(Tavernier, FL) The five-foot-long green moray eel glides out of its coral reef cave and heads straight for the ballyhoo that Captain Spencer Slate dangles from two gloved fingers. The eel quickly …
Cuba: An Underwater Wonderland
By Sue Cocking, Guy Harvey Outpost Travel Journalist
[Maria La Gorda, Cuba–] Swimming up through a narrow, sponge-lined coral cavern, I have to remind myself to breathe through my regulator because the scenery literally IS breath-taking. It’s a bit like ascending the winding, gilt staircase of a spectacularly-decorated mansion, except I’m hovering above a steep sand fall with large colorful tube and rope sponges instead of sconces extending from the walls on either side. And I’m 90 feet deep underwater.
The local residents — brilliant tropicals such as queen angelfish; blue chromis; and scrawled filefish– mill about, un-bothered by my presence. They have little reason to fear scuba divers because these waters are part of the Parque Nacional Guanahacabibes– a national reserve protecting about 200 square miles of lands and waters around the Pinar del Rio province on Cuba’s southwestern tip. There’s little to foul the pristine marine environment here where the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean meet because the Maria La Gorda dive resort where our group of 23 is staying is the only development for miles around. And it’s very hard to reach.
To get here, we rode a Chinese-made tour bus for five hours from Havana. The last leg of the trip (after the Carretera Central, or main highway ran out) was on a narrow, potholed road surrounded by tobacco farms, tilapia ponds; cattle pastures; and finally, dense forest. We shared the road with ox-drawn carts and 1950s American cars.
But the long ride and spare, military-barracks-style accommodations were well worth the 3 1/2 days of spectacular scuba diving we enjoyed.
Our group– co-hosted by Guy Harvey Outpost “Dive God” Neal Watson; Reef Environmental Education Foundation director of special projects Lad Akins; and Scuba Radio founder Greg Holt –consisted mostly of REEF volunteers who only half-jokingly describe themselves as “fish geeks”– here to identify and count fish. On all their dives, they carried waterproof checklists to note each species they saw and estimate the numbers. I kind of followed them around and tried to keep the reg in my mouth– despite wanting to gape at our gorgeous surroundings.
Space was tight on board the resort’s dive boat during our stay, owing to the IMASUB international underwater photography contest underway at Maria La Gorda. The boat, which easily could have accommodated our group with room to spare, was instead packed with upwards of 35 passengers and their gear. But there were no long boat rides to reach the dive sites, and thankfully, we could all spread out underwater– split into smaller tour groups led by the divemasters.
The REEF fish counters were in their glory in Cuba. Over 3 1/2 days, they logged 180 species, including an unidentified goby spotted by Akins. For some unknown reason, none of us ever crossed paths with a shark. Each evening, the REEF crew would assemble in the resort’s bar or meeting room to compare notes and photographs. The data they collected is important to marine researchers under a new partnership among the Florida Keys and Flower Garden Banks national marine sanctuaries in the U.S. and the Guanahacabibes reserve.
Just as elsewhere in the Caribbean, we discovered that Cuba has a lionfish problem. The exotic invaders from the Indo Pacific have decimated coral reef ecosystems throughout the region as well as the Gulf and South Atlantic, gobbling their weight in native tropical species and reproducing virtually unchecked. I think we were all disappointed but not surprised to see multiple lionfish on each dive in Cuba, but somewhat heartened to learn that Maria La Gorda will host a lionfish derby Sept. 15-19.
I hope the divers whack more than a few; it can only benefit the environment.
One thing Maria La Gorda really cannot handle is a huge, new influx of tourists from the U.S. Despite mooring buoys installed at the popular dive sites, at least one Cuban scientist said he has observed anchor damage to coral reefs in the area. Even as trade and tourism restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba ease up, we could see limits imposed on the numbers of divers allowed to visit this fragile marine paradise in the future. For those of us lucky enough to enjoy such a unique diving experience, we have an obligation to leave no fin prints in our wake.
Guy Harvey Outpost will conduct another Cuba expedition soon. Check back at www.guyharveyoutpost.com for details to come.
Sue Cocking chronicles the Guy Harvey Outpost travel and adventure experience in regular blog posts onGuyHarveyOutpostNews.com/. For 21 years, Cocking covered the full spectrum of outdoors adventure opportunities in South Florida and beyond for the Miami Herald, including fishing, diving, hunting, paddling, camping, sailing and powerboat racing. She is a certified scuba diver and holder of an IGFA women’s world fly fishing record for a 29-pound permit.
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