Cuba: Against the tide

Cuba is opening up to mass tourism but the scuba diving set has yet to discover its spectacular marine life. Kate Humble clips on her mask for a glimpse of a brave new world
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The Independent Travel

Divers are a pretty adventurous lot. When it comes to seeking out ever more extraordinary underwater experiences they'll travel to places as far flung as Papua New Guinea, Djibouti and Newfoundland. But oddly enough, very few go to Cuba, which, given that it sits in the Caribbean Sea, within spitting distance of some of the most popular diving destinations in the world, seems strange. But then Americans dominate the diving market in the Caribbean, and they are banned by their own government from travelling to Cuba. So the island, as far as many divers are concerned, is not really on the map.

That said, there are a few small hotels that cater for divers. We chose ones on the south coast, partly because the sea tends to be calmer there than on the north coast - important when you are as prone to sea-sickness as we both are, but mainly because we were told this was where the best reef was. Our first stop, Maria La Gorda, or as my husband, Ludo, called it, "Fat Mary's", is an area on the far south-western tip of Cuba: a broad semicircular bay, a white-sand beach stretching to the horizon in both directions, and coconut palms to complete the cliché. Just one small hotel lies squashed between the beach and the dense woodland that borders the sand.

Poor old Fat Mary must have had a pretty lonely time here. According to the blurb in our room, this unfortunate woman had been kidnapped then abandoned by pirates, and she survived by providing "services" - one suspects it wasn't laundry - to passing ships. This area was hit hard during the hurricane season of 2005 and when we reached the coast, four hours or so after leaving Havana, the extent of the destruction was obvious. Large parts of the road had been washed away and a bulldozer had been used to clear the debris so that bleached coral, sand and stones lay banked up, several feet high, in petrified drifts at the roadside. The hotel, miraculously, had survived, a bit battered and tatty, but with hot water and only occasional power cuts. But how had the reef fared?

I love that first plunge, the first glimpse through the mask of the world beneath the surface of the sea. It's a through-the-wardrobe feeling of entering another dimension, and still, after all these years of diving, I find it astonishing that the surface of the sea can hide so completely what lies beneath it. The morning of our first dive the bay was so calm the water looked like molten glass, appearing iridescent turquoise over the white sand, changing dramatically and instantly to dark blue over the reef. The boat travelled a short distance out into the bay and anchored while we kitted up and followed our divemaster, Oswaldo, as he descended down the anchor line. Millions of years ago Cuba's southern shore was further south than it is today. Sea levels rose, submerging the cliffs and providing a perfect platform for corals to accumulate. The result is so startling, so spectacular, that were it possible, we would have been swimming with our mouths open. Great towers, pinnacles and peaks of coral rise up from the depths. Clinging to these towers are sponges, fans, soft corals and anemones of every shape and colour.

We finned along the top of the reef until we reached a narrow crevasse into which we plunged. A large, lone barracuda eyed our progress, unmoving as we passed, the gap between the walls of coral getting narrower as we descended through a tangle of sea whips. Just when we thought we might get stuck, we emerged 30 metres down at the edge of the wall and out into the blue. There is something exhilarating and a little unnerving about having more than 600 metres of water below you, and looking down into the depths has the same sort of magnetic pull as standing on top of a cliff or a high building - conflicting feelings of vertigo and wanting to leap.

We spent over an hour in the water, swimming through gaps and holes, tunnels and caverns, peering under ledges and into hollows. We found groupers, thick-lipped and sullen looking, lying opened-mouthed while tiny blue and white shrimp cleaned them of parasites; shy, skulking squirrel fish, their outsize eyes looking back at us warily and the alien, dragon-like face of a green moray eel glaring fearlessly back with its fierce blue eyes.

The hurricane has taken its toll on the shallower parts of the reef. A lot of sand has been thrown up over it, many of the fragile lilac gorgonian fans are broken and some of the soft corals look a bit ragged. A German woman, who had done almost all her diving in the Red Sea, was disappointed by the lack of marine life. And it's true, the reef isn't teeming with fish. However, neither is it barren.

During the six dives we did here we saw turtles and sting rays, tiny prickly filefish hanging upside down among the gorgonians, and a juvenile spotted drum - black and white, only a few centimetres in size but with great trailing fins like* * streamers that flow behind it as it swims endlessly up and down in front of its own little hollow.

We found nudibranchs, highly coloured sea slugs that look like jewelled brooches sitting on the coral, as well as a new discovery and instant favourite, the secretary blennie. This minute fish, about the size of a new caterpillar, lives in worm holes in sponges and corals from where it peeps out with outsize, goggly eyes, like a character from Sesame Street. It has a tiny quiff on its head and every now and then will dart part of the way out of its hole, open its surprisingly large mouth and gulp down some unsuspecting microscopic creature that happens to be passing. It then settles back in its hole, just eyes and quiff showing, until something else irresistible comes within range.

Clutching the telephone numbers of newly found diving friends, we left Fat Mary's and went east to La Isla de la Juventud - the Isle of Youth, which made us think that we would return from there looking like teenagers. Here Fidel Castro was imprisoned after his first failed attempt to overthrow the right-wing dictator, Batista. While in prison he wrote his famous speech, ending with the line "history will absolve me" which was delivered at his trial and reported to the nation. From here he was exiled from Cuba and ended up in Mexico where he met Che Guevara. Together, these two middle-class idealists plotted the revolution that would change the course of Cuban history.

The island is reached by a short, frequently postponed flight from Havana in an ancient Russian plane. The dive centre is attached to the Colony Hotel, a gradually disintegrating fossil of a building which earns distinction only for having the worst food in Cuba. Cuba doesn't have much of a culinary reputation and the tinned vegetables and grey fish served up by the chef at the Colony did nothing to raise it. The diving, though, more than makes up for a few days of filling up on bread rolls. If we thought the reef at Maria La Gorda was spectacular, we were overawed by what we saw here.

There is a place in Madagascar called the Tsingy de Bemaraha. It is a Unesco world heritage site - a unique natural wonder, much loved by National Geographic photographers. A labyrinth of needle-sharp limestone pinnacles full of weird plants and even weirder animals, being there is like being in a land invented by Tolkien or the Brothers Grimm. The reef off the Isle of Youth is the underwater equivalent. We dived to depths that I can't admit to here, the visibility of maybe 50 metres or more making it impossible to resist. We sank down through terrifyingly narrow, sheer-sided canyons, ascended through great coral chimneys as much as 20 metres high, and turned bubbly, giggly somersaults at the sheer joy of being surrounded by such mad, Dali-esque beauty.

This area is supposed to be protected, but with no one to enforce it, fishing still goes on, although it has less of an impact here than at Maria La Gorda. Big shoals of creole wrasse swam past in tight formation, flapping their fins like wings. Parrot fish of all sizes and colours pecked at the coral and squabbled with each other. We caught sight of a cloud of sand being stirred up by the furiously thrashing tail of a green moray eel and stopped to watch. Most of the body and head were deep inside a hole in the coral where a violent battle seemed to be going on, but it was impossible to tell whether the eel was attacker or victim. A few minutes later it backed out and shot off, a small lobster clamped in its jaws. Nearby, a big group of striped grunts and yellow-tailed snappers ignored the drama and hung about like a crowd waiting for the January sales to begin. Belligerent barracuda cruised the shallows, feisty little damsel fish darted out at us, jealously guarding their territories, and gaudy rock beauties, angel fish and pouting butterfly fish floated languidly about looking pretty. If we'd gone home then we wouldn't have been disappointed. But we didn't. Instead we went to Jardines de la Reina.

The Gardens of the Queen are a series of sand and coral cays and mangroves, 80km offshore from an unremarkable little town called Jucaro. Here we boarded a boat with two Swedish divers and six fishermen and three hours later arrived at a place that could easily be the headquarters of the bad guy in a Bond film. Tucked away among the mangroves is La Tortuga, once a boat for carrying fuel, now converted into a floating hotel permanently moored in its secluded hideaway. It sleeps 16 in small but well laid-out cabins, there's a dining room with one long, communal table and a bar on deck. It was the brainchild of a couple of Italians and caters for divers and predominantly fishermen.

The panelled walls of the dining room are covered in photographs of grinning, triumphant men, holding aloft fish, many of which are almost as big as themselves. It seems an odd, not to say incompatible, combination to put fishermen and divers together, but the only people I know who had dived in Cuba said this is the place to come. "And the food's great!"

According to Paul, a tall, friendly Swede who spent most of the boat journey hopping up and down with barely suppressed excitement, Jardines de la Reina offers some of the best saltwater fly fishing in the world, for both size and number of fish. Between the mangroves are sand flats covered by shallow water, providing the ideal habitat for bonefish, tarpon and, most tricky and therefore most prized, the oddly named permit. The fishermen stalk their prey using a bewildering array of rods, flies and lures and once they catch it, it is weighed, the all-important photograph is taken and the fish is released back into the sea.

Paul's aim for the week was to get a grand slam - all three species of fish in one day. The moment we arrived he and the other fishermen leapt onto waiting skiffs and roared off, beige shirts flapping, faces stiff with determination. The dive sites are well away from the mangroves and the sand flats, beyond the lagoon in the open sea. The reef is still part of Cuba's former coastline, but this area was not affected by last year's hurricane. The only commercial fishing allowed is carefully monitored lobster fishing, so we were hoping that not only would the coral be in better condition, but we might see a wider variety of fish. At first sight the reef was nothing like as dramatic as that off the Isle of Youth or Maria La Gorda but it was prettier - more an herbaceous border than a forest of rock.

There was more of everything - more fans, more soft corals, more anemones, more colour and far, far more fish. In every crevasse, under every overhang, in every hole and crack there was something: from spindly arrow crabs, fire worms and brittle stars to nurse sharks, turtles and spotted eagle rays with wing spans of over two metres. On one dive we saw an extraordinary encounter between two giant goliath groupers. These can be as much as two and a half metres long and weigh 100kg. They are usually quite shy and solitary, so to see two apparently doing battle over territory was an incredibly rare sight. We also saw three sting rays and several big shoals of tarpon - long, sleek and mean-looking, their large silver scales so bright they look like they are wearing chrome armour. They are one of the most beautiful fish in the sea.

Diving with sharks is guaranteed at La Tortuga. There are two sites, one where reef sharks hang out and the other where less commonly seen silky sharks gather. Although these are places where both these types of shark would hunt and feed naturally, they are also fed by the staff. The jury's out on the merits of feeding sharks. Our guide, Andres, not just a divemaster but a marine biologist too, feels that as long as it is done responsibly, it is the most effective way to get people interested in sharks and, most importantly, in their conservation.

The Shark Trust disapproves of feeding but agrees that getting people face to face with sharks is important. To this end it is going to start shark tourism in Cornwall this summer, based on the South African model which takes people down in cages to see great whites. Blue sharks and porbeagles will be encouraged in towards the boats by "chumming" the water with fish oil and blood to attract in sharks. Richard Peirce, chairman of the Shark Trust, who went to South Africa to look at the operation there, said "I saw people go out on boats as tourists and come back as shark fanatics and that can only be a good thing." Swimming with sharks, being with them in their natural habitat, is an unforgettable experience. We were in the water with a dozen at a time, circling around us so close we could see every muscle ripple.

On our final morning we went out with Andres for one last dive. A spotted eagle ray flapped past barely a metre from us; a goliath grouper accompanied us along the edge of the reef and we ascended through a swirling group of silky sharks back to our boat. It was as if the wildlife wanted to prove that Cuba does have a legitimate place on the diving map. They needn't have bothered. We were already convinced.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) flies direct from Gatwick to Havana. Cubana Airlines (01293 596677; www.cubana.cu) also flies from Gatwick, with a touchdown at Holguin on the outbound flight, returning direct from Havana. Regional departures are available with Air France (0870 142 4343; www.airfrance.co.uk) via Paris and Iberia (0870 609 0500; www.iberia.com) via Madrid. To reduce the impact of your flights, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Havana, in economy class, is £15.70. The money is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects.

Scuba en Cuba (01895 624100; www.scuba-en-cuba.com) offers week-long packages on the Isla de la Juventud (Island of Youth) from £940 per person. This includes Gatwick-Havana flights on Virgin or from various UK airports via Paris on Air France, transfers, six nights' full board at the Hotel Colony and 10 dives.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Dive International: 01785 815 456; www.dive-international.net

The Shark Trust: 0870 128 3045; www.sharktrust.org

Cuba Tourist Office: 020-7240 6655; www.cubatravel.cu

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