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Dive Review of Avalon/Cuba Diving Centers/Avalon II in
Cuba/Jardines de la Reina

 
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Avalon/Cuba Diving Centers/Avalon II: "Mediocre diving in Cuba’s Jardines de la Reina", Jan, 2016,

by Mr. Lee McEachern Jr, CA, US ( 2 reports with 4 Helpful votes). Report 8818 has 4 Helpful votes.

No photos available at this time

Ratings and Overall Comments 1 (worst) - 5 (best):

Accommodations 3 stars Food 3 stars
Service and Attitude 4 stars Environmental Sensitivity 1 stars
Dive Operation 1 stars Shore Diving N/A
Snorkeling N/A
Value for $$ 2 stars
Beginners 3 stars
Advanced 3 stars
Comments Avalon II is a good enough liveaboard. It has a long central carpeted passageway leading from the dive prep area to a small lounge with a few small couches and TV. Along both sides of the passageway are 8 cabins, each with an upper single bunk and a somewhat larger lower bunk. Each cabin has two large windows and a comfortably sized, well-lit ensuite bathroom with enclosed shower, toilet, sink, vanity, large mirror and hair dryer. There are two cabins on the deck below.

The main failing of the cabins is a lack of storage: Just one tiny drawer for both occupants to share, big enough for perhaps two boxes of cigars from Havana that you bought for your smoker friends back home. There is a roughly 14-inch clothes-hanger bar and a paltry supply of clothes hangers. Effectively, you end up living out of your suitcases, one on a stand and one on the floor. All of which has the effect of turning a fairly good-sized room into one where occupants end up squeezing by each other.

My week of diving Jardines de la Reina was a major disappointment.

The greatest problem underlying everything else is that I signed up for a liveaboard dive trip but what I got was a floating hotel. The Avalon II did the 3+ hour crossing from the port at Jucaro to the islands and reef system and dropped anchor. And there we sat. The anchor didn't come out of the water for the full week. Which means that we dived only the spots that are in the immediate vicinity, closely reached by the skiffs. That also means that we had to dive the very same dive sites that all divers on Avalon boats were diving the week before. And the week before that. And the months before that. My opinion is that year-after-year of diving pressure on such a small area is the main reason that the amount of life we saw on our dives was so paltry. (Go back and carefully read some of those glowing reviews of diving here. You'll see that even though many of those divers loved their trips they really didn't see much more than we did. They just seemed to be much more satisfied than I was.)

I've been on wonderful liveaboard trips which took divers to varied and distant dive sites, moving between sites during dive intervals, meals and late afternoons. But not on Avalon trips, which stick you in one place, leaving you with diving that is pretty much the same on every dive. Which might be OK if you're diving in Papua New Guinea or the Galapagos but Jardines de la Reina is nowhere near that category of diving.

Another reason I was so disappointed, I must admit, is that my expectations were so high. There was the report on “60 Minutes” that presented Jardines de la Reina as a pristine underwater environment, unspoiled by overfishing, over-diving, pollution, etc. A Diver Magazine review gushes, “The flora and fauna is bursting with colour and all around the waters are teaming with tropical fish. This pristine ecosystem has changed little since Christopher Columbus first spotted the islands and reefs…” And there are many reviewers on TripAdvisor that give nothing but 5 stars to every aspect of their Cuba dive trip. And, I must say, a few Undercurrent Reviewers who filled out their Cuban dive reports with a lot of 4 and 5 stars.

That doesn’t come close to describing my week of diving in Jardines de la Reina. On the good side, the reef appears to be quite healthy. It’s covered with soft corals and a few hard corals with no significant coral bleaching as far as I could tell. On the other hand, it’s pretty much colorless. I was shocked to see that almost the entire reef was comprised of varying shades of brown. I did see some nice black coral and there were numerous small gorgonians that were violet/mauve/purplish and really quite pretty, along with a few yellow and fewer green sponges and corals. I certainly did not experience the endless array of vibrant colors that so many reviewers led me to expect. I even made it a point to spend a lot of time on one dive illuminating sections of reef with a bright video light to see if I could bring out the advertised colors that might have been subdued by filtered sunlight. But those colors just weren’t there.

The number of species of fish was remarkably small. We saw the same types of fish on almost every dive: Plenty of sharks (more on that below), quite a few groupers including goliath groupers that are anything but goliath. In fact, they’re tiny compared to the goliath groupers I’ve see in Australia and Papua New Guinea. Quite a few gray angels, some trumpetfish, and several small schools of tarpon, which were quite interesting. Smaller reef fish, which in better dive sites can be counted in the thousands, were virtually nonexistent. Almost no crustaceans. One lobster in the entire week – in this region renown for them. It’s the one type of commercial fishing allowed here and they have definitely cleaned out the area where we dived. We saw a very small number of morays, one or two Caribbean reef crabs, and that’s it. Almost zero nudibranchs or other invertebrates.

If we had been given the opportunity to venture farther from that one anchorage -- anywhere else along the 100+ miles of islands and reefs! -- would the diving have been better? Would there have been more species, larger schools, better diving? I think so but I'll never know because the dive sites where Avalon dives is such a tiny area of the ocean. I would have loved to venture out further. I would have loved to do a night dive. But those are not done and not allowed.

Another of of the important things to keep in mind for anyone who is thinking of a trip to Jardines de la Reina is that Avalon Diving has zero environmental or biological sensitivity with regard to sharks.

During our first dive after the checkout I was dismayed that we ran into a large group of divers from another boat. Having spent many thousands of dollars to dive on a largely undisturbed island and reef system stretching 150 miles along the southeast coastline of Cuba, I was not expecting to be bumping into so many other people underwater. Avalon had dumped two boatloads of divers onto the same small reef at the same time. Why such bad dive planning? The answer soon became apparent: It was time to begin the shark feeding circus.

Actually, the dive crew are adamant about not saying “shark feeding,” preferring the term “shark attracting.” Whatever. The fact is that they cram chopped-up dead fish into a large perforated aluminum can and then tie it off underwater and bang on it to attract sharks. And in Jardines de la Reina, there are certainly lots of sharks to attract.

The circus really got underway when some idiot decided to play cowboy, grabbing a 6-foot Caribbean reef shark by the snout and dorsal fin to turn it vertical and upside down while posing for video and stills. I expected Avalon’s dive leaders to immediately stop such atrocious behavior. But they did nothing. Even when the jerk diver swung one leg over the back of the shark to “ride ‘em, cowboy,” the dive leaders did nothing. Even when he let that shark go and repeated his shenanigans with another shark the dive leaders just watched.

Two or three of us turned away, or used hand signals to convey our disgust. But, sadly, most of the paying customers enjoyed the show. And they are the problem. As long as people are eager to get “look at me riding the shark” pictures to post on Facebook, Avalon will continue to take their money for it. In fact, I talked to one official of the Avalon organization who said, "We would rather not do that but it's what our customers want. That's where the money is." I can't argue with him, a businessman in a poor country. But I would like to think that people who have put out the effort to get certified and have spent so much money to visit an "exotic" location would love the ocean and respect its creatures. I am saddened and ashamed that so many of them do not.

I got in the dive leaders’ faces after the dive to complain and was asked, “Oh, do you prefer to see the ocean ‘natural?’” I told them that is the only way I wanted to see the ocean and I asked for their assurance that this wouldn’t happen again. They said it would only happen on one dive. That is, as it turned out, one dive each and every day. Which meant that one-third of all our dives were be artificial shark circus dives.

What to do? With two groups of divers assigned to two small boats from Avalon II, I suggested that one boat do only “natural” dives with no shark feeding while they divers on the other boat could do whatever crazy things they wanted. The dive masters said I could take a vote of the divers and if everyone – that is, every single diver – voted for no more shark feeding, then that boat would dive on sites away from the circus. Fortunately, enough people were interested to experience the real marine environment, not a circus, and our skiff never had to waste another dive with shark feeding and shark cowboys.

In other news:
The water was somewhat warmer than anticipated and, we were told, warmer than usual for January. The prediction was for 77-79F degree water. We had 80-87F. I brought a 3mm and a 5mm and used only the 3mm. My wife brought an Oceanic Lavacore and a 5mm and, surprising given the fact that she usually gets chilled more than I do, she was very happy wearing the Lavacore. Whether the warmer water was a temporary condition are a new normal in the age of climate change, I don’t know.

The water was also much more turbid than expected. I estimated the visibility to be about 35-50 feet. That is much poorer viz than other Caribbean dive sites in my experience. I had expected water of the kind that I'm used to from, say, many Cozumel or Grand Cayman dives. But the Jardines de la Reina water was nowhere near as good.

Despite such major disappointments, I must report that the crew of the Avalon II were excellent. They were very capable, very responsive to our needs and requests and kept a very good attitude. They earned the tips we gave at the end of the week.

One other note about the end of the week: It is a looooong trip between the dive site and Havana. Count on a 3+ hour boat ride from the dive site back to Jucaro, an hour or so waiting for the bus (while all the Avalon dive boats return to port and drop off their passengers), and a bus trip that includes dropping off those passengers at all the various hotels in Havana. In our case, that bus trip turned out to be 8 1/2 hours long. If you go, you'd better hope that your hotel is one of the first in the drop-off list. That list numbered 13 hotels in our case, spread out across Havana.

At least you can definitely enjoy your time on land. The music, the sites and the people are wonderful. Don't count on great food. The Cuban food in Miami is much better than in Havana, and the Cuban people will readily confirm the opinion that their diet is limited and boring. But the rum is good. My wife and I are planning to go back to Cuba because we enjoyed the land experiences so much. Great music is everywhere! But we won't be taking our dive gear.
Websites Avalon/Cuba Diving Centers   

Reporter and Travel

Dive Experience Over 1000 dives
Where else diving Papua New Guinea, Galápagos, Bikini Atoll, Chuuk (Truk), Marshall Islands, Red Sea, Solomon Islands, Great Barrier Reef, Grand Cayman, Bay Islands, Sea of Cortez, Cozumel, Northern California, Hawaii, Florida Keys
Closest Airport Havana Getting There Via Mexico, Grand Cayman, Canada, Europe, etc.

Dive Conditions

Weather sunny, dry Seas calm, choppy, no currents
Water Temp 80-87°F / 27-31°C Wetsuit Thickness 3
Water Visibility 35-60 Ft/ 11-18 M

Dive Policy

Dive own profile yes
Enforced diving restrictions Divers from our skiff were allowed to dive quite freely, perhaps because we were all experienced divers except for one person who stuck close to her husband. We were told that the other skiff, though, had strict conditions. I don’t know the levels of experience of divers on that boat.
Liveaboard? yes Nitrox Available? yes

What I Saw

Sharks Lots Mantas None
Dolphins None Whale Sharks None
Turtles 1 or 2 Whales None
Corals 3 stars Tropical Fish 1 stars
Small Critters 1 stars Large Fish 2 stars
Large Pelagics 1 stars

Underwater Photography 1 (worst) - 5 (best):

Subject Matter 1 stars Boat Facilities 1 stars
Overall rating for UWP's 1 stars Shore Facilities N/A
UW Photo Comments This boat is not set up for photographers. One small rinse tank for cameras gets filled up quickly. No camera setup table. Rather crowded dive deck with wetsuits hanging in the same space where everyone is trying to gear up and get ready. I didn't find much of this a big problem because on this trip I was just shooting GoPro. But it would just take a couple of well-equipped underwater photographers to max out the photo support on Avalon II.
Was this report helpful to you?
Report currently has 4 Helpful votes

Subscriber's Comments

By Charles Versaggiin CA, US at Jan 29, 2016 13:50 EST  
I'm a good friend of this reviewer who accompanied him on this trip and another earlier one to Papua New Guinea. I agree completely with his comments. Based on my experience on this trip, I would say the Avalon Jardines de la Reina excursion is over-rated.
By R Lichtensteinin FL, US at Apr 14, 2016 16:29 EST  
I was on the Avalon II in January 2016 too. The boat, crew and food was excellent. The diving was very disappointing for all the hype. I thought the water temp was 77-79 F, however I would have to look at my computer downloads to confirm. The divemasters do bait the sharks and there is no need since they are all over the place. We had a photographer who trashed the coral and no one said a word. More like him and it will only be a short time before sponges and soft corrals are gone. The Avalon II stays in the same location since it is close to the "Tortuga" where air compressors and internet are located. I believe the Aggressor boats are diving a different part of the archipelago
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Note: The information here was reported by the author above, but has NOT been reviewed nor edited by Undercurrent prior to posting on our website. Please report any major problems by writing to us and referencing the report number above.

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