The Changing Face of the Kittiwake
Just days after the sixth anniversary of the sinking of the Kittiwake, forces of nature dealt a crushing reminder of the inevitable life cycle of a shipwreck. Strong north west winds and waves that battered the west coast of Grand Cayman have taken their toll on this world famous dive site. The first witnesses to the aftermath of the storm were amazed to find the bow, decks and surrounding sand littered with the wreckage of what used to be the iconic and much photographed upper section of her wheelhouse. Time will eventually disintegrate all mighty vessels of the high seas, but in the case of the Kittiwake, the government, tourist association and local diving community intend to preserve the premiere attraction for as long as possible.
Those lucky enough to have dived this wreck since she was deliberately sunk on January 5th 2011 will appreciate the perfect profile from 60’ at the bottom to 15’ at the top. The 251’ submarine support vessel was acquired by the Cayman Islands to create an artificial reef and dive attraction. Following her 50 year career in the US navy, the Kittiwake was the first US flagged vessel to be handed over to a foreign country for these purposes. The Kittiwake’s most notable activity during her service was being part of the salvage operation for the black box from the Challenger disaster. Since beginning her new life as an underwater attraction she has become one of the Cayman Islands’ most popular sights and a world renowned wreck dive.
As news filtered back to the Cayman Islands Tourist Association (CITA) about the destruction of the wheelhouse, it soon became apparent that in the interest of diver and environmental safety, the dislodged metal would need to be removed. Large panels that previously made up the face, sides and what was left of the roof had been torn from the structure and lay across diver exit and entrance points. In addition to the jagged metal that could easily harm a diver, the heavy chunks of carnage could be picked up by more surge and crash land into the nearby coral reef.
In order to remove the hazardous debris, local operator Divetech headed out to the site equipped with industrial lift bags, ropes and other gear required for the salvage operation. Captain Lee Bush recalls “Our plan was to rotate divers in the water with surface support and use the bags to lift the debris up to the boat.” Planning for such an operation has to account for the safety of the divers working on the salvage, Capt Bush goes on to say “There are a number of things to consider, beyond the nature of our task here which is to remove unsafe debris from an underwater environment we have to think about our numerous ascents, underwater workload, the potential for a lift bag to become separated from the wreckage it is shifting, the list goes on.”
The majority of the clean-up passed by easily enough but an operation like this is rarely runs without any kind of hitch along the way. There was one section of the wheelhouse in particular that was big enough to test the four man Divetech crew. The forward starboard corner with its surrounding roof and walls had become disconnected in such a large section that the weight would come to pose quite a challenge in its successful removal. The initial lifting was easy enough according to Capt Bush “There were plenty of places to tie the lift bag to so that was fine. Once we had untangled the loose metal from the ship then lifting the weight was easy, the issue came when we had to start swimming toward our own boat.” The current that was previously very little concern suddenly became much more of an issue with so much weight for the team to move.
As the salvagers battled to swim the mangled chunk to the boat, the next problem was starting to weigh heavily on everyone’s mind, how on earth would they get the piece out of the water and onto the deck? Capt Bush recalls with a smile “At first, we just tied the metal piece to the back of the boat and left it suspended under the lift bag while we caught our breath. After a brief and fruitless attempt to lift the metal onto the deck we talked through some options as to what to do next. The decision was made to tow the wreckage to shore as it was at the time, floating off the back of the boat.”
“The journey from the Kittiwake to the dock took far longer than usual as we had to drive so slowly. Due to the weight in the boat and that of what we were towing, we started to bottom out as we got closer to the shore. We had to untie the wreckage we were towing and leave it beached in order to get our own boat safely on the dock.”
The final part of the journey for the troublesome chunk was to be manhandled close enough to the shore for a long rope to be tied around it. The other end of the rope was attached to a Dodge Ram truck which made light work of towing the heavy metal up onto the beach. With the sun low in the sky, the rusty metal safely on the beach and the boat safely returned to its mooring, it was time for a debrief at the bar.
Mother Nature will always be more than happy to remind us who’s the boss. As this happens, wrecks like the Kittiwake will continue to break down bit by bit. Having said that, apart from the missing top half of the wheelhouse, she is still largely intact and will stand for many years to come. Although the appearance from the upper forward deck has been altered considerably, the rest of the wreck is still in perfect condition to dive on. While of course it’s a shame to see the loss of such a recognizable feature, the bridge now has a nice open top which makes an awesome photo opportunity. Another silver lining to all this is that with the Kittiwake looking so different, surely that’s a great excuse to go and dive on her and check it out her changing face for yourself.
About the Author: Drew McArthur 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.