Five Years After the Re-birth of the Kittiwake
Five years ago, in the peaceful waters of Grand Cayman, a ship began to sink. There were no shortage of boats nearby, but as the ex-USS naval vessel started to go down, no-one tried to stop it. The passengers and crew of the boats surrounding the Kittiwake watched as she gave way to her impending doom, still no one tried to prevent the ocean consuming the 2,200 tons of metal.
Only when she had been fully submerged did the onlookers start to react. However, instead of attempting a last ditched effort to resurrect the Kittiwake, they started to cheer, clap, laugh and celebrate. The sinking was in fact deliberate, and marked the beginning of her new future – as one of the finest dive sites in Grand Cayman and arguably the Caribbean.
Her Past Life
The Kittiwake was an Auxiliary Submarine Rescue (ASR) vessel, designed to assist submarines that were in some kind of distress. She was a fully equipped diver support vessel, kitted out with recompression chambers, diving bell, cranes, winches and tons of heavy duty chain. She was launched just after WW2 in 1945 and her most notable mission during 50 years of service was recovering the black box from the Challenger disaster.
Following being decommissioned in ’95, the Kittiwake was dormant until the Cayman Islands Tourism Association (CITA), assisted by Nancy Easterbrook, completed a lengthy negotiation with the US government. The US agreed to let the Cayman islands have the ship to sink as an artificial reef and playground for divers. In recognition of Nancy’s efforts, a message thanking her for her tenacity and dedication has been welded into the main deck.
Home Sweet Home
While still in active duty, the Kittiwake had been populated by a crew of around one hundred men. In her new incarnation, she now hosts a very different collection of inhabitants.
As you swim towards the Kittiwake, just above the sand at a depth of 60 feet, she starts to loom into view. The first glimpse of visible marine life is often a large school of horse-eyed jacks. These silvery fish that sometimes get mistaken for yellowfin tuna, appear to wander aimlessly around the wreck. It’s as though they’re marveling at the image of such an impressive vessel sitting almost perfectly upright in the sand. They swim together as one, as if thinking with the same brain. No one fish particularly in charge, they remain within a perimeter of the wreck as if contained by the invisible walls of a giant goldfish bowl.
Getting closer, as hard as it is to take your eyes off the wreck, it’s always worth scanning the sand that surrounds her. The garden eels that thrive there make it a popular dining spot for southern stingrays and fairly regularly an eagle ray or two. As you swim over the gunnels into the rear deck area, the jacks start to disperse, revealing a variety of parrotfish. Groupers can often be found with their mouths wide open, enjoying some time at the cleaning station. The wreck is a hive of activity, like an underwater city with an exceptionally diverse population.
The Kittiwake is also home to some larger than life individuals. Though I haven’t seen him for a while, there was a huge nassau grouper living in the wreck. The funny thing about this guy was that he would hang out in the bathroom, and would often be found gazing wistfully at his buddy that lived there who was in fact his own image reflected in the mirrors that still hang above the wash basins! The largest fireworm I have ever seen lives on the rear deck. This guy seems to move purposefully, similar to how I’d imagine a crew member going about his business back in the day.
Also a giant barracuda calls in from time to time. Although presenting a stunning sight while touring the wreck, this dude has a tendency to make himself at home in the bridge and he’s not keen on sharing space. Once, while guiding a group, I wanted to take them into the bridge so they could get photos of themselves holding the wheel, pretending to drive the Kittiwake. Unfortunately the barracuda was in there and wasn’t in the mood to move. At first, I thought if I edged into the room a little then he’d move on but instead he just stared at me with his mouth open exposing a pretty serious set of teeth. He wore an expression that said “Go ahead punk, make my day!” It turned out that everyone was happy having their photos taken on the outside of the room!
And finally, my favorite living thing to see on the wreck is the fantastic school of silversides that move in occasionally. Thousands upon thousands of fish, each about an inch long, form a big ball that swirls around inside the Kittiwake’s rooms and corridors. At times, there can be so many of these guys that when you enter a room and the fish engulf you, it can be impossible to see the walls of the wreck that are just a few feet away. What’s really cool is that the silversides attract predators like tarpon who hangout in the swarm feeding at will.
I’m no expert on coral, so to give you an idea of how things are coming along, I caught up with Ralph Ariza, Cayman resident and marine biologist who had this to say:
“Five years is still on the young side for a wreck but coral formations are becoming evident. Like most of the wrecks I have been on there will be an abundance of hydrocorals (fire and lace corals) and gorgonians (soft corals). These tend to grow faster than stony corals and are starting to be seen on the Kittiwake.”
Well thats pretty cool, you can certainly see that the soft sponges are bigger. On the subject of why wrecks are perfect places for coral to grow, Ralph goes on to say:
“Shipwrecks tend to serve as suitable foundations for coral larvae because they require hard substrate to settle on and grow; the steel in these vessels does not quickly decay thus providing a stable base for them. Once settled, they begin to form their calcium carbonate skeletons and slowly spread from a few millimeters to a few centimeters a year. Ideally, as on natural reefs, grazers (parrotfish, surgeonfish, urchins, etc) will keep the algae in check allowing the slower growing corals the room to expand. Another reason shipwrecks may help coral polyps grow is by raising them away from sediments that may smother them, and placing them in the path of current which provides them with vital nutrients.”
So lots has happened in the short period underwater so far, what can we expect for the future?
“Given it’s close proximity to the Doc Poulson, I believe it is reasonable to assume that the Kittiwake will exhibit a similar pattern of growth.”
Well that’s great news because I love the Doc P, it’s an awesome little wreck and the amount of coral growth on it makes it look like a boat shaped reef, the thought of a Kittiwake shaped (and sized) reef would be even better!
You have to admit, importing an ex USS naval vessel to sink as an underwater attraction is a bold move, the exercise wouldn’t have been cheap or easy. Sure, it’s nice to have one of the finest wreck dives in your back yard but was it worth it?
If you ask any of the tens of thousands of divers and snorkelers that visit her each year then the answer will be a resounding “hell yeah!” Read the numerous Top Ten Wreck Dive features where she ranks, check out the articles that have been written for every major dive publication, be one of the hundreds of thousands of hits on the countless youtube videos out there, check out the appearances in PADI’s training materials, look up the news features, the list goes on and on. In short, she’s been re-born as an underwater superstar and rightly so, if you’ve dived her then you’ll know why.
Of all her accolades this piece of living history has racked up in the last 5 years, I think the most impressive is the reaction from her ex crew members that have come to dive on her. Far from being just a chunk of metal, the vessel was their beloved home for a period of their life. One such ex-serviceman Kelly Stewart who recently managed to visit the wreck said “It was a bit ghostly, but I felt a real sense of accomplishment and pride having been a diver on board her,”
No sailor ever wants to see their ship sink, but In this case, the Kittiwakes ex crew members couldn’t be happier to see her again in her new role as an artificial reef and kick ass dive site.
About the Author: Drew is a professional dive instructor and boat captain currently working at Divetech on Grand Cayman. Since his first dive over 20 years ago, he has found himself in all kinds of underwater environments from golf ponds on the side of a snowy Welsh mountain to the tropical paradise he has now become accustomed to. A fanatic of all things tech, one of the main things Drew loves about Grand Cayman is the accessibility of such premier dive sites. Check out Drew’s blog here.