The concept would likely have been baffling to the old-school mariners of generations past. But spending significant sums to deliberately sink ships has become the new ‘wrecking’ industry in the Cayman Islands.
Many of the most famous shipwrecks around the islands were scuttled, in some cases at great expense, for the benefit of the burgeoning dive industry.
Those wrecks have become an important feature of the island’s tourism industry.
While historically significant sites like the Wreck of the Ten Sail hold some appeal for visitors because of their stories, there is little remaining evidence of those ancient ships for divers to explore.
“Many don’t realise it but Grand Cayman has hundreds of shipwreck sites,” said Jason Washington of Ambassador Divers.
“From a diving standpoint, many are uninteresting due to their age and the earth’s process of reclamation. Many of the modern wrecks are quite interesting to divers because their structure makes great cover for schooling fish and nocturnal creatures like green eels and octopus.”
Washington’s favourite is the USS Kittiwake, which he says offers numerous interesting opportunities for seasoned photographers.
The Kittiwake was deliberately sunk off Seven Mile Beach as a dive site in 2011.
The Oro Verde and the Doc Polson in Grand Cayman and the MV Captain Keith Tibbetts on Cayman Brac also belong to this category of wrecks that were deliberately sunk for the dive industry.
Steve Broadbelt of Ocean Frontiers in East End agrees that these wrecks are the most significant from a tourism perspective.
But he believes historic sites do hold some interest for divers and snorkellers – even if all that remains is an anchor or ballast stones.
His favourites are the Glamis, a Norwegian-flagged cargo ship that went down on the eastern reefs in 1913, and the Geneva Kathleen, a three-masted schooner, which ran aground off East End in 1930.
“A lot of these sites are very shallow and can only be visited on calm days or snorkelling instead of diving,” Broadbelt said.
“It is all about visiting the wrecks by whatever means, seeing and getting a feel of the maritime history and what happened on that day.
“I always think about the thousands of hours that were spent to build a vessel, then for it all to be lost in one moment and what became of the crew. Shipwrecks are a constant reminder of how powerful the oceans are and that mistakes are not often forgiven.”
Other modern wreck sites have historical significance beyond the peril that placed them on the bottom, said Washington.
He cites the Balboa, which ran aground in the 1932 hurricane and was later scuttled as a navigational hazard, as one example.
“Its close proximity to shore made it the perfect location for divers during the beginnings of recreational scuba diving,” he said.
“A young Bobby Soto alongside divemaster Kem Jackson regularly visited the wreck, making this site a contributing factor that led to the Cayman Islands being recognised as the birthplace of recreational scuba diving.”
New wrecks are still being discovered in Cayman’s waters today. Earlier this year Broadbelt discovered a ‘trainwreck’ off East End. Partially buried in sand and encrusted in coral growth, the collection of wheelsets for old-fashioned train carriages may have lain, hidden in plain sight, for more than a century.
He is assisting the museum in work to determine from where the wheelsets originated.
“This site has been there for over 150 years and I have driven boats by the wreck for the last 27 years, over a thousand times. Every week, people ask me about the ‘trainwreck’ and want to learn more about her story,” he said.
“There is a much-larger interest in maritime history than is currently served and I would love to see a Maritime History Museum built on the site of the Wreck of the Ten Sail monument as a tourism attraction.”