New exhibit at Heritage House marks sinking of MV Capt. Keith Tibbetts

The M.V. Capt. Keith Tibbetts was sunk in September 1996. - Photos: Cayman Islands Department of Tourism

The Heritage House will be showcasing Cayman Brac’s marine heritage with a new exhibit this month.

Scheduled to open Friday, Sept. 23, in the main hall, according to Heritage House coordinator Saskia Edwards, the exhibit will transform the room into an underwater oasis, complete with replicas of numerous coral species and sea animals.

The display will highlight some of the unique treasures of the underwater world, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the sinking of the M.V. Capt. Keith Tibbetts.

An article in the Caymanian Compass marked the 15th anniversary of the deliberate sinking on Sept. 17, 1996 of Patrol Vessel 356, a 330-foot long Russian Brigadier Type II class frigate, to form an artificial reef.

The ship was built in 1984 in the former USSR and was stationed in Cuba during the Cold War and later abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union. It was subsequently purchased by the Cayman Islands government in 1996. After being carefully prepared for its new life underwater, it was scuttled on Sept. 17, 1996, about 300 yards off Buccaneer Slip on the northwest shore of the island. Marine biologist Jean-Michael Cousteau reportedly rode the ship down and others dove alongside, filming as it sank. Mr. Cousteau’s popular film of the making of the new artificial reef is called “Destroyer at Peace.”

Before it was sunk, the ship was renamed after Keith Tibbetts, a Cayman Brac businessman, politician and diver who passed away on March 10, 1996 at age 79.

Capt. Keith Tibbetts - Photo: George Nowak
Capt. Keith Tibbetts – Photo: George Nowak

According to an obituary published in the March 12, 1996 edition of the Compass, Captain Tibbetts represented Cayman Brac and Little Cayman for 23 years, first as a member of the Assembly of Justices and Vestry, from 1946-62, then as a Member of the Legislative Assembly, from 1965-68 and from 1976-80. He also served as a Justice of the Peace since 1969.

“He was named an Member of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours for 1988,” stated the obituary.

“His seafaring days included service as a gunner aboard a supply ship during World War II, then obtaining his master’s licences. He built ocean-going vessels and later turned his carpentry skills to house-building,” it says.

“With his wife, Marjorie, he started a retail grocery business in 1953, introduced self-service in 1962 and expanded to a general store in 1974.”

In a humorous anecdote recently published in the Compass’ “People Time Forgot” series, George Nowak wrote: “Reminding his constituents where he stood after one election, he placed a sign on his [shop] door that read: ‘NOTICE: No credit to those that did not vote for me. KP Tibbetts.’”

The obituary noted that Captain Tibbetts also served as an airline and shipping agent, was involved in a number of tourism ventures, and in his later years started recording anecdotes of Brac history.

“His ‘Did You Know?’ list of Brackers and their achievements is popular with all generations,” it states.

Over the years, the Capt. Keith Tibbetts has become a popu

The M.V. Capt. Keith Tibbetts
The M.V. Capt. Keith Tibbetts

lar Brac diving site. The ship is now broken in two, but divers can still dive within the boat.

According to the Reef Divers Cayman Brac website, the bow sits in 85 feet of water, with the stern in 60 feet.

“The radar tower starts in about 30 feet, so this is an excellent dive for snorkelers as well as divers,” the site states.

“Over 100 species of marine life have been documented in the short time she has been down. The wreck has been made diver friendly and portions of it are penetrable.”

Along with information on the sunken ship, the new Heritage House exhibition will feature a brief overview of diving in the Sister Islands, and the various snorkel and dive sites around Cayman Brac and Little Cayman

Heritage House coordinator Saskia Edwards noted the exhibit will also highlight shipwrecks in local waters, information on local marine life, and information on past and current dive operations and International Scuba Diving Hall of Famers from the Sister Islands.