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Dive Review of Avalon Cuban Diving Centers/Avalon II in
Cuba/Gardens of the Queen

 
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Avalon Cuban Diving Centers/Avalon II: "A trip back to the past -- in some ways good, some ways not so good", Feb, 2015,

by Greg White, IL, US (Reviewer Reviewer 5 reports with 7 Helpful votes). Report 8142 has 5 Helpful votes.

No photos available at this time

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

Accommodations 3 stars Food 5 stars
Service and Attitude 5 stars Environmental Sensitivity 4 stars
Dive Operation 4 stars Shore Diving N/A
Snorkeling N/A
Value for $$ 5 stars
Beginners 5 stars
Advanced 3 stars
Comments Whenever we see images of Cuba, they show old U.S. cars from the 50s. Likewise, Gardens of the Queen (Jardines de la Reina) is billed as being like what the rest of the Caribbean was 60 years ago. Well, in some other ways diving on the Avalon II was like a trip back into the past, not always for the best.

One of these trips back to the past occurred shortly after we boarded the Avalon II in Jucaro and began the 4-5 hour crossing to reach the Gardens of the Queen. Every liveaboard we have been on in recent years has devoted time at the beginning of the trip to explaining safety procedures, indicating locations of life vests, life rafts, fire fighting equipment, and first aid supplies. They also have held muster drills and explained signals to be used in an emergency. On the Avalon II, the safety discussion consisted of the following: "You may have noticed life vests in your rooms. You won't need them because this is a safe boat." That was it. I was bothered even more by this cavalier attitude when I walked around the boat and saw not one single life preserver or life raft, and no sign of any firefighting equipment. I was left hoping they were right and that it was a safe boat.

The Avalon II is a beautiful new liveaboard boat. It has a very spacious dining area, nice size lounge with wide-screen TV and a huge top sundeck. However, one has to wonder whether it was designed by people who are not divers or people who have not been on a liveaboard in the past 10-15 years and don't know what the newer liveaboards are like. Staterooms on the Avalon II are probably the smallest we have ever had -- even on some of the old Aggressor boats. The only storage space in the stateroom is one small drawer. The beds are like the old Aggressor bunk beds, with the lower one being smaller than a double and the upper one being about the size of a twin. Fortunately, my wife and I were both able to fit into the lower bunk, although not very comfortably, so we could use the upper bunk for storage. On the other hand, the bathroom is relatively large with a separate enclosed shower that was also relatively roomy.

Another trip back to the past occurred when I went up on the sundeck. This sundeck is huge and has many places to sit, but unfortunately there is no shade up there, so people concerned about sun exposure are forced to sit on the deck below, which although nice, has much less seating space. Also, at a time when most liveaboards today seem to be removing their hot tubs over concerns about people sitting in hot water right after diving, the Avalon II has a nice new hot tub. Surprisingly, this was a popular spot for a lot of the people in our group.

Photographers should also be forewarned that space for photo equipment on the Avalon II is extremely limited. Basically, there are 3 small shelves on the rear deck where wetsuits are also hung. Fortunately, most of our group either used GoPro cameras or had no cameras, except for two professional videographers in the group who had large video units. They ended up storing those under benches on the back deck. This same area, which is where people must pass through to get from their cabins to other parts of the boat, is also where wetsuits are hung, so the wetsuits are constantly in the way when no one is diving. Furthermore, there are not enough places to hang wetsuits, so after every dive there was a mad scramble to see who would get to the hangers first. Again, one wonders whether the boat's designers ever looked at other liveaboards to see what worked and what didn't.

A related issue was the size and number of rinse tanks. Large plastic bins were what were used for rinse tanks, with two devoted to cameras, one for masks and computers, and one for wetsuits. The one for computers and masks was plenty large enough, but the ones for cameras were marginal and the one for wetsuits was totally inadequate. At the beginning of the trip, the wetsuit rinse tank was totally gross by the second day, probably because it had not been changed. After that, they changed it more frequently and it even seemed to have an additive to help reduce the odor. Again, when liveaboards today seem to have either built-in rinse tanks or at least large drums, these plastic bins appeared to be an afterthought.

Diving from the Avalon II is done from two fast runabouts, each equipped with two 150hp engines. Time to most dive sites was only about 5 or 10 minutes at most. One of the boats holds 10 divers and the other holds 6. Once again, though, these boats must not have been designed by divers. They have no rinse tanks on board and no storage space for cameras. Also, there is no shade. On the 10-person boat, which we dove from, there is a metal railing running down the center of the boat. Tanks, with BCs and regulators attached, are fastened to this railing with bungee cords. However, this arrangement was not always secure as the bungee cords would often slide along the railing.

Divers sit on benches along the outside of the boat, facing toward the center. Before diving, each person's tank and BC had to be moved from the center of the boat to behind them on the bench, meaning their knees were now jammed into the railing. Putting on fins was also a challenge in this limited space. Entry was via backroll after sliding up on to the boat's gunwale from the bench.

Our group included three new divers as well as several with more experience, but who had not been diving much recently. Among our group, my wife and I probably had the most dive experience (~500 dives) except perhaps for the trip leader. We were accompanied by two dive guides, one at the front of the group and one at the back. We were all expected to follow the leader, which doesn't bother us as long as the leader points out interesting things we might not see otherwise. However, our leader, Fausto, seemed to be running a race. We would generally start out, make a big circle swimming at a pretty good clip, then come back to the boat within 30-45 minutes. We were allowed to deviate from the route somewhat, or to lag behind, but if we got off path too much the rear dive guide would come along to shoo us back. My wife and I were both shooting video and are not overly serious photographers, so we didn't have a problem, but I can't see this working for some serious photographers we've been with on other trips -- there would probably be a rebellion.

The preceding approach seemed to work well for most of our group, who would generally ascend once we returned to the boat. However, my wife and I found this frustrating as we both usually had 1500 psi left at that point, so I asked Fausto to let us stay down and explore under the boat at the end of each dive. Using this approach, we usually stayed down until we'd been down for about an hour. That was also generally the best part of the dive because we had time to stop and look at things and explore on our own. Even then, we still came up with 1000 psi after most dives. From talking with divers on the other runabout, who were mostly more experienced, they had more freedom and were able to stay down longer.

Both our dive guides were excellent divers who were very nice, friendly people. Although I did not like the way they ran the dives, I must say they did a good job of explaining each dive site and watching out for our safety. The rear guide also worked on every dive with the newest diver to help him improve his air consumption and improve his buoyancy skills. Those skills improved so much that on one dive near the end, the new diver was the last one on the boat (although with only about 20 psi) and his buoyancy skills were among the best in the group. However, one safety issue I think the guides should have dealt with but did not was the fact that at least three people in our group were diving without computers. Two of these were new divers who were on air while the rest of us were on Nitrox. Perhaps the guides felt that our profiles were conservative enough that this was not a problem, but a few of the dives left my wife and me with significant nitrogen loading according to our computers even though we were on Nitrox. On air, those dives might have been pretty close to the deco limit.

Perhaps one reason our guides did not point out things is that most everything worth seeing in Gardens of the Queen is big. There are LOTS of sharks -- usually many of them on most every dive -- and LOTS of big groupers. At the same time, we saw almost no macro life. There are also not as many smaller fish as I was used to seeing in the rest of the Caribbean, perhaps because of all the big predators. We saw lots of grunts, some angels, some hogfish, several soapfish, lots of creole wrasses and some chromis. Not a lot of anything else. One definite plus, though, and a very big one, was that there are many many fewer lionfish than elsewhere in the Caribbean. Most dives I saw none and the most I saw on any one dive was four. Other places in the Caribbean I've seen that many in the first 5 minutes of a dive.

I would say that Gardens of the Queen is definitely better overall than anywhere else we've been in the Caribbean, but I don't think it's as good as the Pacific, especially the Philippines and Indonesia. If you want sharks and lots of them, then you'll be happy in Gardens of the Queen. If you want to see macro or lots of smaller fish, go to the Pacific. Also, be forewarned that there are no night dives done anywhere in the Gardens of the Queen, so if you want night dives, then you also need to go elsewhere.

Food on the Avalon II was excellent. I am a vegetarian and my dietary restrictions were taken into account at every meal, with interesting and tasty non-meat dishes. For the carnivores and piscivores, there were many different options, and lobster tails were served at many of the dinners. Breakfast included eggs cooked to order as well as many pastries. Wine, beer, and rum, within limits were included as part of the dinner. We were served hot pizza and mojitos (with or without rum) after the last dive of the day. Because there are no night dives, this was not a problem and provided a nice afternoon snack.

A large part of Gardens of the Queen is a marine protected area and we were aware of many efforts to keep it as pristine as possible, including limiting the number of divers and people fishing per year. However, one thing that bothered our group was that all drinking water was served in plastic bottles. As far as we know, there are no recycling facilities in Cuba, so these bottles end up despoiling the environment somewhere. The Avalon II has a reverse osmosis system for producing fresh water, and such a system has been fine for producing drinking water on other boats, so we weren't sure why the bottled water was used on Avalon II.

Although I've been critical of some aspects of the Avalon II dive experience, overall it was very positive. The crew did an excellent job of meeting all our needs and keeping us happy. Although many of them do not speak much English, they are still very warm, friendly people who were willing to accommodate our limited ability to speak Spanish. I would definitely recommend going there not only to see Cuba and meet its people personally, but also to have a really unique diving experience on a boat that is still beautiful despite its shortcomings.
Websites Avalon Cuban Diving Centers   

Reporter and Travel

Dive Experience 251-500 dives
Where else diving Many Caribbean locations, several Philippines, Indonesia, Hawaii, California
Closest Airport Havana Getting There Charter flight from Miami to Havana, then 5 hour ride to Jucaro to board the boat.

Dive Conditions

Weather sunny, dry Seas calm, surge
Water Temp 77-79°F / 25-26°C Wetsuit Thickness 5
Water Visibility 30-100 Ft/ 9-30 M

Dive Policy

Dive own profile no
Enforced diving restrictions No one could go below 100 ft. Everyone was expected to stay with the group, but we were allowed to stay down longer at the end.
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 3 stars
Small Critters N/A Large Fish 5 stars
Large Pelagics N/A

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

Subject Matter 4 stars Boat Facilities 1 stars
Overall rating for UWP's 4 stars Shore Facilities N/A
UW Photo Comments Don't plan on having much space at all. No rinse tanks on runabouts. Limited size rinse tanks on liveaboard.
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