The USS Kittiwake (ASR-13) was launched on July 10, 1945 in Savannah Georgia. After commissioning in July 1946, it served as an underwater rescue ship. Submarine sea trials and maneuvers drove Kittiwake up and down the US east coast and across the Caribbean. Submariners were reassured knowing that the divers at Kittiwake above would rescue them if a problem arose.
The name Kittiwake comes from gulls that live along the cost of North America that look a lot like common gulls. Based in Balboa, Kittiwake has spent many years in the Caribbean.
Kittiwake divers recovered practice torpedoes during sea trials. The ship sometimes raced as a practice target for the submarines she served. When the Missouri battleship ran aground on the shores of the Virginia coast in 1950, Kittiwake divers came with rescue gear to set it free.
In 1960, Kittiwake was on hand while the George Washington submarine successfully launched the first two Polaris ballistic missiles ever launched at the bottom of the sea.
In 1961, Kittiwake sailed to the Mediterranean for several months of service before returning to its home port of Virginia. Throughout her service, she made more trips across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and Europe.
Cuban refugees off the coast of Key West, Florida, thanked Kittiwake for carrying them safely to shore while on holiday in 1963.
Kittiwake has done many interesting things during its years of service. At one point, she towed a US submarine to Scotland. The official reason given was for a group of scientists to study tile fish. Disguised underground, this mission covered the exchange of boxes used to monitor Soviet submarine activity whose location had been compromised by a spy. During the mission, a Russian spy ship trying to disguise itself as a fishing vessel appeared. An attack submarine backed by a fast American frigate soon emerged. The Russian spy ship quickly vacated the area.
While in the Mediterranean in 1966, Kittiwake helped locate and rescue the German submarine Hai (S-171), which sank in a gale.
The unsuccessful search for the USS Scorpion in 1968 brought Kittiwake to the Atlantic Ocean. Scorpion was the second US nuclear submarine lost at sea. Although the wreck has already been found, there is still controversy as to whether it sank due to attacks by a Soviet submarine or internal problems.
In April 1984, Kittiwake was found at Norfolk, Virginia, dock for maintenance and repair. While trying to get off the pier, Kittiwake tried to move forward and ended up in reverse. The more she tried to advance, the faster she reversed. The movement ceased as it collided with the USS Bergall attack submarine moored behind it. The main motor drive turned out to be improperly connected, causing the screw to turn backwards.
In 1986, Kittiwake rescued an F-15 from about 300 feet of water and retrieved the black box from the Challenger space shuttle disaster.
In 1994, Kittiwake was deactivated. She sat in the graveyard of deactivated ships for a while, until the Cayman Islands became interested. After years of negotiations, the Cayman Islands were able to buy Kittiwake, the first former US military ship sold to another country. A planned wreck for 2009 went wrong due to environmental concerns related to the possibility of banned chemicals in the sealant at some joints. It took until January 2011 before the ship was finally towed by sinking into the 7-mile beach and a new life as an artificial reef. The Kittiwakes sank vertically and rested on the sandy bottom of the ocean. After spending so much time watching submarines in the Caribbean, it seems appropriate that the Kittiwakes find their final underwater dive site there.
The ship did not take long to settle before Hurricane Rina passed 160 kilometers from the Cayman Islands. Strong waves of hurricane winds pushed Kittiwake about 10 meters farther offshore than the original site of its sinking. An anchor chain has broken, and the ship is now seated at the three starboard anchors, sloping slightly to a side less than three feet deeper than in its original position.
The ship pushed enough sand into the underwater slide to create a sandbar now holding the hull more firmly in place. The ship is still in shallow water enough for a clear view of the high snorkelers and easy access for divers. It is now far enough away that snorkelers can no longer stand on deck with their heads out of the water, as they did at the original site.
The fish moved shortly after the original wreck, finding good places to hide and call home within the ship's structure. Algae cover the once white ship. As the years go by, more marine life clings to the hull until, over time, it becomes a new reef, changing the view of a sunken ship to a multitude of marine life.
A variety of operators on Grand Cayman take divers and snorkelers to Kittiwake. They know the rules about mandatory fees and time limits; therefore, guests on organized tours need not worry. Cruise lines like Carnival also offer Kittiwake snorkeling trips between their shore excursions to Grand Cayman.