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The changing face of the Kittiwake

By Cathy Church
As published in
What's Hot Magazine

Every visit to the USS Kittiwake reveals exciting changes. I was amazed at how many different creatures have taken over this strange piece of machinery as though it were the most natural thing to live in.

On January 5, 2011, after over eight years of effort by the Cayman Islands Tourist Association, Cayman Islands Government and people like Nancy Easterbrook, the USS Kittiwake was sunk on a large sand flat off the north end of Seven Mile Beach.  It had been a submarine rescue vessel and now is part of a reef building program. It was cleaned of polluting chemicals, dangerous wires and things that could snag a diver. Large holes were cut into the sides and the decks so that you can travel throughout this 251-foot-long ship and be safely close to an easy exit to open water. I was there to watch it go down, and was among the first divers in the water as it settled on the bottom almost perfectly upright.

But I am a photographer and a marine biologist. So my thrill goes beyond just the joy of swimming and floating throughout a large ship. I enjoy exploring the ever growing, brand new reef that it has become in the last seven months and will become years from now.

The Kittiwake sank as a bright white vessel. Already on the second day a large school of horse-eye jacks swam in front of the bow and cruised the area. The ship was just a large, naked navy vessel. Within a few months it become covered with thick algae and of course the fish that eat algae. By April, nooks and crannies in the chain, under decking, between gears you would find an arrow crab, banded coral shrimp or a tiny fish. One hole along the side is now home to not only an arrow crab, but also a Pederson Cleaning shrimp AND a banded coral shrimp. As a diver approaches, they all come to the opening to advertise their cleaning services, and just like any anxious salesman, the Banded Coral shrimp attacks the arrow crab and chases him completely out of the hole.

My dive buddy and friend, Christine, got my attention and made me swim half way along the main deck to show me something. I knew that it had to be good for her to pull me away from the photo I was composing closer to the stern. And good it was—it was a rare “Magnificent Sea Urchin” that I had never seen before. It is generally a deeper water animal, but here it was, tucked along the side railing of the ship—a beautiful creature, although painful to the touch!

Three types of squirrelfish hide among gears and chains. A barracuda patrols the anchor deck. Tiny worms encrust the sides. There has been a large Goliath grouper, but I missed on him this dive. Last month we all enjoyed a large school of squid that stayed near the uprights at the surface. They were a great treat to my photo class.

Even the sand here seems lush—loaded with dense patches of garden eels, a spotted eagle ray on occasion and on today’s dive lots of Cassiopea (upside-down) jellyfish and even a lobster between the ship and the sand.

On yesterday’s dive I concentrated on trying to take some interesting photos inside the ship. There are five decks and you can purchase a set of plastic guides that tell you where everything is on each deck. I wanted to see the motor room, so I checked my plastic guide and dropped into a large opening. There was ample light for me to focus and photograph something with an eagle insignia on the side. I had no idea there was such a scene in this wreck. (I may know what all the creatures are, but I have no idea what this large piece of machinery was. I will leave it to you to find and identify it.)

Since the top of the ship is only a few feet from the surface, this is a fun ship to snorkel—more about great snorkeling in Grand Cayman in a future issue of What’s Hot.

While some people try to get to the Kittiwake from shore, this is a risky proposition. It is much safer to go with a licensed dive operator. There is a mandatory $10 fee for anyone visiting the Kittiwake. Bringing this ship in was incredibly expensive, and maintaining the moorings and monitoring its safety is an on-going expense. Be sure to keep your medallion or wristband as a souvenir. For more information on the history of this wreck, go to

I look forward to my next visit there to see what more has moved into this incredible new reef.

If you would like to photograph this wreck yourself, you can rent or purchase any level of underwater camera at Cathy Church’s Photo Centre at Sunset House Hotel

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    The Official Website for the Kittiwake Shipwreck - Cayman Islands - The Latest News & Updates - The changing face of the Kittiwake
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    the official website for the kittiwake shipwreck - cayman islands - the latest news & updates - the changing face of the kittiwake

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