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In deep water: Diving in Cuba

In deep water: Diving in Cuba

If the CIA had its way, Fidel Castro’s love of diving might have been his downfall. Not once, but twice, the boffins at the agency’s Technical Services Division dreamt up ways of using his favourite pastime as a means to eliminate him. The first plot involved a poisoned wetsuit, impregnated with a fungus to induce a skin disease. The idea was to dupe Mr Castro into accepting the outfit as a present. But at the last minute, the plot was abandoned. The worry was that the Cuban leader might give the gift to somebody else. Without first trying it on.

Not to be deterred, the experts devised an even more ludicrous scheme. A large pink conch shell was to be placed in one of the lagoons where El Comandante often dived. It would detonate if he touched it. But again, the plan was halted before it could be executed. This time, someone decided the method was too easily traceable.

Cuba has 3,700km of coastline, and over 4,000 uninhabited cays. While a revolution, and an embargo, have had mixed results for the inhabitants above sea level, the past 50 years have been pretty much all positive for Cuba’s underwater life. The coast has been relatively unexploited, and this, the largest Caribbean island, has the clearest water and the most abundant sea life of any of its neighbours.

One of the best dive spots in the world, the Jardines de la Reina stretches 200km along Cuba’s south-eastern coast. Now the largest marine park in the Caribbean, it was named by Columbus in honor of the Spanish Queen, Isabella. It has not changed since her day. A pristine pale blue sea, dotted with tiny sand islands, teems with fish and sharks. And there are no hotels. The water is perfectly clear. Underwater visibility of up to 40m is quite common. The main dive area is up to 60km from the coast. Unless you charter a yacht, or take your own, the only way to explore its waters is from the comfortable live-aboard run by an Italian-managed company, which has the sole license to operate in the region.

Another superb diving base is the Isle of Youth. Formally known as the Isle of Pines, it is where Fidel Castro was imprisoned from 1953 to 1955, before being released by President Batista under an amnesty arrangement. Divers usually stay in the recently refurbished Hotel Colony. It was originally a Hilton hotel, opened just weeks before the 1959 revolution. More than 50 dive sites are within a short boat ride. The area is known as Cuba’s Pirate Coast; dozens of wrecks are scattered in its shallow waters.

Generally, the standards of accommodation and equipment in all the main dive areas of Cuba are perfectly acceptable. Dive courses are good, although owing to that American embargo the usual qualification is the European SSI rather than the more common US PADI certificate.

But perhaps the best way to dive in Cuba – for those with some experience – is to forget the resorts and go freestyle. Where else in the world can you jump from the seaside promenade of the capital city, swim just 50m and be above a spectacular coral reef? A drift dive from the 1830 nightclub, to the entrance of Havana harbor, overlooked by colonial castles, is a memorable experience.

Go a little further out, and you’ll notice the water turn a deep blue. The seabed plummets 2,000m, and the Gulf Stream roars past. This is what Ernest Hemingway called The Great Blue River. It is where he once fished for marlin.

Or jump in an old car with a dive instructor, head out of Havana on near-empty roads for just over 30 minutes and you might find Puerto Escondido. For once, this “hidden port” lives up to its name. The beautiful green bay is deserted, apart from a few bored military cadets, who are supposedly on the lookout for people-smugglers. For a beer, or a dollar, they’ll keep an eye on your car and belongings while you dip underneath the water’s surface. You will not be disappointed by what you see below. January 2012

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