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Cayman Islands sinking US ship to create reef

Cayman Islands: Crews carefully flooded the rusty hulk so the 2,200-ton ship would settle upright. Holes were punched in the hull and large pumps gradually piped sea water into the ship, which was compartmentalized into three sections.

By David McFaddenAssociated Press / January 7, 2011

In this photo released by the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, divers watch the sinking of the USS Kittiwake, a 1945-vintage submarine rescue ship, off the Cayman Islands, Wednesday Jan. 5.

Cayman Islands Department of Tourism/AP

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KINGSTON, Jamaica

A decommissioned U.S. Navy ship was scuttled Wednesday in the clear Caribbean waters of the Cayman Islands, where officials say the sunken vessel will attract fish and tourists.

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The USS Kittiwake, a 1945-vintage submarine rescue ship, rests on a sandy bottom off Grand Cayman's Seven Mile Beach. The 47-foot-tall (14-meter) ship is at a depth of 62 feet (19 meters), so the top deck is close to the Caribbean Sea's surface, making it easily accessible for snorkelers and divers.

Crews carefully flooded the rusty hulk so the 2,200-ton (1,995 metric ton) ship would settle upright. Holes were punched in the hull and large pumps gradually piped sea water into the ship, which was compartmentalized into three sections.

As it began to sink in a cascade of bubbles, the Kittiwake leaned a bit to its starboard side. But divers reported it landed upright on its keel.

"It was just perfect execution, nice and even. She landed exactly where she was supposed to," project manager Nancy Easterbrook said during a phone interview from a nearby boat on Seven Mile Beach.

The Kittiwake's scuttling raised mixed emotions in Jon Glatstein, who was a sailor on the vessel from 1984 to 1986. He traveled to this wealthy British Caribbean territory to watch his old ship sink beneath the waves.

"This is the first time I've seen the ship in 25 years, and she's in pretty rough shape. But she's been serving divers all her life and now she's going to continue doing just that. That's got to be a whole lot better than getting melted down for razor blades," said Glatstein, now an IT manager in Miami.

The ship, which assisted U.S. submarine operations around the globe for decades, was anchored in recent years among the rusting vessels of the James River Reserve Fleet, commonly known as the "Ghost Fleet," in Fort Eustis, Virginia. It was towed to the Cayman Islands last month.

About 40 boats carrying locals and tourists circled around the ship to watch it sink. Several parasailers enjoyed a birds-eye view under clear skies.

Officials had hoped to sink the ship Tuesday, but windy weather and choppy seas forced a postponement.

Divers will attach mooring lines to the ship on the seafloor Thursday, and the scuttled Kittiwake should be open to the public on Friday, according to Easterbrook.

Premier McKeeva Bush said the operation "represents the single most significant occurrence in a decade for Cayman's dive industry."

Besides being a lure for tourists, the Kittiwake will be an artificial reef that can shelter fish and crustaceans in waters known for excellent visibility and abundant sea life.

The Kittiwake joins the MV Captain Keith Tibbetts, a Russian frigate sunk off the coast of Cayman Brac in 1996 that is now decorated with a thick coating of sponges and corals.

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