Season: Year round diving
Water Temperature: Between 24 and 28 degrees celsius
Beyond the bright lights, crumbling facades and classic American cars of Havana, Cuba’s natural riches extend into thousands of kilometres of reserves and coral reef systems that are unrivalled by other Caribbean diving destinations. As the tide ebbs away from Cuba’s white sand beaches, it washes into tepid turquoise waters that feed a remarkable abundance of marine life. The island is completely surrounded by coral reefs containing the most diverse variety of corals, fish and marine life to be found in the Caribbean. With steep walls dropping to sandy bottoms, seagrass beds, abundant soft coral gardens and year-round warm water, the marine eco-systems of Cuba are as spectacular as the island itself.
More than 150 species of Atlantic, Gulf and Caribbean fish abound in Cuban waters, from the majestic marlin, swordfish and sailfish to bonefish, tarpon, snook, snapper and grouper. Tuna, cobia, mackerel, sea trout, jack and barracuda also proliferate due to the island’s strict controls on fishing and a curb on commercial fishing due to its political isolation from the outside world. A noticeable lack of tourist development, firmly protected marine parks and controlled fishing have also contributed towards the stunning marine biodiversity of Cuba’s seas.
Exploring it feels like peering through a window to another world, a world filled with large marine fishes like Grouper and Dog Snapper that swim freely amongst schools of sharks. Seagrass beds that sustain sea turtles double as prime habitat for the largest population of the critically endangered Caribbean or Queen conch in the world. Vast mangrove swamps that act as marine nurseries and protection for American Crocodiles.
Cuba is just how the Caribbean used to be before the effects of climate change, tourism, fishing and human pressure affected it.
DIVING IN THE GARDENS OF THE QUEEN
The Cuban Archipelago "Gardens of the Queen" or Jardines de la Reina, comprises a whole set of islands, keys, islets and banks in the Gulf of Ana Maria at the southeastern section of the Cuban shelf.
The Gulf of Ana Maria is one of the largest and most habitat-diverse shelf areas of Cuba and the Caribbean, covering the waters south from the Cuban provinces of Camaguey, Ciego de Avila and Sancti Spiritus. The Gulf is the deepest in Cuba and is fringed by the main island of Cuba in the north, and the "Jardines de la Reina" Archipelago in the south.
Named by Christopher Columbus to honour the Queen of Spain, Jardines de la Reina is one of the last marine areas in the Caribbean where large fish and sharks can be seen in abundance. The biggest populations of adult fish in the Caribbean including sharks, snappers and groupers and jewfish up to 400 Pounds can be found within this stunning marine reserve. Sharks are one of the main attractions of this pristinne coral reef system and up to six different species occur in Jardines de la Reina including Silky, Reef, Lemon, Black-tip, Great Hammerhead and Nurse sharks. During the months between July and November you might also encounter Whale Sharks drifting their way through dive sites, visiting the reefs to feed.
The diving in Jardines de la Reina is usually on the fringing reefs of the reserve’s fifteen coral atolls and some 80 different locations have been identified. Here are some of the highlights:
La Boca de Anclitas
At a maximum depth of 17m, La Boca de Anclitas is the perfect introduction to diving in Jardines de la Reina. Featuring a reef that is beautiful in its structural complexity, it is home to spiny lobsters, green morays, southern stingrays, barracuda, black groupers, Nassau groupers and lionfish! As you drift around the edge of an undulating coral bombie, it is possible to see pairs of French Angelfish, the occasional Green Moray eel, stingrays, Porgies and even barracuda swimming by.
Pipín & Farallón
At the mooring buoy of Pipin (named after the famous freediver Pipin Ferreras, a fervent fan of Cuba’s reefs), the reef is 15 meters deep, forming impressive canyons and caves that run perpendicular to the coastline until they reach 24 meters at the edge of a drop-off. At this depth, the reef is very colorful and alive, with many jacks; silver tarpons, turtles and eagle rays. As divers go around the canyons, a group of 10-12 silky sharks swim close to the surface near the boat provide divers with stunning encounters during the safety stop feeding session. Occasionally you may see a large Portuguese Man’O’War jellyfish or smaller jellyfish near the surface but the true highlight is the school of 8 or 9 Silky Sharks who gracefully glide around you as you wait to surface.
Farallon is another spectacular Silky Shark feeding site but here you can expect to see the occasional Caribbean Reef Shark swimming at the bottom depth of around 29m.
Black Coral I and II
Two superb shark dives with a minimum depth of 24 meters on top of the reef, then a sandy bottom at 30m. Channels run across the reef perpendicular to the coast, until they reach the drop-off. At this place, there is a resident population of more than 30 Caribbean reef sharks that can get very close to divers. Occasionally a large Nurse shark might join the feeding school of reef sharks on this dive. After 15 minutes of watching at these creatures while they swim around, the dive continues close to the coral formations and sandy channels with sleeping stingrays, parrotfish, big black groupers and tons of jacks swimming near divers until the end of the dive.
The Five Seas
Is one of the most beautiful and diverse dive sites in the entire marine park. At a maximum depth of around 24m, it is possible to explore the last remains of a 15m long shipwreck here. Dive guides can gently rub their fingers over algae covered tiles that once made up the floor of the wreck, which sits amidst tangled metal covered in corals and sponges. Nearby on the sandy bottom it is possible to see semi-covered stingrays resting while Caribbean reef sharks drift above them. A coral overhang on the Five Seas is home to a small school of Greater Soapfish and large groups of Tarpon dominate larger overhangs at the bottom. Another feature of these larger overhangs is occasional branches of black corals the protrude from the cave ceilings. Black corals have been harvested in many other parts of the world so seeing healthy outcrops of them at Jardines de la Reina is a highlight for coral lovers. As the Five Seas dive nears the surface, you can sometimes see tiny cleaner shrimp, arrow crabs and gobies in tiny gaps between spectacular fan and whip corals.
Pio is probably one of the better macro diving sites in Jardines de la Reina and is home to a great variety of corals, christmas tree worms, morays, barrel sponges, brain corals. Pio is like a nursery for young reef fish including young Spotted Drum, whose white ribbon like fins waft around them as they dart between the corals.
La Finca De Pepe
A relatively shallow dive at around 18m, the real highlight of La Finca de Pepe is the feeding of Goliath, Black and Nassau grouper. The sheer abundance of these species in this area is a testimony to the healthy status of Jardines de la Reina as an marine eco-system. While the grouper are all large, it is possible to see a gargantuan Goliath Grouper who probably weighs around 400 pounds at this site. The sheer size of this fish is stunning and it is a real highlight to watch his territorial behavior and exerting his dominance over the other grouper species in the school.
Where else in the world can you still dive down through a massive school of Dog Snapper, each of which are at least 1.5ft long? Snapper Point’s absolute highlight is the large numbers of these amazing fish, that are prized on restaurant tables around the world. Strict controls on fishing within Jardines de la Reina mean that only spiny lobster and tuna can be caught seasonally along the northern edge of the marine park. This translates into an extensive ‘green zone’ area where congregations of fish gather in abundance to feed and breed. Natural populations of fish in Jardines de la Reina are healthy so that, if numbers of species like Dog Snapper become too high, excess fish will move elsewhere to places where they may be fished but thankfully divers can still see a rare display of these fish here.
La Cueva del Pulpo or “The Octopus Cave”
The Octopus Cave is one of the most brilliantly diverse dive sites within Jardines de la Reina. It starts off relatively shallow and drops past spectacular fan corals down to a depth of 20m. From swimming sea turtles, to stingrays and reef sharks, triggerfish, angelfish and large schools of Pork fish, the Octopus Cave is extremely photogenic. Nearing the surface, at a depth of around 10m, the cave itself is merely a semicircular overhang that is home to an abundance of tiny creatures including beautiful green Lettuce Leaf slugs. The Octopus Cave dive site is also punctuated by large growths of pillar corals with fingers reaching towards the sky. Inspecting these at close quarters you may see Banded Butterflyfish swimming gently between the fingers of coral or Triggerfish hiding in the natural grottoes within them.
SWIMMING WITH CROCODILES
Spreading between the fifteen coral atolls of Jardines de la Reina, an extensive mangrove and seabed system acts as a nursery for breeding reef fish and sharks. It is also critical feeding habitat for both Hawksbill and Green Sea Turtles that utilise the cays’ sandy shores to nest.
If your dive vessel happens to relocate from one section of the marine park to another during your dives, transport back to the vessel could entail an exhilarating speed boat ride through mangroves that have bath temperature, clear waters, many species of birds and an ecosystem of their own.
The apex predator of these systems is the American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) and in one particular spot it is possible to get in the water and snorkel with two that are around 3m long each.
It starts with a few calls and whistles. Suddenly you see a crocodile gently floating on the surface approaching the boat, almost drifting. A short feed of chicken follows and guests are encouraged to don their snorkels and masks and enter the water gently. Sudden movements or noises can frighten crocodiles so a quiet entry and slow motion swimming is all that is required to share the water with these prehistoric reptiles.
Lured by food, the crocodiles stay nearby and it is easy to think that they may have become habituated towards humans to the point where they are almost pets. Accidentally touching one, however, confirms that they are wild. A brief brush on their tails is enough to make them swing around in reaction.
Jardines de la Reina is one of the few places in the world where you can commune with American Crocodiles at close range. Snorkellers are monitored very closely during these encounters so if you can cast your apprehensions aside, a snorkel with them is truly a memorable experience.
The format of the diving in Jardines de la Reina is three dives per day which allows for plenty of time to relax on board the dive vessel or take an occasional trip ashore. At the first glance the cays of the marine park don’t seem to hold the appeal of many other coral cays. Outcrops of vegetation, weed along the high tide mark, benches of coral rock and large pieces of driftwood on the beaches mar the appearance of these islands in a way that makes them less beautiful than true coral islands fringed by coconut palms.
They are, nonetheless, beautiful in their own right. Walking along the beach at Anclitas Island, for example, you may encounter a shy iguana or an abandoned Queen Conch shell on the beach. Your footsteps may cross the paths of sea turtles that have made their way up the beach into warm sand dunes to nest.
Standing on the Avalon while it is anchored in the channel between two cays, you might notice a bit of commotion on the shore of one of the islands. Dotting the white sand, a number of excited critters, namely Cuban Iguanas and rat-like Hutias have seen the boat and they know what that means – strangers bearing gifts. Venturing over to the beach in the dive tenders it is possible to sit and be approached by adorable hutias who are searching for treats or the occasional sip of water. Joining them is a group of extremely tame Cuban Iguanas.
Sitting with these animals it is hard not to become beguiled by their curious natures and high pitched whistling calls to signify that food is available. Both animals are so tame that it is very easy to get wonderful photographs of them during a trip ashore and a stop there is a great way to spend time between dives.
Please contact our office for package prices to Cuba.
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