A decommissioned U.S. Navy ship has become a popular Cayman Islands dive site
The top of the ship is close to the surface and accessible to snorkelers
Divers can explore the inside of the submarine rescue ship
The water is so clear you can see it from the surface. It’s the Cayman Islands’ newest tourist attraction, the USS Kittiwake.
The Kittiwake is a Chanticleer-class submarine rescue ship that was part of the U.S. Navy’s fleet until it was decommissioned in 1994. Now it’s an artificial reef, one that Scuba Diving magazine says is a must for divers.
“It is definitely one of the top 10 purposely sunk wrecks because of its accessibility,” says the magazine’s editor, David Espinosa. “It’s in relatively shallow water and it’s upright.”
The Kittiwake was sunk a little over a year ago just off Grand Cayman’s popular Seven Mile Beach. A five-minute boat ride brings divers to the site where the vessel’s bottom sits about 60 feet down on the sandy floor of the Caribbean Sea.
Getting the 251-foot-long ship to the bottom of the ocean was easy, unlike the effort to obtain the vessel.
“It was a pilot project and that was part of the complexity of it,” says Nancy Easterbrook, who spearheaded the Kittiwake project on behalf of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association.
The Caymans applied to the U.S. government to receive a decommissioned ship to use as an artificial reef, a process that was open for the first time to international applicants. Then Easterbrook journeyed to Norfolk, Virginia, to tour the available ships.
She says choosing the USS Kittiwake was the easy part of her eight-year effort. “She was a ship that served divers all of her life,” she says, “so it just seemed the appropriate ship.”
Before the vessel could be transported to its new home, it had to be cleared of all military equipment, undergo an inspection for hazardous materials and pass environmental regulations in the United States and the Cayman Islands.
As a submarine rescue vessel, the Kittiwake was home to many Navy divers during its 49 years of service. When built, it was outfitted with a recompression chamber, a diving bell and a diving locker. But the ship’s highlight for most divers today is an unlikely place: the vessel’s head.
“They’ve left the mirrors inside the bathrooms, so you can actually take a look at yourself while diving,” says Jason Shaddox, an instructor with local dive company Don Foster’s.
But you don’t have to be a diver to appreciate this new attraction. “It’s the only wreck I’ve been around where you can snorkel on it and see what we see as divers,” Shaddox adds. “The only thing you don’t see as a snorkeler is what is inside.”
In just over a year, a ship that might have ended up in the scrapheap has been transformed into a must-see for visitors.
Inside there are five decks with the stairs intact. A dive will take you through the recreation room, mess hall, crew quarters, navigation room and up to the main deck, which sits about 15 feet from the water’s surface.
“The warmth of the water and the visibility is incredible, so you can see the whole ship from the surface,” says Easterbrook. “It’s kind of eerie because it’s something that doesn’t belong there but on the other hand, it’s quite friendly to divers and snorkelers.”
The vessel has also quickly become a friendly spot for marine life. Recently, the island was abuzz when a whale shark was spotted near the ship.