Jardines De La Reina.Cuba
An unintended boon of Fidel Castro’s rise to power was the barring of visitors from Los Jardines de la Reina (The Queen’s Gardens), a 150-mile-long archipelago of some 250 islands located fifty miles off the southern coast of Cuba. Recognizing the region’s rich marine life—and its potential for tourism—Castro’s government designated the area (consisting of 1,000 square miles) a Cuban national park in 1996. Closed to commercial fishing and inhabitation, Los Jardines comprise one of the world’s great protected saltwater wilderness areas—and certainly the largest protected marine park in the Caribbean. It’s said that in the earlier days of the revolution, Los Jardines was Castro’s favorite sport fishing grounds. In his youth, he was also a passionate diver. (The CIA apparently knew of Castro’s interest in diving; there are several fairly well-documented accounts of dive-focused assassination attempts, including one involving an exploding conch shell and another, a tuberculosis-bacilli-infused regulator.)
Jardines De La Reina. Crocodile
“The proliferation of marine life in Jardines de la Reina since the national park designation has been amazing,” said Filippo Invernizzi. “With the help of scientists from all over the world, an entire ecosystem, an entire chain of marine life, has been regenerated. The area preserved even encompasses the migratory passages of some species. When I started diving here before the conservation measures were put in place, it would be very common to not encounter any sharks during a dive. Now, seeing seventy or eighty sharks per dive is more the norm.”
The name “Jardines de la Reina” was bestowed upon the archipelago by Christopher Columbus, who named them in honor of his patron, Queen Isabella of Spain, on his second voyage to the region in 1494. As you approach Jardines from the mainland, “garden” may not be the first descriptor that springs to mind. Topside, Jardines de le Reina is marked by abundant mangroves, sea grapes, and the occasional scrubby pine. Below water, however, the true gardens reveal themselves; walls festooned with brightly colored sponges and corals. The mangroves, while perhaps lacking in color, prove an excellent nursery for baitfish, which propagate and attract the bigger animals that in turn draw divers. One of the largest denizens of Jardines is the goliath grouper (formerly known in some regions as the jew-fish). Individuals of 200 to 400 pounds are commonly found around the archipelago; in the Caribbean, they can reach 750 pounds and more, feeding on crustaceans, smaller fish, and even young sea turtles. Tarpon, which are a main attraction for fly fishermen who visit the area, are also here in significant numbers, reaching over six feet and one hundred pounds.
Brain Coral. Jardines De La Reina
Frequent shark encounters are perhaps the main draw to Jardines de la Reina, and it never disappoints; in fact, Avalon Diving Center offers guests a money-back guarantee if they’re not able to dive with sharks. Five species of sharks are found among the reefs here—silky, nurse, and Caribbean reef with great frequency, lemon and great hammerhead somewhat less frequently. “Silky sharks are the most common, and certainly the most friendly,” Filippo said. “Visitors get very excited when they see the numbers of sharks we can attract, and how approachable they are. Our divemasters will sometimes stroke the silky shark’s belly, which seems to calm them. At these times, guests can touch the sharks if they wish; some get so excited, they will kiss the sharks!” Whale sharks will also make an appearance around Jardines de la Reina, especially in the late summer and fall.
There are more than 120 identified dive sites around Jardines de la Reina, though Filippo said that operators tend to draw from a selection of 70 to 80 sites each month, so other areas can have a rest. (With a limit of 300 visiting divers a year and 150 miles of reef to choose from, it’s not hard to dole out Jardines’ treasures in small tastes!) A few celebrated sites include Black Coral One, Pius Reef, and El Farallón. Black Coral One boasts a small cave and a large coral pinnacle, and is a sure-fire spot to find reef sharks. Pius Reef is a riot of colorful sponges and gorgonian coral, and home to abundant reef fish. El Farallón features a number of swim-throughs where groups of jacks race to and fro. Silky sharks know a treat awaits when the boat appears, and are often queued up by the time divers return to the craft.
The music of the Buena Vista Social Club has sent good Cuba vibrations to the world, and those who’ve made the trip generally concur that one of the joys of diving Jardines is the chance to interact with the Cuban staff. “They are great characters, and are willing to go the extra mile to give guests a great experience,” Filippo said. An added bonus of traveling to Jardines de la Reina is the chance to encounter a saltwater crocodile. The species found here is the American crocodile, which ranges from the Florida Keys south to Venezuela and even Peru, and east to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. They average about twelve feet in length at maturity, and can grow as large as twenty-three feet. “Before the marine park was established, the crocodiles were almost extinguished around these waters,” Filippo said. “They are coming back now, but are very shy around people. We very rarely see them while we’re diving, though there are places we can go where guests are virtually guaranteed to find them from above the surface.” While they greatly resemble alligators in appearance, American crocodiles can be differentiated by longer, more slender snouts. They are catholic carnivores, feeding on small mammals, birds, fish, crabs, carcasses, and—given the chance—younger crocodiles. “Except for summer, the crocs will come up to the boat at night, and we’ll feed them,” Filippo added. “It’s a nice after-dinner treat for our guests.”
Cuba.Jardines De La Reina.Map
FILIPPO INVERNIZZI is co-founder of Avalon Outdoor, a fishing and diving center that was established in Cuba in 1993. His fly-fishing and diving operations are located in Jardines de la Reina, Isla de la Juventud, and Cayo Largo. Filippo continues to oversee marketing endeavors for the company from its offices in Mendoza, Argentina.
Are you ready? If You Go:
Prime Time: Conditions are optimal November through April, though diving is still good through the end of the season in August.
Getting There: North American citizens traveling to Cuba generally stage in Cancún, Mexico. Flights from Cancún to Havana are offered on Mexicana Airlines (800-380-8781; www.mexicana.com) and Cubana (888-667-1222; www.cubana.cu). From there, your outfitter will make necessary arrangements to get you to the boat. (While at press time it is still against the law for US citizens to travel to Cuba without State Department preapproval, it’s estimated that 30,000 Americans travel each year to Cuba without the US government’s blessing. If you go, you will be traveling at your own risk.)
Accommodations: All diving at Jardines de la Reina is from live-aboards. Avalon Diving Center (+39 338-732-0517; www.divingincuba.com) pioneered destination diving here, and has a floating hotel (the Tortuga) and several live-aboards at their disposal.
” Fifty Places to Dive Before You Die “ by Chris Santella