Return to the Kittiwake

One of divingas most iconic artificial reefs, Grand Caymanas Kittiwake, is revisited by one of its former crew members

Words and Photography by Drew McArthur

Ex-Petty Officer Larson offers
a respectful salute to his former home, the vesselas name is still clearly visible on the stern. Photo: Drew McArthur

A naval vessel is much more than simply a place of work and a roof above the heads of the people who serve on her. The chunk of metal that the crew call home for a portion of their lives may be the birthplace of lasting relationships, life-changing adventures, and the kind of stories that are incomprehensible in civilian life. So how must a sailor feel when such a vessel is retired to the ocean and sunk to make an artificial reef? Ex-US Navy Petty Officer Pete Larson found out on his recent visit to the Cayman Islands

The ex-USS Kittiwake currently is available at around 70 feet( 21 m) below the surface of the Caribbean Sea in Grand Cayman. In addition to conducting salvage operations, the 251 foot( 76.5 m) -long Auxiliary Submarine Rescue( ASR) ship was designed to assist submarines should they become stricken underwater. After a 50 -year career that began just after the Second World War, the Kittiwake was decommissioned in 1996 and sat idle in Norfolk, Virginia, where she waited for her destiny to unfold. She was later acquired by the Cayman Islands and, on January 5th, 2011, she was sunk to make an artificial reef and diversa playground.

The single most important function of an ASR ship during those periods was to bring the crew of a submarine to safety in the event their vessel had ceased to function while underwater. According to Larson, aThe Kittiwake would fix its position in the water employing four floats that were anchored to the ocean floor. Once we were tied into the middle of these floats, the rescue hatch would drop to the submarine below and make an airtight seal enabling the submariners to climb out and be brought to the surface.a

The Kittiwake shortly after she was commissioned

During the years of 1986 -8 9, Larson was an engineer on the Kittiwake and would regularly play his part in performing this rescue operation in various train scenarios. Larsonas day-to-day work would be whatever tasks filtered down from on high but, aEverything revolved around the sub rescue chamber. Every job on that ship was designed to attain that chamber go over the side and mate to a submarine, a he explained.

Just as the crew were expected to perform a wide range of work duties, the Kittiwake herself was assigned to a variety of jobs. Most notably, the vesselas search and recovery skills and abilities led her to be drafted into the operation to recover wreckage from the Challenger disaster. Although the mission was short, the extreme tragedy of the shuttle detonation made this brief period stand out in the Kittiwake as history.

Anyone who has dived the Kittiwake with a dive operation in Grand Cayman likely will have been given an animated briefing about the life of the vessel. The Kittiwake is a source of pride for Divemasters( DMs) on the island, as many consider the wreck to be a highlight of their diving escapades. These briefings often reference the participation with the Challenger salvage operation and are sometimes punctuated with a narrative about how she recovered the black box from the wreckage. According to official reports from NASA& the US Navy, however, this piece of Cayman lore canat be true. The Kittiwake was indeed on the job and did assist with recovery work but it was actually one of the Challengeras Solid Rocket Boosters( SRBs) that she recovered from a depth of 177 feet( 54 m ). According to a source in NASA, the Challenger didnat even have a black box to start with! How that mistruth began is unknown, but the false claim to fame has been published in a wealth of outlets since and likely will continue to be referenced in dive briefings, as most DMs will appreciate that the truth shouldnat get in the way of a good story.

During Larsonas time, the shipas diversa workload was a mixed bag. They were principally engineers, who first and foremost had normal jobs on the boat. aNowadays, Navy Diver is a rate by itself, but back in the 80 as you had to be something else, like an technologist or a Boatswainas Mate; you had to have a job in the navy that was conducive to being a diver.a

The ship midway through the sinking operation off Seven Mile Beach in 2011

Current affairs

The Kittiwake has been resting off Seven Mile Beach in Grand Cayman for over eight years now and in that time has been the focus of much attention. Whilst being an attraction to tens of thousands of divers and snorkelers each year, the wreck has featured in just about every scuba diving magazine, been the backdrop for a range of underwater videos and often features in published aTop Tena dive listings. The Kittiwake was originally set in the sand in an upright position but over the years surge from a series of offshore hurricanes has changed the vessel on to her side. In spite of this new positioning, the wreck is still very much intact and accessible for a range of divers to enjoy.

On the day of the dive Larson checked in with local dive operator Divetech, who had been instrumental in the acquisition and sinking of the Kittiwake . Once aboard the dive
boat he commented, aIall be curious to see what they left on it and what the government had removed to avoid polluting the water. Back in the day, there was a lot of asbestos used on the Kittiwake , which was removed when they realised it was a bad product.a

Prior to Sinking, significant portions of the Kittiwake were removed to stimulate her safe in her new environment. As well as ensuring the wreck was non-hazardous to marine life, any potential diver snag or entrapment hazards were also sealed off or removed. At the same time, larger access holes were cut throughout so that divers could swim from end to end without having to exit the wreck.

The dive itself was a typical day out on the Kittiwake . Flat surface conditions, superb light penetration , no current, and 90 -foot( 27 m) visibility constructed it considerably more easy going that the lakes that Larson is more commonly accustomed to. He said, aWhen we jumped in I was thinking about what it was going to look like when I considered it. I was thinking of it on the wharf the last time I watched it, that was the last image I could remember. Now it is on its port side and the pilothouse is gone, so it took a little while before I could tell it was the Kittiwake . It was pretty neat to see.a

The return to his old home did indeed bring back memories for Larson, aI especially looked at the decks because I recollected how much we had to paint them. We painted them so often I guessed Iad see an inch and a half[ 4cm] of paint holding them together.a

The dive began on the outside and ran the length of the ship from the bow to the stern. Along the style, Larson and his dive buddies find the helm, the wheel now uncovered but still there. The roof was lost to a storm, which is a reminder of the inevitability of the eventual demise of the wreck. Continuing on, they passed the smoking stack leading into the belly of the wreck, the water cannon on which he recalled being developed on protesters, through the superstructure, along the boom that he recalls being used in the rescue drills, around the stern where the name aKittiwakea can still be seen, eventually arrived here the swim-through created by the propeller and the rudder. Memories of the working vessel were stirred up and re-ignited.

aI was interested to see the spuds were still on it, thatas what they called the floats stored on either side of the ship. I didnat remember that till we swam up to them and I actually touched one of them.a

Shortly after penetrating the wreck through a hatch on the rear deck, the group arrived in the forward engine room, which was Larsonas place of work as an engineer. Following the dive he mused, aMemories depend on what kind of person you are. I donat have any negative memories of my period there, in fact I think to some degree that was what I needed as a young man, to be in the military and to be straightened out.a

Once the tour of the inside was over, the groupas air supplies dictated an end to the dive. Larsonas last look at the Kittiwake was from in front of the bow, as he turned to face the fine vessel that he once sailed upon the high seas he took the opportunity to give a final salute. Once again the wreck began to fade into his past as the divers slowly headed back to the boat.

Most internal components were removed prior to sinking but portions like this engine block
still remain

The verdict

The Kittiwake in her current incarnation as a dive attraction and artificial reef is a very different beast to when she wandered upon the high sea. As a working naval boat the ship would have been bustling with life with service personnel aboard living out their days painting, cleaning, diving, salvaging, and doing anything else that was required of them. The wreck still bustles with life but now it is the battalions of jacks, barracuda, parrotfish, and other marine beasts that have made a home in the rusting structure.

For Larson this reunion with the Kittiwake was a dive down memory lane that come about significant nostalgia and good memories. His physical presence as a diver on the wreck in which he once lived and ran created a link between the Kittiwake as two distinctly different existences. In this brief moment of the Kittiwake as life cycle, old and new were joined together.

PO2 Larson is an avid diver and wreck enthusiast, as such he compared this dive to other deliberately-sunken wrecks he has seen, aThe dive make me think of the Orinskany and the Vandenberg . They are kinda still serving, just in a different capacity and I think thatas pretty cool. I think they should do more of it, Iad like to see the coral grow and not die, and if the ship will help that then thatas a good end for it.a

You may think that an old sailor would resent considering his ship at the boom of the sea but Larson had a different outlook: aIt was pretty cool to be back on the Kittiwake , simply to see it again, you are aware? To see how it continues on. Not cut up in a Louisiana junk yard for scrap metal, it actually has a purpose now. It has lots of life on it and itas a very good dive, I highly recommend it.a

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