Kittiwake revolutionises dive industry

The sinking of the ex-USS Kittiwake on January 5, 2011 was the biggest boost to the diving industry since Stingray City.

The project had taken over seven years from concept to delivery and had involved a unique collaboration between the public and private sectors in Cayman. Such bodies as Cayman Islands Tourism Association, other private sector sponsors and the Cayman Islands Government liaised with the United States Government in order to ensure the 251-foot Chanticleer-class submarine rescue vessel could find a new home as a dive site in Cayman.

She now rests in 64 feet of water at the northern end of Seven Mile Beach – near to the Sand Chute dive site on a flat and sandy bottom. Because she’s also only 15 feet from the surface, the snorkelling is great. For divers, there are five decks to explore including the external and internal bridges, a radio and navigation room, rec room, mess hall, ironing room, tool workshop and recompression chambers. Below the main deck check out the crew quarters, medic station, engine and propulsion rooms – there’s a huge amount of nooks and crannies to get right in to and experience the Kittiwake as she now is whilst dancing with the ghosts of what she was. There are numerous vertical and horizontal access holes which open up the ship for numerous adventures.

Snorkelers will enjoy the main deck and look down the smoke stack into the bottom of the hull and engine rooms.

Artificial reef
Because the Kittiwake is now situated in a marine park with no touching, taking, fishing or gloves, it is anticipated that her new status as an artificial reef presents a wonderful opportunity to study reef populations. Already, algae growth is beginning on the vessel, which is the start of the food chain, explains project leader Nancy Easterbrook.

“From there, algae feeders come in. With all the hulls and penetration throughout the ship, we’ll have an influx of fish making their habitats in the vessel, so it’ll have a relatively rapid growth in transitioning from a wreck to an artificial reef,” she says.

From there coral and sponge growth will start including orange elephant ears and purple vases. The light penetration engendered by the opening up of the vessel also encourages this marine growth. Indeed, research is being undertaken, explains Simon Dixon, on the environmental aspects.

“Obviously the long-term effects will be that populations will increase because we are giving them new habitats; however, at the beginning it will be very interesting to see the movement,” says the researcher.
He adds that the population data and coral growth and health will be consistently monitored first every three months and then yearly to build up an unparalleled set of information about how artificial reefing can affect marine life both on the vessel itself and the surrounding natural reefs.

For tourism, too, the sinking of the Kittiwake is expected to refresh the diving product; interest has been pouring in worldwide already from magazines, TV and dive professionals. Indeed, a crew from National Geographic’s Mega Movers show followed the vessel’s eventful final journey to Cayman. There was wind, ice and snow before she arrived in the Cayman Islands on Christmas Day, 2010 – a gift unparalleled, and the culmination of the hard work and persistence of all involved.


Photo by Patrick Weir