GRAND CAYMAN — Diving into the watery interior of the submarine rescue vessel the Kittiwake, 55 feet below the surface of the western Caribbean, feels a little eerie. I’ve been diving for years, but never before to a wreck, and this made me a little nervous — or perhaps more precisely, agoraphobic.
Moving around the Kittiwake’s five decks with a full tank of air and scuba gear is like creeping around a strange, abandoned old house in the middle of the night. You just don’t know what might be lurking around the next corner. You imagine the worst: underwater predators like barracudas, with long rows of needle-sharp teeth. Or oversize moray eels waiting to sink their fangs into the soft flesh of unsuspecting human prey.
At one point I did come face-to-face with a three-foot long barracuda, floating inside a lower deck. I was startled, he was not, pretending not to see me. I swam on.
The 192-foot-long USS Kittiwake was built in 1946, and for nearly 50 years during the Cold War it plied the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas in support of the US Navy’s submarine fleet.
It was scuttled off the north end of Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman in 2011 to create an artificial reef. Today soft corals adhere to the main deck and large schools of horse-eye jacks circle overhead. Blue parrotfish with pointy beaks weave in and out of ghostly portholes.
Grand Cayman is the biggest of the three tiny islands that comprise this British territory. The others are Little Cayman and Cayman Brac.
Sir Francis Drake gave the Caymans their present name in 1586 when dangerous caiman crocodilians with an appetite for British sailors freely roamed these isles in large numbers.
Much later, King George III of England made the capital Georgetown a tax-free port. No one really remembers why, but on the strength of this royal decree, today’s Georgetown is the world’s fifth largest financial center. It’s home to more than 11,000 hedge funds and dozens of multinational insurance companies and banks.
I’ve been diving all over the Caribbean from Jamaica to Trinidad, but the Caymans are the best place to scuba dive by far. That’s because they sit on the edge of a geological formation known as the Cayman Trench. This deep sea corridor, 25,000 feet below the surface at its lowest point, was created by continental plates rubbing against each other over millions of years.
The result is that the Cayman Islands are the underwater equivalent of the Grand Canyon, offering an underwater spectacle of sheer walls, chasms and soaring pinnacles unlike anything else in the world.
Ironically, the point of sinking the Kittiwake was to take some pressure off the territory’s most celebrated reefs. Among them The North Wall on Grand Cayman and Bloody Bay on Little Cayman, considered to be the equivalent of Beluga caviar for scuba connoisseurs. A secondary consideration was to offer divers a little variety — after all, how many breathtaking underwater vistas covered in a kaleidoscope of corals and sponges can you enjoy before you start to long for a rum punch? (The correct answer is that you never tire of this underwater spectacle.)
The highlights of the Kittiwake’s interior is the sailors’ head, with rows of sinks and cracked mirrors. Looking into one of these funhouse mirrors at my underwater reflection, I half expected a ghostly sailor with crabs crawling out his eyeballs to wink back at me.
You can enter the cylindrical decompression chamber and swim to the air pocket up top. I’d been warned by Daryl London, a Kiwi scuba pro with Epic Divers, not to breathe the slightly toxic air. “A bit like breathing the air out of King Tut’s tomb after it had been closed for thousands of years,’’ he said.
The next day I headed out in a 65-foot luxury catamaran to Stingray City at the top of the North Sound. Our destination was a shallow sandbar where you can play with large schools of southern Atlantic stingrays. The excursion is a must for any visitor to Grand Cayman.
As I tried to manipulate one of these strange beasts for a photo, she bit me. It hurt like hell because stingrays can crunch through spiny lobsters and other hard crustaceans. Fortunately they have no teeth, so there was no blood.
And anyway, always better to be bitten by a stingray than bayoneted.
If you go . . .
For information about diving the Kittiwake and Grand Cayman’s spectacular North Wall, visit Epic Divers, visit epicdivers.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For excursions to Stingray City with Red Sail Sports, visit www.redsailcayman.com or e-mail email@example.com. For more information about the Cayman Islands visit Cayman Islands Tourism at www.caymanislands.ky.