Beneath the crystal-clear waters of the Cayman Islands lies the wreckage of almost 200 ships. Spanning the centuries from sail-powered British naval frigates to modern submarine rescue vessels, the wrecks of the Cayman Islands are fascinating to historians and divers alike.
Here we summarise the stories behind eight of Cayman’s most famous wrecks.
The Wreck of the Ten Sail
The most famous of Cayman’s many shipwreck stories, the Wreck of the Ten Sail has become part of national folklore. It was in the early hours of 8 Feb. 1794 that British naval ship the HMS Convert, along with nine merchant ships that were part of a much-larger convoy, headed from Jamaica to the UK, struck the reefs off East End. Ten ships were lost but Caymanians were lauded for their efforts to rescue the survivors in the aftermath of the tragedy in what is perhaps the first documented incidence of Caymankind.
The USS Kittiwake
Exploring the dark, atmospheric corridors of the USS Kittiwake is one of the highlights of any dive trip to the Cayman Islands. The former submarine rescue vessel was deliberately sunk off Seven Mile Beach in 2011 to add a new attraction for the scuba industry. It has become one of the island’s best-loved sites and a favourite with photographers. The US Navy ship, in commission from 1946 to 1994, was tasked with recovering the ‘black box’ from the Space Shuttle Challenger, which exploded over the Atlantic, killing seven astronauts, just 73 seconds after lifting off in 1986.
The Oro Verde
The name Oro Verde literally translates as ‘green gold’ in Spanish. Originally a US Navy ship, the 250-ton vessel was converted to a cargo boat, shipping bananas from Central America to the US. It was also rumoured to be involved in marijuana smuggling, according to Lawson Wood’s book, ‘Shipwrecks of the Cayman Islands’. The ship was abandoned in Cayman’s waters in 1976 amid reports of unrest among the crew, who had reportedly not been paid.
A Cayman Compass article from 1980 indicates that it was claimed by the government and bought by Rupert Moxam for $1,500 before making history as the first boat to be sunk for the dive industry.
The Doc Polson
Originally a Japanese cable-laying barge, the Doc Polson was used in Cayman to dig the channel for the Cayman Islands Yacht Club.
It was sunk for the dive industry in 1991 and renamed for Dr. John Polson, who was instrumental in securing the first hyperbaric chamber – to help treat scuba divers suffering from the bends – at the Cayman Islands Hospital.
Only 100 feet long and fully intact, sitting upright on the seabed, the ship has become encrusted with corals and sponges and is a magnet for marine life.
The Cali is one of the more famous and most accessible of Cayman’s shipwrecks.
The 206-foot-long cargo ship was transporting 30,000 bags of rice from Ecuador to Cuba in 1948 when it developed a leak and started taking on water. The crew ran the ship ashore in George Town to save the cargo of rice, some of which was salvaged and exported. The rest festered in the hold, until she was set alight and burned to the waterline, according to Wood’s account.
The Cali was later registered as a navigational hazard and blown apart by the British army. She now lies in pieces in around 20 feet of water, a short swim from Balboa Beach and Rackam’s waterfront bar. The Cali’s status as a dive and snorkel site is considered to be under threat from the planned port development.
The shattered skeleton of a 375-foot-long freighter that was dashed on the pier in the 1932 hurricane and then blown up and sank, the Balboa is more wreckage than wreck. It was reportedly carrying lumber from Texas to Jamaica when it pulled into Grand Cayman to attempt repairs before being pummelled by the storm. The one crew member who was still on board was forced to swim ashore with his cat just before the ship went down.
The broken pieces of the ship are now crusted with coral. Lobster and octopus make their homes in the craggy enclaves. The wreck will be relocated if the cruise and cargo port project goes ahead.
One of the more photogenic wrecks in the Cayman Islands, the Glamis is famous for its huge, distinctive anchor, the image of which has adorned the covers of numerous dive publications over the years.
Research by the Cayman Islands National Museum, among others, helped unravel the history of the Glamis, which was built in Dundee, Scotland in the late 19th century and lost under Norwegian flag off Cayman in 1913.
Intriguingly, two more anchors and a length of chain, of a completely different design, can also be found at the site, suggesting multiple ships have gone down in that location.
The Rimandi Mibaju
The doomed bauxite freighter was en route from Suriname to the US when it struck the treacherous East End reefs in 1964. According to Wood, it was not until many years later that the ship’s former identity as one of the vessels involved in the ill-fated, US-sponsored invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs was revealed. The story came to light when the black hull paint peeled away to reveal the name Garcia Line. Soon after, former Director of Tourism Eric Bergstrom reportedly discovered a logbook bearing the name MV Lake Charles, revealing the ship’s former name and role as one of five cargo ships in the clandestine, CIA-funded invasion of Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
This article was compiled using numerous books and online publications, principally:
‘Shipwrecks of the Cayman Islands: A Diving Guide to Historical & Modern Shipwrecks’ by Lawson Wood;
‘Cayman’s 1794 Wreck of the Ten Sail: Peace, War and Peril in the Caribbean’ by Peggy Leshikar-Denton