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Frozen in Time: 6 Great Dive Spots in the Pristine Marine Ecosystems of Cuba

03/31/2015 02:01 pm ET | Updated May 31, 2015

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It's often noted that one of Cuba's most seductive aspects is the time capsule-y feel of the place. The old cars. The lack of traffic -- and the horse-drawn wagons -- in Havana. Unrestored mid-century architecture. For visitors, it's enchanting. For residents, not so much so, especially when those charming old buildings are, literally, collapsing around and on top of them.

With the notable exception of the resort strip of Varadero, Cuba's shoreline remains relatively untouched too. The lack of coastal development, relatively few tourists and tight controls on commercial fishing may not have been good for the average Cuban but they have done wonders for marine life on the island. It's been an open secret among divers that Cuba, the largest of the Caribbean islands with 3,600 miles of shoreline, harbors some of the finest and healthiest coral reefs in the western hemisphere, if not the world.

Writing in National Geographic, novelist Peter Benchley described flopping overboard from a dinghy on a glassy Caribbean sea in the summer of 2000 and feeling as though he had "slipped backward nearly half a century into an underwater realm that had not existed, so far as I knew, since the 1950s ... animals in numbers and diversity I hadn't seen in decades, not since Lyndon Johnson was President and man had yet to set foot on the moon."

Not much has changed in the years since. The reefs still teems with giant groupers, reef sharks, turtles, tarpon, eels and a host of smaller species. "100% coral cover and 100% biodiversity" is the way one expert, conservationist Robert Wintner, described them more recently.

With the travel ban that kept Cuba off-limits to most Americans for decades seemingly nearing the end of its days, recreational diving in Cuba is going to be far more common. Marine biologists are already fretting about the potential impact of more tourists on the pristine reefs and are making efforts to mitigate it, but Cuba's stewardship of its offshore ecosystems has held up so far -- whether out of necessity or choice remains open to debate -- and there is little indication that the government is loosening the reins now.

The travel ban as it stands means that it's still not legal for Americans to go there strictly for the purposes of diving. But there is nothing illegal about making a detour to some of the aquatic sights during one of the sanctioned educational or research tours now relatively easy for Americans to arrange. PADI-certified outfitters and guides can be found throughout the island, though the gear can be somewhat worn out at some of the more isolated dive centers, and the overall level of service is not as high as in other famous dive locales.

Here are six dive spots in Cuba worth considering:

  1. Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen). The Mac-daddy of Cuba's diving spots, named by Christopher Columbus in honor of Queen Isabella of Spain. An archipelago off the southern coast, this is Cuba's largest marine reserve and hands-down its most spectacular. One of the most beautiful in the world, in fact. Covering about 840 square miles, it is made up of some 600 cays and mangrove islands and is said to be one of Fidel Castro's favorite fishing spots. The reefs here are teeming with grouper, stingrays, turtles, whale sharks, bonefish and hundreds of other species, but the main attraction is the astounding number of reef sharks. Only a limited number of divers and anglers are allowed access to the reserve each year (it's accessible only by boat), so anyone lucky enough to get there is likely to have the reef and all its inhabitants to themselves.
  2. Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs). Yes, that Bay of Pigs. The bay made famous by the botched American invasion of 1961 is said to be one of the best shore-diving spots on the island. Just a couple minutes swim from the beach at Playas Larga and Giron in the Matanzas province, a steep wall drops 450 meters into the turquoise waters of Cuba's southern coast. The cliff face is dotted with black coral, elkhorn and staghorn corals, huge sponges and all manner of crustaceans nestled into every nook and cranny. Onshore, the area is pocked with saltwater cenotes, or caverns carved into the limestone bedrock over the centuries.
  3. Cayo Largo: Also off the south coast, the island of Cayo Largo is the second-largest in the Canarreos archipelago after the Isla de Juventud. There are about three dozen sites in emerald-green water where the visibility can reach 100 feet on a calm day. One of the main attractions of this area, besides the abundant underwater caves, tunnels and cliffs, are the wrecks of more than 200 ships that sank between the 16th and 18th centuries -- the days when the area was a hotbed of pirate activity. The white sand beaches of the 16-mile long island itself are said to be among the best on the island. The dives tend to be on the shallow side (in the 5 to 15 meter range) and offer small mountains of brilliant coral with hundreds of species of reef fish schooling in the canyons and crevices.
  4. El Colony: This area, off the Isla de Juventud in the same archipelago as Cayo Largo, hosts some 56 different dive sites as part of the Punta Frances national marine park. The area is affectionately known as the Pirate Coast. Sir Francis Drake and Henry Morgan are said to have hidden out in the island's many coves and caves in between raids on Spanish treasure fleets. Divers are unlikely to encounter much in the way of gold among the wrecks and marine detritus scattered on the sea floor, but there is plenty that glitters. Parrotfish, angelfish, hamlets and hundreds of others dart among neon-bright tube and basket sponges. Tarpon can also be found hunting the silver glassfish of the so-called Blue Cave. Manatees and crocodiles ply the mangrove-lined channels of the island as well.
  5. Maria la Gorda: There's not much reason to come all the way to this small outpost on Cuba's western tip, in the Pinar del Rio province, other than to dive. It is difficult to get there, but if diving is a passion then it's worth it. In May and June turtles nest on the beaches here, and whale sharks are known to stop into the protected bay during the months of August and September. The bay is ringed by a shallow shelf that slopes gently away from the beach for about 45 feet before dropping precipitously thousands of feet, leaving divers with the impression they are swimming off the edge of the world. Sea life runs the gamut -- from manta rays and barracuda to massive sponges and black coral. The only downside are the limited services (there's only one hotel and the food options are scant) and the annoying sand fleas that make life miserable certain times of the year.
  6. Marea del Portillo: This bay at the opposite end of the island, off the south coast near the eastern city of Manzanillo, is also known as a graveyard for Spanish galleons, English schooners and other ships that plied the waters between the 17th and 19th centuries. There are 18 dive sites in the area, which is sheltered by the Sierra Maestra mountains that harbored Fidel and his revolutionaries in the years prior to the 1959 revolution, most notable among them the wreck of El Real, a 36-cannon galleon, and a Spanish battleship, the Cristobal Colon, sunk by an American warship during the Spanish-American war of 1898. The weather in this area can be more finicky than others, however.

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Scott Norvell is founder and curator-in-chief of CubaNotes.com, an independent and non-partisan source of news from and about Cuba. He has been visiting Cuba since 1991.