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March 2018    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 33, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Avalon II, Jardines de la Reina, Cuba

is it the Caribbean’s best?

from the March, 2018 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

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At 6:30 a.m., I hopped on Avalon Cuban Dive Center's comfortable bus in Havana for the six-hour ride to their boat dock, southwest, in Júcaro, Friends and I were headed to the Tortuga houseboat-on-a-barge. But surprise! The barge was undergoing repair, and we eight had been upgraded to the luxury liveaboard, Avalon II. A sweet beginning to the week.

MV Avalon IIAs I boarded the Avalon II, I was impressed: from my spacious and modern cabin to the hot tub up on the sundeck. But I didn't take the long bus drive and the five-hour boat crossing for the amenities -- it's about diving the Jardines de la Reina (the Queen's Gardens). Was this distant archipelago "the very definition of pristine" a la the Caribbean of 50 years ago, as Undercurrent's previous reviewer (July 2016) claimed? Or would it be "a major disappointment," as one reader countered. Over the next week, I found the answer.

After an uneventful crossing and a 7:00 a.m. breakfast the next morning, it was time to dive. First up, an OK check-out dive. The next dive was at Five Seas (Cinco Mares), the name of a shipwreck (or bits of one). From the dive skiff, I back-rolled into 79°F (26°C) water to be greeted by a 7-foot (2m) reef shark easing over the bottom below me.

I was impressed here, as on most dives, with the numbers of fish. Mixed schools of blue-striped and French grunts, schoolmasters, and plenty of reef fish. And, big guys were evident immediately. Hovering near a sloping wall, I watched a three-foot black grouper's body darken as cleaners tidied it up. Later, I petted a two-foot Nassau grouper as it passed. So many Caribbean reef sharks cruised off the reef, some coming in close, that I stopped counting them half-way through the dive. On a couple of dives, I spotted silky sharks hunting fish near the surface.

Cuba MapIrain Abreu, the lead divemaster -- Avalon II put two divemasters in the water for our eight divers -- was a good critter spotter as we cruised the low profile 20 ft (6m) high wall, typical of my Jardines dives. With my magnifier, I checked out a secretary blenny and then a bright-yellow rough-head blenny peeking from its hole. Under a ledge at 70 feet (22m), Irain discovered two golden fairy basslets, a beautiful species not even in my Paul Humann book. At the top of the wall, I tried to join a school of Creole wrasse, but they skirted away. After 50 minutes, I surfaced from the mooring, handed up my weights to the boat captain, and climbed the sturdy ladder onto the dive skiff, where the crew helped with my gear....

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