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:
- 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.
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.