THE M/V KEITH TIBBETTS
The Cayman Islands Government acquired a 330 foot Russian Frigate in 1996, not for aggressive purposes, but to become the flagship of marine conservation. Built in 1984 at Nakhodka in the former USSR at a cost of approximately $30 million dollars (US), it was part of the old Soviet fleet stationed in Cuba during the Cold War Era. When the Soviet Republic dissolved and abandoned financial support of overseas operational bases like the one in Cuba in 1992, the ship was literally abandoned, its crew of 11 officers and 99 enlisted men were all repatriated to Russia. The Cayman Islands Department of the Environment negotiated for the vessel and then brought it to Cayman Brac. After careful consideration, a site along the Garden Eel Wall about 300 yards off the Buccaneer Slip was chosen as the most suitable site for this very special artificial reef structure and future dive attraction.
Originally named Patrol Vessel 356, it was renamed the M/V Captain Keith Tibbetts by the wife of the Cayman Islands (then) Governor, his Excellency John Owen while moored at the Creek Dock. Accompanied by a bevy of Government Officials and Jean-Michael Cousteau, the vessel was sunk on the predetermined site on Tuesday, September 17th. The Cuban tugboat Rigel and crew assisted the preparation and sinking and Cousteau (in full scuba gear) rode the submerging vessel to the bottom. The vessel’s anchors were set prior to sinking and the process was slow and controlled soas to keep the vessel properly aligned in the sand and away from the nearby coral heads.
It was written that … “In its new resting place, the ship appears simply massive. She lists only slightly to starboard, otherwise perfectly placed in a sand-chute which plunges over the wall off the north shore of Cayman Brac. On either side of her are healthy sections of coral reef carpeted with huge barrel sponges. Under the bow at 25M is a field of garden eels, and under the stern the rudders and propellers keep the hull clear of the bottom.” To everyone’s amazement, fish were found about the ship almost immediately after she sank, a clear indication that it was destined to become an integral part of reef life in the Cayman Islands.
While not present at the sinking, I dove the Tibbetts a month after the event. It was immediately clear that it was a spectacular underwater scene. Here was a huge gun boat, outfitted for war, gun turrets fore and aft, missile launch tubes clearly evident, external equipment like davits and radar towers in place and the entire superstructure intact – at rest on a plain of white sand under 50 to 80 feet of water! My most vivid memory is descending straight from the surface to the bow, continuing to the base of the bow as it overhung the Garden Eel wall and then down the wall and leveling at 125 feet. At this point I looked back up from the darkness at this spectacle I had just passed ….. a gigantic ghostly form sweeping upwards above me, disappearing into a shimmering sun ball. It was simply one of the most stunning scenes I have ever beheld.
Well, all was not as it first seemed. I dived the Tibbetts again the following March (’97) and noticed some corrosion taking place. I had owned my own fleet of ocean going vessels in the past, so perhaps that sharpened my eye for such a situation. Nonetheless, it was present to the extent that I brought in a section of deck plate (approx. 18 x 24″) to be inspected by proper authorities. The process seemed to be occurring very rapidly. By the following year, (I dived the vessel several times during ’98) it was readily evident galvanic activity was running rampant, particularly on the superstructure which had begun to cave in and slough off to the side. This was particularly in evidence amidship at the location of the engine room and large tanks within the hull structure itself and especially within the superstructure at this location. I was sure something big was emminent. By this time, it had been determined that the vessel’s hull was steel, whereas the superstucture was aluminum – two different metals. Therein was the reason, in part at least, galvanic activity had been progressing at such an increased rate. Then I heard “the Boat broke in half”.
I dived the boat again in November of 2000. Here is a diagram abstracted from photographs and sketches (done immediately after the dive) of the ‘Tibbetts’ – and its relative position to the coral heads and the Garden Eel Wall. It is drawn as if the viewer is looking at the wreck from deep water towards the beach (approximately SE). The vessel is sitting in a sand flat near a very steep drop off. Compare it to the one below.
Here is a second diagram done in similar fashion to the one above, however done after a dive in March of 2002, about a year and a half later. The vessel has clearly moved, particularly the bow section which is upturned and angled more steeply. The debris field is much more extensive and hull internals are more exposed and deteriorating. New coral heads have been exposed due to excavation of sand. The starboard side bow anchor chain is stretched very tight, certainly one thing keeping the bow section from going over the side.
There is no end point to this story … it is simply an evolving saga – one of interest to those who dive here, and in general as well. Since much of the aluminum superstructure has sloughed away, it now seems the galvanic activity hasslowed considerably (personal observations ’01 and ’02). We all hope this is the case. There has been a dramatic upsurge in fish and floral decoration of the hull within the last two years – which seems to be a good sign. Moreover, the hull has ‘opened up’ and is somewhat more accessible to exploration, however CAUTION should be paramount in doing so due to weakened metals. Whatever the case may be, the vessel remains a dive site of great interest, perhaps now even moreso because of this intriguing history! Ironically, it is no longer a vehicle of destruction, but a place of peace, quiet and safeharbor to some of the most delicate, colorful creatures known. We can only hope the M/V Captain Keith Tibbetts remains as long as possible as it is truly a very amazing underwater spectacle.
*For more details on the acquisition and sinking of the M/V Captain Keith Tibbetts see: “The Dive Sites of the Cayman Islands”. Wood, L. New Holland Ltd, London (1998).