An Audience With The Queen

Text by Jeremy Cuff (

Photographs by Jeremy & Amanda Cuff (

It may seem strange to talk about royalty in the context of revolutionary Cuba, as they’re normally anathema to one another. However,regal place names remained permissible in Castro’s Cuba, persisting for more than 60 years (and counting) of revolutionary communistrule. The “royal” place to which I’m referring is the Jardines De La Reina (Gardens of the Queen), a special place on the global scuba diving and conservation map that I feel very privileged to have visited. Here’s the story…

Way back in 1994, Amanda and I visited Cuba not long after it began opening up for “tourism”. Having initially resisted the influx of tourists, Fidel Castro’s government changed tack and permitted resort hotels to be built at some locations around the country. To travel there back in the 1990’s seemed exotic, and there were lots of exciting places to go and see. At that time, the visitors were almost exclusively from Europe, Canada and Latin America.

It was also the trip that gave us the inspiration to learn to dive. A couple of days before we returned home, we went on a snorkelling trip from our base in Varadero (on Cuba’s northern coast) to some reefs further west, which we enjoyed immensely as schools of colourful fish swam underneath us; that combined with seeing some divers exploring below. It was something we decided we had to try, and wasthe original impetus for our diving odyssey that continues to this day. The rest as they say, is history.

In more recent times, and having since dived many other locations in the Caribbean, we’d talked about returning to Cuba, and had anecdotally heard good things about the diving possibilities. After some research and a few enquiries, it became clear that if we going to dive in Cuba, the Gardens of the Queen was the place to go.

The “Gardens” themselves area large and remote system of islands, mangroves and reefs off the South East of Cuba, contained within the provinces of Camagüey and Ciego de Ávila.The area has enjoyed protection since 1996, initially as a Marine Reserve, and then elevated to National Park status in 2010. It covers an area of 2,170 km2 (840 sq mi), and is one of Cuba’s largest protected areas.

Working with our agent Dive Worldwide, we put together a two-week itinerary; two nights in Havana, a week of diving the “Gardens of the Queen”, a return to Havana for two nights followed by a three night/four day “birds and wildlife” trip to the Zapata National Park area, based in the Bay of Pigs (where there’s also decent diving, incidentally).

So, twenty-six years on, we’re returning to Cuba;we set off on the 5th March (2020), just as the Coronavirus was dominating the news media (though most things were functioning relatively normally in the UK at that stage). Our flight from Gatwick to Havana left as planned, and we were glad to get away unaffected. Two weeks later, on the 20th March (2020), we would return to lockdowns and a different world.We felt fortunate to have had a trip before “everything changed”, though I write this feature with the optimism of being able to visit locations such as Cuba in the not too distant future.

To start with, we enjoyed a couple of days in Havana to get over the journey, an iconic city that punches above its’ weight in terms of importance, profile and awareness, with “Old Havana” being a UNESCO World Heritage site. Many of the buildings are in precarious states of dilapidation, but some work has also been carried out to restore a few of them, which continues at a slow pace (when money and foreign “donations” are forthcoming).

The atmosphere around Havana’s streets is lively and fun, with live music and art being everywhere. On the roads, old American classic cars (now an iconic image of Cuba) mix with creaking old eastern bloc Lada’s and Moskvich’s.The waterfront Malecon and Parque Centralare great places to see them. Quite a “tourist industry” has grown up around them and it’s worth hiring a driver to take you for a drive around townfor an hour.

On our first night, whilst having a drink on the roof bar of our hotel (the brilliantly located Inglaterra) overlooking Parque Central, we bumped into a fellow dive enthusiast who we’d last seen in Borneo ten years previously, at Lankayan Island. He too was heading for the “Gardens of the Queen”. It was great (and unexpected) to see him and we had a good chat. Diving can be a small world sometimes.

So, onto the dive aspect of the trip; the only option for diving “the Gardens” is by liveaboard or by boat transfer to the “floating dive hotel” (the Tortuga). For our trip, we settled on the Avalon III liveaboard and found it to be very good; large, well equipped and well maintained, with good rooms, a spaciousdive deck and expansive communal areas.

Meals on the “mainland” of Cuba can be quite hit and miss, mainly due to the US embargo related shortages and rationing (just because there’s a menu listing your favourite dish doesn’t mean that they’ll have it!), but we certainly didn’t go short of victuals on the Avalon III. We enjoyed excellent food and catering during the whole trip, and the boat was run by an enthusiastic, knowledgeable and professional Cuban crew who clearly enjoyed their work. It was a pleasure to be onboard.

To get to the “Gardens of the Queen”, it’s a 6 or 7 hour coach journey from Havana down the central spine of Cuba, on a motorway devoid of the volumes of traffic you’d expect on a road of that size, before turning off in a southerly direction to the tiny, obscure port settlement of Jucaro where the liveaboards are based. From there, it’s a 4 or 5-hour voyage out to “the Gardens”.

High winds upon arrival at Jucaro made us quite concerned about the visibility or even whether diving might be possible, but it turned out to be fine. The weather settled down after the first couple of days and got progressively better during the week, with the winds easing back to a gentle breeze.

Out on the dive deck, things are spacious and well organised, with each diver occupying a spot for the week. Thedivers are divided into two groups, with two dive guides accompanying each group and a boatman/gear wrangler to take divers out to the sites and assist with getting in and out of the water. All diving is conducted from a pair of tenders, equipped with a good ladder. Good briefings are also given prior to setting off. In total, 20 dives are offered including night dives.

It’s hard to find the words to describe how good the diving was in the “Gardens” for usThe topography is varied, from canyons, drop offs, ledges and reef slopes festooned with corals, sponges and assorted reef growth to sandy expanses and sea grass beds. The corals seemed in very good condition, and there’s an abundance of life wherever you look.

The most memorable aspect of the diving had to be the incredible shark action. We saw sharks on almost every dive, but they aren’t just fleeting glimpses out in the blue, they’re often swimming around you, accompanying you. It was as though we were being guided by the sharks. They were our constant companions.

Mostly, it’ll be Caribbean Reef Sharks, but on a couple of the sites, you can also expect close encounters with Silky Sharks and perhaps even a Hammerhead or two. Nurse sharks are also found on many of the sites, as well as Stingrays and Eagle Rays. Whale Sharks and even Manta Rays are not unknown and can be encountered sporadically.

Whilst on this trip, I celebrated dive number 1000 and wanted this milestone dive to be memorable. It was; the Coral II site yielded (as I wrote in my notes) “Crazy shark action, sharks everywhere, underneath the boat at the end of the dive with Israel (dive guide) and Pablo (Mexican shark nut) and some very close sharks. Wow!”

If you can stop yourself looking at the sharks, there’s a lot else to see. Schools of fish are everywhere, plus large groupers that will sometimes check out the divers, and Tarpon skulking almost motionless underneath ledges unless you invade their “personal space”.  In addition to the species already mentioned, we listed Lionfish, Barracuda, Morays, Angelfish, Hermit Crabs, Lobsters and Turtles in our dive logs. Macro enthusiasts will also find plenty, though I’ll admit to not spending much time looking for it thanks to the “bigger stuff”. The night dives, too, are fascinating, with Caribbean octopus being at highlight for me.

Above the waterline, there’s also plenty of wildlife to see; frigatebirds, osprey, cormorants and various species of heron are among the many avian attractions of “the Gardens”. During the week, the Avalon crew will usually take guests over to one of the islands, taking fruit to feed iguanas, hermit crabs and the Desmarest’s hutia (often known as simply the Cuban Hutia), a species of rodent rather like a small capybara in appearance. And then there’s the crocodiles…

Though you’re unlikely to encounter them on dives, there are many crocodiles around the mangroves, where it’s possible to actually snorkel with them. The crew have a particular spot where a crocodile called “Nino” has become “habituated” to being fed pieces of chicken dangled on a rope from the bow of the tender, controlled by a crew member.

With the chicken being deployed, snorkellers can slip into the water (1 or 2 at a time) and view the crocodile at close quarters, and perhaps have a go at shooting some images (like me). It was my first time in the water with a crocodile, and it’s somewhat unsettling; they give nothing away in terms of their body language, so it’s hard to predict what they might do, such as taking a lunge at you. You need to be careful.

As the Avalon III headed back to Jucaro, we realised we’d been fortunate to visit this place. What better memories can you have than diving pristineunspoiled reefs, with soft corals rippling in the gentle surge, the sun glinting through the surface, and healthy unafraid sharks swimming all around us.

In summary, this is Caribbean diving at its’ absolute best (perhaps the best). Unlike most gardens, this one doesn’t need tending, and is fine to be left to do its’ own thing. What it does need is protection, and it’s clearly vital that this area retains its’ protection from us.

If you get a chance to visit, we totally recommend it.

Boxout – Whilst in Cuba…

In Havana, there’s plenty to see and do; you can drink cocktails in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway, or check out art galleries, catch some live music, have a city tour in a classic 1950’s American car, or visit monuments and museums documenting the Revolution.

Outside of Havana, there’s the scenic Pinar Del Rio region (including the iconic Vinales Valley), resort areas such as Varadero, or perhaps something more cultural like the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Trinidad. Other places worth visiting are Santiago De Cuba and the Bay of Pigs area, close to the Wildlife haven of the Zapata National Park (home to many Cuban endemics).

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