The Shipwrecks of Cayman

by Walt Stearns

The Shipwrecks of Cayman Silenced forever and Adorned by the sea

The Cayman Islands are a great diving destination. Their majestic walls and friendly stingrays are world renowned. However, these three islands also offer a collection of excellent, accessible wrecks. One such special site is the wreck of a Russian frigate. Drop over her side and gaze up from the vessel’s midsection at a depth of 60 feet and you can’t help but admire the superstructure, appearing as if it vaults skyward to infinity.

The sinking of this ship to create an exciting artificial reef site was a smart move for Grand Cayman’s sister island, Cayman Brac. Not only does this augment the fabulous array of dive sites around the island, but it provides something unique. Nowhere else in the Western Hemisphere will you find a modern era Russian warship sunk without a battle!

Sent down fully intact in September 1996, #356, also called the MV Capt. Keith Tibbetts Memorial, is no small ship. A product of the former USSR’s Nalhodlka shipyards, Frigate 356 rolled off the assembly line at 330 feet with a 42 foot beam and a displacement of more than 1,590 metric tons.

Following her hulking frame underwater, I am stirred by her presence. In her day (from 1984 to 1993), the Brigadier, Type-II Class Missile Frigate was a fast strike instrument for the Soviet Union’s Atlantic Fleet, with a cruise capability of 63 knots. That speed is impossible now as her three, eight foot diameter, deep pitched, four blade propellers are buried three-quarters of the way into the sand. As an instrument of war, #356’s list of armaments included everything from radar guided anti-aircraft guns to an assortment of surface to air and ship to ship missiles, along with two primary (fore and aft) deck gun batteries. Silenced forever at a depth of 48 feet, the foredeck’s twin cannons, protruding from their deck turret, have begun to bristle with tiny hydroids. Before long tiny colonies of sponges and corals will make their appearance.

Marine environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau was present for 356’s sinking and he referred to her as a ‘Destroyer for Peace.’ In his words, ‘Nothing in the sea is wasted, even objects discarded by man often become home to a variety of marine life.’ Lying within 120 feet of the drop-off, where the reef’s ecosystem is the most energetic, 356’s metamorphosis from ship to habitat for marine life is coming along nicely. This is substantiated by the presence of small tropicals from damselfish to squirrelfish and small Rock Beauties residing throughout the ship.

Sharing the Brac’s North Wall region with 356 are the wrecks of the Cayman Mariner and the Kissimee. The Mariner, a 65 foot aluminum crew boat sunk in 1986, sits upright on a flat sand bottom with its bow almost touching the reef crest next to East Chute’s drop-off. This fully intact wreck’s most colorful growth is inside the wheelhouse. If a light is used, a world of vivid hues will appear owing to a thick layer of red and orange encrusting sponges on its interior ceiling and walls.

Lying in a slightly shallower water (40 feet), is the iron hulk of an inverted 60 foot tugboat. Surrounded by several large coral heads, the Kissimee makes for a great shallow dive follow a wall dive.

On the south side of Little Cayman is a shipwreck called the Soto Trader, a 120 foot steel hulled cargo vessel. Before demise in 1975, she served as the sister island’s primary supply ship. Sitting upright on a flat sand bottom with a maximum depth of 50 feet, the wreck offers an easy dive with plenty of fish action and coral covered artifacts to explore, including the engine blocks and chassis of two Jeeps still in her holds.

There are several wreck sites on Grand Cayman that are easily dived. The best known among West Wall’s wide variety of sites is the Oro Verde, meaning Green Gold. Originally named the Navajo, sistership to the infamous Pueblo, the battered remains of this former 184 foot Liberty Ship turned freighter (sunk by the Cayman government in 1980), rests up against a reef line between 50 and 60 feet. Although the wreck has been fairly well flattened across the broad, white sand bottom, the site is a popular choice for both its ideal depth and for students on their first checkout dives. On any given day, there is guaranteed to be large aggregations of Yellowtails, Bermuda Chubs, and Horse-eye Jacks. Other fish that frequent the site include a few pugnacious angelfish and groupers, milling schools of snappers and grunts, as well as a large colony of Garden Eels out in the sand.

North of the Oro Verde, at the same depth, is the 70 foot cable layer Doc Polson, named in honor of Doctor Polson’s efforts in establishing the island’s first hyperbaric chamber for treating diving accidents. The vessel (sunk in 1991) sits upright on a white, sandy plain, surrounded by Garden Eels, with a low reef off to one side. From April through June, the lower holds and engine compartment are usually filled with clouds of Silversides, sometimes so thick it is impossible to see.

One of Grand Cayman’s star attractions for night diving is the wreck of the Balboa. Lying directly off George Town Harbor, the ship was a 376 foot freighter that sank while at anchor during a severe hurricane in 1932. Today her jumbled remains rest in 30 feet of water, strewn across a large stretch of sandy bottom by her subsequent dynamiting to clear the harbor entrance. Besides her adornment of colorful sponge growth, particularly on a portion of her stern (flipped upside down) and segments of the hull’s steel ribbing (standing upright out of the sand), the Balboa is a haven to myriad small, nocturnal creatures from lobsters and spider crabs to octopus.

Additional wrecks around Grand Cayman in easy diving depths include the LCM David Nicholson, a 50 foot World War II landing craft sunk 200 yards off Sunset House Resort in 55 feet of water. One of the least visited sites is the battered remains of the Ridgefield. Built in Maine in 1943, the WW II Liberty Ship was the victim of the East End’s shallow barrier reef. Today she lies severely broken up on both sides of the reefline in easy snorkeling depths of 3 to 15 feet. In addition to an abundance of small reef fish, divers and snorkelers should find her large steam engine and massive 15 foot diameter propeller standing up out of the bottom.

Recapping all the Cayman Islands have to offer, the choices are obvious. Besides cruising the walls, go dive on a wreck for some additional excitement.