The Carrie-Lee. Deep Wreck Diving in the Cayman Islands

Infamous amongst the technical divers of the Cayman Islands, but little-known outside this tight circle, the Carrie Lee had long sat on my Cayman Islands ‘Bucket List’. In January, I finally got my chance to see this awesome wreck.

Our little boat ‘El Gato’ rocked gently in the small surface swell as the three of us stood there waiting, suited up in full wetsuits and sidemount harnesses, our two primary tanks and single decompression tank resting down by our feet. Our attention was focused on the freedivers who were taking it in turns powering down to 200′ feet deep on scooters, in the hope of finding a hulk of rusting metal against the backdrop of sand and reef far below.

The rusting hulk of metal is the wreck of the Carrie-Lee. The remains of a small freighter that back in 1980 had turned upside-down due to flooding with water, and floated for a day or two, her bottom to the skies, before eventually succumbing to the ocean. As she sunk and hit the sloping bottom, she slid down the reef and sand before eventually settling precariously balanced on the edge of the drop-off at 200 feet. (60 metres)

(Note: please excuse relatively poor photo quality in this post. The photos are simply screenshots from video footage on a GoPro camera. Needless to say they are not the best!)

The wreck had always held a degree of fascination for me since I had arrived in the Cayman Islands 5 years previously, but life always somehow got in the way. Notoriously difficult to find, she lays a fair distance from the shoreline and nowadays lacking a marker buoy. As a result, trying to swim from land mostly yields nothing but lost divers and sore legs. Also, to make matters worse, most dive boat operators don’t visit the location as she lays too deep for the vast majority of visiting divers.

Our high-tech method of finding the wreck involved attempting to hold the boat approximately over the somewhat tentative GPS co-ordinates that we had, while the freedivers equipped with scooters dived down over and over again. Each time they returned to the surface; however, the shakes of the head and their frustrated expressions told us that they were not having much luck.

After the best part of an hour, just as our hopes of finding the wreck were fading, one of the freedivers, Tilley (@mr_tilford), returned to the surface with a shout. “She is here, found her!” 

The freedivers then took turns diving down one after the other, time after time so the position of the wreck would not be lost as we clipped our tanks on and flopped like wounded seals over the boat’s gunwales. A stiff breeze meant during our entry process, the boat had drifted, and so by the time we were ready to descend, we were quite some distance away from the wreck.

Not to worry though as Tilley had a plan! We held onto each other’s ankles in one long line with Tilley at the front, with him gunning the throttle on his scooter at full speed, the propeller spinning and whirring, dragging us all along on the surface like the worlds ugliest conga-line.

My nervousness had set in again by this point, as during all the chaos we had potentially lost the wreck. Still, it was too late for doubt, and we had no time for messing around, so we each deflated our wings and began our descent into the blue. The sunlight cast sunbeams all around us as we descended head-first into the halo created by the refraction of the light. I could see nothing below us but the deepest blue, and we had absolutely no visual reference point aside from the depth reading on our computer screens ticking steadily deeper.

We were descending at a rate of around 60′ (18m) a minute, and by around 100′ (30m) we could see a vaguely human-shaped silhouette below us, the edges hazy and un-formed. I strained my eyes, and I began to see the second freediver slowly coming into focus out of the haze, and as she ascended past us, she gave a slight nod of the head and pointed directly down below her in the water column. We were above the wreck!

The endless blue below us began to resolve itself into varying areas of dark and light as the bottom approached. The sand channels and long fingers of rock and reef came into focus and right in the middle of it all, at the end of a particularly wide sand channel, where it met the drop into the abyss, sat a large dark mass. A seemingly black void against the now tangible reef and sand.

As we levelled out and began to slow our descent, we added air to our wings to counter the decrease in buoyancy from our suits as they were now compressed by 7 times the pressure as at sea level. We then took a moment hovering above the reef just off to one side of the wreck to conduct our final equipment checks. Satisfied that all was in order with our own gear, we turned to one another and checked each other’s equipment and to make sure the team were together.

I turned to survey the wreck in front of me, it seemed smaller than I expected but still none the less very impressive. The Carrie-Lee was effectively a powered barge with a flat forward section that looks long enough that it could maybe fit two, standard-sized shipping containers end to end, with a raised wheelhouse right at the stern.

The propeller and rudder are intact and sit in the sand while the wreck takes on maybe a 20-degree decline towards the bow which faces out away from the drop-off.

What is incredible about this wreck is that it sunk in such a way that the bow hangs over the edge of the drop off so one can actually descend down and pass directly below the bow itself. It appears one good kick could send it over the edge, but I assume after nearly 40 years of being underwater, it would have gone by now if it was a risk.

We began making our way down the port side of the wreck towards the bow when one of my teammates, Evan, turns around to check on me. I see his gaze focus above and behind me, and so I turn to look over my shoulder only to see Tilley right behind me, holding his breath on a freedive. My computer shows we are passing through 200′ and here is a guy simply holding his breath and swimming around the wreck seemingly in no hurry to make his way back to the surface any time soon.

We descend to the bow section and continue just past the leading edge before turning around to look back up at wreck. We are at 230′ (70m) and looking back to the wreck involved craning my neck upwards to be confronted by this huge metal derelict, silhouetted by the large corona of hazy light from the surface.

The water down here is so still, not even the slightest movement. The corals typical of shallower depths are not present; instead, the surrounding area is just bare rock with plenty of sponge life. Large barrel sponges with tiny fish darting around their rims, elephant ear sponges still appearing red in colour despite the depth, and spindly rope sponges hanging seemingly weightless in the motionless water.

We ascend up the opposite side of the wreck and up over the top of the starboard gunwale before dropping down to the empty cargo deck. Being professional dive instructors, and therefore having a small degree of narcissism, we use the opportunity to capture some video of us together on the wreck – with somewhat questionable degrees of success!

As our time on the wreck increases, so does the amount of time we will have to spend decompressing in shallower depths to reduce the amount of nitrogen dissolved in our tissues thus reducing the risk of decompression sickness. We look to our computer screens, and with already over half an hour of decompression obligation, we ascend up to check out the wheelhouse.

The compact space that once held the captain was now filled with sponge life, making any entry nigh on impossible. Perhaps for the best as it was time to begin our long journey back to the surface.

Originally our plan was to swim up the sloping wall and conduct the staged (steadily decreasing depths) decompression stops while still close to the bottom. However, while this did work for the first part of our ascent, the relatively gradual slope was not conducive for us to continue all the way in this manner as we were unable to get shallow enough quickly enough. It became clear that we needed to send up SMBs. (Inflatable tubes attached to a spool of line that a diver fills with air and sends to the surface from depth giving them not only a line to use as a reference marker, but also alerts boat traffic above to their presence.)

While we were preparing our SMBs, a school of large, inquisitive Jacks came swimming past us, circling us as we clipped on our spools. Tilley had made an appearance again with his scooter, and he too was surprised to see such large fish, his ‘it was this big!’ hand motion said it all!

Ascending the rest of the way on our lines, we spent our shallow decompression stops watching the freedivers play around. We had drifted into shallower water by this point, and it made the time go much quicker watching them move seemingly so effortlessly in the water compared to us behemoths floating in the water like whales.

After our decompression, showering and loading the gear back into our cars, we had to take part in the mandatory post-dive tradition – a couple of frosty-cold beers and some salty food!

Enjoy this? Why not read about our search for a missing wreck on a submerged seamount!

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