Dive Like Royalty Aboard the Avalon II in Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen
are these the Caribbean’s last pristine reefs?
Dear Fellow Diver:
After nearly a half hour, no luggage emerged onto the carousel at Havana, Cuba’s José Martí International Airport. I glanced at my watch. A woman standing next to me noticed and said, “First time in Cuba?” I nodded. “Luggage takes an hour or more. Every piece is individually X-rayed.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Communism.”
With security a worldwide concern, I’m unsure of the political connection to X-raying luggage, but sure enough, an hour later luggage emerged. Not a good omen for my long-awaited dive trip aboard the Avalon II to Cuba’s Jardines de la Reina, the fabled Gardens of the Queen, billed as “the Caribbean’s last pristine reef.”
Second bad omen: Our first night at sea, storms rocked the 125-ft (38 m.) boat all night, and we awoke to overcast skies, rain, and high winds. During the 15-minute tender ride to Boca Piedra, our first dive site, the tender bounced through choppy, murky seas as wind and rain blasted through my 3 mm wetsuit and hood. I shivered uncontrollably.
But when I finally backrolled into 75°F (25°C) water and was immediately surrounded by dozens of blue-striped grunts, I stopped shivering, bad omens vanished and a week of dive superlatives began.
Diving Cuba’s fabled pristine reefs had been my long-time dream ever since Australian, Swiss, British and Singaporean dive buddies had waxed rhapsodic over its clear waters, healthy corals, sponges and huge numbers of fish and sharks on reefs unpolluted by mass tourism. But I’m an American. Since the ’60s, the US government put many restrictions on travel to Cuba and no airline flew directly from the US to Cuba, forcing Americans to fly surreptitiously through other countries or hire charter flights. When President Barack Obama loosened restrictions and allowed individual Americans to travel to Cuba, the State Department issued Tourist Visas and airlines began regularly scheduled service from Miami. Thus in 2015, we eight Americans immediately signed up with Australia-based Wild Earth Expedition’s charter of the Avalon II for travel in December 2017, joining diver friends from Australia and Switzerland who faced no restrictions. [NOTE: At the end of this blog is information from another Undercurrent writer about how easy it is to travel to Cuba these days]
That first dive was worth the eighteen-month wait and bureaucratic hassle. At 70ft (22m) a mild current nudged me past immense sea fans, sea pens, brittle stars, pillar corals over three feet (1m) tall and layers of laminar corals that rose over six feet high (2m) from white sand where a nurse shark lay. The divemaster pointed out many black corals.
Murk gave way to 50ft. (15m) viz. Three gray reef sharks checked us out then vanished, one at a time. The grunts followed us, several pecking at my dive buddy’s mask. Best of all, hundreds of fish surrounded me: blue tang; black durgeon; Nassau, black and Goliath grouper; blue chromis; fairy basslet; tarpon; hogfish; gray angelfish; and parrotfish, including a juvenile princess parrotfish, a first for me. And that was just the first of twenty-six dives.
After an hour dive, the tender returned to the vessel where smiling staff handed us hot, moist perfumed towels. It couldn’t get any better. But it did.
Along canyons, swim-thru, walls or the white sand bottom, every space was filled by healthy and colorful sea pens, sea fans, gorgonians, and corals: lettuce, pillar, yellow tube, brain, boulder and more. Fish numbers and species exceeded everywhere else I’d dived in the Caribbean. Over the next five days, I saw squirrelfish; spot-fin and Spanish hogfish, intermediate phase; bluehead and Creole wrasse; juvenile spotted drumfish; schoolmaster, yellow-tail and dog snapper; blue-stripe, Spanish and French grunt; queen, stoplight and midnight parrotfish; barracuda; rock beauty and French angelfish; foureye butterflyfish; porcupine fish; queen triggerfish; trumpetfish; flounder, trunkfish; indigo hamlet and golden basslet. Large grouper appeared on every dive as well, including one massive individual that looked at least 200 pounds (100kg). It swam directly under my buddy as if it were a pony and she the rider.
On every dive, numerous sharks patrolled their ’hood: Caribbean reef, gray reef, black tip reef, and silkies, at one time appearing in a school of twenty. Rays riffled the white sand on nearly every dive: guitar, spotted eagle, and Southern stingrays, some as big as my dive buddy. Dive guide Bairon pointed out critters nearly hidden in the coral walls and canyons: huge lobsters; green, chestnut and spotted moray eels that gulped water as I passed over, and the occasional tiny blue and orange nudibranch. On several dives, green and hawksbill turtles swam alongside, not at all shy. One dive site featured massive barrel sponges including one with a two-foot diameter (50cm), plus numerous yellow tube sponges.
Why are the sponges massive, the corals healthy and colorful and the critters numerous? I learned answers at onboard lectures on marine conservation provided by Avalon as part of our People-to-People license. Dr. Fabián Pina Amargos of Cuba Marine Conservation said that more than 800 pieces of legislation exist for marine conservation and fishing. Poaching is the biggest threat, but dive boats such as ours provide “eyes and ears” to alert Park Rangers.
Parque Nacional Jardines de la Reina is a marine preserve created in 1996. According to a recent article in Alert Diver, the late Cuban President Fidel Castro was both an ardent fisherman and diver who embraced environmentalism and committed to “preserve 25 percent of Cuba’s waters from extractive fishing.”
One afternoon instead of diving, the group opted to snorkel with saltwater crocodiles. Yes, you read that right. The crocs live among mangroves in shallow water on sand covered with sea grass. With a special permit, one can stand on the sand and photograph or simply view them underwater with mask and snorkel.
Is it safe? According to the guides, no one has been bitten yet.
The tenders took us to a mangrove swamp where Niño, the resident croc, lives. Byron the guide hollered his name and splashed a raw chicken tied to a thin rope. A “log” floated into view, bulging eyes betraying the “log’s” reptilian identity. Byron lured Niño to one side of the motorboat and those that wanted to get in the water entered from the other side. One diver went in with his camera, as did four others. I stayed in the boat, as did the rest of the group. Was I chicken? (Pun intended.) Yes.
For several minutes, our brave photographer imaged the croc with his massive fish-eye lens, bare inches from the croc’s pointed snout. Byron dangled the chicken just out of Niño’s reach. When he opened his jaws, cameras clicked like crazy. Eventually, Niño snatched the chicken from the rope and meandered to the shelter of the mangroves. Show over.
Jardines de la Reina is an archipelago covering 840 sq. mi. (2,170 km2), sixty miles (96 km) off the southeastern coast of Cuba. Board the vessel at Jucara, a small town about five hours drive from Havana.
The four-deck Avalon II has eight cabins with single bunk beds on the main (dive) deck and two “suites” with two double beds each on the lower deck. All cabins have ensuite bathroom, individual air con, and TV. The salon is also on the main deck and has a wide-screen TV and fish guides. Meals and drinks are served one deck up. The top deck has a hot tub and water slide. The dive deck had a hot water shower and tubs for rinsing gear. A small tub was reserved for cameras. One afternoon the sun finally shone, and the wind dropped, so the crew set up the water slide that started on the top deck and dropped three decks down to the water. We leaped from the hot tub, also on the top deck, and slid like otters down the slide. Too bad this was the only day weather permitted.
And for this trip, it paid to be “of a certain age.” Four of us ladies, the oldest in the group, were assigned the two “suites,” each with two queen beds, unlike the regular cabins with two bunk beds. These suites were down stairs to the same deck as the towel dryers. Not only did we enjoy more space, but we also were treated to the joy of escaping the chill by descending the stairs enveloped by warmth as the crew ran several loads to dry towels every day. (What impressed me the most when I first entered my cabin on the lower deck was that it didn’t smell. Every liveaboard I’ve been on in the South Pacific, Maldives, Sea of Cortez, Great Barrier Reef, Red Sea, and the Channel Islands off San Diego, California, has smelled of mold, mildew or diesel. The Avalon II smelled fresh.)
Diving is done from two tenders, each with its own divemaster and ten divers. Tenders alternate dive sites so there is no crowding. Snorkelers had their own guide as well. Nitrox is available at extra cost. Dives varied from 60ft (20m) to 94ft (28m) and lasted about an hour.
Each dive day began with early coffee, fruit and pastries, then diving began between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. More coffee, fruit, and pastries kept us going until the second dive, followed by a hot family-style lunch, then another dive, afternoon refreshment (usually pizza), then family-style dinner. Night dives were offered twice during our week.
Wild Earth Expeditions had chartered the vessel and divers were previous WEE guests who had dived all over the world. Thus, when several raved, “This is the best food I’ve ever had on a liveaboard,” it meant something. Lunches and dinners featured three Cuban-style meats or seafood dishes, alternating lamb, beef, pork, chicken, fish, shrimp or lobster, accompanied by a fruit salad plus a vegetable salad, two or three hot vegetables and variations on beans and rice, a Cuban staple, plus dessert. Wild Earth had specified in advance that some divers required special diets: Jewish Orthodox, vegetarian, seafood allergy and gluten allergy due to celiac. The chef accommodated all.
Cocktail hours were fueled by endless mojitos made by Cynthia, one of two female all-Cuban staff. As divers skipped more and more afternoon dives in favor of mojitos, the thirty-something bartender became the most popular crew member. Once over drinks, a Southern stingray encounter created the biggest buzz. One diver began, “We knelt in the sand near these two huge stingrays. They swam directly toward my buddy within reaching distance and then veered from her before swimming away. Like big UFO’s just gliding along the white bottom.”
His buddy, now dubbed “Stingray whisperer,” knew exactly how to deal with these wild, potentially dangerous creatures practically in her lap. “When they are feeding, they are so focused on that mission that it’s possible to get very close without disturbing…..and that is highest on my mind—to be respectful of any creature as a visitor in its world. On this dive I knew exactly what was going on and saw my opportunity….move in slowly, closer and closer, with an eye to making sure it was remaining calm. Mission accomplished, and it was magic!”
A veteran diver around the world, she continued, “As it happens, I have had somewhat similar encounters with them in Little Cayman, a veritable stone’s throw from Cuba with a very similar environment.”
Although this trip did indeed live up to my dream expectations, I had not prepared well enough for the weather, which was overcast and windy most of the days. Cold winds chilled me on long open tender rides to dive sites, so I skipped many dives. The only day the sun shone all day I missed the afternoon dive because of miscommunication between me and my dive buddy. I was hugely disappointed. Dodgy weather also canceled the two snorkelers’ plans as well.
Nonetheless, by the end of the dive week, magnificent marine life coupled with friendly Cuban hospitality and lubricated with never-ending mojitos made this the best liveaboard trip I’ve ever taken. Truly, diving Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen made me feel like visiting royalty.
Writer Bio: NM was certified in 2002 and has logged 794 dives in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, the Mediterranean and Caribbean Seas and the Gulf of Mexico.
Diver’s Compass: Trips aboard the Avalon II begin at $4250/ person double occupancy for eight days, seven nights and includes VAT, accommodation, tanks, weights, belts, all meals, and towels. Not included (taken directly from the website liveaboard.com): Port fees and local taxes: 182 EURO, Equipment rental: $175 (to be paid in advance), Transfers ($100USD), Tips: recommended min. 10% (to be paid locally on the boat), Conservation Fee: 91 EURO (to be paid upfront). For Americans, a license issued by ECO Outings is mandatory (approx. USD 100) . . www.cubandivingcenters.com, the company website, does not quote prices but does provide boat specs. . . Avalon II is cash only onboard, Euros or Cuban currency preferred. Exchange foreign currencies for Cuban Convertible Pesos (abbreviated CUC, and pronounced “kook”) at airports, hotels or banks. American credit cards do not work in Cuba. . . . .Wild Earth Expeditions is a boutique outdoor adventure company based in Australia. www.wildearthexpeditions.com. . . . .Onboard electricity is European/American sockets with 220v. and 110v. Their American sockets do not accept three-prong plugs; bring an adaptor. Wi-Fi and mobile cell service are not available on the Avalon II. Mobile service is available on land; contact your provider.
EASY TRAVEL TO CUBA, written by Undercurrent Travel Writer, A.M
In my five dive trips to Cuba over 24 years, I have always seen plenty of Americans. Of course, citizens from every other country visited, but Americans had to fly through Mexico, Bahamas, or Canada, use no credit cards, request no passport stamp, and perhaps toss out a white lie or two when returning home. Many divers did, and rarely did one face any issues.
While Barack Obama moved to open relationships with Cuba, last summer President Trump reversed policy on American trade and travel. While his restrictions have caused confusion for American tourists (but not tourists from other countries, who travel there freely), they seem to have had a negligible practical effect.
The U.S. State Deparment allows organized tours and individuals to travel to Cuba, as long as the purpose falls under one of twelve categories. If you’re traveling as an individual, when you make your airline reservation you will be asked on the airline website to click the menu for your reason for travel: your reason is cultural exchange.
It is illegal to stay in hotels or do business with companies that are connected to the Cuban government (there is a list of restricted business at www.travel.state.gov, which you should visit for the latest information on Cuba travel), but there are plenty of Airbnb rooms.
Avalon will provide a Letter of Authorization (General License), as well. I printed out a copy and kept it with my passport in case I was asked. I wasn’t, and my stop at the U.S. customs counter in Fort Lauderdale lasted ten seconds.
For my January trip, I flew both ways on Jet Blue, but my friends flew on Southwest, United, Delta and American from various US cities – at cheap fares or modest doses of frequent flyer miles.
Like most divers, I wanted to spend a few days in Havana, so I flew into Havana, an easy, cheap and interesting city. I spent an evening walking around the old city – food and music was everywhere – and went to the National Theater for a jazz concert. You can stay in homes via Airbnb or informally, for about $35 per night per room, with $5 pp extra for a nice breakfast.
I would suggest that any diver who wants to visit Jardines (or dive at Maria la Gorda or Isle of Youth or other Cuban destinations) do it now. The prices are good, the people are friendly, and it’s not yet overrun with American tourists.