The Queen's Gardens: the last paradise 
 by Luisa Sacerdote
 
 
Diving in Cuba is the dream of every skin diver: about 50 miles away from the Southern coast, in the middle of the Caribbean sea, there is an archipelago formed by hundreds of cayos, small isles of various dimensions, rich in mangroves and palm trees that stretch over extremely white and absolutely virgin beaches. The Queen’s Gardens—Jardines de la Reina—so named because of their beauty by Christopher Columbus, cover a total length of 200 km from East to West, marking a coral barrier (the third largest in the world) which gives shelter to an uncountable number of species of fish and all kinds of coral (except from the Mediterranean Red). Just in a few metres of water, you remain fascinated by a picturesque succession of shapes and colours typical of these unexplored waters, virgin to the point that, already in 17 metres, there are banks of black coral. You can photograph giant dentexes, sharks, sea bass of exceptional dimensions, rays, turtles, barracudas.

 
 


Diving in Cuba is the dream of every skin diver: about 50 miles away from the Southern coast, in the middle of the Caribbean sea, there is an archipelago formed by hundreds of cayos, small isles of various dimensions, rich in mangroves and palm trees that stretch over extremely white and absolutely virgin beaches. The Queen’s Gardens—Jardines de la Reina—so named because of their beauty by Christopher Columbus, cover a total length of 200 km from East to West, marking a coral barrier (the third largest in the world) which gives shelter to an uncountable number of species of fish and all kinds of coral (except from the Mediterranean Red). Just in a few metres of water, you remain fascinated by a picturesque succession of shapes and colours typical of these unexplored waters, virgin to the point that, already in 17 metres, there are banks of black coral. You can photograph giant dentexes, sharks, sea bass of exceptional dimensions, rays, turtles, barracudas. I have been to this marvelous place numberless times but each time is a kind of return home, in a place that goes beyond all imagination: there are indescribable emotions, too deep to be told. Despite having dived here hundreds of times, each time I have new feelings, as if it were the first time.

Certainly what makes the dive here, in this corner of paradise, unforgettable is the presence of seven kinds of sharks. It is incredible that one soon gets used to swimming amongst the sea predators: you do it with incredible ease, as if it were a daily occurrence. Diving with sharks here is not like a circus spectacle, you are simply between them and you are accepted as if you were part of the environment. It is an incredible sensation. Now it’s November, the period of the whale sharks. The water is less clear and one can see just about 50 metres away, because of the plankton; that is why you are more likely to meet a whale shark.
Despite the long journey to the Gardens and the tiredness, we are eager to take the first dive. In the programme there is a “soft” immersion, “Patricia”, a name suggested by a friend who is, like us, a frequent client of the Gardens. At only 15 metres of depth, amongst coloured sponges, one can see incredible branches of black coral and gigantic dentexes and barracudas that seem to be observing us. As a first impact, not bad. The second immersion of the day is one of my favourite: Farallón.

It has an exclusive view of the Queen’s Gardens towards the fantastic black cliffs with tunnels and canyons, which create special colour effects in strong contrast with the white seabed: this is the kingdom of the gigantic sea bass (that can weigh 200 kg!!) that wander about between the canyons and let us get close to them, nearly at touching distance. It is almost impossible to photograph one specimen because another very curious one arrives in front of the camera right at the moment of the click!

Sea bass, sharks and morays move around us calmly and indifferently. The tunnels dug in the rock are fantastic. Here and there one can see rays of light that lighten branches of black coral. At the exit of one of these passages, a turtle is waiting for us and leads the way during our surfacing. Below the boat, a shoal of about 30 silky sharks awaits us: amongst them there are some cubs too, who were born in autumn, in the period of closure of the park. They are the most curious ones. They look into our masks, they aren’t yet use to seeing the scuba divers. Noel and Gualberto, the two guides of the diving club, caress them and play with hem, as if they were kittens. The friends that have come with me are all wordless.

The incredible quantity of fish that you meet at the Gardens is due to the fact that, since 1996, the Queen’s Gardens have been declared a Natural Park. Every form of professional fishing has been forbidden here. The Avalon Diving Center (by the way, Avalon was the enchanted island of Merlin the wizard) has the exclusive right to manage underwater activities in all areas of the Park, with the obligation, in exchange, of respecting certain rules and of a strict and active collaboration with the Cuban Government in order to protect the marine and terrestrial environments. For this reason, a permit to enter into the Natural Park has been established, and its profit is used to self—finance its preservation and maintenance activities. In this way, in a few years, the archipelago has repopulated itself and a team of biologists work continuously with the guides of the diving club on a tagging project. This is useful to watch the movements and the births of new sharks and sea bass that live in the reserve.

We all go to bed early: the day after we are going to make a beautiful immersion—“Coral Negro 1”—that includes the much awaited encounter with the Caribbean Reef sharks that reach up to three metres in length. Very early the following morning, everyone is ready and we’re a bit excited. The skipper fastens the boat carefully to a buoy, which is almost invisible amidst the waves: the sea is quite choppy, but the water is crystal clear. We descend to a platform at about 30 metres. It is like a pinnacle whose walls plunge into the blue. Gualberto has a big barracuda in a container. In a few minutes the sharks, who were first swimming in large circles and whirling around us, start getting closer to the container, trying to extract the fish. More and more sharks arrive—one, two…ten. The important thing is not to put ourselves in the trail of scent that attracts the sharks. It’s an incredible carousel. One minute they’re here, the next minute they’re gone, becoming smaller and smaller in the blue. We continue with the immersion along the rock wall, hoping to have another lucky meet with the sharks, when, suddenly, a huge sea eagle, all light blue spots, passes a few metres below us. Time passes by very quickly, and the guides already start calling us to begin resurfacing.

What an unforgettable immersion! This evening, we will watch the videos we have taken. A beginner manages to capture impressive stuff on tape: we’re just spoilt for choice!

The great expectation, though, is the whale shark. They tell us that lots of bonito shoals have been sighted, so the whale shark shouldn’t be very far away. We are all ready to plunge in if something is spotted. And then the skipper shouts, “Look down there... the mangianza.1 On the horizon we can see a storm of seagulls that circle above the water around big sprinklings: seagulls, a bonito shoal that runs in turn after clouds of fries and amongst them, the whale shark, in vertical position, with its mouth wide open—it’s an incredible spectacle.

The boat gets closer, cautiously and slowly so as not to frighten the shark. We are all ready. We don’t use oxygen cylinders because the bubbles may disturb him and make him go back down into the depths. He lets us get closer—we are so small next to this giant of nature! He’s got blue skin with scales and light blue spots. A nearly two—metres—long remora, or shark sucker, is attached to him. While the giant is in a vertical position, the remora slips down and then tries to get back in place. Once he has eaten his lunch, the shark swims next to us for another few minutes and then descends into the abyss. Since we aren’t wearing our cylinders, we can’t follow him, but this has been an unforgettable experience.
We get back on the boat for lunch, because too we are hungry! There is a sumptuously laid table and the “usual lobsters.” Not bad for a staple diet!

We are just on the second day of immersion and already we have seen more than in all the other years’ trips put together! The following day we dive in “Meseta de Los Meros”, a rocky platform at about 30 metres with cliffs that get lost in the blue sea. We go down along the chain: here there is often a strong current, so it’s best not to go too far away. Already half way through the descent, the first—enormous— groupers appear. One, in particular, is as big as a car. They call her Pastorita and she weighs about 300 kg. Two sea bass fight for the fish that Gualberto is offering them, and neither one of them seems to give up! I’m thinking about our own groupers, as well as the ones in Lavezzi, which had already seemed very big to me, but compared to these ones, they’re just their grandchildren! And amongst them, as always, some morays swim in free water and the sharks simply pass by!

Diving days go by one after the other and now it’s time to leave. However—as always—everyone is planning to come back in the future. Luckily, my holiday isn’t over yet because once I’m back on dry land, Noel will accompany me on other dives in the cenotes,2 which may not be as famous as the ones in Mexico, but they’re just as good.

1 mangianza: Italian word that means baitfish breaking the surface.
2 cenote: a deep sinkhole in limestone with a pool at the bottom that is found especially in Yucatan
The Manaca-Iznaga Tower - looking out into history
March 2009
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