USS Kittiwake (ASR-13) was a United States Navy Chanticleer-class submarine rescue vessel from 1946 to 1994. The primary mission of the Kittiwake was to rescue sailors from downed submarines. Kittiwake accompanied submarines during sea trials and maneuvers where its crew would monitor dive operations and practice underwater-rescue procedures. Kittiwake was very much a diving vessel.
From stories of the crew, there was great camaraderie and both rewarding and challenging voyages onboard. The ex-crew were fond of her and would say "to know her was to love her.”
Many of her stories are still locked away as 'classified' but there are some tales that have come to light. In 1959, The Kittiwake set a world record for the deepest submarine-rescue exercise, taking an officer and four others to a depth of 705 feet. One of Kittiwake’s best-known stories came after the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. The Department of Defense and the United States Coast Guard undertook a massive search for the space shuttle’s black box. It was the Kittiwake and her crew who eventually recovered the Challenger’s black box from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
After almost 50 years of active surface in the US Navy, the USS Kittiwake was decommissioned from the Navy. After being decommissioned, the Kittiwake would wait quietly for 8 years, before being called to another kind of service. In 2009, the ship was donated to the Cayman Islands for the purpose of being sunk as an artificial reef.
Kittiwake was cleaned and prepared for sinking. This expensive and time-consuming process required cleaning the ship of all environmental contaminants and hazardous materials such as PCBs, asbestos and lead-based paint. These substances were commonly used in ships built during World War II so the process of removing all of the paint and wires from the five-deck Kittiwake was a lengthy one. In addition to being made environmentally friendly, Kittiwake was also made more dive-friendly. Large holes were cut in its hull to create simple swim-throughs. Many of its doors, hatches, bulkheads and even some floors were removed in preparation for the sinking.
In 2011, the Kittiwake was sunk off Seven Mile Beach in Grand Cayman. The ship was successfully situated underwater in an almost perfectly upright position.
In 2018 on a quick trip to Grand Cayman we had the chance to dive on the Kittiwake. We knew we only had 2 dives on the wreck and so made sure that we were in the water at the crack of dawn, before the hundreds of divers, who dive on the Kittiwake arrived. A second dive around mid-day could capture the dive-mania. I understand why divers flock to this shipwreck. It is definitely impressive! The sight of the Kittiwake resting next to the reef in the white Caribbean sand surrounded by crystal clear blue water is truly phenomenal.
The Kittiwake has become home to a diverse range of marine life. All kinds of amazing marine creatures can be found living in the structure like barracuda, schools of horse eyed jacks, turtles, angelfish and groupers. The marine life use both the deck and the inside of the wreck as a large underwater habitat.
On this 250-foot wreck highlights include the mess hall, the massive propellers and towering smoke stack, two recompression chambers, diving bell, water cannon, giant winches and the deck of the ship full of marine life. The iconic wheel house has been damaged by storms but divers can still pose at the captain’s wheel.
In 2017, Tropical Storm Nate snapped Kittiwake's anchor chains and pushed the wreck onto its port side. The Kittiwake sits in 75 feet of water with the shallowest part of the wreck just 27 feet below the surface.