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Celebrating a Cayman Shipwreck Success

A Photographer's Perspective

By Stephen Frink

20,000 divers got there ahead of me in the Kittiwake's first year on the bottom. The phrase "better late than never" occurred to me as I enjoyed my first dive to her five decks and many underwater enticements on Jan. 5, 2012.

If you haven't heard the interesting, albeit arduous, story of donation of the Kittiwake by the Maritime Administration of the United States (MARAD) to the Cayman Islands government, the preparatory process of cleaning her and making her safe for diver access, and finally towing and sinking her off Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman, read "The Anatomy of a Shipwreck: The Kittiwake in Grand Cayman".

It was a stellar day to be out to sea. The sun broke through a mid-afternoon haze just as the pirate ship approached the wreck site and fired its ceremonial cannon in salute to the Kittiwake. The helicopter buzzed just overhead, ferrying still and video cameramen who were documenting the anniversary dive. A half dozen dive boats were already tied off to one of the mooring balls that mark the Kittiwake's location. Our boat was teeming with excitement, as aboard were many key players who were involved in the massive undertaking of getting the Kittiwake to where she now rests, 60 feet below the crystalline waters near the Sand Chute dive site.

Though I'd seen many photographs and videos of the wreck already, I was not prepared for the surreal view of cruising over the massive bommies and sand channels that lie just seaward of the wreck, nor the remarkable visual of her materialization out of the blue. Our mooring ball was amidships and to the port side of the vessel, so once I could make out the shape of the boat we veered to the right, beating flippers to the stern. I wanted to get a shot of the propeller first, and as the Kittiwake is perfectly upright, the prop would be the deepest part of our dive. I am used to shooting the deep shipwrecks of the Florida Keys, like the Duane,Vandenberg and Spiegel Grove; it was a nice change to be settled into the sand taking photographs of the prop and rudder at 60 feet. That really transforms the pace of the dive, for instead of a dash to 130-feet and shooting some quick-grab shots, this mellow depth provides plenty of time to play with light and compositions while working on images of that part of the ship.

From there, the obvious shot is the stern of the boat with the letters K-I-T-T-I-W-A-K-E still visible though the cloak of algae beginning to overtake it. I could see that someone is doing a bit of maintenance on these photo ops (a big thanks to whomever), for this area has been scrubbed relative to the surrounding hull, as have many of the bronze plaques scattered about the wreck to commemorate the sponsors.

As a sponsor of the project, DAN's plaque is appropriately placed just outside of the recompression chamber room. The Kittiwake was designed to rescue sailors from sunken submarines. The ship's career lasted from the 1940s through the 1980s, and she could deploy a bell to mate with the hatch of a submarine in up to 800 feet of water. As the bell was pressurized to one atmosphere, like the submarine, ideally the recompression chambers wouldn't be used in the course of normal operations. But the safety divers did frequently train in very deep water and then go to the chambers to decompress before symptoms occurred. Actually, when the Kittiwake was mothballed, the chambers were still functional and remained so until all the electronics were stripped from them in the yard during its preparation for sinking to create an artificial reef.

The Kittiwake, to me, is a wide-angle vista. She is beginning to attract resident fish, like the horse-eye jacks commonly seen here and the tiger grouper that seemed to be cruising about in the head/shower room; but there are so many doorways, portholes, wheels and structures on this wreck, that wide-angle seems the obvious preferred optic. I knew I would have time for two dives on the Kittiwake, so for the first one I chose a Canon 8-15mm fisheye zoom on a 1DMKIV with its 1.3 crop chip. Of course, that choice brings a bit of barrel distortion typical of fisheyes, an obvious artifact with some of the vertical structures on the ship. To restore a more traditional field of view, I shot the second dive with a 16-35mm II lens on a full frame Canon 1DsMKIII. That was especially useful when shooting the mirrors in the bathroom to render the reflection of my dive model, Shelly Chenoweth.

The bathroom sinks are now gone, although it is obvious where they had been, but fortunately a few of the mirrors above the sinks were left in place. Apparently, that was a bit controversial, for the goal was to create an environment in which no one could be hurt. Some of the mirrors were already cracked, and by edict of the EPA they had to be removed, but a conscious decision was made to leave those in place that were not broken. This makes for a fantastic compositional opportunity with the diver coming in through the port doorway, reflected into the mirror. I almost got the diver and the tiger grouper both in reflection, which would have been my hot shot of the day, but the grouper is still a bit spooked by divers. However, if he continues to hang out on the Kittiwake he will be accustomed, for this wreck attracts divers by the score.

I'd love to have a schematic of the boat to fully understand exactly what I was shooting, for all I knew for sure was that there were big tanks indicating some kind of massive compressed air systems in several cabins, and huge portholes and doorways to make highly aesthetic frames for diver portraits. Color was beginning to cloak the inner surfaces of the wreck, creating a patina of hue that will only improve with each passing anniversary. Cranes, winches and windlasses, the paraphernalia of a working Navy ship, were left in place as well, all of which serve up fascinating foregrounds for wide-angle compositions. All of this occurs in the clear water of Grand Cayman, thereby minimizing troubling backscatter and making this site all the more photographically productive.

Nearly an hour into my first dive on the Kittiwake and I was just making it to the wheelhouse, conveniently situated at a depth of only 20 feet. It was a wonderfully mapped out multi-level dive, providing ample bottom time to wrap up the final set of photos of the helm and the bow on the way back to the boat. But, as good as that first dive was, it really takes a second (and more) to maximize productivity on the ship. It takes a while to work out the angles and the light, and choreograph the shoot in your mind's eye. But, at 251 feet, the Kittiwake is manageable to tour in a single dive. You won't see everything, and you certainly can't visit every cabin or compartment, but the combination of shallow depth, lack of current and perfectly upright orientation makes this one of the safest and tranquil artificial reefs I've ever dived.

Congratulations to the Cayman government and dive community for such an artfully executed shipwreck project. The Kittiwake is a wonderful addition to an already impressive dive portfolio.

Photo Gallery of Kittiwake Celebration Event, Jan 5th, 2012

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Reader Comments (1)

Hello, guys! I was thrilled to read this article. Diving is my life and I constantly search for new interesting places suitable for my hobby. I have never been to Cayman Islands and it is the first time I hear about this wreck, but I liked the description. Now I have made up my mind on the next place where I will go to enjoy diving.

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