Kittiwake project begins cleaning process

A retired naval ship scheduled to be sunk in Cayman to
form an artificial reef to benefit both marine life and the diving industry has
begun its journey.

The USS Kittiwake was moved from
its position in Fort Eustis, Newport
News, Virginia, to
Dominion Marine on Wednesday. There it will begin several months of cleaning to
ensure it is ready for its new, and final, posting.

There are two parts to the process,
said project manager, Nancy Easterbrook.

“The first phase is environmental
mitigation whereby all hazardous materials are removed from the ship. This includes
things like asbestos, mercury and a long list of materials which have already
been identified on the ship.

“There will be inspections
throughout the project by the Cayman Islands Department of Environment and the United
States Environmental Protection Agency as well as a third party independent who
comes in and verifies that everything hazardous has been removed,” she explained.

Second phase

Following the initial cleaning, a
second phase will be undertaken that involves preparing the Kittiwake
specifically to be suitable for its new designation as an artificial reef on a
sand patch at the northern end of Seven Mile Reef.

“[This involves removing] things
that we don’t want on the ship when it’s sunk like loose pieces of wood and
things will deteriorate – tiles on the floor, furniture and bunk beds. We’ll
also be opening up bulkheads for divers to swim through.

“After more inspections when the
ship is how we want her to be we’ll bring her down here,” said Mrs Easterbrook.

The projected date for the
Kittiwake’s sinking at Cayman is 4 July according to the United States Department
of Transportation, a date that is rated as ‘possible’ by Easterbrook due to the
lengthy cleaning and inspection processes which take a significant amount of
time to complete.

Diving

The Kittiwake’s sinking brings
significant benefits to Cayman as a diving destination, explained Cayman
Islands Tourism Association president, Steve Broadbelt.

“It’s the single biggest project
for the water sports industry for as long as I can remember – the best thing
we’ve done since Stingray City. Scuba divers love shipwrecks and snorkelers
will be able to have the same experience as well.

“Divers who are interested in
underwater photography find shipwrecks particularly photogenic due to the
spooky, eerie feel of a ship sitting on the bottom and marine life swirling
around.”

Study

There will also be an ongoing study
that will monitor and document the progress of the Kittiwake and its impact on
the local ecology. Artificial reefs such as the Kittiwake form natural habitats
for fish as the food chain starts to assert itself.

“We’ll be looking at a lot of fish
census information, coral growth and so on. Part of the study also looks at the
natural biodiversity and aggregation – do we move fish off natural reefs and
they just move to a new home or do we actually create a more diverse and robust
fish population?

“Different studies will report
different things which we’ll find out over time. So we’re studying not only the
artificial reef as well as the adjoining reef to find out what was there to
start with.”

Ecosystem

Artificial reefs are used worldwide
to restore devastated naturally-occurring reefs that have been lost to weather
or man-made causes including anchoring, explained Easterbrook.

“You can start the regrowth of a
reef system by putting something in the water for marine life to start on
again. It’s a food chain and it’s why the whole ecosystem is so important.

“You can’t eliminate one thing at
the top or the bottom, whether it’s the sharks or the groupers or the algae –
if you take out any of those then the food chain doesn’t work anymore. So you
have to create a habitat environment for it to start and that’s what artificial
reefs are purported to do,” she noted.

Hotspot

There had been times when the
project had been in doubt over the last two years, said Broadbelt, who praised
the tenacity of project manager Nancy Easterbrook in what has been a lengthy
process.

“It’s taken a long time to come to
this stage – this is the first time that the US Navy has transferred ownership
of an asset to a foreign government.

“Diving shipwrecks remains one of the most popular reasons for going
diving – historical, marine life and the personal experience of being absorbed
into a Discovery channel TV series of your own.

“Cayman has always been the
grandfather of diving in the region and this will reconfirm us as the place to
visit. In 2011 we’ll be the hotspot of diving in the Caribbean
and also for many years to come,” he said.

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