Diving in Cuba

Diving in the ‘Garden of Eden’ - Jardines de la Reina

...Good for: Large animals, underwater photography…
Not so good for: Non-diving activities, drift dives…

Christopher Columbus christened Cuba’s diving hotspot Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen) to honor his Spanish Queen Isabella of Castile. Such was the beauty that lay beneath the ocean’s surface, it deserved a royal title! Jardines de la Reina has been a well kept ‘secret’ within the scuba community but more people are now making plans to enjoy a Cuba liveaboard diving tour.

Its previous anonymity has been assisted by the Cuban government’s policy to protect this incredible marine sanctuary. Here commercial fishing and industries are prohibited, permanent residences are non-existent and tourism is strictly controlled. This policy was initiated in the 1990’s by Fidel Castro, himself a diver. The national park, covering an area of 385 miles² (2,170 km²), is one of the largest marine reserves in the Caribbean.

Dive with Caribbean reef sharks in Cuba - photo courtesy of Greg Lecouer
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The Cuban Archipelago "Queen's Gardens" is located in the Gulf of Ana Maria and is approximately 93 miles (150 km) long. The area includes innumerable islands, keys, islets, and banks. Muddy areas, beaches, mangroves, sea grass beds and reefs all provide a home to abundant populations of seabirds, reptiles such as caimans, and a rich marine biodiversity and biomass.

Sharks, sharks and sharks - up to 6 different species can be seen on a single dive! Common species include Caribbean reef, silky, and nurse sharks, lemon, blacktip, great hammerhead, bull and, from July through November, whale sharks can also be seen. Sharks, together with snappers, tiger and goliath groupers of up to 400lbs (180kg), are the main attractions on most dives; just like every species at Jardines de la Reina, they too are abundant.

You will dive many vertical walls covered in an array of corals in superb condition. The reefs are bedecked in sponges in bright hues of the rainbow, violet sea fans, boulder star corals (Montastraea aannularis), various varieties of gorgonians and fragile laminar corals (Agaricia sp.) and are home to one of the largest and most diverse fish populations in the Caribbean.

Dive Site Descriptions

Black Coral I and II - These are the shark dives at the Gardens of the Queen and there are often lots and lots of sharks present. Silky sharks and Caribbean reef sharks, which are the most numerous, are not generally aggressive unless they feel threatened. Since they experience no threats from man, they seem to view a diver as a bubble-blowing curiosity. That said, it is best to keep your hands close to your bodies so they are not mistaken as small fish. Show more

The top of the reef is at 80ft (25m), sloping down to 100ft (30m) where it reaches a sandy bottom. Sandy channels run across the reef perpendicular to the coast until they reach the drop-off: this site has a resident population of more than 30 battle-scarred Caribbean reef sharks (Carcharinus perezi)! After an adrenalin-filled 10 minutes of observing these apex predators, your dive master will steer the group over sandy channels to the coral reef. The sharks have been known to curiously follow divers for the duration of the dive, even circling the dive tender.

Nassau and Goliath groupers are not uncommon on this dive. Considered to be endangered due to over-fishing in other parts of the Caribbean, at this Cuban site you can see quite large individuals, at about 185lbs (85kg). These giants are solitary fish and have been known to fiercely protect their territory against other fish. One can also expect to see tawny nurse sharks, stingrays (Dasyatis americana), parrotfish and schools of jacks at Black Coral I and II.

Farallón - Considered to be one of the best dives in Jardines de la Reina, Farallón can be likened to a giant coral mountain, and translates into English as ‘The Cliff'. This dive is 50ft (15m) at the top of the ‘mountain’ and the sandy bottom is reached at 100ft (30m). This site is a magnet for pelagics, large schools of grunts, jacks and silver tarpons. Turtles, rays, silky sharks and Caribbean reef sharks add to the lineup of sights to see. Show more

This spectacular site can be dived many times as it is essentially divided into 4 parts by a series of tunnels. The tunnels are about 100ft (30m) long, 10ft (3m) wide and 33ft (10m) deep. The opening at the top of the tunnels allows sunlight to highlight the beauty and to create a show of shadows and shapes.

Species of note at El Farallón include black grouper, creole wrasse and cero Scomberomorus regalis (aka kingfish or painted mackerel).

Pipín - This is where the big boys play. Schools of jacks and even bigger schools of tarpons, numbering 10-50, cut jagged lines in the ocean. A lone, patrolling hammerhead may make a cursory inspection of the dive party before disappearing back into the blue. Groups of silky sharks (up to 12) arrive to view the scuba divers on their safety stop. One does wonder just who is being observed, the ocean inhabitants or the strange, bubble blowing ‘aliens’… Show more

The start of the dive is at the mooring boy at about 50ft (15m). The reef truly comes alive when you reach the drop-off at 80ft (25m). Huge schools of grunts patrol the area, turtles swim sedately along, and eagle rays ‘fly’ along the walls.

Other fish to look out for include black grouper, gray angelfish and Nassau grouper. Sharp eyes can also pick out the long, thin legs of a yellowline arrow crab.

Vicente - This is the Queens Gardens' drop off site characterized by its large vertical wall. Spectacular coral gardens welcome divers at 65ft (20m) and vibrant coral interspersed with massive black coral colonies and all their inhabitants can be observed until a depth of 130ft (40m). Show more

The wall bottoms out at around 150ft (45m) and features bushy black coral, branching tube sponge and stove-pipe sponges. You may pass the gaping jaws of a green moray or see nudibranchs, banded butterflyfish and queen angelfish near the wall.

The variety and sheer number of little reef fish will keep you focused on the wall, however do not forget to cast an eye out to the blue, for the mallet-shaped head of a lone hammerhead shark weaving its way past. There may also be wahoo, yellow jacks, horse-eye jacks and even silky sharks cruising by.

El Galeon - This is 2 dive sites for the price of 1: an old galleon and a nearby fishing boat. The former has been around long enough to have been well and truly colonized by the sea. You can explore the large hard brain coral heads, around which scuttle innumerable lobster and crabs. Show more

Look out for queen angelfish (Holacanthus ciliaris), stoplight parrotfish (Spartisoma viride) including juveniles, and yellowhead wrasse (Halichoeres garnoti). Benthic life includes grooved brain coral, smooth flower coral, stinker sponges and social feather dusters. This is a particularly good night dive, with crustaceans galore as well as nocturnal fish lurking in quiet spots, and a variety of invertebrates and other creatures to be seen on the sandy floor at about 55ft (17m).

Anclitas - Hawksbill sea turtles are often spotted here, along with barracuda, stingrays, tarpons, Caribbean spiny lobster, tiger grouper, soapfish, hogfish, and saucereye porgy. Show more

This shallow site, reaching a depth of only 55ft (17m) is characterized by canyons and tunnels bedecked with by sponges and corals, including smooth flower coral, sea rods and, poking from the corals are many and christmas tree worms. Those with a keener eye can look out for smaller wonders in little crevices and holes. There you will find redband parrotfish, drums, fairy basslets and yellowline arrow crabs.

There may also be quite a few lionfish around, an introduced species that causes havoc to the balance of the ecosystem along much of the east coast of the Americas, as well as at Jardines de la Reina in Cuba. Efforts have been made to encourage local shark populations to develop a taste for them and thus control their potentially booming populations.

Cabeza de la cubera - Meaning 'Snapper’s head', this site features, surprise surprise, many varieties of snapper, as well as grouper. Indeed it is said that the biggest goliath grouper ever recorded was seen on this reef. Don’t be alarmed if these gentle giants follow you very closely, due to fish feeding practices of the Cuban liveaboards. Show more

Caribbean reef sharks are a common sight here as are tarpon, black grouper, green moray eels and roughtail stingrays. The wall here begins are around 23ft (7m) depth and drops to a sandy bottom of about 60ft (18m).

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Diving Season

Jardines de la Reina is a year round diving destination. Current is minimal, visibility expansive, water temperatures are comfortable and marine life abundant.

Liveaboards depart every week, for 52 weeks of the year. Cuba’s tropical climate varies slightly during the year. The drier season is from December through mid April where the average sea temperature is 73 to 77°F (23-25°C), it can get cooler at night. The height of summer is August where temperatures increase to about 83°F (28°C).

Hurricane season is from June through November. These months have higher rainfall due to tropical storm activity. According to the NOAA (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Association), Cuba experiences the lowest frequency of hurricanes and tropical storms compared to other parts of the Caribbean. Whale sharks pass through the Queens Gardens from July through November.

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How to Dive Cuba

Cuba’s remote Jardines de la Reina is a 7 day liveaboard-only diving destination. Diving permits are strictly limited to 900 guests per year. There is one single operator in the area, you can view their liveaboards here:

Your Cuban liveaboard diving vacation will start in Havana on Friday night (please book your own accommodation). Saturday is a very early start, a representative from the boat operator will collect you in the morning (Parque Central Hotel) for your complimentary 5-6 hour bus transfer to Jucaro Port. Here you will take an approximately 3 hour boat ride out to Queens Gardens.

Diving in the gardens involves 3-4 dives on offer per day. Fast motorized tenders transport divers the short distance from the anchored liveaboards to a variety of dive sites.

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Where is Cuba and How Do I Get There?

Review our map below of the world, showing the location of Cuba:

Map of the world (click to enlarge in a new window)

The island is the largest in the Caribbean and located 93 miles (150 km) south of Key West in Florida, and just 13 miles (21 km) south of the Bahamas. Jardines de la Reina is a chain of islands that runs parallel to Cuba’s west coast for about 93 miles (150 km), in the Caribbean Sea.

There are some 20 countries that have a visa-free arrangement for visiting Cuba although these include some small (and obscure) countries. Citizens of other countries must obtain a tourist card before travel from a Cuban diplomatic mission, travel agency or authorized airline. The tourist card is for 30 days (90 days for Canadians) and can be extended once for a further 90 days. You may also need to show proof of return flight, booked accommodation and travel insurance.

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Reef Summary

Depth: 16 - >130 ft (5 - >40m)
Visibility: 50 - 130 ft (15 - 40m)
Currents: Gentle to moderate
Surface conditions: Often calm, dive sites are not far from the liveaboards that are anchored close to lagoons
Water temperature: 73 - 84°F (23-29°C)
Experience level: Beginner - advanced
Number of dive sites: <30
Distance: ~125 miles (200 km) southwest of Havana (6 hours road transfer, plus 3 hours boat transfer)
Recommended length of stay: 7 days

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Useful References

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