Grand Cayman Island has much more to offer besides a place where people hide their money in offshore bank accounts. It’s a great vacation spot, and a port stop for cruise ships. We had not made any plans for that port, but the night before our stop there Chris, Liza, and I decided to book a snorkel excursion rather than take our chances with what we might randomly find if we just got off the boat with no plans.
Liza wanted to book a stingray adventure, but the more affordable one was scheduled right in the middle of the day where there would be no time before or after to look around town. Grand Cayman is a tender port so you have to allow time for catching tenders rather than just walking off the ship down a dock. We chose a two stop wreck and reef snorkel with an early start time. I said we could just book it through the TV, but Chris wanted to go down to the Carnival Liberty’s shore excursion desk so we could ask some questions.
We did ask if there was a place to snorkel from shore that we could walk to from the tender pier, but they did not think so. They also said the excursion we wanted to book got cancelled because not enough people booked it. A similar excursion with just a slightly later starting time had space available. It cost the same, lasted half an hour longer, and also had a wreck and a reef so we booked that one instead.
We gathered in the specified lounge at the appropriate time with all the other folks with shore excursion tickets. In Belize excursions on boats had picked passengers up right off the ship, but that is the only port where they do because the ship anchors quite a distance from shore there. At Grand Cayman we took the tender to the nearby shore and found someone holding the sign for our tour to lead us to the boat docked at the next pier. The tender pier was pretty much just a central restroom with an overhanging roof to make a sheltered gathering area for the tours, and a Welcome to Grand Cayman sign.
The boat, aptly named Reef & Snorkel, was a catamaran with a flat deck filled with benches and no bathroom. They did have a jug of water and one of lemonade available for thirsty passengers though. On the way to the wreck, they told us how she came to sink there. The guy at the shore excursion desk also mentioned this having been an intentionally sunk ship rather than an accidental wreck.
The USS Kittiwake served for 50 years as a submarine support and rescue vessel. During her years of service she had some interesting times including the rescue of a stranded battleship. Divers from the Kittiwake recovered the black box from the space shuttle Challenger following its tragic accident. After sitting for sometime in the ghost fleet of decommissioned ships, the Cayman government requested to purchase her for the purpose of sinking the ship for reef building and tourism. It took 7 years for the governments to complete the sale, as the US does not normally sell their old military ships to foreign countries. The Kittiwake is the first, and so far only one. The name Kittiwake comes from a type of seagull.
Sinking the ship involved anchoring it with 7 anchors and then filling the ship with water until it lost buoyancy and went under. It landed right side up in the sand. Hurricane Rina moved it about 30 feet deeper than its original location, but most of the anchors held and it remained right side up, though listing slightly to one side. Having been sunk less than a year ago, at this time it just had algae growing on it, and lots of fish swimming about. Sometimes people see stingrays there, but we did not. Over the years more sea life will grow on it until coral and things cover the ship and it becomes a reef. At this time we could read the name of the ship on the deck at the bow.
On the way to the wreck site, the boat crew handed out snorkel gear. We declined, having brought our own. They also handed out snorkel vests. Chris and I would have preferred to decline those as well, but they said Carnival required everyone to wear them whether they put air in them or not. Chris and I had no air in ours. Liza, not having much experience snorkeling, filled hers way too full.
The warm salt water has natural buoyancy, and floating face down in any water also provides buoyancy (which is why face float is often the first thing learned in beginner’s swimming lessons.) I always find it takes much more effort to dive under the water while snorkeling than it does to stay floating on the top, even without any sort of vest or wet suit providing extra buoyancy. The bright yellow color of these vests also probably helps the boat crew keep track of passengers in the water.
Chris and I swam the length of the wreck and back several times, armed with our underwater cameras. Liza had a rough time with all that air in her vest, and also did not have her mask tight enough so got some water in her nose. She gave up before the whistle blew to call everyone in, along with some other inexperienced snorkelers.
Meanwhile Chris and I swam off to the side of the wreck a bit and found the trench where it sat before the hurricane blew it to its current location. We found the anchor chain that broke during the storm. I had not snorkeled over a wreck before, so this was pretty interesting to see. Chris said he’d love to come back every 5 years or so to watch the sea life grow and transform the wreck into a reef.
The ship made itself a sand bank as it slid in the hurricane, so if another storm should come it would be more securely grounded now. Before Rina it sat in water shallow enough for snorkelers to stand on the deck with their heads out of water, but it lies too deep for that now.
After about 40 minutes snorkeling over the wreck, the crew blew the whistle to signal everyone still in the water to return to the ship. Once aboard, we headed for the reef. They said since the water was somewhat choppy, they sheltered behind the Liberty rather than going to their normal reef.
The cruise ships anchor up just beyond where the reef ends and the bottom drops off from rather shallow to very deep. Our boat stopped about halfway between the ship and shore. We saw on the shore directly in front of us a dive shop which most likely had shore snorkeling, within walking distance of the tender pier. Nobody was in the water, just some sort of large inflatable raft thing that appeared anchored there so I don’t know for sure if they had shore snorkeling, but likely. The water might have been too choppy for it that day though.
Even in the shelter of the ship the somewhat choppy water scared off some of the beginners, but once in the water you really don’t notice the waves. I felt the current more. The boat stops so that the current comes toward the stern where we got on and off. That way everyone can always get back. It took some effort to get very far away, then just relaxing and floating I found myself back to the boat in next to no time.
My snorkel had a wave guard, which helped keep that choppy water from splashing into the tube, but it still filled with water when I did any diving under. I have since bought a dry snorkel for my next cruise. I don’t much like blowing the water out of the tube after diving under, and the dry snorkel will solve that problem as none gets in.
Chris thought that particular reef must have had some damage several years back as it had no large coral, everything looked young. It had many brightly colored fish. Lots of small ones and some up to about a foot and a half long. Down in the depths of a deep dark crevasse in the coral, I saw something that looked about 6 feet long. A big grouper perhaps. It was too far down and too dark to take a picture.
Chris and I always love snorkeling, and even though Liza spent less time in the water she enjoyed it enough to want to go again. On this excursion we used the towels we had packed in our beach bags both for drying after getting out of the water and for wrapping around ourselves on the journey to the second site. The cruise ships provide nice big beach towels, so no need to bring them from home. Sunscreen is also a necessity, whether put on in advance or on the boat on the way to the first snorkel site. I burn easily, so added a bit more sunblock in between sites as well. We must have used enough because none of us got sunburned. Another useful item for this excursion would be several kleen-x packed in a ziplock bag.