Although Little Cayman is world famous for its diving, Cayman Brac was, for once, in the shadow of its smaller sibling. In order to generate some more interest in diving the island, it was decided that a wreck sunk as an attraction for divers would be the ideal answer.
A unique opportunity presented itself with the breakup of the Soviet Union, as a number of vessels were abandoned at naval bases in Cuba as the USSR pulled its military presence from the country.
The Cuban government had no use for the ships, so Cayman was presented with the opportunity to purchase a Russian military vessel, and for a little bit extra even have the Cuban government leave the deck guns on board.
After much negotiation and work, Patrol Vessel 356, a 330ft Brigadier Type II Class frigate, started its journey to Cayman Brac, a journey that it would never have dared attempt during the Cold War, and in September 1996, 15 years ago this month, she went to her final resting place on the seabed off Cayman Brac.
One of the people gathered to view the sinking of the vessel was author and underwater photographer Lawson Wood.
“The sinking was firstly highly charged with everyone driving their boats around, getting excited as the DoE, plus the Cuban tugboat tried to fill the ship with water, recalls Lawson. However, the excitement did not last, for as he recalls it was gradually replaced with boredom as the process dragged on.
“In reality, a fighting ship of this design is not expected to sink, even when under attack and filled with water! Eventually, of course she did go down amidst ships horns being sounded and shouting and cheering by all of the assembled boats and their guests. It was actually quite poignant and a little sad, to see this once great ship sink beneath the waves (with Jean-Michele Cousteau sitting in the crow’s nest!”
Lawson remembers there were inquisitive fish around the wreck almost immediately after she went under, and marine life has just taken over from there.
“Within a week there was a film of algae all over her, which was then being grazed by fish, within a month there were colonies of small shrimps and juvenile fish had more places to hide from predators, within three months, the first sponges were growing and within six months small colonies of star corals and brain corals had taken hold. Now there are some superb sponge and soft coral formations and the shaded areas, once dark and dingy are now brilliantly coloured,” says Lawson.
The ship is very much the flagship shipwreck of the sister islands, however there are many shipwreck remains which are rarely visited. (See Shipwrecks of the Cayman Islands by Lawson Wood).
“For Cayman Brac, the sinking of the ship increased the dive tourism numbers and undoubtedly boosted the economy and has continued to do so year after year,” says Lawson. WH