts paraphernalia is displayed in the Brac Reef Beach Resort foyer – hardly surprisingly, as the place is owned by the Tibbetts family!

THE LIGHT WAS BEGINNING TO FADE, and I had only one dive left to get my pictures. Darryl had soaked his mask in defog solution, and knew exactly what I wanted and where to go.
We started at the bow again, and this time I got a really nice sharp photograph of Darryl looking through the coral-encrusted metalwork.
The big twin 30mm foredeck guns had been colonised by bunches of bright yellow tube sponges.
I got Darryl to pose behind the sponges, looking directly in front of the gun barrels. I have seen so many artificial shipwrecks with the guns removed, and they remind me of a toothless shark – it’s just not right.
We found the doorway leading to the first swim-through route (I couldn’t find the other one) and stopped Darryl at the doorway. The bluewater background looked quite effective against the surrounding reds and browns.
We then finned along about 30m of enclosed/overhead area and through another doorway leading to an array of pipes and valves. Brightly coloured red, green and yellow corals were growing all over the screw taps.
As we came out onto the debris field, I saw a big hawksbill turtle sitting next to the turbine engine. This was a bonus.
We managed to get very close, and swam alongside the turtle for a good five minutes. The pictures had a real Caribbean warmwater feel, with Darryl wearing just board shorts and rash vest.
The wreck became shallower as we moved towards the stern. The aft deck gun sits upright at about 15m. This made a perfect composition, with Darryl hovering between both barrels.
Over the past 15 years the Keith Tibbetts has become a well-established reef system. There was no shortage of fish life on show, including a couple of camera-teasing queen angels that would come close and then dart away before I could focus on them. I particularly liked watching the Southern sting rays flying across the surrounding sand.
We had time to investigate most of the nooks and crannies, but because of deco obligations I still didn’t get a chance to visit the propellers.

AS FAR AS I KNOW, Brac Reef Beach Resort is the only dedicated dive resort on Cayman Brac. From my perspective the whole set-up worked extremely well. At times I thought the dive centre anal about dive profiles and safety, but this is understandable considering the experience levels of some of the clientele.
In my book the Keith Tibbetts is one of the Brac’s best diver attractions.
It’s no tek-wreck dive, although at a maximum depth of 25m it may be a little too deep for inexperienced divers to fully appreciate.
I found one or two overhead areas but nothing to worry about, and there were always plenty of doorways and bluewater exits available. It’s a great wreck for photography, with ample marine life and soft corals on display, not forgetting the shapes and angles of the structure itself. I think the combination of rich tropical colours on a deep late-afternoon blue background work really well.
I pushed my ears to the limit, and wouldn’t normally have taken such drastic measures for a dive, but in this case, because of the time and effort involved in setting up my return visit (not least by the Cayman Islands Tourist Board), I felt I had to get the job done.
The dive centre had given me an opportunity above and beyond the normal call of duty. So my thanks to Mick, Darryl and Brac Reef Divers for all your help.

GETTING THERE: BA flights from the UK to Grand Cayman, followed by a short inter-island flight
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Brac Reef Beach Resort, www.bracreef.com
WHEN TO GO: Year-round, but April to June is the rainy season. A 3mm wetsuit is sufficient.
MONEY: Cayman Island dollar (CI $1 = US $1.2).
PRICES: The Scuba Place can arrange packages including seven nights’ half-board at the Brac Reef Beach Resort plus all flights and transfers from £1649 per head. Three-tank dive days cost US $114. www.thescubaplace.co.uk
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.caymanislands.co.uk