Cuba Exploratory Trip – Part V – Diving the Gardens

For those of you who have been on a dive trip or two, you will know what I mean and understand when I say the days run into each other.

View from my hot tubI could write every day individually, but it would likely be a lot of repetition. Especially on a liveaboard where you pretty much eat, sleep and dive. It is not to say in any way that the repetition means a boring week. Quite the contrary – when the diving is good and all is well, it is one delicious hour that slips into the next until you look up and suddenly it’s time to go home. But it isn’t quite so interesting for the person that wasn’t there. So I shall do you a favor and summarize.

The sharks never, ever get old. They are too exciting and fascinating. But the shock and awe does wear off after a couple of days. When it does, it is replaced by a different experience. You find yourself starting to recognize certain sharks by a marking or differences on their fins. You allow yourself to be hypnotized by the gentle movements of their gills as the water brushes over them. You anticipate and watch for the split-second click of the eyelid as they close it to go in for their prey.

Approaching the ladderFear, the first time you have to swim through 15 of them to get on the boat and then remove your fins on the ladder as they swirl around you is replaced by an odd comforting feeling. It is almost soothing to float among them as they glide right up to you, only to veer effortlessly around you at the very last second. You are completely immersed in a peaceful place. It is so hard to describe how that can be. Then the bait box opens, or the dive master spears a Lionfish (not that there were many), and while you are not scared, you are brought back very quickly to have a healthy respect for them and for the rules!

Where is the exitWhile the magic does not wear off, I did not go to the Gardens specifically for sharks. I went for the whole region and to see what it has to offer. Our dive masters were excellent – highly professional and at all times we felt completely safe and with a quality operation. However, after a couple of days we were ready for them to show us more and we asked them to begin pointing out other things for us. After all, the sharks and grouper that were in our face every dive, every day, needed no introduction! The schools of tarpon and the occasional large barracuda that would swim by did not need pointing out either!

mangrove snorkelOnce we asked the dive masters to show us more, they were very accommodating. Stingrays, Eagle Rays, Eels, Crabs and Lobster are all here as well as a couple of Nudibranchs, various shrimp and more. Maybe it was just me but the jaw fish seemed braver here. The variety of fish was endless. Triggers, Angels, Grunts, Snappers and everything you see in the Caribbean all are here, some in huge schools. Turtles were a little absent that week, I only saw two personally but the viz was only so-so as a storm had passed by during our stay. We were at the very beginning of whale sharks moving in, and hammerheads are seen from time to time but it was not meant to be for me.

Dives were a combination of gentle drift, some walls, and some swim-throughs. Every site the corals and sponges were endless. This truly is a Garden and one that is flourishing.

My remora friendSome of my personal highlights on my dives was seeing a school of Grouper swirling, as they gathered, apparently to spawn. Sidling up to a Goliath Grouper. On one dive we had a large remora consider us for a host, playing around us, testing my fin and my head over and over! One of our swim-throughs ended with you being in the eye of a tornado of silver fish – a school so thick you actually couldn’t see what direction you were supposed to go! I also have video (poor because I am terrible at shooting it) of a jaw fish dancing over his hole while a shark cruises by. The big and the small sharing one frame.

When we were not diving, we would do the usual things a diver does when at sea for a week…reading, sharing stories, going over the days photos and more. We also made some other memories not everyone gets to do at other locations. A sailor and an engineer that double as amateur dance instructors and introduce you to salsa. Watching the moon rise over the sea as you share some rum with the crew and compare lives on each side of “the wall”. Puffing on a Cohiba (even though you don’t smoke) in the hot tub as the sun sinks beneath the mangroves because this opportunity will likely never happen again. And the waterslide…Oh the slide!

A friendly The days were not structured officially to meet the “People to People” requirements. It was left more as the fact that you are fully immersed every day with the crew and dive pros who have a vast knowledge and experience of the area. Talks were not conducted by accredited marine specialists for my week but apparently can be arranged (something I will be diligent about for booking my charters), and a couple of the divemasters are marine biologists, so casual conversations become educational.

There was spontaneous interactions though – ones that could never be scheduled. You only have to ask any one of the crew a little about themselves or their lives and they will open right up. They will share photos of their families, stories of their childhood, lament on how little they get to be home. They will tell you their political views, about life in a communist country, the changes they are seeing and the hopes and dreams they have for the future. Getting to know these people in those quiet evenings under the stars was far deeper and richer than anything you could arrange no matter how hard you tried. It was real and raw and it touched me and the others with me who shared these evenings to the core.

our crewThe last night we were able to convince all of the crew to eat dinner with us. Something I don’t think could happen all of the time but with only 10 guests on the boat there was plenty of room and plenty of food. It took a lot of convincing but we made it happen. The kitchen laid on a feast. Some of the crew brushed their hair and put on their best shirts for the occasion – some of us guests did too for that matter!! It felt like sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner with family and was an unforgettable night.

So many things made this past week special. The coral gardens that seem to go on forever. Watching a shark be hypnotized. Mangrove snorkeling. Groupers sparring. The list goes on.

Dessert the last nightBut when the time came to put our shoes back on for the first time in a week and my thoughts went to what had made these last few fleeting days so unique, it was not just these things. It was also funny enough, about the “people to people” connections that had been made naturally and that overcame all barriers – regardless of if they were language or legal.

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