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Dive Review of Avalon II in
Cuba/Jardine de la Reina

 
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Avalon II: "Avalon II: Americans No; Others Maybe", Aug, 2018,

by NEAL LANGERMAN, CA, US (Sr. Reviewer Sr. Reviewer 11 reports with 13 Helpful votes). Report 10505 has 3 Helpful votes.

No photos available at this time

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

Accommodations 4 stars Food 4 stars
Service and Attitude 4 stars Environmental Sensitivity 3 stars
Dive Operation 3 stars Shore Diving N/A
Snorkeling N/A
Value for $$ 4 stars
Beginners 2 stars
Advanced 5 stars
Comments
Submitted by Sharron Sussman and Neal Langerman
The bottom line is the diving is fantastic, but the associated hassles, especially for Americans significantly reduces the experience.

Travel to Cuba for Americans – under the Trump Rules
Those traveling on a US Passport must comply with the U.S. Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) rules. These rules are complex and require a detailed itinerary from 08:00 to 17:00 each day, with record maintenance for five years post travel. The Avalon portion of a trip is not too difficult, but any add on visit to Cuba can be very onerous. The OFAC contractor, EcoTours, is difficult to work with and very inflexible. The frustrating process of obtaining a travel license for us consumed 8½ months. Often during that period, we seriously considered cancelling.

U.S. currency incurs a 10% surcharge when exchanged for Cuban currency (CUC). Visiting U.S. citizens should obtain Euros in the USA and have a non-USA passport holder make the exchange. U.S. credit cards are not accepted. The maximum exchange you can make in one transaction is €500, which may not cover a boat tip for two persons and a day or two additional in Cuba.

We were told there was an exit fee of CUC25, but it was never collected, so we came home with CUC50 (equal to about $50 USD), which is not exchangeable outside Cuba. All in all, the non-diving administrative stuff was a huge hassle.

Avalon II

As stated initially, the diving with sharks, groupers, tarpon and a plethora of Caribbean fish was spectacular. Dives were typically in the 50 – 100-foot (17 – 35 meters) range, with a guide in front and at the rear. The guides were not intrusive and let you do your own profile. Dives generally lasted 45 – 60 minutes and were pretty much air/bottom-time limited. The scenery was beautiful with hard and soft corals, walls, and sand. The night dives were typical of the Caribbean, except for the myriad of worms and small critters attracted to dive lights. Some of these left nasty stings which took a few days to develop and seemed to last 4-6 days. I would definitely wear a hood to cover my neck and head at night.

The Avalon was served by two different skiffs for diving. Once set up, dive gear was left in the skiff for the entire trip. One skiff was well equipped with tank racks and stations for divers. The entrance was a back-roll from a specific station on the skiff and was easy to perform. The skiff had a sun-cover and cold drinking water readily accessible to divers. The second skiff had none of this. Tanks were insecurely held along the center-line and constantly fell over, risking injury or equipment damage. Even for a strong diver, getting into a back-roll position on the gunnel was difficult and the skiff-crew, while helpful, were frequently less than gentle, especially with older, slower divers. Fresh water was never offered after the dives and may or may not have been available, if requested. The lack of a sunshade made the 10-20 minute ride to/from dive sites that much more uncomfortable. If you go, demand the modern skiff.

The Avalon committed an unpardonable sin: we boarded Saturday afternoon, but were not in the water for a full 23 hours. Allegedly, the Cuban government prevents the vessel from moving at night. Thus, we did not leave the harbor until 06:35 Sunday morning. We were moored at the first location by 11:00 and everyone thought we were diving. But no, lunch and other delays prevented us from diving until 14:45. A quick 1-hour surface interval and we managed 2 dives on Sunday. The reasons for these delays were never communicated. This was the first of a series of communication failures that continued all week.

All diving was “out and back” from a mooring to which the skiff was tied. By the end of the week, the initial swim against a gentle current became tiring and a bit onerous. There is no reason to swim against current when the skiff can follow the divers and do a live pick-up. This repetitive workout was compounded for us by our use of large, professional-grade underwater photo/video systems. Even the two so-called drift-dives were really mooring to mooring. These were not Cozumel-style drift dives.

The “crocodile dive” was not a disappointment, but again, communications got in the way. Rather than being a dedicated dive activity, for which you could set up a specialized photo rig, it occurred on the way to (or from) a regular dive. Thus, rather than using an ultrawide lens, a mid-range zoom was the compromise. The crocodile, “Nero” had been trained by feeding to respond to loud calls and hang around the skiff. The divers, on snorkel, could slip in the water and look at the critter. Exciting, yes, but also frustrating. Please note, we are opposed to such behavior modification of wildlife.

The dive deck was always messy with dive bags and gear everywhere and no attempt at control. There were four shallow, large rinse tanks labeled “equipment only” but wetsuits, B/Cs, mask, etc were all rinsed in them. There was no adequate rinse system for cameras. There were two small camera tables, which were covered with everything from socks to computers. Using a professional scale photo system on this deck was marginal. Fortunately, there were only three large systems on this trip and we were able to work around the lack of space.

There was so little non-programmed time between the four daily dives that it didn’t matter much that there was so little space for cameras. The dive day was disorganized, from a divers’ point of view. Surface intervals were usually quite short, which contributed to a rushed dive schedule. This could have been mitigated by scheduling the first dive of the day at 7:00 or 7:30 am. The daily dive schedule was generally NOT posted in advance, but rather announced on short notice, plus communication-by-rumor of the time till the next dive.

A two-evening lecture on the history and ecosystem of the Jardine de la Reina was very interesting, with excellent visuals and a speaker who was competent in both English and Spanish.
The crew was friendly and worked very hard to keep things on track. The “cruise director” made it clear that if there was a problem, bring it to her. Two problems, one a serious life-safety fire hazard, were brought to her (disposing of cigarette butts in a common plastic trash bin) but this was never addressed and was observed three more times after being reported. The second problem, the marine toilet also was not resolved (see below).
Meals were good and the food plentiful. Vegan options were limited to fresh vegetables, rice, beans and fruit, all of excellent quality, but boring, leading to a couple of pounds of not-unwelcome weight loss for the vegan. We were advised to bring our own soy milk and peanut butter. Fresh seafood was served at almost every lunch and dinner, and poultry and pork were abundant. The desserts and soups were delicious. Wine and beer were included in the trip cost.

The guest cabins were adequate at best. Each had a private shower and a marine toilet, which required that fouled toilet paper be placed in a receptacle. Even with meticulous attention to the needs of the toilet, ours never functioned properly. Early in the trip, an engineer from the Avalon company base was on-board on other business. He checked the toilet at our request and said it was working fine. There is no excuse for this poor engineering and maintenance. A vessel the size of the Avalon can be equipped with regular flush toilets served with seawater. This was yet another nuisance that played against the wonderful underwater environment.

Value for the money

The cost of the diving package on Avalon II is comparable to that of high-end large US liveaboards; the diving provided by nature is exceptional. If the Avalon fixed its organization and communication problems and replaced the antiquated skiff, it would be a site to visit repeatedly. If the Trump-travel rules were discarded, US citizens could be more relaxed. Until these things happen, we recommend that US divers be very cautious booking any of the Avalon fleet. We hope things improve because the Jardine archipelago is a beautiful place to dive. Bottom line: this trip does not earn five stars for value.


Websites Avalon II   

Reporter and Travel

Dive Experience Over 1000 dives
Where else diving All of continental USA; Caribbean, Gulf, Sea of Cortez, Eastern & Western Pacific & more
Closest Airport Santa Clara (SNU) Getting There Very difficult for USA passports. See article. We traveled via Mexico City, for personal reasons. Via Miami also will work.

Dive Conditions

Weather sunny Seas calm
Water Temp 29-30°F / -2--1°C Wetsuit Thickness 3
Water Visibility 10-25 M / 33-82 Ft

Dive Policy

Dive own profile yes
Enforced diving restrictions Max depth around 30 meters, not strictly enforced.
Liveaboard? yes Nitrox Available? yes

What I Saw

Sharks Lots Mantas None
Dolphins None Whale Sharks None
Turtles > 2 Whales None
Corals 4 stars Tropical Fish 4 stars
Small Critters 3 stars Large Fish 5 stars
Large Pelagics 5 stars

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

Subject Matter 5 stars Boat Facilities 2 stars
Overall rating for UWP's 5 stars Shore Facilities N/A
UW Photo Comments I shot a 12-24 mm all week except for the last day, when I switched to a 60 mm. I probably would have switched to a 10.5 at least once during the week, except for the signficant lack of usable space to work on my kit.

There not only was no dedicated rinse tank for cameras, those that were available were .3 meters deep and used for everything from cameras to wetsuits.

Still, the trip is worth the hassles, if travel on US passports was easier. Get rid of "Trump Rules".
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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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