Unseasonal winds made for a choppy sea and uncomfortable ride to the dive site. It was obvious how boats could run aground on Cayman’s barrier reef in these conditions. But on our recent visit to the wreck of the MV Captain Keith Tibbetts, it was a different story once we were underwater. The calm enfolded us as the broken frigate’s shape loomed out of the blue. Once-threatening guns now invited me to explore one of Cayman’s most iconic dive sites.
Cayman Brac, known locally as “the Brac,” (pronounced Brack) is the second-largest of the three Cayman Islands. Largest in size and population is Grand Cayman; smallest is Little Cayman, also a great dive destination. The Brac is named for the bluff that’s the highest point in all of Cayman. At only 140 feet, it’s not even as high as many of the cruise ships that visit Grand Cayman, but it is popular for land activities such as hiking and rock climbing. At 90 miles northeast of Grand Cayman and within sight of Little Cayman, visitors can only reach Cayman Brac via small plane (or a long boat ride). The trip is worth it, though. There are almost as many dive sites as permanent residents, and one of the very best is the wreck of the MV Captain Keith Tibbetts.
Diving the MV Captain Keith Tibbetts
On the northwest side of the Brac, also reachable via boat from Little Cayman, lies the wreck of the MV Captain Keith Tibbetts. The Soviet Union built this 330-foot-long Koni II class frigate in 1984 for the Cuban Navy. The Cayman Islands government purchased it for tourism and scuttled it off the shore of the Brac in 1996. It was renamed the MV Captain Keith Tibbets after a local dive operator.
Although you can reach the wreck via a long surface swim of about 200 yards (183 m) on a calm day, it’s far easier to hop on a dive boat. Depart from Cayman Brac Beach Resort or Southern Cross Club if you’re staying on Little Cayman.
There are diving buoys fore-and-aft on the wreck, with 85 feet (26 m) of depth at the bow and 60 feet (18 m) at the stern. The conning tower reaches up to the shallows, and offers a good place to work your way up to a safety stop. Hurricane Ivan in 2004 caused massive damage on the land, and also tore the Tibbetts in two, scattering a lot of debris. Old wiring and parts dispersed by the hurricane make it seem like the wreck met a dramatic end, rather than a planned scuttling.
Sights on the Wreck
The turret guns remain in place and make for great photos. We didn’t penetrate the wreck, focusing instead on the outside. There are several safe entry points for experienced wreck divers, but use caution and don’t attempt penetration without proper gear and experience. The wreck has only been underwater for 20 years, but the sea life is quite well established. You can also see coral growth on the reef wall just off the bow, and there’s a friendly resident goliath grouper.
Visibility in Cayman is usually excellent. When we dived the Tibbetts you could easily see 100 feet (30 m) along the wreck. The depth of the foredeck means, however, that you’ll lose most of the color. Hurricane season runs from July to November, although there can be some great summer diving with the pressure flattening the water. The most popular time to visit is in March and April. May and November can be quite wet. Water temperatures range from 76 to 82 (24 to 27 C) degrees year-round. A 3mm to 5mm wetsuit should be plenty for most divers.