We are sitting atop red leather stools in front of an endless hardwood bar. Ribbons of sweet cigar smoke rise up to lazy ceiling fans. We sip sweat-beaded daiquiris at the El Floridita in old Havana, just as Hemingway did almost daily back in the 1930s. Blended daiquiris were invented in this bar, and they are served with a religious reverence. Through the animated chatter of the other patrons sift the live, sultry tunes of the Buena Vista Social Club. My heart catches the beat in a wave of excitement. We are in the forbidden land of Cuba.
Havana is not like any other city in the Caribbean. It has the faded elegance of an heiress who has fallen on hard times; a little tattered, but what great bone structure. Fortunately in 1982, La Habana Vieja (the old town) was declared a UNESCO World site in an effort to preserve its crumbling 200-year-old Spanish architecture, which is considered the finest in all the Americas.
The people, though, are the beating heart of the island; each acts as a self-appointed ambassador, they are friendly, and Castro aside, seem to love Americans. There is a national innocence reminiscent of the 1950s; a refreshing change from the slick commercialism experienced in other parts of the world. The people are poor, but have an amazingly buoyant spirit. They brighten their daily lives with vivid paintings, lively dancing and perpetual, pulsing music.
Along the Parque Central we stopped to admire a showroom-perfect '57 Chevy. The gentleman polishing the chrome looked up with an equally brilliant smile and said, "Please tell your friends in America that all Cubans do not want to leave Cuba, okay?" After our short visit here, I understand him, and agree.
The next morning, 5:00 am in the lobby of the Copa Cabana, I threw back the day's first shot of sweet Cubano coffee. Two couples came in through the front entry, boisterous and still dressed for the night. Were they European? Canadian? Hard to say. Cuba is a magnet for cosmopolitan travelers these days. Only Americans think it's difficult to get here.
The coffee was what I needed to prepare my senses for what lay ahead: Cuba's Isla de Juventud, the "Isle of Youth."
We boarded a dated, though airworthy, Russian-built Cubana Air AN-24. Upon arriving, I grabbed a couple frames of my first "Isla" sunrise-an image of fire and promise.
A work-for-education program, instituted under the early Castro regime and quite successful for a time, was the source of the island's name, "The Isle of Youth." It previously had been known as "The Island of Pines," and was reputed to have been the source of Robert Louis Stevenson's famous novel, Treasure Island.
The road soon delivered up some sumptuous, Cuban eye candy: a cherry-red '41 Ford, alight with chrome, and a Russian-built motorcycle driven by a dashing man with a pretty young senorita in his sidecar.
What mattered most to me, though, was the quality of the diving. Was it really as good as reputed? Would the diving here live up to the brutal standards deemed as "world-class?" Would the mystery live up to the myth?
We boarded a 28-foot cabin cruiser, operated by Puerto Sol. My wife, Martha, and I, along with our new friend, Sarah, and a stocky, close-cropped divemaster with an infectious grin nick-named "Keka," had the entire boat to ourselves.
Over the flat sea we made an easy 20 knots as we crossed the bay toward the marine reserve. An hour and 20 minutes later, we arrived at a spot called Off Limits. It struck me as ironic that our first dive in Cuba would be called Off Limits. Keka explained that the term referred to the fact that the spot was slightly outside the limits of the marine park.
The western side of Isla, as with other Caribbean destinations, receives protection from the seasonal trade winds that stir things up on the eastern coastline.
With a small splash and a cursory glance at my dive computer, I quickly found myself in a lush Caribbean garden. The mini-wall we descended to was crowned with tall, soft coral plumes and purple seafans. Schools of grunts and snappers scattered as we approached. Trumpetfish sauntered amongst the tall coral gorgonians. Indigo hamlet pairs rushed to and fro, curious yet pensive. A High-hat Drum circled out from underneath a Brain Coral head. The slight current had scores of Brown Chromis up and feeding. A healthy batch of orange and purple Fairy Basslets also did a feeding dance. Large polyp star coral heads, five or six feet in diameter, were unscathed even in these shallow depths of only 25 to 30 feet.
We dropped over the edge of the mini-wall and found a profusion of lush pink-hued deepwater gorgonians. Their translucent polyps, tentacles extended, were actively feeding in the gentle current. Large basket sponges and Azure Vase Sponges occupied choice spaces on ledges crowded with a dense tangle of other competing invertebrates including Yellow Tube Sponges, red vase sponges, encrusting sponges, gorgonians, tunicates and a plethora of other tightly woven marine invertebrates. The mini-wall bottomed out at 50 feet and gave way to white powder sand and large patches of reef, each patch 50 or 60 feet in diameter. Many of the patch reefs were undercut with passages and caves that were thick with black coral trees and red seawhips. Giant Orange Elephant Ear Sponges plastered the sides of the reef and spiny lobsters poked their antennae out from underneath the protected recesses. The site was every inch alive and vibrant with marine life. As I eased my way back up the mini-wall toward my safety stop, I thought, Wow, so far, so good.
That evening we dined on fresh lobster at sunset. This made for a delicious end to our first day of diving. I crossed my fingers that the sea would stay flat. If it did, we were slated tomorrow to dive a couple of exposed sites, including some shallow shipwrecks.
The weather remained calm, and just after sunrise, we were off. Los Montanas, our first stop, fulfilled my every expectation.
After a 70-minute boat ride, we arrived at the anchorage. With the advantage of a slight south flowing current we tailed back over the mountains, whose coraline peaks gleamed below us at 85 feet. The visibility was stunning. I looked over the side and could see fish moving over the tops of the mountains. Spears of light penetrated to the bottom. Soon, I chased them downward with as many cameras as I could carry.
On the sheer sides of those mountains we found huge black coral stands and broad sweeping deepwater gorgonians. Below us, a swirling school of Horse-eye Jacks patrolled the depths. The jacks slowly gravitated in our direction, gyrating in a big, blue, slow motion blender. Each steely eye focused on me as they eased past in formation.
Back on the mountain, two-foot-tall glowing Azure Vase Sponges and red vase sponges added splashes of color. Blue and Brown Chromis swarmed the water column. A giant barracuda materialized behind me and hovered over my shoulder as I composed a shot. Presumably, it was making sure I got the correct exposure.
We passed beneath a large limestone archway, a drapery rod for lush black coral trees. The underside of the arch was spray-painted with pastels of yellow, pink and purple encrusting sponges. Nearshore, in the sand, Southern Stingrays hid in depressions. They lay underneath a cloaking layer of white sand that camouflaged their presence, but were easily spooked when we passed too closely.
Further out in the sand, Garden Eels swayed in the current. Reluctantly I realized that our bottom-time was up, and it was time to leave these underwater mountains where the sun dances so warmly on the vibrant reef.
As we did our safety stop, a large school of Spadefish flittered over the anchor line, along the coral mountain, and finally out into the clear blue water, 150 feet from where we waited.
We pulled anchor and headed toward the wrecks of Los Indios. Here we would dive two shipwrecks that were sunk intentionally, and had been used for target practice by the Cuban military in the '70s. Jacoba had been a freighter and Sparta a military vessel. Both wrecks now lay crippled atop one another in only 25 feet of water.
Excitedly, we switched over our tanks and reloaded the cameras.
With the seabed only 20 feet below us and the visibility well over one hundred feet, we could see every detail of the wrecks that lay strewn across the sea bed.
As I entered the water, I was immediately reminded of a magic dive in the BVIs, a little wreck called the Rhone. The sun danced on the sponge and coral encrusted wreckage. The ruined decks, props and other parts of these two ships were enjoying an incredibly colorful afterlife. Big schools of snappers and grunts hung under and around the wreckage. All along the edges of the deck plates grew green finger sponges, while vibrant Yellow Tube Sponges, and red vase sponges added splashes of color.
We easily penetrated the interior parts of the wrecks where brightly colored encrusting sponges and orange stalked hydroids thrived. A patrol of 20 small barracuda followed us as we explored along the flanks of one of the wrecks. We came up ecstatic. As Captain Alejo eased one engine into forward and Keka pulled anchor, we all tried to tell our experiences at the same time.
Keka had promised to barbeque chicken, so we dropped him off at the reef house, along with Martha and Sarah. Alejo and I headed for the sand flat where Keka reported regularly seeing what he called the "diablo-fish," which, through the process of elimination, I had interpreted to mean the rosy-lipped batfish. These piscine oddities are very rare and if there was a chance of photographing one, I wanted a crack at it.
We soon hovered over the sandy, featureless area that Keka had specified as the home of the fabled diablo-fish. And I was amazed that when I fell into the water, I almost stepped on one. These fish are so cryptic that they are nearly invisible, but there he was! I worked fast, knowing that daylight was fading and that this was too special and rare an encounter to doddle. Within five minutes my film was burned.
As we pulled into our resort at Playa el Frances, the sky was turning orange and purple. We enjoyed a delicious meal thanks to Keka, who proved to be an amazing cook as well as a knowledgeable divemaster. Now, it was time for a night dive. After a quick coffee and a piece of chocolate, we weighed anchor again. Dusk deepened into darkness as we pulled up to the mooring. The reef came to within 20 feet of the surface on either side of a central runway of white sand, pockmarked with coral heads, that bottomed out at 35 feet. Within minutes Martha found an octopus. The wily cephalopod toyed with me in a game of hide-and-seek, alternatively changing color from deep red to purple or pale as it melted into and poured out of the reef.
On the next coral head a black and orange ornate lobster flailed its antennae at me. Red night shrimp, eyes reflectively aglow, scurried about the walls beside us. Sleeping Hogfish and parrotfish were tucked in here and there. A little further along I was again attracted by Martha's oscillating flashlight as she beckoned me over to see a large Slipper Lobster that remained still for my camera. Within 35 minutes I was out of film, just as the parade was revving up.
Suddenly, the whole water column lit up an electric neon blue! It was the lightning from a squall moving in, which is fairly common this time of year in the Caribbean. Typically it doesn't mean much more than superficial pyrotechnics, but nothing about this day had been typical. I thought it best to head up. I was happy to get aboard for a cold beer, warm towel and a rest during the 90 minute ride home.
Sure enough it blew up a bit, but this was of little concern to Captain Alejo, who was far more at home negotiating the many faces of the sea than he was in Nuevo Gerona back on the mainland. Smoothly and directly, we made it back to the harbor by 11:30 pm.
During our diving days which followed, we explored many other sites within
the marine park. We dived the Blue Cave, the Diver's Hideaway, the Black
Coral Wall and several other wonderful sites. We visited healthy pillar
coral stands 12 to 15 feet high and regularly saw large polyp star coral
heads that were more than six feet in diameter with every polyp resplendently
healthy. Our dives within the marine park were spectacular. Good weather,
clear water and extraordinarily well protected reefs provided a remarkable
experience. When I combine the happy memories of these amazing diving
experiences off Isla de Juventud with the music and the cultural experiences
we enjoyed in Havana, I can hardly imagine another destination that contains
the wonderment we discovered in Cuba.