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My week aboard the Avalon 1, Cuba

AVALON 1 LIVEABOARD – CUBA

I have two addictions in life – Diving and Travel. Interestingly, my first dive ever was in Cuba and you can imagine my excitement at the opportunity to really dive there as an experienced diver. Of course, what I didn’t realise is that I would experience some of the best diving I have ever done in my life. I’m not going to lie, with the Galapagos, Palau, PNG and all these other places that divers rave about, I wouldn’t have expected Cuba to hold a flame to it. I will say it now, and I will say it only once…. I. WAS. WRONG. Jardines De La Reina was one of the most exhilarating and exciting dive locations I have ever been to. Let me tell you why….

 

About Jardines De La Reina

Firstly, let’s start with a little background on Jardines de la Reina and why pristine diving like this actually still exists. Jardines De La Reina (called The Queen’s Gardens in English) was named by Coumbus after his Queen Isabel. It is a 150 mile long mangrove and coral reef archipelago that is part of the third largest barrier reef in the world. The mangrove provides a nursery for smaller marine life, which in turn brings larger fish and marine life to the surrounding coral reef. The question is, why is it still so pristine today? As it turns out, Fidel Castro was an avid Scuba diver and fisherman, and his favourite place to visit was Jardines De La Reina. So intense was his passion for diving here that he placed strict laws on the area, permitting only 500 divers a year, as well as no commercial fishing in the region. Given that the islands are uninhabitable, the US travel embargos, the isolation of the area and the fact that only one operator services the area, the area doesn’t even hit that limit. And the result? A piece of living history, a glimpse of how the Caribbean looked in the days of Columbus. Like the rest of Cuba, Jardines de la Reina has also been caught in a time warp – and as a keen diver, I can assure you I was NOT complaining…

 

About the Avalon I

The Avalon 1 is a luxurious boat that consists of 8 beautifully appointed cabins configured with bunks in twin and triple share, as well as double beds. Each room has private ensuite, beautiful local paintings and a small LCD to watch. The boat consists of cabins, diving deck for your gear (although you dive off a tender), indoor air-conditioned saloon with TV and audio visual equipment, comfortable reclining seats and a more formal dining area. Upstairs is an outdoor dining, seating area and bar, and on the top level is a sun deck and Jacuzzi. The whole boat caters for a maximum of about 20 people. A well organised diving operation, you can expect exceptional service, food and organisation.

 

 

My week on the Avalon I.

The trip starts with a 4am pick up from Havana on Saturday morning. We hopped on a bus and drive down to Jardines de la Reina. Approximately a 6-7 hour drive from the capital of Havana, this is a relatively comfortable bus where most people fell asleep for the majority of the drive. Two stops on the way, a ham and cheese sandwich for breakfast (the staple food in Cuba) and we arrived at the port town of Júcaro in the Ciego de Avila Province, ready to board the Avalon 1… our home for the week.

From the moment we stepped on the boat, it definitely felt like a vacation. Nothing says “welcome to Cuba” like a cold, rose water scented towel to cool off from the 35’c heat and a very cold, very rum filled Mojito. An afternoon of rest and we start our sail out to the archipelago of Jardines De La Reina.

After an afternoon of setting up gear, enjoying some drinks and pizza, lounging around in the sun and enjoying the view on the trip out to the Jardines de la Reina, we sat down for massive dinner spread. This included lobster, fish, pork, potatoes, veges and rice before a couple more cocktails and retiring for the night.

Day 1:

Day 1 diving started at a comfortable hour of 8am. After a quick coffee and fruit, we headed out for a check dive which was done at a site called “Ancilatas”, it is an easy dive of about 5 – 15m and is coral reef – a very easy first dive to get everyone comfortable before the getting to the good stuff. From this dive, we could already observe the healthiness of this beautiful tropical reef with many tropical fish such as tangs, blenneys and even a lone barracuda.

We then returned for breakfast and prepared for our second dive. The next dive was at a site called “Caballones”. A site ranging from about 17 – 24m, it commenced with a descent down a wall where we immediately came face to face with a number of silky sharks. These majestic creatures were quick to welcome us to their site, simultaneously unconcerned and highly curious as to our presence. After about 20 minutes exploring the healthy reef filled with beautiful soft corals, gorgonian fans and a range of different tropical fish, we returned to the boat where the silky sharks had been attracted by the feeding box and were welcoming us back towards the surface. We spent some time at a depth of about 5-10 metres watching the Silkies feed and taking the opportunity to get up close as the Divemasters put the sharks into a state of Tonic Immobility. This is a trance-like state that limits oxygen to the brain and puts the shark into a ‘euphoric’ state.

After travelling for 20 minutes through stunning mangroves and still, crystal clear water, we arrived at the next site. This dive was at a site called “Los Morgates” consisting of a big bommie and a little bommie, this site was absolutely teeming with marine life. We started near the small bommie where we found a number of Caribe sharks who then insisted on following us for the remainder of our dive. As we circled the small bommie and then the larger one, starting at a depth of around 21m and working our way around and up to about the 7m mark at the top of the bommie. On the way we saw a number of schooling Tarpon at the base and as we made our way up, with our school of Caribe Sharks in check, escorting us the whole way around the site, we emerged onto the top of the reef which was brimming with life, tropical fish galore, fans, soft coral, hard coral, black coral, this was a mesmerising spot to complete our dive and safety stop with our caribe sharks in check before surfacing and completing the diving for the day.

Still blown away from our first dive, we returned to the liveaboard to a smiling Ama (our host on board) with cool towels and water completing the day with a swim back at the boat, then mojitos and Latin tunes (because music is EVERYWHERE in Cuba), pizzas and relaxing in the Jacuzzi before a dinner of more lobster, fish, pork and traditional dishes like arroz negro (black rice) and Ropa Vieja (shredded beef).

 

Day 2:

The day starts with a deep dive of about 30m at a site called “Farallon”. We descend down deep past a couple of Silky sharks before heading to a reef that drops in to some swim through caverns with mountains of healthy soft coral and schooling bait fish. The canyons are deep and go for a length of around 20m. After about 30 minutes exploring the canyons between the 20 and 30m mark, we head back over the reef towards the boat and up to where about 7 Silky sharks “tiberons” are schooling and get ready to watch the shark feed – absolutely mesmerising.

The next site was called “Pepper Farm” and we headed out to see our first Atlantic Goliath Grouper. Dropping to a max depth of about 24m, we took a tour of the reef before ascending to the 18m mark for the Grouper feed. The largest grouper we had join us weighed in at somewhere around 150 – 200 pounds (they can weigh up for 400 pounds here) and was not too happy when another grouper stole his fish, fighting his way through the observing divers and knocking a Divemaster in the head to get it back. Another loop around the reef, we found a number of black grouper, pipe fish, moray eels, tangs, trevally and jacks.

At our next site “Boca De Piedra” we again went to visit the Caribe sharks. On this dive we had four Caribe sharks join us, with one male slightly more aggressive and following us the majority of the dive to show dominance. We descended to a max depth of around 21 metres, where we entered a swim through and emerged into a deep canyon where a number of Tarpon, a Moray Eel and a smaller yellowfin grouper were living before ascending over the canyon and onto the reef on top. This beautiful reef, which lie around the 8 – 12m mark presented many excellent nooks and crannies to explore and made for a beautiful final dive for the day…

The diving here only gets better…. Read the second part of this blog here….