The Caribbean is one of the most popular scuba diving areas for American travelers, with easy access to attractive locations in the Cayman Islands, Belize, the Mexican coast and Honduras, among many others. There is a large concentration of famous dive sites with a variety of diving styles and marine life, including encounters with large marine creatures, world-known wrecks and cave/cavern diving. Naturally, there are many interesting dives for underwater photographers.
But there is one area which is still virgin, and that is Cuba. There are two main reasons for this. First, it is sort of a “black area” for American divers for political reasons; and second, it is still not easy to reach for European or Asian divers. As a European diver, I had been exploring the possibility of diving in Cuba for a few years, and after checking some YouTube clips from Jardines de la Reina, I decided to see it for myself. The diving on the videos was too tempting to pass up.
About Jardines de la Reina
Jardines de la Reina is a remote, uninhabited part of southern Cuba, some 50 miles offshore (not to be mistaken with Jardines del Rey (or King’s Gardens), further north). This area is heavily protected by the Cuban Government, so only scuba diving and some “light” big game fishing are allowed here (thanks to Castro, who was a diver himself and wanted to preserve the area). Cuba is slowly starting to open the gates to tourism, and we are now blessed with the opportunity to dive in this fantastic area.
There is one single, government-controlled joint venture-based Cuban-Italian operator conducting scuba activities, Avalon Diving. The area is reachable only by liveaboard, but Avalon Diving made an interesting “floating hotel." It's essentially a big boat converted into a convenient mid-category dive facility anchored in the middle of Jardines, which can accommodate up to 20-25 people living there at a time. Each day, divers are transferred to the dive locations on light, speedy boats that we are used to seeing in the rest of Caribbean. The other option is to book a “classic” liveaboard – a 6-day cruise around Jardines. I found the floating hotel to be most effective.
A 6-day diving package consists of 5 diving days with three dives a day, since you lose the first and last days on transfers to and from Jardines. It's the only con for this trip. Also, you have to arrive in Havana (where the transfer is organized) one day before the booked trip, and stay in Havana one day afterwards. This presents a great opportunity to explore the city for a few days after your dive trip.
The Diving - Sharks!
The diving itself is something truly different. The water is very clear; and during every dive you are treated to close encounters with dozens of sharks...for the entire dive. I've had the opportunity to dive throughout the world and have seen many sharks before, but never in this fashion. They even started to get a little boring! If I were the operator there, I might even dare to say, “Sharks guaranteed or your money back!” This is definitely the place to go if you are a shark lover. Divers will most frequently encounter groups of silky and Caribbean reef sharks cruising around in close proximity, giving you many amazing photo options. Most sharks, if not every shark, are bigger than 2 meters; few are bigger than 3 meters.
The dive guides, who are very competent, know exactly where and when to take you, but it also seems that sharks congregate around the mooring buoys as soon as they hear the boat engines, expecting a few pieces of fish after the dive (which they receive). The sharks are not aggressive, but curious about the divers; so there was never any sense of danger or threatening behavior. Of course, wide-angle photography and close-focus wide-angle are common techniques here, so I never even bothered to try macro- shooting.
Article and Photos by Goran Butajla