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out. Fishing was

out. Fishing was discouraged even before the area was officially a marine preserve. According to the group EcoWatch, which interviewed Castro on the subject in 2014, he deemed marine conservation to be important for Cuba. “Castro told us that he had fished and dived the extraordinary reef (Jardines de la Reina) over its entire 60-mile length.… He also told us about his personal evolution as an environmentalist. He began as an avid marlin fisherman and spearfisherman who slaughtered many marine species on the reef, assuming the oceans were infinite and could never be depleted, … then he met with marine conservationist Jacques Cousteau. That meeting helped transform Castro into a committed environmentalist. He has committed to preserve 25 percent of Cuba’s waters from extractive fishing as marine preserves, while the U.S. lags, preserving less than 2 percent of our coastal waters.” In 1996 the Gardens of the Queen officially became a marine preserve — one of the largest in the Caribbean. This is significant in many ways; it goes far beyond the dive tourism we enjoyed for a week this past July. As the New York Times observed in an article on July 14, 2015, the U.S. and Cuba are two countries whose ecosystems are closely interconnected, the environmental successes or missteps of one affecting the health and productivity of the other.” “When you have two areas that are 90 miles away, it’s not only possible but it’s probable that a considerable number of eggs and larvae are moving between Cuban and American reefs,” Jake Kritzer, an ocean and fisheries expert at the Environmental Defense Fund, told the New York Times. Jorge Angulo-Valdés, a senior scientist at Havana University’s Center for Marine Research, also observed, “Our two countries are connected by the water, and fish and other organisms move freely there. They don’t need a visa to come down or go up.” A study by marine biologist Fabián Pina Amargós, director of Cuba’s Center for Coastal Ecosystem Research, found that fish populations have increased 30 percent since the preserve was established, and shark populations are 10 times greater within the protected zone than in the waters outside. Now that I’ve visited the Gardens of the Queen I can revise my assessment of Cuba diving. With an impressive density of marine life and pristine coral reefs, “overwhelmed” is more like it. THE TRAVEL We traveled to Cuba on a People to People International program. Even though diplomatic relations are thawing and commercial flights from the U.S. to Cuba resumed Aug. 31, 2016, travel to Cuba is not without regulation. Simple tourism is still prohibited by statute, but there are 12 categories of authorized travel, including journalistic activity, public performances or sports competitions, professional research and meetings, humanitarian projects and educational activities. As part of our program we visited Havana, which was worth the trip if for no other reason than to see the people, the architecture and the cars from 1950s Detroit that still rule the roads. Having grown up in an era when as a child I could name every car on the road, whether DeSoto, Studebaker, Ford, Plymouth or Chevrolet, Havana was astonishing. To the endless fascination of American tourists of a certain age, the city was filled with dream cars from the days before I could drive. The Baby Boomers on our bus kept shouting out “’57 Bel Air,” “’58 T-Bird,” “’52 Buick,” “’56 Fairlane!” My 23-year-old daughter didn’t share our enthusiasm for old cars, but even she knew this was a situation unique in the world — a function of five decades of embargo that forced Cubans to be resourceful and respectful of their cars. There was much to appreciate about Havana; I don’t think you could visit and not be impressed by the culture, history and fine dining. The Jardines de la Reina are a group of 250 coral and mangrove islands 60 miles offshore, so factoring in our travel time from Havana and the boat ride to the dive sites, the first day would be fully dedicated to travel. Once we joined our liveaboard we quickly shoved off to sea, enjoying lunch and what was to become our collective passion for the week: mojitos — concoctions of white rum, lime juice, sugar, soda water and crushed mint. We were happy to indulge in a drink or three, as we wouldn’t be diving that day. GARDENS OF THE QUEEN Checkout dives are often done at some crappy reef where nothing can be harmed by an errant fin stroke or poor buoyancy control. With that in mind I was pleasantly surprised to see massive and pristine pillar corals punctuating the seafloor at Boca de Anclitas. A friendly queen angel darted between the spires of this giant coral colony, making for a great photo op with my daughter as model. A pair of Nassau grouper kept nudging ever nearer my housing’s dome port. Whether they were seeing themselves in the reflection or had targeted me as a potential fish-feeder, I wasn’t quite sure. Soon after our first giant stride it became clear that these fish did not associate divers with 70 | FALL 2016

“THERE WAS MUCH TO APPRECIATE ABOUT HAVANA; I DON’T THINK YOU COULD VISIT AND NOT BE IMPRESSED BY THE CULTURE, HISTORY AND FINE DINING.” Above: Vast fields of intact elkhorn and brain coral can be found in Jardines de la Reina. Left: Part of the charm of Havana is the fleet of 1950s-era American automobiles — cars that defy age and have survived the challenges of the embargo. ALERTDIVER.COM | 71