Note: Capt. Brandon Burke was the deckhand/dive instructor of a 120-foot yacht in 2011 when the owner took the yacht to Cuba for a diving excursion. He shares his experiences from that trip here.
By Capt. Brandon Burke
The owner of my former yacht loved to dive, and we spent a lot of time in the water, especially in the Bahamas. As a PADI dive instructor, diving there for years, I usually guided us. In 2011, we completed a stay in the Bahamas, freedive spearfishing and upgrading his PADI license.
“Why don’t we go to Cuba?” the owner asked. After a short trip, we were in Havana.
We arrived after dark and docked in a hangar, set in an industrial-looking area.
Next came customs. A group of customs agents, some uniformed and some wearing street
clothes, arrived. They boarded and spread out, inspecting … well, everything … for hours. I met with a customs inspector in the engine room, two other inspectors met with the captain, and the rest fanned out over the yacht’s 120 feet.
In the end, we were welcomed, my passport was “stamped”, and we laid our heads down to sleep.
In the morning, we navigated out of Havana. As we left the channel, there was an ancient fort set on one side. The Castillo el Morro, built in 1589, is truly beautiful. We proceeded west. Our next marina was a short way away and after docking, we met customs again. This time, five agents arrived and only inspected for an hour.
Locals with fresh fruit, baked goods and other sundries visited us dockside. A small dive shop was in the marina and I met with them, learning that wreck diving was possible just a few miles away. The local divers who ran the shop had their own dive boat and guided us the next day.
The weather was fair and the seas were calm, so the owner and myself geared up and boarded their open fisherman. We arrived at the wreck, which was an 80-foot vessel with a lot of coral sitting in 60 feet of water atop a rock ledge. There weren’t many fish, but the visibility was amazing, so it was a nice dive.
OK, so it was an average dive, but then I thought about where I was. I was in Cuba, and that was a humbling thought. For someone who grew up in Miami, in the United States, I never dreamed that I would be In Cuba, let alone scuba diving a wreck there.
The owner’s plan was to circle Cuba counter-clockwise, skirt the south coast, and head for the Dominican Republic.
Then, I looked into diving on the south side of Cuba. Most of the Web searches were for all-inclusive dive holidays, but cubadiving.org had detailed information with dive locations and descriptions. The site is run by a local dive operation in the Queen’s Garden area on the south coast and I called them. They spoke English, but our phone connection was bad so I emailed them about the legality of diving and asked to hire locals to guide us.
There are restrictions on diving in some areas of Cuba. To dive in the Queen’s Garden area, a marine sanctuary, we needed to book space on a liveaboard dive boat. Only certain dive outfits have permission to dive there, and the waters are patrolled.
In the Caya Largo, Isla de la Juventud, and Maria la Gorda area on the southwest coast, it is legal to dive without a special license. Cubans may be hired at the marinas as guides to dive spots in the area.
Our nautical chart showed reefs and submerged ships, and we found suitable anchorages. We anchored near shore in about 20-30 feet of water. I lowered the tender and went on a scouting mission with the engineer. Armed with a GPS and knowledge from my research, I strapped on my gear, dropped in, looked around. We had found our dive site. Now it was time to prepare for our dive the next day.
I was so excited about the day’s potential that I woke up the next morning before dawn to prepare our equipment. After breakfast, we were off. We arrived at our dive site and dropped in. It was a rock formation in about 50-60 feet of water. The topside was covered with coral and swarming with reef fish. We discovered spiny lobsters, groupers, snapper and teams of their brightly colored neighbors. We dove into caves and through tunnels that peppered the rock formation. This dive reminded me of some of the unspoiled areas that I have been to in the Exumas, full of life.
On paper, the diving seemed to get better farther east on Cuba’s south coast. For example, in one dive travel document, it said: “In the Jardines de la Reina, you can swim with and feed sharks, silky, reef, and bull. The Jardines de la Reina consists of 230 islets and is about 150 miles long. In 1996, it was proclaimed as a first sea reservation, and is the largest protected locality in the whole Caribbean Sea. Well-preserved, vital reefs, and no divers in the area.” The Jardines de la Reina (Queen’s Gardens) was named by Christopher Columbus in honor of Spanish Queen Isabella of Castille.
I reached out to fellow divers in Cuba before writing this article and learned more about the current situation and if things are the same. Restrictions placed on fishing and diving in places such as the Queen’s Garden are strictly enforced, I was told. Commercial fishing is prohibited in that area, and diving is only allowed from licensed Cuban vessels.
Diving in other areas on the south coast, such as Maria la Gorda, is possible from yachts. Hiring local guides there may be a legal grey area. It may be possible, but I would recommend further research by anyone wishing to do so. GPS coordinates may also be hard to come by as GPS use is not allowed in Cuba by Cubans.
A guide with local knowledge may be the best way to find specific dive sites. Catch 22s and cultural idiosyncrasies aside, diving the south coast of Cuba is a promising proposition.
Next time I am lucky enough to find myself diving in those tropical climes, atop reefs teeming with life, I will treasure my time there. Reefs and sealife everywhere are under assault by humans and cannot last indefinitely.
So, if you have a chance to see those natural wonderlands before they are gone, make sure to take advantage of your time in Cuba … underwater.
Capt. Brandon Burke has a background in chemistry, is an arborist, a PADI dive instructor and holds a 200 ton U.S. master license.