This wasn’t my first trip to dive Cuba. I had been invited by an underwater strobe manufacturer, Subsea, back in the late 1980s to travel with their dealers and teach a photo seminar to them (along with photojournalist Rick Frehsee). We went to what was then known as the Isle of Pines (now Isle of Youth), but I wasn’t really impressed. There was clear water and beautiful sponge … even some fascinating shipwrecks. But, there just weren’t many fish, no surprise I guess with 200,000 Cubans living in proximity to this part of the island nation.
However, in the summer of 2016 I first visited Jardines de la Reina for a feature in Alert Diver, and what a revelation that was. It was farther offshore, and therefore better insulated from traditional fishing pressure. But, more than that it had been identified by the Cuban government for stringent marine protection, first by nomination as a marine Protected Area (MPA) in 1996 and then expanded with National Park designation in 2010. With rangers actually living in the Gardens of the Queen, enforcement has been assured, and marine life has flourished.
Visiting once was not nearly enough, so I booked the Jardines Aggressor II in March 2018 for a return visit. As my portfolio of images from this week suggest, I found significant coral cover providing habitat for large schools of grunt and porkfish, as well as several species of angelfish. We had sharks on almost every dive, both Caribbean reef and silky sharks. But, the species that best illustrated what is so very good about an MPA were the grouper. Large black, Nassau, and even goliath grouper were plentiful, and they were extraordinarily accessible.
The resident American crocodile, Nino, remains a highlight for most marine photographers. He delivered for me in 2016 with what became a kind of comically viral Internet story of how I’d “endangered” my daughter by exposing her to this “fearsome” predator. The web is nothing if not the spawn of hyperbole. Gratefully, Nino delivered for us again this year.
While not wishing to engage in political discourse, although I definitely have an opinion, it should be noted that American tourism is soft in the Trump era. People may be reluctant to book future travel not knowing what effect it might have on their travel. From my experience, the effect was negligible. We stayed in the same fine hotel arranged by the Oceans For Youth Foundation located in Old Havana, traveled under the same People to People permit, and we encountered a welcoming Cuban culture both unique and fascinating.
We did a few days in Havana at the front end, and then traveled 6 hours is a modern, comfortable bus to board the Jardines Aggressor II to commence our cruise to Jardines de la Reina. The Cubans we met, both around Cuba and on the boat, were warm and friendly. They truly like Americans and were excited for the opportunities that appeared once tourist restrictions relaxed. From a selfish perspective, it was kind of nice that the crowds that might have materialized never did, and now I could fly direct to Havana from Miami International on a 50 minute American Airlines flight. This may be actually be the golden era for Cuban dive tourism, where infrastructure exceeds demand and the quality of the dive product is world-class.