Travelling back in time (Part 2)

Now onto day 3 of my Cuba trip and the introduction of the BIG Caribbean reef sharks my dive buddy Nick excitedly mentioned at the start of the trip. Down at between 30-35m we hovered and watched as numerous reef sharks, some with a girth reminiscent of a bull shark, circled around a huge red sponge coral. It was incredibly overwhelming to be in the presence of such a healthy reef system. With stunning coral supported by huge reef predators like sharks and groupers that look well fed, a sure sign that there’s plenty of fish life supporting these predators in large numbers. It was also when we came across our first hawksbill turtle that seemed completely at ease surrounded by 30 plus sharks. Day 3 was also the introduction of our adventurous surface intervals between the morning dives. We visited paradise as we landed on a pristine white beach surrounded by lush green mangrove forest. An eagle ray was spotted in the shallows as we jumped off the boat but was gone in a flash. It was the Hutias and Iguanas we were here to see. Now growing up in a big city I’m used to seeing my fair share of big rats roaming around but they usually give me the creeps and I want to stay well away from them. The Hutias however were a different rodent altogether, a lot bigger than your typical city rat but strangely a lot cuter. They are practically blind but came sniffing around us as they were looking for the fruit we had for them. The beach was filled with iguanas and Hutia and made for a truly stunning safety stop on a secluded beach far out in the Atlantic. In particular on this day I really enjoyed the dive site ‘Conch Trap’. Aptly named because of a small square arena with small overhangs where once Conch fall in there’s no way out for them unfortunately. It made for an excited 10 minutes at the end of the dive as huge reef sharks circled the arena bumping and barging their way through the excited divers.

A Cuban Hutia (Capromys pilorides) on a beach paradise amongst the mangroves in Jardines deal Reina.

Well what can I say about day 4 without using over the top metaphors or descriptions. Simply put it was my “Best Day Ever” in terms of underwater adventures. It is certainly up there as an overall day of interactions and photography success. What made it even more special was the fact I was seconds away from not even going out in the morning due to a dodgy stomach. The thought of a surface interval with ‘El Niño’ the croc in pristine mangroves was all the drive I needed to make a push for it. After all, it was photos of Niño that gave me the desire to visit this amazing paradise all those years ago. What a reward I got as after another amazing deep dive with circling reef sharks we moored up in the pristine mangroves and called out for Niño to join us while we off-gassed. The dive guides would bellow out NIÑOOOO over and over again to call their long time friend to the boat. My anticipation for his arrival had my body shaking with excitement and it wasn’t long before that turned to overwhelming excitement. Not one but TWO Crocs were gliding their way across the surface towards our boat. I couldn’t get my fins, mask and snorkel on quick enough, I was like a kid again and was struggling to function with my adrenalin pumping. As soon as I hit the water I was transported to a world where I felt so content and was calm again. How lucky am I to be in the presence of 2 prehistoric animals that are willing to give us a glimpse of their world. El Niño translated to English means ‘Little Boy’. Niño isn’t a little boy anymore though and is easily around 3 metres in length. He quickly exerted his dominance over the new smaller croc in town and pitched up beside our boat. The current was ripping through the channel and was difficult to stay in control around him. However I was able to get many shots off but with lots of excited divers in the water it became a little crowded around the boat. That’s when I looked over and noticed the smaller croc (the new El Niño) was waiting patiently in between the mangroves in knee deep water. I decided to leave the crowd and create a bond with the new Niño. I spent considerable time kneeling next to this stunning croc that seemed at ease with my presence. It was a humbling experience and I don’t think I will ever have a more enjoyable surface interval.

One of the 2 American Crocs that visited us on day 4. This one was the smaller of the 2 but perched up amongst the pristine mangroves. True paradise for me.

The reason Day 4 was so amazing was the fact we finished up with an incredible sunset dive with silky sharks. The dive was spent no deeper than 5-6 metres and too be honest I came to the surface pretty early in the dive and enjoyed the frantic action as the silky’s became more excited and bold with the night drawing in. Thankfully the sky was on fire as the sunset continued with the vivid theme of Cuba in general. It made for perfect conditions to attempt sunset split-shots with the charismatic silky’s at the surface. Unfortunately the dome on my housing was a quite heavily scratched, which made shooting a little more difficult. However I came away with some of my favourite photos I’ve ever taken. It was an adrenalin fuelled dive once again as the sharks would bump and dart at you in the excitement. Not for the faint hearted but a dive I would love to enjoy again and again.

A Silky Shark (Carcharhinus falciformis) under the setting sun.

The remaining 2 days of diving continued to deliver as the Caribbean Reef Sharks continued to follow our guides anticipating the moment the speargun goes off and grabs them a tasty treat. The guides were actually providing an essential service as they were only spearing the invasive lionfish that are decimating reefs in the Caribbean and Florida of native fish species. A win win for us divers as it meant the reef sharks and groupers were always very close and excitable. One moment was quite comical as 2 big reef sharks waited patiently behind the guide as he speared a lionfish hiding in the reef. As the guide pulled the lionfish out you could see the reef sharks jostling for position, when suddenly out of nowhere from underneath a grouper swooped in and in a flash the spear was relieved of the lionfish. You could almost see the disappointment of the sharks as they were outwitted by this devious grouper.

Caribbean Reef Sharks (Carcharhinus perezii) frequented most dives while in Jardines de la Reina.

Canyon swim throughs and small caverns full of Tarpon made for an interesting change, with small schools of horse eye jackfish providing some hypnotic entertainment as they swim in unison. Three hawksbill turtles grazing on the healthy reef provided more interesting colour against the vivid coral and reef sharks following us into a cave on one of our last dives showed how unwilling they were to let us go just yet. After a couple of days hiatus Tito also returned to La Tortuga and allowed me one last swim. Although I waited until sunset and there was certainly a change in his demeanour as night was drawing in. He even followed me to the stairs at the back of the boat this time and I shot up the stairs very quick. Franco also visited the boat at night as we were enjoying our BBQ on the front deck. A bigger croc with a huge neck and certainly more intimidating than Tito. Amazing to see 2 huge crocs relaxing next to our boat before both swam off and it was the last time would see them.

Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) swims amongst the pristine coral that Jardines de la Reina is famous for.

After a long journey back, we were once again in Havana. Time spent by the pool getting my mind ready for “normal life” to resume in a couple of days. I caught up with my daughter on FaceTime. Still too young for me to really explain of the amazing conservation success I had the opportunity to visit. We found a hidden gem of a restaurant to visit on our last night. The doorman of our hotel was kind enough to point us in the direction of a quirky little restaurant only a short walk around the corner from the hotel. Ivan Chef Justo was the restaurant in question and would have been easily missed due to it being a converted house. This is when friendly local advice is very welcome. The decor was bohemian with the walls covered in different clocks and old photos of Havana and Marilyn Monroe among other eccentric tastes. Typical of Havana and Cuba it was full of colour and the vibrant decor was matched by the cheerful service. The delicious food just added to what was an amazing atmosphere and great final impression of Cuba before we left the next day.

This is a trip I can’t recommend enough for an amazing experience of culture with extremely friendly people. Cuba has an abundance of history to explore and the diving in Gardens of the Queen just adds to that feeling of stepping back in time. Mixing Havana with a week diving in Jardines de la Reina should be added to everyone’s bucket list of destinations.

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