Three Artificial Reefs. Three Days of Diving. Three Cayman Islands

September Issue. Diver Magazine.

By Stephen Weir

The buzz is back. Cayman Islands, best known for their reef walls, gin clear water and a high standard of dive services, is attracting wreck divers these days because of their growing inventory of artificial reefs.
Have just three  dive days and want to see the underside of all three Cayman Islands?  There are underwater world-class military shipwrecks  (well, two and a worthy commercial wreck) that have been sunk close to shore to allow for diving almost any day (or night) of the year on Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman.
A year and a half ago the Cayman Dive Operators Association sank the USS Kittiwake on the North End of Grand Cayman Island’s 7-Mile Beach.  Ever since, a Canadian run dive shop has been modifying the remains of the retired US Navy submarine tender, to make it both diver and snorkel friendly.  It is now the hottest wreck dive in the Caribbean.
Off the north shore of Cayman Brac, in 1996, while film cameras whirled, Diver Magazine columnist Jean Michel Cousteau rode a decommissioned Cuban/Russian warship 30 metres down to sandy bottom close to shore. One of the world’s first artificial reefs for divers, the well publicized sinking made a worldwide statement about turning weapons of mass-destruction into eco-friendly tourist attractions!
The wreck is the only diveable Russian built warship in the Western Hemisphere.   Prior to sinking, the 285 ft long ship (known as number 356) was named the Captain Keith Tibbetts after a local dive operator and businessman.  The name hasn’t stuck too well, more often than not she is called the Russian destroyer even though she is a much smaller Koni II class anti-submarine frigate.
Now no shipwreck will ever take away from the breath taking beauty of the wall that lines the south side of the Cayman Trench off Little Cayman, but, if you have a hankering for a wreck dive on the way back to your hotel – the 120 ft long steel hulled Soto Trader never fails to deliver! 

“It was a lot of work. Even now, 18 months later, I shake my head and can’t believe how all consuming the experience was,” explained Nancy Easterbrook the Canadian owner of Grand Cayman’s full service Dive Tech.  As head of the Cayman Islands Watersports Association she spearheaded the sinking of the 192 ft long Kittiwake. “ It hasn’t shifted. It is right where we sank her. People like it; they really like diving the Kittiwake.  So much so, we are doing the unthinkable … thinking about getting another shipwreck!”

After seven years of planning, the retired USS Kittiwake was scuttled a few days into 2011 after arriving at Grand Cayman Island on Christmas Day. The Submarine Rescue vessel (ASR-13) was sunk upright in the sand just north of the famous Seven Mile Beach.
The ship was put down to take pressure off the reefs of one of the world’s most popular island dive destinations. Because she lies within a private underwater park, there is a fee to dive or snorkel on her – the $8 fee is used to maintain the wreck and the park. The ship (donated by the US Navy) has begun to attract divers and snorkelers in very large numbers – so much so that the 14 dive and snorkel operators that visit the wreck almost daily, ask that reservations be made to guarantee a trip to the wreck.
Diver magazine dove with Dive Tech.  Dive Tech offers all levels of diving – from children’s programmes to free diving to rebreathers and, as the name says, Deep Wreck Technical Diving.   The outfit is headquartered at Cobalt Coast Resort just north of the famed Seven Mile Beach.  Owner Nancy Easterbrook offers daily two tank morning dives, single afternoon dives and weekly night dives on the Kittiwake.
Diver Magazine toured the Kittiwake three different ways – down low, real slow and look out below.  And, for the first time it was a hands-free adventure, your reporter was liberated from his still camera, using instead a mini-HD video camera attached to the mask, to capture the adventure in real time.
It was a 2-tank morning dive followed by a snorkel on the ship. Although the wreck is a fast blast from Cobalt Coast another dive boat, a double-decker snorkeling boat and a workboat had already beat us to the best moorings.   There are six hook-up pins around the ship.
We dropped 75ft down into the sand a short swim west from the wreck. One heads towards shore, so, in the unlikely case that you miss this massive shipwreck, eventually you will make it back to your hotel. 
A big yellow tower designed for rescuing sub crews is easily seen even though the wreck is still a 5-minute swim away.  As you get closer you see that it is an overwhelming big piece of metal. And, it is very very busy.
You are aware of how many people are already on the wreck. Experienced divers cruise along the bottom of the upright wreck, at a depth of some 64 ft.  On the deck, 40 feet up, divers on their second dive of the day are photographing the wreck, reading the commemorate plaques installed by the dive association and swim through clouds of fish.  At the top you can see dozens of madly churning flippers keeping swimmers hovering over the ship’s superstructure.  Others stand on the roof of Kittiwake’s top deck.
Once on the wreck, that sense of population disappears. There are 5-decks and dozens of holds and rooms to explore – plenty of room for all the divers
Some of the passageways are tight fits, so be ready to fend off the walls and ceiling.  The recompression chamber. The mess. The wheel. A deck gun.  Everything is accessible. One of the big surprises?  Feeling a twinge of  acrophobia as we swim with our (mandatory) guide, indoors,  above a two-deck deep hold.
“When you come to Cayman, you are diving landscape – walls, canyons and pinnacles,” said Nancy Eastwood. “But once during you Cayman week, if you get to go to the wreck, you see things you don’t expect to find. It is surreal, Holy Smoke, this was a real ship. How could 98 people plus 10 officers, share the rec room, the mess or the heads for weeks at a time? It is an eye-opener into life aboard (a Cold War era navy ship).”
“Diving her feels like being part something,” she continued, “ Maybe it is like diving the Titanic. There are clocks on the wall. You can feel the crew. This was once a living ship and now you are experiencing it in 3-D!”
The Kittiwake has become part of Grand Cayman’s eco-system. Soft corals have begun to adhere to her deck.  Schooling fish live among the superstructure of the wreck.  Turtles, barracuda and small sharks can be seen in the low reefs near the wreck.  In March of this year a whale shark cruised within touching range of the ship.
“I swore after she was sunk, ‘ never again’. However, after seeing just how successful she is and how happy divers are that they made the trip, we do have our eyes open (for another shipwreck),” said Nancy Easterbrook. “ The Kittiwake is not the only wreck on the island you know.  We have 8 other worthy wrecks including the 200 ft deep Carrie Lee (tech divers only).”

Cayman Brac

Cayman Brac is located midway between Grand Cayman and Cuba.  It is 90 miles each way and 5 miles east to the smaller sister island, Little Cayman.
Only 1,800 people live on the island named after the 180 ft tall Brac (Scottish for bluff) at the end of the island.   Dive tourism is the main industry and the wreck of a Russian frigate her biggest underwater attraction.
The most famous artificial warship reef in the world is within swimming distance of Cayman Brac.  Alternately called the MV Captain Keith Tibbett, or the Russian Destroyer #356, she is now a 330ft living reef.
The Russian Destroyer wasn’t the first artificial reef created for divers but it had a wow factor that went viral long before YouTube had been invented. Diver  Magazine columnist Jean Michel Cousteau, son of Jacques, rode the warship to the bottom, waterproof camera in hand.
Cousteau’s footage was shown and re-shown at dive shows and sports conventions around the world. The movie, Destroyer for Peace, continues to air on television everywhere.
The sinking gained almost immediate support from the dive community.  It wasn’t just individual divers who came to dive the Russian Warship, there were American dive clubs flying in their own chartered airplanes that snapped up all the rooms in the Brac’s two dive hotels and filled every spot on Reef Divers’ five full sized dive boats.
Taking a product of the Cold War and turning it into a dive site – the ultimate swords into underwater plowshares – was an idea that fired the imagination of a generation of divers.  Since her sinking in 1998, other dive destinations, most noticeably Florida, have been sinking bigger and better warships for divers.
Russian Destroyer - Cayman Brac
The Soviet Union built the #356 quickly and cheaply back in 1984. It was one of fourteen Koni Class II patrol frigates (the destroyer moniker is a misnomer) hurriedly built for their base in Cuba. The missile carrying ship was in service for a scant nine years before being mothballed.  It was sold to the Cayman Islands for $250,000 and the 330 ft long ship was sunk in 1996.
When she sunk, the big thrill was penetrating into the ship and swimming along her corrugated metal passageways, climbing into her turret and photographing the double barreled gun which pointed menacingly towards the surface. Overtime the flimsy walls inside the ship have collapsed and soft and hard corals have begun to turn the Russian Destroyer into a living reef.
In 2009 a Category 4 (that is really big!) hurricane hit the Brac and Little Cayman.  Hurricane Paloma destroyed or damaged almost every structure on the two islands.  Brac was closed to tourism for nearly two years as roads, buildings, and the full service airport were rebuilt.
Paloma’s power was felt on land and underwater too.  The Russian Destroyer, damaged by an earlier hurricane in 2004, broke almost in two.  Her bow was wrenched around and lies at a 45-degree angle to her midships.  Like an underwater sea cucumber, the wreck has, following the big blow, spewed her guts upon the sand sea floor some110 ft from the surface. Broken up yes but in death there is beauty and life.
For a diver who has made many dives on the Destroyer over the past decade, the ongoing decay of the wreck has made her a more interesting dive.  Blessed with sparkling visibility, you can clearly see as nature reclaims the seafloor where the crumbling wreck now lies.
The guns are still there but they droop. And they are now covered with colourful corals. The crumbling radar installation is obscured from view by thousands of schooling jacks.  There are small areas of the ship that can still be penetrated, albeit for only a short distance. I entered one hold that looked like an underwater scrap yard, complete with a junkyard grouper staring menacingly at my light.  Sharks. Dolphin. Cruising Eagle Rays are common sights at the Russian Destroyer.
The wreck can be reached from shore, but it is a long swim.  There are two mooring buoys on the ship.  Reef Diver visits the wreck on an almost daily basis and the live-aboard Cayman Aggressor visits her weekly. There is a nearby scuttled tug, the Kissimmee, which is a popular night dive locale. 

Little Cayman

Little Cayman, the smallest, the flattest and the least populated (170 permanent residents) of the Cayman Islands is not known for its shipwrecks. 
The six or so dive resorts on the south side of the island are constantly in demand because divers are there to visit the two very best wall sites in the Caribbean. There are 50 different world class dive sites along Bloody Bay Wall and Jackson Bight.
The walls are so abrupt that the corals have grown out and up from the wall.  Dive guides like to say that the wall is  a straight shot 1,000 feet down.  At Bloody Bay the  top of the wall starts at a scant 18 feet below the surface.
The wall is very close to shore but is on the opposite side of the island from the hotels and lodges.  Dive operators, if you ask nicely, will often stop at the wreck of the Soto Trader on the return trip from the north side wall.
The 120 ft long Soto Trader has been underwater for 37-years.  Built of heavy grade steel, the remains of the inter-island freighter are relatively intact and will stay that way for years to come!
The ship sits upright in 60 feet of water close to the island’s main pier.  Much of her deck remains, and divers are able to easily penetrate her holds. There is the crumbling remains of a crane mounted mid-ship --the boom points bow to stern.
Little Cayman is little. So is its airport runway.  Almost everything the island needs, from fuel, to building material and food and liquor, comes from Grand Cayman Island by freighters like the Soto Trader.
In April, 1975, the Soto Trader, laden with cement mixers, a jeep, beer and fuel, stopped at Little Cayman. According to the Island’s Ministry of Tourism, the Soto “while at anchor, was pumping fuel into 55 gallon drums which were to be transported by small boats to the island when tragedy struck. Some of the diesel had leaked onto her deck and ignited from a spark, quickly engulfing the vessel in flames.” Two crewmembers died in the blaze.
She burned for more than a day. She was towed away from the shipping area and allowed to sink, creating Little Cayman’s only artificial reef.
Bits of the ship’s cargo are still in the accessible hold(although take it from me, there is no beer left to be found).  What makes the Soto an interesting dive, night or day, is the fish life that is attracted to what is the only elevation on a sandy bottom known as The Flats.
Here around the wreck there are many large sized, hard-to-spook, sand rays.  Large black and white Spotted and Eagle Rays endlessly cruise the water near the wreck.  Inside, thousands of  baby snappers, juvenile tangs and other colourful fish, hide out from their enemies.
The Soto has become a warship – not like the Kittiwake or the Russian Destroyer – but a warship just the same. In recent months divers have been noting lionfish swimming in groups of three and four – which has caught the attention and deep concerns of scientists who used to believe the Indo-Pacific Red Lionfish is a solitary predator. Local dive guides, when they have time, have taken to laying siege on the Soto and killing these packs of  lion fish that live  around the wreck site.


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