The Jardines de la Reina in Cuba is one of the loveliest natural ecosystems in the world and scuba diving fans can explore the archipelago via Farallón, a dive site 50 miles off the country southern coast. The Jardines de la Reina archipelago is a national park that covers some 367 square miles. While other parts of the world are seeing vast amounts of damage to marine ecosystems – almost two-thirds of the corals have died in a portion of the Great Barrier Reef off Australia – the Cuban government has moved to aggressively protect this exquisite what has been called “the Galápagos of the Caribbean.”
The number of divers allowed at the site each year is fewer than 1,500; access is given on a first-come-first-served basis. The restriction has resulted in a Caribbean area that has not experienced the violent damage occurring at more accessible destinations. It is difficult to reach this diver’s paradise, especially for Americans as trips must match requirements in one of a dozen classifications that are authorized by the US Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Affairs Control.
Once in Cuba, a diver seeking to visit Jardines de la Reina is picked up in one of Havana’s classic cars to the accommodation at which he/she can catch a bus carrying other divers an fishermen for the ride of 277 miles southeast of Havana to the coast town of Jucaro. From there, divers take dive boat that will be their home for the next week. After getting on the dive boat, visitors are then taken on a five-hour trip out to the dive site, then to a skiff parked above Farallón.
The area is known for the high number of sharks, which are more plentiful here than in any other place in the Caribbean. The sharks signal a resilient and healthy ecosystem. Divers can explore the ocean bottom beginning at some 60 feet down, canyons that are home to large groupers, and the red wavelength of light that occurs at about 95 feet. Exploring a canyon, divers will see colors change to dark greens and are full of corals and foliage extending from its walls. There are underwater hills, and the seabed is covered by both soft and hard corals and sea fan reaching a height of four feet. And of course, the sharks often swim above the divers at shallower levels.
According to Filippo Invernizzi, the co-founder of Avalon Outdoor, the Italian firm that is the only company allowed to guide divers to the area, the Cuban government is expected to maintain the tourist restrictions on the protected area. His company has operated there for 20 years and is unable to grow because of the government’s policies, but he says is he fine with that because it is the only way to save the marine parks for the next generation. One of the dive masters notes that the underwater environment has not changed in the 17 years he has been diving there.
The live-aboard dive boat features communal meal times with every meal a feast, with fresh fish, shrimp, lobster, squid, hearty soups and rice prepared on the boat. During the visit, they may see crocodiles, southern sting rays, endangered hawksbill sea turtles, and the display of a multi-shark feeding frenzy when the boat dumps its chum. Throughout the week-long stay at Jardines de la Reina, guests enjoy diving and fishing and the relaxation that comes from being disconnected from the technology of the modern world.
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