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Les Jardines de la Reina

Les Jardines de la Reina – June 21, 2013 – July 6, 2013

After packing my gear and loading it into the car I set off for the airport.  It was a sunny Friday afternoon and the airport is in the opposite direction to the cotillion of cottage traffic so it was a rather uneventful journey.  I stopped at the valet parking lot, registered, and awaited the bus to terminal one.  I could not check in at one of the kiosks so had to wait in line for an available representative.  Brigitte, the Air Canada representative was quite helpful but told me that she would have to charge me for extra baggage since only one checked bag is allowed.   However, she could not find a key on her keyboard that would allow her to charge me so she checked with a supervisor who said it was O.K. not to charge me for the extra bag.  However, when I put the housing case on the scale she said that it was overweight and I would certainly have to pay for that.  But she still could not find a key on her keyboard that would levy the charges.  So, she checked with another supervisor who said that there are no baggage restrictions or charges to Cuba.  Whoo Hoo!  I may have to come to Cuba again.  After checking my bags I set off for the security screening area and joined a rather long line.  It seemed to move at a terminally slow pace until eventually somebody got the bright idea to open another station.  Eventually I made it through security and set off for my gate.  It seems to me that my gate is always furthest from wherever I am but I arrived with time to spare.  On the way I passed a Johnnie Walker booth where an attractive young lady was proffering free shots of scotch.  It is always nice to get something for free.  Our plane boarded on time and there was plenty of room since there were only about thirty people on board.  We arrived in Havana and set off through customs.  Given that there were so few of us it still took a long time to clear customs.  After picking up our luggage we entered another checkpoint and I was selected for closer scrutiny.  This would not have presented a problem except that there were a few clothing importers having every item they were trying to bring into the country closely scrutinized by two customs agents.  Eventually, after I complained about being tired and having to wait, a table was cleared so they could inspect my housing and then it was off to find a taxi.  I was met by the Avalon representative who showed me where to change money and then she got me a taxi.   Apart from being stopped by the police on the way, the ride to the hotel was uneventful and, after checking in, it was straight to bed for a few hours sleep.

The alarm went off at 04:00 a.m. and the bus was waiting outside.  We stopped at several more hotels to pick up other passengers and then left on a six hour journey to the coast.  We stopped for a while at a café to stretch our legs and afterwards I even managed to get a bit more sleep on the bus.  After arriving at the boats we stowed our gear and then began the 5 hour crossing to Les Jardines de la Reina.  We enjoyed lunch aboard the boat during the crossing and, once again, I managed to catch up on much needed rest.  Eventually we arrived at our destination.  It appears very much like a small fishing village set amongst a mangrove swamp.  The Tortuga, a doubledeck houseboat that has been converted into a floating hotel, dominates the centre of the lagoon while several other boats lay at anchor.  A few crude buildings have also been constructed amongst the mangroves.  After introductions were made with the staff we set up our gear to complete a check-out dive.  This first dive was in shallow water with limited visibility but we were joined by a large Goliath grouper, a Black grouper and several Nassau groupers.  We also saw a pair of lionfish, perhaps the largest that I have seen anywhere.  After our dive the divemasters and crew took care of all our gear and we showered and prepared for dinner.  The meals are excellent and usually consist of a couple of fish selections along with either chicken or pork with an assortment of salads and fruit plates.  There is no way that the seven of us could possibly consume all the food on the table.  After dinner Rafa showed us a few of his videos which are really quite excellent.  Then again, he was shooting with a high end Panasonic camera and has just upgraded to an Epic Red camera and Rouge housing so his next material should also be awesome.  By 10:00 p.m. I was exhausted and so it was off to bed.

The next day dawned overcast but the breeze quickly sent the clouds on their way.  It had been decided to do our first dive before breakfast and so, after coffee, we donned our wetsuits and set off by 08:00 a.m.  We could see a couple of silky sharks circling the boat before we even entered the water and as we descended they were joined by several tarpon and the obligatory groupers.  There were a few coral canyons to swim through but the light was not conducive to shooting inside them.  Rafa had brought his Rouge housing complete with four very bright LED lights so I shot a few seconds of him filming.  The sharks continued to circle us as we dove but the tarpon maintained their positions by the coral canyons.  The reef here is pretty much standard for the Caribbean but the presence of large predators is what sets this area apart from other destinations that I have visited.  After completing our dive we headed back to the boat for a breakfast that, once again, consisted of too much food.  Suitably replenished we again donned our wetsuits and set off to the next dive site.  As soon as we entered the water we were greeted by a half dozen or more Caribbean reef sharks that came in close for inspection.  The coral overhangs and passageways contained schools of tarpon and the top of the reef was patrolled by numerous large groupers.  Most of the fish seem to enjoy their fleeting moments of fame and, the groupers especially, will pose for the cameras and ensure that you catch them in their best profile.  Everywhere else that I have been in the Caribbean requires that if you want to see sharks you have to feed them.  Here they abound in their natural environment, exhibiting natural behavior, just the way they always have, just the way they always should.  It is a magnificent spectacle to witness.  We completed our dive and set off back through the mangroves to our boat where, after a few minutes to refresh and change into dry clothes, lunch awaited us.  At the rate that we are consuming food I am certain to return home weighing more than when I left.  After lunch we enjoyed a siesta which afforded me an opportunity to catch up on the trip report as well as some much needed sleep.  A commotion on the dive deck alerted me that it was time for another dive.  We donned our wetsuits and within just a few minutes were at the next site.  This was a shallow reef with no promise of sharks but as soon as we entered the water we were greeted by several large grouper which followed us for the entire dive.  A couple of encounters with barracuda and a pair of stingrays as well as an up close and almost personal interaction with a nurse shark that Rafa disturbed with his lights were the highlights of this dive.  Then, it was back to the boat where cocktails awaited us.  After showering and changing I downloaded the first tape to the computer to see what had been captured thus far.  Then it was time for dinner.  Today, Andy and Christina, a young couple from Germany, are celebrating six years together so perhaps we should get into a festive mood.  The chef may have known about this auspicious occasion since he had prepared a feast of lobster, fresh snapper, some other really delicious fish as well as all of the necessary accoutrements.  To celebrate further I ordered a bottle of their finest Cabernet for the table and we celebrated in style.  After dinner we chatted around the table for a while and then it started to rain, indicating perhaps that it was time for bed.

Again the morning dawned overcast but it did not take long for the sun to put in an appearance.  We enjoyed our breakfast before our first dive today and then set about getting our gear ready.  It was about a 20 minute ride through the mangrove swamp out to the site.  This morning the divemaster had a metal crate with a fish inside, the scent of which would keep the sharks interested.  Caribbean reef sharks greeted us at the surface and escorted us to the bottom.  We spent about twenty minutes being constantly swarmed by the sharks until the divemaster opened the crate so that they could get at the fish.  A feeding frenzy ensued and one lucky shark made off with the catch.  We ascended up the line to our safety stop and spent a further twenty minutes filming the sharks around the boat.  Once all the divers were aboard the panga the divemaster placed a fish head on the end of a piece of rope and dangled it at the stern.  The sharks would almost climb out of the water to get to the bait and once one of the sharks sunk his teeth into the fish there was no way that it was letting go.  This operation was repeated and then we made our way back through the mangrove swamp to the boat.  A saltwater crocodile greeted us and so I donned fins, mask and snorkel and swam out to get some footage.  After my safe return several others also set off to get some pictures.  Then it was time to get ready for our next dive.  A short five minute ride in the panga and we were at the next site.  Once again the divemaster had brought a fish head in the metal container.  The sharks were already swarming at the bottom by the time I arrived and they were joined by several grouper including a Goliath grouper that must have weighed in excess of three hundred pounds.  After several minutes of being circled by sharks the divemaster opened the case and one of the groupers was the quickest and enjoyed a tasty treat.  The rest of the scavengers, unfortunately, were completely left out.  We then proceeded along the reef and filmed the myriad of reef fish and corals.  The sharks accompanied us, not because they thought that there may be more food but because that is what sharks do, patrol the reef.  Near the end of the dive we came to a large depression which led to a cave. There was not much to see within the cave so time inside was kept rather short.  Once back on the reef we encountered more sharks just swimming about.  Then it was time to head back to the boat for lunch.  I have decided to restrict my caloric intake to protein and fruit in an attempt to maintain my youthful figure.  If we were to consume all of the food that is laid out before us nobody would be able to fit into the clothes that we wore to get here.  The next dive was at a site called Los Mogotes.  The divemasters had brought all the discarded lobster carapaces to feed the grouper.  Once the feast of lobster was laid out numerous groupers converged on the spot and set about gorging themselves.  This also excited the sharks even though they won’t eat lobster.  After witnessing the spectacle we set off along the reef.  This is one of the most resplendent Caribbean reefs that I have ever seen; numerous intact sea fans, gorgonians and other soft corals completely cover the reef and small reef fish dart about adding colour.  The reef sharks continued to escort us along the reef for the duration of the dive.  We headed back to the boat where cocktails and pizza awaited us and a few of us decided to go to the beach to film the iguanas and the jutias, a Cuban tree rat the size of a cat.  However, the sand fleas and mosquitoes made short work of us so after we had satiated our curiosity it was back to the boat for dinner.  Along the way we also filmed the mangroves.  Dinner consisted of another bout with lobster, this time only the tails.  There were also two different kinds of fish and a sushi as well as salad, rice, potatoes and fruit.  After all of this they also served dessert.  By the time I finished dinner I was exhausted and said goodnight and headed off to bed.  It wasn’t even 09:00 p.m.

The skies were overcast again to greet the day and it seems as though the chef’s regimen includes serving breakfast before we go diving.  After we have been fed it is back to the panga and off to the first dive site.  Once again the divemasters have brought food for the sharks and they greet us at the surface and escort us to the bottom.  The fish is very fresh which causes the sharks to become quite excited and several of them attack the metal case well before it is opened.  Once the divemaster removes the lid the sharks quickly devour the fish and even sent the case hurtling into the depths below.  Once all of the excitement has abated we tour the reef under the constant watchful eyes of the sharks patrolling the reef.  At the end of the dive the sharks circle us while we complete our safety stop and then it is back into the panga for the return trip.  I attempt to download the tape to the computer but before I am finished it is time to go diving again.  Hurriedly I assemble the camera and housing and pull on my wet suit.  There is no food for the sharks this time but, once again, we are greeted at the surface and escorted along the reef by several reef sharks.  This dive is only 60 feet deep at the maximum and we make our way along the edge of the reef at a leisurely pace.  The coral gardens are spectacular and afford many photo opportunities.  As we round a bend we arrive at a coral canyon with a school of tarpon hovering within the confines.  The divemaster motions me forward so that I can film the tarpon undisturbed. I slowly swim through the school but they hardly notice my presence.  Upon reaching the end of the canyon I turn around and swim back through the tarpon to obtain the opposite perspective.  We continue along the reef until we reach the mooring buoy and complete our safety stop surrounded by circling Caribbean reef sharks.  By now it is time for another hearty lunch consisting of bean soup, fish prepared three different ways, fresh salad and lots of fresh fruit.  By the end of this trip I am going to be enormous.  During the surface interval I filmed the mangrove swamp from the boat and even got a few shots of the crocodile.  Then it was time to suit up for the afternoon dive.  Again we were greeted by the obligatory reef sharks and groupers but, since we did not have any food they just drifted along the reef beside us.  There were a number of narrow channels that provided some interesting swim throughs and, while filming a conch crawling across the sand, I lost sight of my dive buddies.  After a minute or so I surfaced and could plainly see the boat so descended again and continued in the direction that I thought the rest of the group had travelled.  A few minutes later we gathered together again and continued the dive to the destination point.  Then it was back to the boat for Mojitos and pizza.  Unfortunately our chef suffered a heart attack and was transferred back to Cuba with as much haste as possible.  We later learned that he was resting comfortably and will make a full recovery.  Our new chef came up with a couple of different and innovative ways to serve lobster which were both very good.  By now I have completely given up any hope of returning home at the same weight that I was when I left.  A terrific storm came up and we were treated to the sound of rain crashing down on the roof while we ate.  After dinner we chatted around the table and then it was time for bed.

The skies were clear in the morning and, after breakfast, we set off for Black Coral I.  The plan was for the divemasters to stash the chum in a large barrel sponge.  However, as one of the divemasters was preparing to deposit the chum Noel grabbed his arm and pulled him away.  A large lionfish swam out from the sponge which could have resulted in a very nasty sting.  Once the chum was in place it did not last long though as several sharks darted for the tasty treat.  The combination of the storm last night and low tide in the morning resulted in rather poor visibility so shooting was limited.  Once we began our ascent we were greeted by the reef sharks at about twenty feet and they continued to circle us long after we had completed our safety stops.  It was a long ride back to the boat since they had changed the mooring position to a spot just offshore from a beach.  We completed our surface interval and then it was back into the panga for dive two.  This dive was shallower and the tide had risen so visibility was improved.  There were several coral canyons with schooling Jacks that made for some nice shots.  At the end of the dive we were met this time by Silky sharks and they entertained us for several minutes while we completed our safety stop.  A five minute ride brought us back to the boat in time for lunch.  The chef has managed to find another way to serve lobster; in a potato salad…delicious.  After lunch it was time for a siesta and I was awoken just in time to don my wet suit and prepare for the next dive.  This was to be a shallow affair and we swam along the reef in search of all the tiny inhabitants.  For the first time this week we did not see any sharks.  However, the divers spotted two turtles, two green moray eels, five stingrays and schools of blue tangs, creole wrasse, and yellow snappers.  Occasionally a grouper would also swim slowly past us.  After the dive we were once again welcomed back to the boat with Mojitos and pizza.  After downloading the video to the computer it was time for another nap before dinner.  Another sumptuous feast awaited us and after we had finished Xavier ordered a round of Mojitos so we sat around the table afterwards regaling each other with exaggerated dive stories.  By 10:00 p.m. we had all retired for the evening.

Clear skies and bright sunshine greeted us for breakfast and we hurried to our first dive site to avoid the poor visibility of low tide.  The site was a deep wall and shortly into the dive we were treated to a bout of curiosity from a 3-4m. great hammerhead shark.  Unfortunately it did not hang around very long nor come close enough to get good footage.  It was followed shortly thereafter by a lone eagle ray swimming along out in the blue.  Visibility is not very good at depth first thing in the morning so, after a short while, we ascended to our safety stop where several silky sharks circled us until everyone had boarded the panga.  We completed a one hour surface interval on the boat and then set off once again for a second dive at Five Sea.  This is a beautiful dive with the top of the reef at about 30’ and the sandy bottom at about 60’. There is plenty of light and lots of small fish darting all about over the reef.  As soon as we entered the water several reef sharks joined us and swam about as though they are welcoming long lost friends.  Although we did not bring any treats with us they escorted us along the reef, occasionally buzzing by rather closely.  There is a coral canyon not far from the ship wreck that is home to a large school of tarpon.  This time they were not in the canyon but as I passed by the exit the whole school, somewhere between 60 and 100 of them, swam past me back towards their home.  It was an amazing spectacle.  At the safety stop we were again entertained by the reef sharks swimming amongst us.  Then it was back to the boat for lunch.  I am now getting quite used to having a siesta after lunch and awoke with a start when it was time for the last dive with this group.  We returned to Finca de Pepe with a treat to feed the groupers and, by the way that they responded, you would have thought that they had not eaten for days.  The Goliath grouper probably weighed somewhere in the region of 200 pounds.  We proceeded along the reef without feeding them and filmed many of the resident reef fish including a barracuda.  As we returned to our entry spot the groupers were still waiting and once the case was opened the largest one immediately swallowed the entire fish.  Once we returned to the boat it was time for the others to rinse their gear and make preparations for leaving in the morning.  At dinner Alfonso ordered a bottle of wine to accompany our lobster tails and Andy finished the evening by presenting everyone with shots of rum.  Another terrific storm set in but we were too occupied viewing some of Rafa’s videos from Las Canarias that we hardly even noticed.  His camera work is amazing and the Canary Islands have lots to offer divers.  After more than enough to drink it was time to retire for the evening.

After breakfast the following morning it was necessary to transfer my luggage to the floating hotel and bid goodbye to my fellow divers.  It never ceases to amaze me that such close bonds can be formed amongst divers in such a short time, especially when we do not even speak the same language.  By 08:30 they were leaving for the long voyage back to Cuba while I was heading out for the first dive of the day.  This was a shallow dive where we encountered a couple of turtles but not much else of any significance.  At 11:00 a.m. the South African fishermen boarded their boat for the return trip to Cuba and we set off for our second dive.  One of the young Cuban chefs joined us and, once again, we kept it rather shallow.  The highlights of this dive were three nurse sharks at various locations and one of them sheltered beneath a coral overhang and remained still long enough for me to shoot some video.  Rafa was kind enough to give Noel a set of lights for use with his Canon camera and they are certain to have a marked impact to his filming.  We returned to the floating hotel and it appears as though I have been assigned the master suite.  It is a huge room with two beds, a desk and a bathroom complete with a proper shower stall and even a bidet.  Not sure that I will want to go back to roughing it on La Reina.  I ate lunch in the galley all by myself and they served enough food to feed a family of four.  Later I toured the boat and by 03:00 p.m. it was time for the last dive of the day.  Noel asked me where I would like to go and I chose “Five Sea” since it had provided the most spectacular photo opportunities thus far.  There was a bit of wind facing us as we made our way out so the ride was bumpier than usual.  We donned our gear, dropped into the water and were immediately met by several groupers and three Caribbean reef sharks.  They escorted us along the reef coming close every once in a while just to make sure we were enjoying ourselves.  On this dive we concentrated more on some of the smaller creatures; arrow crabs and cleaner shrimp sharing space with an anemone, black coral beneath the coral overhangs and a small circular anemone the likes of which I had never seen before.  After reaching my turn around air pressure I signaled to Noel that we should turn around and head back but instead we just drifted along the reef while the sharks kept swimming by just to keep us company.  By the time we ascended the winds had picked up significantly and it appeared as though we were in for a real downpour.  We were several hundred meters from the dive boat but Noel was able to get the attention of the captain by waving his fin above his head.  Getting out of the water proved to be a bit of a challenge since the boat was no longer moored and we were bouncing about in 2-3 foot seas. Fortunately, once we had regained the boat, the wind was behind us but it was still difficult to make headway since we were getting bounced about by the rough water.  By the time we reached the mangroves there was a spectacular rainbow adorning the sky.  We were able to make it back to the floating hotel before the rain started but when it came down it really poured.  Thirty minutes later it was all over and the sun came back out.  All of our previous dives were made in flat calm water and it would be easy for those that left this morning to believe that that is what it is always like here.  After showering and cleaning up for the day I relaxed until it was time for dinner.  After dinner Noel transferred all of his videos and stills to my computer as well as maps and articles about Les Jardines de le Reina so that they could be used for the trip report.  By 10:00 p.m. it was time to head off to bed.  Apparently there was a terrific storm overnight but I slept through the whole thing.

The next morning dawned overcast and windy, not a very auspicious start to the day.  I enjoyed breakfast with Steven, a South African fisherman and then it was time to prepare my gear for the first dive.  Today we are planning to stay out on the boat for the first two dives so I loaded a fresh tape and battery into the camera.  Once we left the sheltered area of the mangroves the wind picked up significantly and we endured 3-4 foot seas once we were out on the ocean.  Consequently it was decided to dive Octopus Cave since it is not that far out to sea.  We were immediately greeted by several groupers and Caribbean reef sharks which continued to follow us throughout the dive.  We experienced strong surge down to about 20 feet but once below that depth it was much calmer.  The combination of low tide and the sediment stirred up by the storm has resulted in extremely reduced visibility.  We completed our dive and then tied up by the mangroves. Noel had kindly brought along a spare tank so that I could film in the mangroves.  The play of light amongst the roots is a fitting backdrop to the myriad of fish that inhabit the mangroves.  We completed our surface interval and then decided on a shallow reef that was relatively close to shore for our next dive.  However, the strong surge and low visibility made this dive not particularly good at all.  However, I did manage to get some footage of a turtle.  Additionally I saw more congregations of large lionfish at several locations than I have ever seen anywhere else in the world.  However, the visibility was so bad that I called the dive early since there seemed to be so little point in continuiing.  We made good time getting back to La Tortuga for lunch and then it was time for my afternoon nap.  A commotion on the stern deck alerted me to the fact that the next boatload of tourists had arrived.  Eric Beck was joining me for this week and it was a welcome relief to have someone who speaks English as a mother tongue.  The berths aboard Halcon are considerably smaller than on La Reina and we have to share a bathroom but somehow we will manage.  Our other companions for this week are a family from Paraguay and another family from Italy.  Perhaps I should learn to speak Spanish. There are ten of us aboard Halcon and space is certainly more limited than it was on La Reina.  After dinner we shared videos on our computers and then it was time for bed.

The next morning was heavily overcast and, after breakfast the rain started in earnest. The family from Paraguay set off for their first dive but, discretion being the better part of valour, we decided to wait the storm out.  If conditions yesterday are any indication it is not going to be a lot of fun out there this morning.  Once the storm abated we set off and actually conditions proved to be better than yesterday.  Visibility was still limited by the storm and low tide but for Eric’s first dive he was treated to sharks, groupers, tarpon, barracuda, a stingray and jacks; a very good first impression.  We made our way back to the boat, rinsed our gear and completed our surface interval.  Our next dive was at Finca de Pepe and although we did not see any sharks we were escorted along the reef by a pair of large Goliath grouper as well as several smaller groupers of various species.  Visibility is still reduced but as we reached the surface the sun was attempting to put in an appearance.  We returned to the boat and enjoyed a late lunch.  The winds had picked up considerably making it too challenging to venture out to the reefs so Eric and I joined Noel for a dive through the mangrove channel.  This provided an interesting alternative to taking the afternoon off.  Then it was back to the boat where Mojitos and pizza awaited us.  We did not have dinner until 08:00 p.m. which did not leave a lot of time for socializing afterwards.  The extreme cold of the air conditioning in our cabin has resulted in me catching a head cold.  Fortunately Eric has some Sudafed so I should be able to clear my sinuses sufficiently to equalize my ears.

By the next morning the winds had died down and the sun had put in an appearance.  After breakfast we headed to El Farralon and instead of going towards the wall we entered into the coral canyons.  This did not afford many photo opportunities but I managed some shots of the tarpon.  At our surface interval we were once again joined by the silky sharks and managed a bit more footage of them.  We stopped at the fill station to obtain fresh tanks and then set off for dive number two at Octopus Cave.  Caribbean reef sharks, tiger groupers, Nassau groupers and a large Goliath grouper welcomed us.  There are plenty of photo opportunities at this site so we contented ourselves to just keep on shooting.  Near the end of the dive we entered the cave but since I was the last one in it was already pretty silted up.  At the exit I filmed the round anemones for a while and then went back to deeper water to film a pair of groupers at the cleaning station. Then it was back to the boat for lunch. After lunch one of the salt water  crocodiles showed up and, since I had ordered an extra tank for just such an occasion, I donned scuba gear and went in to get some footage.  Unfortunately while swimming through the sea grass a lot of bubbles became attached to the lens of the housing so most of the footage is not usable.  By the time I finished we had to get ready for our next dive.  Our next site was Five Sea, a beautiful reef with lots of life.  We were met by the reef sharks and groupers that proceeded to give us a guided tour of their environment.  Photo opportunities abound as the sharks kept circling us and, after a while, they led us to a coral canyon that housed a school of several dozen tarpon. I filmed them through the canyon and back again occasionally getting buzzed by a shark for good measure.  This was a spectacular dive.  After completing our safety stop we went back to the boat and Noel dropped off a couple of full tanks so that I could film the crocodile again.  This time I got the shots that I wanted although the crocodile would not let me position myself so that the sun was behind me. No matter how many times I attempted to get into position he was always faster, ensuring that he could keep me well within his view.  There is quite a tidal flow through the mangrove channel which made filming a bit more difficult than previously encountered.  After satiating my curiosity I made my way back to the boat where a hot shower and a cold Mojito awaited me.  By the time that they served dinner the congestion and fever had gotten the best of me so I loaded up on meds and went straight to bed.

A fitful night’s sleep had me feeling only a little bit better but breakfast and another Sudafed seemed to help the situation.  The winds had picked up overnight and the divemasters determined that it was too rough to head out to sea so we waited for the winds to subside.  Eventually we opted for a shallow reef dive so that the young Italian boy could snorkel with his parents.  However, the water was only three to four feet deep and the surge made it impossible to film.  We returned to the boat and I managed a couple of bowls of soup for lunch and then I took a serious siesta, waking up at 04:30.  Some of the others had gone into the mangroves or onto the beach but there was no more diving that day. One of the downfalls of Les Jardines de la Reina is that there are no alternative sites if the weather is bad.  When the winds come from the north the mangroves shelter the water but when the wind is from the south this is the first area that gets hit.  Still, given the way that I am feeling, taking a day off may not have been such a bad idea.  One of the Cuban ladies gave me some medicine for the cold and it had an almost immediate effect. Not sure what was in the little pink pill but it had me feeling good in no time at all.  After dinner I retired but had a restless sleep because the air conditioning had been turned off. I awoke at 04:30 and was unable to get back to sleep.

The winds had not yet picked up so we set off right after breakfast for our first dive at Black Coral II.  The sharks greeted us and swam along the reef with us but visibility was not that good.  After a few minutes of filming my lens fogged up so I shut down the camera.  As I ascended for our safety stop I had to contend with vertigo and the whole ocean started spinning around me.  Closing my eyes only helped for the moment because as soon as I opened them again the spinning started anew.  We made our way back to the boat where I cleaned the lenses of the camera and housing and re-greased the O-rings.  Then it was time for our second dive.  Los Mogotes is about 60 feet in depth and we encountered the obligatory reef sharks and groupers as well as several tarpon.  Many of the coral overhangs have black coral growing in them which makes for a nice shot with the tarpon swimming in and out.  At the end of the dive it was back to the boat to re-charge batteries and have lunch.  After lunch I revisited the concept of siesta and was roused from a deep sleep when it was time to dive again. We set of for Piu’s reef, named after an old friend of the locals who had recently passed away.  The maximum depth is 60 feet with the top of the reef at 30 feet.  There is a wall festooned with black coral and large tube sponges but as far as reef creatures go it is pretty standard Caribbean.  We did spot a green moray eel but he stayed too deep in his hole to get any usable footage. On the top of the reef the surge sways the gorgonians and sea fans back and forth in the gentle rhythm of the sea.  At the end of the dive Noel spotted a turtle but he was not able to get our attention.  Then it was back to the boat for Mojitos and pizza.  Dinner consisted of a feast of lobster tails and, afterwards, we sat around the table conversing in Spanglish.  It is interesting how we are still able to communicate ideas with partial phrases of various languages, lots of hand signs and bouts of laughter.

Our last day of diving dawned sunny and clear so hopefully we will have another full day of dives.  After breakfast we set off for Pipin and descended to about 85 feet.  Unfortunately I had neglected to change the battery in the camera so was only able to shoot about one minute of footage.  We were surrounded by silky sharks at the safety stop and they approached me much closer than before.  Perhaps they are intimidated by the housing.  At the end of the dive Noel grabbed one by the tail, stroked the belly and put it into a state of catatonic stupor.  Eric had never seen such a thing before.  We made our way back to the boat and I changed batteries.  Within a half hour we were off again to our next site.  Even though I had dove Snapper Head previously this time we took a different route around the reef.  A pair of reef sharks circled us for the duration of the dive and introduced us to a school of tarpon, numerous groupers and a stingray.  There were plenty of photo opportunities.  After the dive we went back to the boat for a quick shower and lunch.  We rested after lunch but I kept the siesta to a minimum and only rested my eyes.  By 03:00 p.m. Noel was back to take us on our last dive of the trip.  We revisited Bocas de Anclitas and saw more sting rays than I have seen anywhere except Stingray City in Grand Cayman.  It was a memorable dive to end the trip.  We returned to the boat and began the laborious task of rinsing all of our equipment and hanging it up to dry.  Sometime later this evening it will be time to pack.  Our last dinner together was a splendid affair and afterwards more wine was ordered and we sat around exchanging stories about our various dive adventures.  We were told to be ready to leave the boat by 08:00 a.m. so; all too soon, it was time for bed.

Coffee and breakfast were already on the table when I awoke so I enjoyed a cup of coffee before deciding if my wet stuff was dry enough to pack. Even though some things were still damp I forced them into the various cases and by 07:30 I was all packed and ready to go. We lingered over breakfast and then awaited the panga to take us to Avalon, the ship that would take us back to Cuba. It was after 09:00 a.m. before the panga arrived and we loaded our remaining gear and ourselves aboard. We did not get far before another panga sped towards us with some piece of forgotten equipment. Then, somebody else remembered something that they had forgotten and the panga was sent scurrying back in search of the forgotten item. We arrived at Avalon before the fishermen and so safely ensconced ourselves in the luxurious lounge. Although a bit dated, Avalon is a very nice boat and certainly a lot more elegant than the ones we had been aboard for the past couple of weeks. A delicious lunch of pizza and fish sticks was served and it did not take long for us to devour all of the food. Afterwards I lounged in a chair and read the book that Eric had loaned me. It takes about five hours to make the crossing but the time sped by quickly. Once we docked all of the gear was loaded onto the bus and we set off for the long drive back to Havana. This is the part of the trip that I enjoyed the least. There is not much to see in the countryside and the towns that we drove through are squalid and depressing. Concrete block houses consisting of perhaps only three or four rooms are connected in long rows, their facades doing little to improve the appearance. A bus full of tourists is apparently a highlight of the day since so many people waved enthusiastically at us as we passed. We stopped for gas in one town and stretched our legs. Various modes of transport from 1950’s era American cars that are patched extensively and later models of Lada’s and Kia’s spew smoke from their exhaust while cyclists careen down the roads on bicycles that are considerably older than the riders. Occasionally a horse drawn buggy slips noisily past us as well. We make another stop at a roadside restaurant and everybody gets off the bus to get something to eat. I opted for a dish of ice cream and then settled back into my book on the bus. It was almost 11:00 p.m. when we finally arrived at the hotel but, due to broken water pipes they were not able to accommodate my reservation. Instead we got into a taxi which ushered us to just outside the courtyard of another hotel. We struggled with our luggage across the cobblestones, registered at the hotel and eventually were able to fall exhausted into bed. With an early morning flight our rest was short lived. We checked out of the hotel and somehow managed to load all of our gear into a 1952 Ford station wagon whose rear door had long since passed its usefulness. Somehow the driver managed to squeeze the entire luggage into the back of the car through the side door. It was still dark and there was not much traffic on the roads so we made good time. The smell of gasoline, or whatever else it is that they use to fuel their cars hung acrid and noxious inside the vehicle. It appears as though we did not have a regular taxi since, instead of dropping us off at the entrance to the airport, we were deposited in the parking lot several hundred meters away. Once again we hauled our considerable luggage some distance before reaching the air conditioned comfort of the terminal. Unfortunately we arrived at the check-in just moments after a group of Canadian high school violinists who had been performing in Cuba during the past week. Since they were a group they had to check-in together and it took an interminably long time before we were finally relieved of our luggage. We arrived at our gate and I set off in search of some Cuban cigars. My name was called over the loudspeaker and so I reported to the customs officials who wanted to further inspect my housing case. After a cursory glance at the contents I showed them a video on my phone and they approved my case for transport. Eventually we boarded the plane and set off on the final leg of the trip. After landing and disembarking we checked through customs, retrieved our baggage and headed for the bus to take us to the valet parking lot where our cars awaited us. It was hot in Toronto and the humidity made it feel much more uncomfortable than it had been in Les Jardines de la Reina but traffic was moving well and I made good time getting home. I unloaded the car, cracked open a beer, lit one of the cigars and settled down in a chair on the porch. It was good to be home again.

The good, the bad and the ugly:

The good:
The diving is simply amazing. There is nowhere else in the Caribbean that I have visited where you are greeted on virtually every dive by several sharks and large groupers. The reefs, although perhaps not quite as colorful as Bonaire, are literally teeming with life. The only place where I previously witnessed a large school of tarpon was at Tarpon Alley in Grand Cayman; in Les Jardines de la Reina you may see them at several sites although they are virtually guaranteed at Five Sea. No other place has as many or as large groupers as here. There were almost as many stingrays at Bocas de Anclitas as may be found at Sting Ray City in Grand Cayman. The divemasters do an amazing job, taking complete care of your equipment and continuously hauling my heavy housing on and off the boat. One thing that I really appreciated was that Noel would wave me forward whenever he found something of interest so that I could film it without the presence of other divers in the group. The opportunity to film the salt water crocodile was an added bonus. If you like fresh fish and fresh lobster you will be delighted at the meals. The selections were varied and there was always more than enough food and it was all delicious. Given the size of the galley the chefs do an amazing job.

The bad:
Since we were virtually stationed in the midst of a mangrove swamp it was inevitable that we would encounter biting insects.  But did there have to be so many of them?  Not sure what it is about me that they like but I seem to be bothered by them more than most.  Word to the wise; take along a lot of insect repellant.

The ugly:
Getting there is definitely not half the fun.  Air Canada flies direct to Havana on a daily basis but the flight does not land until 09:10 p.m.  By the time that you have collected your luggage, made your way through customs inspection, changed money, boarded a cab and made your way to the hotel it is way past 11:00 p.m.  A 04:00 a.m. start to the next day with a 6 hour bus ride followed by a 5 hour crossing on the boat will leave even the most seasoned traveler exhausted.  Is it worth it?  Most definitely yes!  Would I go again?  When do we leave?

 

 

 

Katyk Briceño
"Amazing!!! Beautiful!!" 
 
Daniel LaFrance  
"Beautiful, akin to an underwater spiritual experience of sorts."
 
Walter Marshall   
"Whenever I watch your videos I am just taken away." 
 
Shaun Diaz   
"Well done, very well done. Mysterious, gorgeous and deeply inspiring... The best part is I am not naming any of it. It is nature in its most perfect and beautiful form." 
 
Christie Lopez  
"David...the video is beautiful and so is the music!! I love the music!!!!" 
 
Brian Dodd
"I just wanted to thank you for the moments of peace and beauty these clips brought to my hectic life."