Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)
by Jack Jackson
SHAPED LIKE A SLEEPING CROCODILE, CUBA lies 145km (90 miles) south of Florida between Jamaica and the Bahamas. Washed by the Atlantic Ocean in the north, the Caribbean Sea to the south and the Gulf of Mexico to the west, its 5746km (3563mile) coastline teems with fish, making it probably the most prolific diving destination in the Caribbean for animal life.
Although the Isla de la Juventud is Cuba’s best-known diving region, foreign investment has constructed top-class hotels in other areas where good diving exists. These hotels - as well as the introduction of a barge, which was converted into a floating hotel; and live-aboard boats, which are opening up the marine park of Los Jardines de la Reina - have placed Cuban diving firmly on the international diving map.
There are many more dive sites than those described here and different operators also have different names, or translations of names, for many of them.
Along Cuba’s Atlantic coast, Havana has good diving at Playas del Este in the east and to the north of Marina Hemingway, which lies to the west of Havana. Although foreign visitors rarely try it, diving near the capital is good and consists of shelves descending in steps into very deep water. There are also several wrecks.
Varadero, 140km (90 miles) to the east of Havana, has many dive sites and excursions to Playa Girón on the opposite, Caribbean, coast. It is one of the longest established resort areas and well organized for diving, with over 30 dive sites. About 20km (12½ miles) west of it there are several sites off Matanzas, but Playa Coral 2 is among the most popular. The site has many gullies descending to a wall at 2-8m (6½25ft) with Elkhorn and Staghorn coral, sponges and gorgonias, including sea fans and Black Coral in the deeper water. The fish life includes cornetfish and trumpetfish. There are over 30 species of coral down to 20m (65ft) and a series of three caves at 8-10m (25-33ft).
Inland, 18km (11 miles) southwest of Varadero, Cueva de Saturno 3 (Saturno Caves) are a series of caves flooded with both fresh and seawater and containing stalactites, stalagmites and blind shrimps. Penetration to the further chambers is only for trained cave divers. The water is cold, so a good wetsuit is required.
North of Punta Hicacos, there are several wrecks which were cleaned and sunk for divers. The 102m (335ft) Russian patrol ship 4 (barco patrullero in Spanish), lies in 28m (92ft) of water. The 40m (130ft) wreck, referred to in Spanish as Coral Negro 5 and the 36m (118ft) tugboat Remocador 6 lie at a depth of 20m (65ft). A Russian AN-24 aircraft 7 lies at a depth of 15m (50ft) and La Cohetera 8 is at 18m (60ft).
Northeast of Cabezo del Cayo and Cayos Blancos, the 40m (130ft) Barco Hundido 9 (Sunken Ship), also called Neptuno, is a popular site because it is not deep. It lies at a depth of only 10m (33ft), with good visibility and good marine life.
Cayo Coco, 100km (62 miles) northeast of Ciego de Ávila, is accessible by vehicle via a 27km (17 miles) causeway. It has relatively new hotel developments along brilliant white sand beaches and spectacular diving. The sites have not seen many divers so reef and nurse sharks are often encountered. North of Cayo Coco, La Jaula 10 has four slightly different sites, the seabed being covered in Gorgonian Sea Fans, Sea Rods and Sea Whips interspersed with clumps of stony corals and rich fish life.
Santa Lucía, 180 km (112 miles) northeast of Camagüey, has attractive reefs and wrecks with many pelagic species, including Eagle Rays, stingrays and Manta Rays.
The main dive site at Santa Lucía is the Mortera wreck 11. This Spanish merchant ship sank north of the Bahia de Nuevitas in 27m (89ft) of water after a collision in 1896. It is now well colonized by marine creatures and the fish life includes Bull Sharks.
Northeast of the Bahia de Nuevitas, Escalón 12 is a sandy ledge with diverse marine life along the top of a drop-off at 20m (65ft). North of Santa Lucía is Poseidon 2 13, a dense coral garden on a ledge at 18m (60ft), before the seabed slopes down to 30m (100ft).
Guardalavaca has wrecks, walls, caves and terraces. The area also has other attractions besides diving. Northwest of the Bahia de Vita is Cadena 14 (Chain), a dive which follows the marine life that developed around a dropped chain at 20m (65ft). Northwest of Guardalavaca, Corona 15 has a colourful wall with rope and encrusting sponges from 20m (65ft) to 40m (130ft). The abundant fish life includes Blacktip Reef Sharks. Northeast of Guardalavaca there is another of many sites called Aquarium 16 after its abundant fish life at 10-15m (33-50ft).
The Indigo Hamlet (Hypoplectrus indigo) is a shy and relatively rare Seabass that swims about near the bottom, feeding on small fish and crustaceans.
The Blue Tang (Acanthurus coeruleus) is one of many fish that change colour patterns as they develop from juvenile to adult.
SANTIAGO DE CUBA
At the eastern end of Cuba’s Caribbean coast, 863km (535 miles) east of Havana, the Santi-ago de Cuba region has more than 70 dive sites and excellent marine life among channels, caves and wrecks. Apart from the wreck of the Cristóbal Colón, the reef platform slopes to 35m (115ft) and then drops off into depths greater than 1000m (3300ft) - so there are plenty of pelagic species in addition to the excellent marine life both on and off the narrow reef flat. Where it descends into the abyss, divers can observe large fish, but the main attraction in this area is the sunken Spanish warship Cristóbal Colón 17 close to the shore near La Plata. The wreck lies down the slope to 30m (100ft).
A distinctive adult female Stoplight Parrotfish (Sparisoma viride). The teeth of all parrotfish are fused into beak-like plates, which most use to scrape the algal film from stony coral or rock, while a few eat leafy algae or living stony coral.
LOS JARDINES DE LA REINA
South of Ciego de Avila, Los Jardines de la Reina (The Queen’s Gardens), is a chain of 250 uninhabited coral reefs stretching for over 160km (100 miles) some 80km (50 miles) offshore. It is a marine park, and therefore access is restricted and commercial fishing banned. As well as small fish there are massive Goliath Groupers, shoals of Tarpon and jacks and Silky, Blacktip Reef and Bull Sharks. Known to Americans as Lost Paradise Keys, Los Jardines de la Reina National Park has 50 pristine dive sites, most of them protected from winds and currents, with many more still to be explored. There are hundreds of small cays surrounded by mangroves. The area teems with reef fish, including huge barracuda, groupers and sharks.
Bipinnate Sea Plume Gorgonian (Pseudopterogorgia bipinnata) colonies grow in a single plane with primary and secondary branches.
In deep water Yellow Tube Sponges (Aplysina fistularis) are longer, without the staghorn-like growths found in shallow water.
Cabezo de Coral Negro 18 is known for Blacktip, Bull and sometimes Silky Sharks at 35-40m (115-130ft). Southeast of Cayo Anclitas is La Cueva del Pulpo 19 best known for large pillar corals, a cave, and Goliath Groupers. Meseta de los Meros 20 is particularly known for its groupers down to 32m (105ft). West of Cayo Anclitas is Avalon 21, which has abundant fish life at 37m (121ft), which in turn attracts Blacktip, Bull and many Silky Sharks. South of Cayo Caballones is Pipin 22, which has sandy gullies among Brain and Star Corals on a gentle slope from 15m (50ft) to 22m (72ft).
AMERICAN DIVERS GOING TO CUBA
Due to the US embargo on Cuba, Americans who visit Cuba at their own expense, without US Government permission, cannot legally spend money in Cuba. There is no law specifically forbidding American citizens to travel to Cuba, provided they do it under fully escorted and fully sponsored programmes. American divers have got around this problem for many years by booking an all-inclusive, pre-paid trip through a non-US or non-Cuban tour operator, usually in Canada or Mexico. The most common gateways are Cancún, Toronto, Panama, Nassau and Montreal, but you can also use the Cayman Islands, Jamaica and Costa Rica.
Although popular, travel to Cuba is a ‘grey’ area and after years of the government turning a blind eye the Bush administration is clamping down on it. If American citizens do travel to Cuba in this way, they should make sure that immigration officials within Cuba stamp their tourist card or visa and not their passport. On return to the US, if customs officials ask them to fill out a form listing the countries visited since departure, they should not list Cuba. If they receive any other related forms, they should ask their tour operator for advice before filling them in.
CIENFUEGOS, GUAJIMICO AND TRINIDAD
The Cienfuegos, Guajimico and Trinidad areas have a maze of small walls and sandy gullies lined with sponges and gorgonias, including sea fans and sea rods. The growth on the seabed harbours reef fish, lobsters, shrimps, nudibranchs and crabs. Fish species include moray eels, Nassau Groupers, Blue Tangs, Queen Triggerfish and snappers, while Batwing Coral Crabs are common in this area.
The coast of Trinidad has 21 dive sites and one of the longest coral reefs in Cuba, known for its Black Coral and Whale Sharks. West of Trinidad, Blue Canyon 23 is the largest of several channels descending to a drop-off at 20-30m (65-100ft), with abundant marine life.
Guajimico has 16 dive sites, one of which, El Naranjo 24, is a colourful dive with Lettuce and Fire Corals, gorgonians and many species of snappers at 7m (23ft).
Camaronero I and II 25 are two deliberately sunk fishing boats lying at 10-25m (33-80ft). Northwest of the wrecks is El Laberinto 26, a labyrinth of sandy gullies, coral heads and gorgonias from 10m (33ft) to 27m (89ft). North of El Laberinto is El Coral 27, which has a pillar coral 7m (23ft) high - one of the largest in the world.
Cienfuegos, described as the Pearl of the South, has 30 dive sites characterized by calm waters and large reefs with deep, wide channels dropping down from 10m (33ft) to 40m (130ft). South of Playa Rancho Luna, La Corona28 has narrow coral channels more than 10m (33ft) deep, descending sharply to a sandy plateau carpeted with gorgonias and many large fish.
Northeast of Cayo Largo, Playa Girón (Bahia de Cochinos - the Bay of Pigs) has drop-offs, gorgonias, sponges, barracuda, Tarpon, groupers and wrecks. There are 14 dive sites, some with steep drop-offs, a good collection of pelagic species and an inland cave. On the east side of the Bahia de Cochinos, Punta Perdiz 29 has a good drop-off around 18m (60ft) and good marine life from 10m (33ft) to more than 40m (130ft). Inland, 2km (1½ mile) northwest of Playa Girón, El Brinco Cave 30 should only be dived in the company of a local guide. It has blind fish, but no stalactites or stalagmites.
A stand of Pillar Coral (Dendrogyra cylindrus). Spires grow from a common base and are found on flat or slightly sloping bottoms.
Cayo Largo, the largest island in the archipiélago de los Canarreos, has many shallow coral gardens, but the best walls often start below 30m (100ft). Canyons harbour countless reef fish and reef sharks are found along the walls. Some drop-offs begin at 6m (20ft) and descend into the depths. Tunnels full of jacks, Tarpons, large groupers and Green and Hawksbill Turtles are common. Cayo Largo has more than 30 dive sites. Southeast of Faro los Ballenatos, Acuario 31 (another Aquarium) is another area of patch reefs and holes with prolific fish life at 12-15m (40-50ft). Southwest of Playa Sirena, Las Rabirruvias 32 has coral heads and gorgonias on sand at 5-8m (16-25ft).
Flamingo Tongue Snail (Cyphoma gibbosum) on a gorgonian. These snails feed on gorgonias in all types of habitats.
The Azure Vase Sponge (Callyspongia plicifera), with its elaborately convoluted exterior, grows alone or in twos and threes.
Batwing Coral Crabs (Carpilius coralli-nus), often only seen at night, can be seen during the day off Playa Ancon.
33 ISLA DE LA JUVENTUD (THE ISLE OF YOUTH)
The Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth), previously known as the Isle of Pines, attracts the most divers. A shallow reef crest with caves, crevices, canyons and drop-offs into the Gulf of Mexico, this area has one of the oldest marine reserves in the world. Many of Cuba’s premier dive sites lie along its southwest shore. The diving is based on Hotel El Colony on the coast west of Siguanea, but the dive sites stretch from Cape Francés to Point Pedernales and include a 6km (4mile) strip known as the Pirate Coast. Highly organized with a fixed restaurant complex for lunch, there are nearly 60 marked dive sites and most have fixed moorings to minimize anchor damage. Sheltered from the prevailing east-southeast winds, and with minimal currents, the fish life is profuse, tame and approachable. Some sites are at 30m (100ft) with valleys descending to between 50m (165ft) and 80m (260ft). The reefs are forested with Gorgonian Sea Fans, Sea Plumes and Sea Rods as well as Bowl, Tube, Vase and Octopus Sponges.
Large shoals of Tarpon barely condescend to move aside as you swim through them. Barracuda, Rainbow Runners, Trumpetfish, Red Snappers, Schoolmaster Snappers and Yellow-tail Snappers follow you around. Spiny lobsters, Batwing Coral Crabs and Green Moray Eels abound and stingrays are found on the sand. The myriad of friendly fish include Queen Angelfish, French Angelfish, Queen Triggerfish, Sargassum Triggerfish, Black Durgon, Ocean Surgeonfish, Blue Tangs, butterflyfish, grunts, groupers, Spanish Hogfish, parrotfish and Scrawled Filefish.
North-northeast of Cape Francés there are three shipwrecks which are well colonized by marine life.
MARÍA LA GORDA
An UNESCO biosphere reserve situated along the Caribbean coast, 300km (190 miles) west of Havana, María la Gorda has one of the most protected reef areas in Cuba. Most of the dive sites are close to shore. They are noted for corals, gorgonias, fans, sponges, snappers, barracuda, Eagle Rays and stingrays, while Whale Sharks are seen from September to November. The area has 39 of Cuba’s best dive sites, though some of them are beyond recreational diving depths on air.
Ancla del Pirata 34 (Pirate’s Anchor) is named after a large 18th century anchor resting against coral at 15m (50ft). Las Tetas de Maria 35 (Maria’s breasts) is named after the rock formations that jut out to sea from the land. Sandy channels and large coral heads are the most prominent features of this site.
Northwest of Las Tetas de Maria is El Salón de María 36. This is a cave characterized by its sponges at 20m (65ft). There are three entrances. Northwest of El Salón de María is El Amirante 37, a drop-off starting at 27m (90ft) and covered with large sponges, gorgonias and Black Coral at 30m (100ft). The prolific fish life includes Tarpon, angelfish, grunts and groupers and the occasional Whale Shark. On the east side of the Bahia de Corrientes, El Faraón38 is known for a 2m (6½ft) Barrel Sponge on the top of a drop-off at 20m (65ft). The marine life is prolific with Black Corals at 35-40m (115-130ft).
Little Cayman Island has excellent walls along the Bloody Bay Wall and Jackson Bight, where there are massive caverns and sand chutes which disect the fringing coral heads.
At The Sandbar you can interact with Southern Stingrays in the safety of only a few feet of water.