Russian Destroyer Wreck

By Geri Murphy

As our dive boat approached, I could already make out the shadowy profile of the steel behemoth beneath the surface. Even before we hooked up to the dive site mooring, I could clearly see the distinct features of a massive shipwreck. The excitement mounted as we strapped on our gear and prepared for one of the Caribbean’s most unusual shipwreck dives.

Diving conditions were perfect-100-foot viz, 82 degrees F water and a very slight current to carry away bubbles and sand stirred by visiting divers. As we dropped into the sea below the dive boat, I was confronted by the image of a giant sunken ship, measuring 330 feet in length and lying on a powder white sand bottom. The sight was awesome!

Having dived and explored more than 200 different shipwrecks over the past 30 years, I could well appreciate the unique aspect of this particular wreck. Commonly described as the Destroyer Wreck, this ship is the only diveable Russian warship to be found anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. Needless to say, it has become a major attraction as Cayman Brac's most unusual undersea diving experience.

Built in 1984 as a Russian missile frigate, destroyer 356 was assigned to the Caribbean as part of the Soviet Union's Atlantic Fleet. It operated out of Cuba for years, before being retired. In the spring of 1998, the aging warship was purchased by the Cayman Islands Government and then towed from Cuba to Cayman Brac to be sunk as an artificial reef.

This project was spearheaded by the Honorable Thomas Jefferson, Minister of Tourism for the Cayman Islands. Working closely with the Watersports Association and the Sister Islands Tourism Association, the warship was cleaned and carefully sunk in a location where it could be enjoyed by scuba divers and snorkelers alike. The shipwreck was renamed the MV Captain Keith Tibbetts, in honor of one of the Brac's most beloved pioneers. Environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau filmed the actual sinking and subsequently produced a television documentary titled Destroyer for Peace.

The great warship settled upright on a white-sand bottom close to East Chute, one of the Brac's best drop-offs. She is pointed toward the open sea and there is a vertical wall some 200 feet off the bow. While the sunken ship touches a maximum depth of 110 feet, most of the vessel is in much shallower water. The stern deck comes to within 30 feet of the surface and the forward deck is at 60 feet. As the years have passed, the wreck has settled into the sand and broken apart in places, thus providing more hiding places and living quarters for fish. Most of the paint has flaked off the hull, replaced by a thin veneer of algae and marine growth.

Photographing large shipwrecks poses a special challenge. It is a little bit like trying to photograph the Empire State Building in the fog. Fortunately, the Destroyer Wreck offers some highly photogenic opportunities. Once in the water, my dive buddies and I made a bee-line for the ship's foredeck where we found the forward gun turret. Sitting out in the open, raised off the deck, is a set of twin 76.2 mm cannons-the prime fire power for surface action. The twin cannons are this wreck's signature, immediately recognizable to anyone who has dived this sunken vessel.

During the past three years, the slumbering destroyer has become an undersea beacon and habitat for a variety of marine life. Two Spotted Eagle Rays are frequently seen on the wreck, and a large barracuda has taken up residence at the ship's stern. More than a dozen Southern Stingrays can be found in the sand around the wreck, forming a miniature Stingray City. Small schools of snappers and grunts cruise around the wreck, and divers often encounter Red Soldierfish, assorted butterflyfish and small angelfish.

This year, a large Jewfish has been sighted on the wreck and a giant Green Moray Eel has adopted the hull as its permanent home. One of the most exciting arrivals, however, is a six-foot Bottlenose Dolphin that uses the wreck as home base. Other visitors include large silvery Permit, an occasional Wahoo and various other pelagics.

The Destroyer Wreck is unquestionably one of the top 10 dives in the Cayman Islands, ranking right up there with Babylon, Tarpon Alley, Stingray City and Bloody Bay Wall. It is a truly unique shipwreck experience that should not be missed by anyone planning to visit these islands.