Plenty of them, up close and personal. As you will read below, our expectations were met with flying colours! Gardens of the Queen DELIVERED!
We started our adventure in Havana, where we all gathered at Iberostar Parque Central. Parque Central is located right in the epicenter of Havana Vieja (old Havana), overlooking their little “Central Park”, a short walk from the famous Obispo street, the impressive El Capitolio building and the Grand Theater of Havana.
The lucky ones who arrived early or a day prior, joined me on a lovely day tour in Old Havana, with Erika, our knowledgeable guide, who took us through the main highlights of Havana and provided fascinating background stories on every spot. We had plenty of time to experience the local atmosphere, purchase some genuine Cuban cigars and Rum and drink a couple of Mojitos.
After the tour, we gathered the entire group for dinner in the most delightful, cozy restaurant in the heart of Old Havana called Ivan Chef Justo. Booking in advance is highly recommended. Prices were very reasonable and the food was delicious! Our hosts provided excellent service and we were excited to meet our dive buddies for the upcoming week.
Fast foward to 3:30am – the hotel wake-up call abruptly ends our peaceful night sleep. Time to wake up! We’re going to see some SHARKS!
We grabbed a quick early-AM breakfast, prepared especially for us by the hotel and loaded our scuba gear on the bus. At 5am were already on our way to Jucaro port, located 6 hours drive South-East of Havana.
* Good news! Due to the new flights introduced in 2016-17, our 2018 Cuba trip will probably start in Santa Clara, Camaguey or Cayo Coco, which are much closer to the port and will shorten the ride from 6 hours to about 2 hours, and allowing a much more pleasant wake-up before boarding the Avalon II.*
We arrived to Jucaro around noon. The crew was very efficient and loaded our gear quickly, so we were free to board the vessel, choose our rooms (they’re all the same, except for the two on the lower deck) and enjoy our welcome drinks on the sun-deck!
Lunch was served within half an hour and we were introduced to the entire crew, which we will learn to appreciate during the week, for the first time. Arge, the boat captain, Noel, Wilber, Alejo and Pajaro the Dive Masters, Daya and Gracy the lovely waitresses, Pedro and Elvis our dingy captains and last but not least Manuel and Eduard the incredible chefs who kept our bellies full and happy for the entire week.
The Avalon II set course towards Gardens of the Queen (about 5 hours sail), while we had time to unpack, get used to our new quarters and ready our cameras in anticipation towards the awesome dives planned for us this week.
The Avalon II is a beautiful vessel. Still very new (since April 2014), the Avalon II is 125ft long, with 4 decks. The boat deck includes 8 deluxe state-rooms, spacious living room with a big screen TV and a dive deck in the back, The lower deck includes 2 additional deluxe state-rooms. The two top decks include a comfy outdoor relaxation area, a large dining room and bar and a huge sundeck with a fantastic sea-view hot tub, perfect for indulging in a cold Mojito after a great day of diving. Needless to say, the pizzas found their way up to the hot tub as well a couple of times.
After lunch we unpacked our bags of gadgets and started assembling the cameras and comparing who has the biggest lens and the brightest strobes (Dr. Dave was a clear winner). I was happy to provide my input and help the rest of the group figure out the best way to assemble their lights and explain the most recommended settings to use for each type of camera.
Howard, Fantasea’s CEO and I brought along plenty of Fantasea gear for the group to try out, so that even those who didn’t have a camera could make their first attempts at underwater photography. Even those who did bring their own gear, were happy to try out Fantasea’s excellent compact housings for the Sony RX100 IV and V, as well as the Canon G7X and G7X Mark II.
There are plenty of power outlets in each room, in the lounge and the corridor, so no problem charging as many batteries as you want aboard the boat. Howard opened up his own mini-charging station in the room, probably sucking up half the power on the boat!
The dive deck is equipped with plenty of hangers, to store your gear between dives and overnight. The dive gear on the boat is all Cressi, in excellent shape, so the first day is a good time to make sure you brought all the scuba gear with your or rented the gear you are missing, as well as dive computers which are available on board upon request. Most of us dove with Nitrox during the week, which can be filled on-board with the boats own compressors.
The only issue I can think of was that they didn’t have enough variety of weights on board, mostly 3 and 4 pounds, but barely any 2’s or 1’s. We got by though, and they brought in extras the next day, so we were all well adjusted by then!
We couldn’t wait to get in the water, so we started the day with a check-dive before breakfast at El Puente (The Bridge), with the entire group at one dive site. It was a great way to see how everyone dives and re-organize the 2 tenders accordingly. Lucky for us, we had only excellent and quite experienced divers in the group! Some of the people decided to leave their cameras topside for this one, to brush up on their diving without any interference and some used this dive to test the camera and make sure it’s ready to go. Our first encounter with the Gardens was beautiful, with several huge Groupers, a couple of Spotted Eagle Rays who popped in to say hello and plenty of Yellow Snappers and Grunts decorating the large Fan Corals and Barrel Sponges along the reef.
After each dive, lovely Gracy awaits you on deck with a hot damp towel to wash your face and a large towel to dry off. Between dives, you will always have some snacks and coffee / tea are always available in the dining area. Talk about great service! The gear is always handled for you, before and after each dive, but they make sure you inspect your Nitrox level before each dive.
The next dives of the day were even more exciting! This time we went straight to Pipin, one of the best dive sites in the area, and home to dozens of beautiful, friendly, Silky Sharks. We spotted a couple of them at the beginning of the dive, as well as several Caribbean Reef Sharks hanging around the deeper end of the reef, but the real attraction was near the end of the dive. Over 20 Silkies, all around the boat, waiting for some chum, and posing happily for pictures with the entire group surrounding them in sheer joy and delight! I could literally stay down there for the whole day… But eventually, my group dragged me back to the boat, kicking and screaming, with a very exhausted battery in my camera and pure joy in my heart 🙂
The rest of the dives were just as beautiful. Throughout the week we were constantly accompanied by Silky and Reef Sharks, on almost every dive, as well as very large and healthy Nassau and Black Groupers, who are very friendly towards divers and allow excellent photo ops.
In addition we saw plenty of Moray Eels, Stingrays, Spotted Eagle Rays, Hogfish, Jacks, Barracudas, Tarpons and many other smaller tropical fish and critters – Grunts, Wrasse, Blennies, Parrotfish, Snappers, Blue Tangs, Flounders, Coral Banded Shrimps, Arrow Crabs, Hermit Crabs and much more.
One of the most unique features of Gardens of the Queen, is the surprisingly healthy population of Elkhorn Coral, a type of coral which is pretty much extinct almost everywhere else in the world. The Elkhorns in the Gardens amount to about 95% of the entire worldwide population of this species. Why? Scientists are not sure, but they are working hard to find out.
We were lucky to get a chance to snorkel above the Elkhorn forest and witness this marvel first hand, while taking extra care not to cause any damage to this unique habitat.
Another major attraction in Cuba are the Mangroves. Channels running between the larger and smaller islands create unique habitat for various species to grow and reproduce. Some refer to the Mangroves as the Reef’s nursery, where the Juveniles can find refuge and nutrients in order to grow and move out to the reef at a later time. The seagrass and thick roots along the channels provide much needed protection and keep the reef healthy and vibrant.
On day 4, we finally got a chance to meet face to face with another inhabitant of the Mangroves, the American Crocodile! These prehistoric fellows live and flourish among the Mangroves and are rather friendly, at least when the necessary precautions are taken and you pay attention to the instructions of the local guides. We were lucky to find two little ones hanging around the channel, and the braver people in the group even got in the water with them to try and nail a good shot.
There are a few things you want to know about Crocs before getting in the water with them – first of all, they only look mean. They don’t mean to be that way. Just like any animal, they basically want to eat and stay safe. They know the guides may offer a piece of chicken as a treat, so they hang around in hope to grab a bite. Second, if you fuss around them, they will leave. They don’t appreciate another large animal drawing attention to itself and flapping its fins around, so if you’re not quiet and gentle, they will retreat back into the mangroves. Third, they are wild animals, hence can be unexpected. Don’t take this encounter for granted, and don’t assume you’re in a zoo. Be cautious and alert around them and treat them with respect.
They usually hang around very shallow water, with a sandy bottom. That means that if you stir up the sand, you will completely ruin your photos and you won’t be able to see them coming, so you might get quite a scare. Keep your fins up and move slowly.
Last tip – don’t waste all your camera’s battery on the Sharks, or you won’t get any shots of the Crocs! (that’s exactly what happened to yours truly. Curses.) I managed to get one shot, barely, which I dislike, but at least it’s a Croc underwater! I’ll be smarter next time.
On the same day, we also found the time to walk on some dry land, and took the tenders to shore for an hour, to mingle with the Iguanas, Hermit Crabs and the cute Hutias who come to meet the visitors and ask for treats. If you’ve never heard of a Hutia (why would you?), these are fairly large rodents, who are common in the Caribbean, with the largest of them being the Cuban Hutia (AKA Desmarest’s Hutia), which can grow up to 19lbs and 24 Inches long!
Don’t be fooled by their cute appearance. If you get too close, they might bite!
We took the opportunity to walk along the beach and clean up the plastic bottles we found along the way. Unfortunately, no matter how unspoiled a place may appear, you’ll always find a couple of Coca Cola and Shampoo bottles lying around.
Speaking of invasive species (ahem ahem Humans…), we did encounter more than several Lionfish hiding among the Corals. Our fearless Dive Master Alejo was carrying his trusted pole spear on most of the dives, and made an effort to get rid of any Lionfish we found, but alas, there are probably many more hiding and it will be impossible to get rid of all. At least we did our part.
Each evening we gathered after dinner for today’s class on underwater photography. Even those among us who had little to no experience with cameras underwater were delighted to sit in, and most even got to experience underwater photography for the first time, with the extra gear we brought along with us for that reason. We also used our time after the dives to review the photos from today and I tried to offer tips on how to improve for tomorrow, which settings to adjust and how to make better use of the strobes.
On the 6th night Howard gave quite a performance, sharing a fascinating presentation with the group about his personal story, how he started the first dive shop in Sinai, his adventures in the Red Sea with David Doubilet and Dr. Genie Clark, how he moved his entire operation to the Seychelles and was the first to discover several incredible dive sites there, where no diver has gone before.
On our last night, we all got together to show our photos and videos from the week! Each participant chose his top 5-10 images / videos and we sat around the TV to admire how well we did and enjoy the wonderful marine life we saw on the trip for the last time, before we had to depart back home.
It was truly wonderful to see how the level of photography went up during the week and how great it was to see the satisfaction in everyone’s hearts, after this fantastic adventure in Gardens of the Queen.
We can’t wait to get back there in January 2018! Hope you can join us as well this time 🙂
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