Scuba diving in Cuba is one of the main draws to this huge Caribbean island which has great dive opportunities to explore. Cuba may be behind the eight ball as far as technological progress is concerned but there is a huge upside to being stuck in the 1950s. The island is a haven for nature with 5,700 miles of unspoiled coastline and wonderful reefs along the many coral cays. Indeed the explorer and conservationist Jacques Cousteau said that he saw more fish on Cuba’s reefs that anywhere else in the world, which is some claim to fame!
It’s unlikely to stay this way and one of the unfortunate developments of the thaw in relations with the US has been the recent arrivals of cruise ships and all the pollution they bring.
On a basic level some of the things that most impact coral reefs negatively are sun cream and jet skis – both of which are in fairly scarce supply in Cuba (relatively to other more developed nations). The other factor which is keeping the reefs pristine is the lack of divers. Many of the great dive sites are fairly off the beaten track and transportation can be tricky in Cuba which means those who make the effort to go scuba diving in Cuba can be rewarded with spectacular settings.
So if you want to enjoy some of the best scuba diving in the Caribbean then take advantage before it all starts to change.
Scuba diving in Cuba – where to go
The most renowned dive sites in Cuba are the Jardines de Reina, María la Gorda and the Isla de la Juventud, and the fact that they are all relatively far away from Havana helps preserve their beauty. The Jardines de Reina (Queen’s gardens) was named by Christopher Columbus to honor the Queen of Spain. This marine park is managed by a number of organisations which classify areas as protected and regularly carry out surveys to monitor their condition. It’s a huge archipelago which is made up of islands, cays and banks located to the south of the Gulf of Ana Maria at the southeastern section of Cuba. What makes scuba diving in Cuba very diverse is the fact that you can dive in the tranquil waters of the Caribbean Sea to the south, or the more vibrant Atlantic Ocean to the north.
The Gulf of Ana Maria is the deepest in Cuba and reaches depths of 25 meters in some parts. An abundance of corals – pilar coral, black coral, staghorn and laminar corals and more – help to create a rich tapestry of underground walls, caves and shelves. But there is more to the marine seascape here than just beautiful coral reefs and divers will find mangrove swamps and rich beds of seagrass that support an impressive array of marine life. Some of the larger creatures which you can enjoy viewing are groupers, sharks and whale sharks, jewfish and snappers. You may even bump into a crocodile or two on your travels! Part of the marine park is set aside for bonito fishing amidst the mangrove shallows and deeper waters, and Fidel Castro loved to fish here when he was alive. Fishing is off limits in the rest of the park to preserve the environment.
There are a number of different dive sites and operators in Jardines del Reina including the Avalon Dive Center.
María la Gorda in the Pinar del Rio province has spectacular diving with plenty of wrecks left over from pirate days. The dive site is notable for huge sea fans, masses of black coral, sting rays and an array of sunken galleons. You’ll need to book a private transfer to get there, but be warned there’s not much else to keep you entertained apart from the diving, and the hotel has mixed reviews. However scuba divers in Cuba will be spoiled for choice here. The international diving center at María la Gorda has SSl certified divers and over 50 sites to choose from, with the waters being renowned for high visibility.
The Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth) lies 60 miles to the south of Cuba and was fought over by explorers including Sir Francis Drake. More recently Castro created a communist university here but the project was quickly abandoned and the buildings left to be become overgrown. Divers have searched for treasure here for centuries, and the island is actually mentioned in both Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. Today most divers stay at the Hotel el Colony which is privy to a large sandy beach and blood red sunsets. The southern side of the island is ringed by beautiful coral reefs and the Punta Frances Marine National Park provides a focal point. There are 56 dazzling dive sites in all, and if you like sheer drop offs this is the place to go. Some fish you might enjoy seeing are spadefish, yellowtail snappers, Nassau groupers and barracuda.
Although these are the most famous locations for scuba diving in Cuba, they are by no means the only ones. Cuba has so much coastline and there are lots of places to explore. As Varadero gets the bulk of the beach tourism to Cuba, this is a good place to try as well. Try the Club Scuba Azul which is recommended on Tripadvisor.
Is scuba diving in Cuba safe?
Cuba has a good safety reputation as its diving schools and diving centers don’t allow more than five divers per dive master. You may find that some of the equipment is quite old but don’t necessarily let that put you off. As long as you follow the safety procedures which you have been taught in whichever scuba qualification you have you should be fine.
Within Jardines de la Reina marine park there are some classified areas – Zones Under Special Regime of Use and Protection – with the aim of using them in a sustainable way, in places where tourism and conservation activities are monitored with strict regulations.
Cuba is also home to a few species of sharks including black tip and hammerhead sharks, which can pose a danger to humans but are unlikely to do so if left alone.
Make sure that you have comprehensive insurance for your trip and that Cuba is covered under the terms of your policy.
Always check the weather before you go on a scuba trip – or ensure the center you have chosen is knowledgeable about the local currents and weather conditions.
Cuba Scuba diving packages
If you want to go to the floating hotel by the Jardines de la Reina then there’s a good range of dive packages here. It’s interesting to note that diving is included on the reasons to get entry to Cuba under Cuba Travel Programs I and II. Travel program one offers the chance to learn about Cuba’s unique marine environment as part of Oceans for Youth Foundation People-to-People education. The scuba diving prices are not cheap – as much as $4K pp for a week, but at least you are assured of quality for that price.
Which boats should I choose for off shore diving?
The travel Padi site is a good resource for this, offering a range of cozy and larger vessels. La Reina is one of the only live aboard boats which are allowed access to Cuba’s Marine Park, and has a four and a half star review rating. This 69 foot boat has a sun deck, a lounge (they’ll be times when you want to get out of the powerful Cuban sun) and open air dining. There are eight bedrooms with double beds, AC and hot showers. If you’re willing to tip your guide there’s the possibility of doing a night dive too. They offer both Cuban cuisine and Italian options with the meals and snacks included as part of the dive package.
Snorkeling in Cuba
For those who don’t have the scuba qualification, or don’t feel comfortable to learn, there’s still plenty of ways to see the incredible marine life here. It’s worth bringing a snorkel, mask and fins if you want good quality gear, but if you are a novice there are places where you can rent. Jibacoa is a good spot not too far from Havana, and it’s accessible via public transport if you take the bus to Mantanzas.