Entering the Cathedral

We get our PADI certification on Grand Cayman, and dive straight into the sunken USS Kittiwake
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Jun 24, 2015 | By Zach Piña

Huckberry Managing Editor Zach Piña recently spent a week in the Caribbean
completing his PADI dive certification, made possible by the amazing folks at
aBlogtoWatch, Oris Watches, and the talented staff at the Cobalt Coast DiveTech.

acques Cousteau once famously likened diving a shipwreck to that of “entering a cathedral.” And right now, I’m about to find out why. Our DiveTech guide Ragime Powrey is kneeling in roughly 40 feet of water on the stern deck of the USS Kittiwake — a WWII-era submarine rescue vessel scuttled just off the coast of Grand Cayman's Seven Mile Beach. He casually points downward at a dark, rectangular mouth, approximately four feet in diameter just below where he's waiting, and motions for us to follow. I’ve only been an officially certified diver for less than 12 hours, and have a semi-rational fear of confined spaces but I flash the ‘ok’ sign and kick toward the darkness. 

96 hours previous, my connecting flight through Houston dropped me on Grand Cayman where I could finally complete my dive certification. Waiting outside the terminal for my shuttle ride, I watch chickens scratch through the dirt and reminisce on the nagging desire that brought me here. It was initially fueled by tales of my father’s adventures as a Navy SEAL (nothing captures the imagination of a 10 year-old than stories about divers swimming out of submarine torpedo tubes), but more recently, by gentle encouragement from my fiancée. However, it wasn't until I was offered the chance of a lifetime from our friends at Oris Watches and aBlogtoWatch when it all really came together.

Granted, there is no shortage of unique, cold-water dive opportunities in Northern California, but the chance to complete the PADI certification in the warm, crystalline waters surrounding this tectonic Caribbean sliver — home to some of the best, and most accessible dives in the hemisphere — was impossible to turn down. My train of thought is interrupted by a beckoning honk from the lime-green shuttle I’d been waiting for. I scoop up my bags and hustle towards the van, disturbing a large iguana sunning itself in the grass nearby. 

For the next five days, I’d be posting up at Cobalt Coast resort under the watchful eye of DiveTech — an intimate, yet highly capable world-class haven for divers of all skill types — whether you’re just starting off like I was, or looking to go really deep with the latest in rebreather technology. 

True story: Cobalt Coast co-owner Jay Easterbrook got his dive certification in upstate New York, in order to retrieve a full keg of beer that’d accidentally fallen to the bottom of Lake Keuka. Then while adding a few dive certifications to his impressive Civil Engineering resume on Grand Cayman, he met his future wife Nancy — pioneering technical diver, Divetech shop owner, and Women Diver’s Hall of Fame member. Shortly thereafter, the two married and built the Cobalt Coast resort together.Measuring only 250 feet in length and displacing only around 1700 tons, on paper, the Kittiwake isn't the most intimidating vessel on the ocean floor. But encountering the hulking structure where it rests in 65 feet of water completely changes the equation — especially now that I'm confronted with the reality of exploring the ship from the inside. Those first few kicks into the passageway easily rank amongst one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done — Cousteau was right, the cathedral even when purposefully sunk for the benefit of the ocean’s health and the enjoyment of divers the world over, was still a place of reverence. Almost as though you could feel the history ebbing in the stillness of the water, and echoing through the empty holes where powerful rivets once held the ship together. 

The 500 lumen beam attached to my wrist casts eerie shadows on the piping as we follow Ragime's fins into the blackness. Small fish dart to escape the attention. The larger shadow of a grouper leers at us as we swim carefully by. I have to consciously remind myself to take slower, deeper breaths, because at this rate, I am galloping through my cylinder's 3000 PSi allotted for the dive. I glance at the brightly glowing Oris Regulateur on my wrist, so as to ground myself in a familiar reality. We're 18 minutes into the dive. 

The passageway terminates at a ledge which widens into what was once a utility room, perfectly lit from a window on the port side of the vessel. As I kick upwards into this larger space, I realize I'm swimming into a swirling vortex of silverside minnows, dancing between the light from the porthole and the beam emanating from my torch. It’s nearly impossible to exclaim joy with a regulator pressed between your lips, so I didn’t. Instead, I just floated there in silence, amidst this surreal, slow-motion tornado and tried to take it all in. I glanced back down at my watch, then my pressure gauge — which reads 1200 Psi. It’s time to go. 

About ASR-13: The USS Kittiwake is unique in that it wasn’t sunk by a torpedo or nor'easter, and it didn't go down with its crew and cargo — unlike other famous wrecks like the Umbria in the Red Sea or Defiance in Lake Huron. Rather, its final battle was the one to purposefully put it on the seafloor for future generations to enjoy — a costly, decade-long project undertaken by Nancy Easterbrook. See, you can’t just sink a ship to create an artificial reef — not without first stripping it of all oils and contaminants first. This includes, but is hardly limited to the environmental hazards found in countless lead rivets, thousands of square yards of paint, and miles upon miles of copper wiring used in ships of this vintage. Once this process was completed in 2011 — some seven arduous years after its purchase — the Kittiwake was towed 1,400 nautical miles down the Atlantic coast from Norfolk, Virginia to the Caribbean where it would be laid to rest just off the coast of Grand Cayman’s pristine Seven Mile Beach. As a haven for fish and new coral, the ship has taken on new life as part of the sea floor — finally resting after over 50 years of faithful service. 

We exit the ship via a large doorway on the starboard deck and rejoin the sunlit waters around the reef. Here, we use the remaining air in our cylinders to explore the wide bow and survey the spectacular landscape that surrounds us. We time this last portion of our dive in conjunction with a swim around the upper regions of the ship — enabling us to make our safety stop while we explore the ship’s helm deck. 

With less than 200 PSi remaining, I breach the surface and inflate my BCD, then switch to my snorkel and circle back towards the dimming outline of the Kittiwake for one last look. Directly below, I can still make out the gaping maw of the boiler, and the skeletal remains of the ship's life-saving submarine winch system. Further down, a school of amberjack patrols the massive blades, once capable of propelling the ship towards stricken vessels at speeds up to 16 knots, but now and forever dormant.

"The cathedral" I think to myself. "A hallowed place, deafening in its stillness, yet teeming with life. It instills awe in all who enter, leaving each of us with a sensation of overwhelming smallness." Cousteau couldn’t have been more right. 

I’m the last in our group to exit the water. Grinning broadly, I exhale a pent-up shout as I tear my mask off in the brilliance of the Caribbean sun. [H]

Zach Piña is Huckberry's Managing Editor and resident watch nerd.
In another life, he was a pastry chef on Zissou's Bellefonte. 
Follow him on Instagram here

Learn more about Oris dive watches here, on aBlogtoWatch.
Images 1, 5, 6, 8, 14, 15: Wild Shutter Imagery shot with Nauticam housings
Image 11 (ASR-13): Nav Source
All other images: Huckberry