Living the Scuba Diving Dream in Cuba

HAVANA, Jan. 23th (Bloomberg) We’ve just tied our skiff to the mooring line at Farallón, a dive site 50 miles off the southern coast of Cuba, when Ramón, our wiry boat captain, points behind me. “Shark,” he says, smirking.

It’s my first dive of the trip, and if the shark is there, I can’t see it. The water is too deep, and the captain’s eye is more experienced than mine. I take a final inventory of my gear, flash Ramón the OK sign, and roll backward into the azure Caribbean Sea. Rather than pop to the surface, as most divers do after entering the water, I stay under and spin backwards, trying to catch a glimpse of the monster below.

There are three of them circling me.

Farallón is located in the archipelago of Jardines de la Reina, a 367-square-mile national park that’s something of an open secret in the diving community.

At a time when warming oceans have supercharged the destruction of marine ecosystems—roughly two-thirds of corals died in the northern section of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef last year—the Cuban government has aggressively protected this area, almost three times the size of the Florida Keys and commonly referred to as the Galápagos of the Caribbean.

Fewer than 1,500 divers are allowed to visit the archipelago each year, with access granted on a first-come, first-serve basis. The result is a Caribbean Sea that’s been spared the ecological violence ravaging the ocean’s more accessible destinations, a kind of oceanographic time machine that takes lucky divers back to a healthier ecosystem.

Getting there isn’t simple. JetBlue and Delta offer regular flights to Havana, but Americans cannot travel to Cuba under the guise of tourism only. Your trip must match the requirements for one of 12 classifications authorized by the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which include athletic competitions and research and journalism, which is how I got my visa. Many tour operators advertise their trips under the conveniently flexible “people-to-people” category, meant to foster cultural and humanitarian exchange.

It’s June, and after a 4-hour flight from New York to Havana, I head to Hotel Saratoga on the southern end of the Prado and across the street from the Washington-inspired El Capitolio in Old Havana. I get picked up in a 1953 Chevy Bel-Air the color of zaffre, and we drive through the trademark picturesque dilapidation of the Cuban capital city, surrounded by a technicolored mix of 50-year-old cars. Police officers pass us from time to time, riding shiny Moto Guzzi motorcycles.

After check-in, I grab a late dinner around the corner at Los Nardos, a small, dimly lit restaurant at the top of a worn flight of marble steps. For a cold beer and a mountain of garbanzo bean stew and creole fried chicken, I pay just 11 Cuban convertible pesos—a currency pegged to the U.S. dollar but still nearly half the average monthly salary in Cuba.

I take a quick nap and at 3 a.m. catch a bus full of divers and fishermen that ferries us 277 miles southeast to the little coastal town of Jucaro, where we board the Avalon II, a four-deck, 125-foot-long, live-aboard dive boat that will be home for the next six days. After boarding, there’s a five-hour steam out to the gardens.

The boat is designed for fishing and diving expeditions, which means it’s spacious and comfortable but avoids outlandish luxury. (Though the water slide and Jacuzzi on the top deck are a nice way to end the day.) My cabin has a private bathroom and shower, air conditioning, a bed and nightstand, and large windows.

There are 10 other passengers on this weeklong journey, an all-male mix of divers and hardcore fishing fanatics hunting for the legendary tarpon of Boca Grande.

But the divers come for the sharks. I have never seen so many, and with such consistency, anywhere else in the Caribbean. Reef, silky, and nurse sharks, specifically—all a critical bellwether of a resilient ecosystem.

I’ve been traveling for 36 hours straight, and our skiff is finally parked above Farallón. There’s nothing quite like the anticipation you feel before plunging into a part of the ocean you’ve never seen before. Thunderstorms the previous week have cut visibility under water to about 40 feet—a third of what it could be—so once in, I orient myself to the mooring line keeping our boat in position.

After about a minute, the other divers and I are hovering over the bottom at about 60 feet. Up ahead I can barely make out a ridge line, which we’re planning to swim over and follow the topography to almost 100 feet.

The opening of a canyon to our right will route us through the reef and back toward the mooring line. A gang of five large grouper swim with us to the cliff up ahead, and once over the edge, I relax my body and empty my lungs so that I sink gently, like a skydiver free-falling in slow motion. As the bottom approaches 10 seconds later, I fill my lungs again, and my descent slows.

My dive computer shows a depth of 95 feet as we enter the canyon. This far down, the ocean eats all the red wavelength of light, and the arrow for North on the compass appears black. Around me is a deep, infinite blue unlike any found on dry land.

Under four atmospheres of pressure, the air molecules in my tank are so compressed that taking a normal breath pulls four times as much air into my lungs as it would at surface-level. (My tank will empty four times faster, too.) I instinctively reach for my glass-and-steel pressure gauge to monitor my air until we ascend to a more forgiving depth.

Inside the canyon, blue gives way to dark greens and pockets that are simply absent of all color. I can barely see the diver in front of me against the walls, so I watch his shadow on the sandy floor to gauge my distance.

At its base, the canyon is about 5 feet wide and covered with soft corals and foliage that reaches out from the walls, straining to absorb nutrients as they float by.
We emerge from the canyon and discover rolling, underwater hills. The seabed is covered in both hard and soft corals, and sea fans, some of them 4 feet tall, lilt back and forth in rhythm with the ocean.

All of Jardines de la Reina is like this: hill after rolling hill of coral and other plant life, green and gold and purple, swaying in perfect unison. I swim over massive heads of brain coral 4 feet in diameter, with tiny, colorful nudibranchs perched on top, fluttering in the current.

The trio of sharks is waiting for us as the skiff materializes above us in the distance. And they’ve brought friends. At 30 feet down, columns of sunlight penetrate the water in golden shafts, shimmering across the sharks’ bodies as they swim through the beams, making their gray-brown skin glow. Their green and black eyes track us with quizzical intensity.

Divers have a term, task loading, for all the things that compete for your time and attention under water. You have to monitor tank pressure, depth and dive time, no-decompression limits, remember compass headings, control buoyancy, watch out for sea life, and more. But there are moments, often near the end of a dive like this, when all the tasks gently drift away.

In Zen and the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel wrote, “I sometimes had the feeling that I myself was not breathing but—strange as this may sound—being breathed.” The sharks ascend with us and continue their circular vigil until the last diver is out of the water.

Filippo Invernizzi, co-founder of Avalon Outdoor, the Italian company that operates our boat, says that he expects the Cuban government to maintain its limits on tourism in protected areas. “Our company will never be able to grow a lot,” he says, “but after 20 years we are fine with that.

This business model is the only way to maintain the marine parks for the next generation.” Avalon is the only company authorized by the Cuban government to guide trips in Jardines de la Reina, and their exclusive agreement runs through 2036.

One of our Cuban divemasters, Wilbur, says that the underwater environment hasn’t changed during the 17 years he’s been diving the Gardens. He trained as a marine biologist for four years at the University of Havana and has logged about 10,000 dives here. A fish and shark specialist, Wilbur was the government’s first employee in Jardines de la Reina, surveying and documenting marine life.

He became a divemaster for Avalon about six years ago because the pay (rooted in tips from patrons) was significantly better. He misses the scientific work, but, “it’s just economics,” he says with a shrug. “My wife enjoys my salary.”

Breaks between dives, what divers call surface intervals, serve two purposes: They allow one’s body tissues to eliminate excess nitrogen safely, and, on live-aboard boats especially, they become a metronome. Wake up. Eat. Dive. Rest. Dive. Eat. Rest. Dive. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.

Meal time aboard Avalon II brings divers and fishermen together around a communal table, and every meal is a feast. Each day begins with a simple but freshly prepared light breakfast of eggs, toast, fresh fruit, and an addictive fried dough dusted with sugar. Lunch and dinner include fresh fish, caught the same day by two well-traveled Ukranians, Igor and his son, Gregory, who are here to fish.

There’s also a variety of shrimp, lobster, squid, plus hearty soups and rice, all prepared right on the boat. It’s not fancy food, but it is nourishing. On the first night, the crew served dorado in a red sauce, vegetable quiche, and rice. Ripe guava, papaya, and pineapple cover the table almost every meal in the airy salon where we eat together.

In addition to Igor and Gregory, there’s David, a young real estate investor from San Francisco and a lifelong diver who grabbed an open berth at the last minute and joined our trip on a whim. He’s been traveling the world solo for months and will soon return home.

Howie, an opinionated New Yorker, is here with his friend Ryan, a kindred spirit who captains boats in the Bahamas for a living. They are both avid fishermen who, over the course of the week, spend hours waxing poetic about the mysterious performative protocols of fly fishing. “The presentation! The take! The set!”

One night after a dinner of whole mutton snapper, lobster, rice, and chicken, the conversation turns to politics, as it often does when strangers suddenly find themselves sharing meals together in a confined space.

There is laughing. There is heated agreement. And there is some yelling fueled by Finnish vodka, courtesy of Igor and Gregory. At any given moment, the primary conversation is being translated into at least two other languages. The night eventually winds down few hours later, and we gradually disperse to our cabins on the decks below.

We will rise with the sun in the morning. We will dive, and fish, technologically disconnected from the real world and yet somehow more in touch with it than ever, on a boat anchored somewhere off the southern coast of Cuba.

Over the course of the week’s 15 dives, I swim with barracuda, tarpon, and massive grouper. I run my hand over the tail of a limber crocodile as it glides past me like a prehistoric missile. Massive southern stingrays give a good show but, always skittish, keep their distance. And I visit with two critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles.

The lush meadows on the ocean floor conceal a labyrinthine network of pits and passages that shelter the reef’s smallest inhabitants, from schools of tiny, nearly translucent fish to fearless baby moray eels, no bigger around than a pencil. That the reef is teeming with juvenile sea life is one of the most convincing signs of its overall health.

My last dive of the trip starts with a violent, 14-shark feeding frenzy, an amazing display of ferocity and carnage as a living cyclone of large Caribbean Reef sharks go after a weathered metal chum box filled with fish carcasses. Swirling above the sea floor, the sharks make quick work of fish remains, and the water is soon cloudy with guts and detritus.

We slowly ascend from 80 feet, and I look up to find we’re surrounded by thousands of tiny comb jellies, illuminated by sunlight, each about an inch long. As I push up into the heart of the jelly swarm, their transparent bodies pulse with a rainbow of colors. They hang perfectly still in the water, like a galaxy of translucent stars.

Photographer: Benjamin Lowy for Bloomberg Pursuits