Pillar coral (Dendrogyra cylindrus)

Cuba—November, 2017

We set a record (for us) in the planning of this trip.

This story began over two and a half years ago. You see, shortly after Obama normalized relations at the end of 2014, the Aggressor Fleet opened up a boat in the beautiful Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen), which is rumored to be what the rest of the Caribbean looked like decades ago before fishing, agriculture, and careless divers damaged the reefs. Within days, the boats through 2016 were sold out. So Lori's brother Steven reserved an entire boat in November of 2017 since we would be safe from hurricanes and the water would still be warm. Remember, this was early 2015.

Just a week before we were to leave, Trump rescinded Obama's policy. Fortunately, our trip was grandfathered, and we were on a People-to-People program, and the flights weren't entirely canceled (although many flights were canceled so we had some rebooking to do), so we were OK. But the uncertainty caused several in our group to back out, which meant we had to hustle to replace them.

After enjoying the captions below, you can view larger versions of the photos by clicking on them. You can see even larger versions of the photos by viewing them in Google Photos. Use the menu to start a slideshow, or select a photo and press the Info button to view captions and maps. Download the GPX or even KML tracks to fly through our travels with Google Earth.

Here is a video I made of the week.

If you want to see more fish, please see Bonnie's video.

Prologue (Thursday, 2017-11-09)

Getting familiar with the new camera in a very, very cold pool

In October, I had purchased a new camera and housing and wanted to get familiar with it. I used my brother's pool. And it was cold! Even in my drysuit.

We are not big fans of red-eye flights, so we flew to Charlotte, NC the day before and spent the night. Although we had to get up early, we still got more sleep than we would have had on the plane. A couple of our first views of Cuba are below.

Later, we met friends old and new at the very nice Iberostar Parque Central hotel and then walked to our first restaurant, the Ivan Chef Justo. Afterward, we looked for music and found a barker who led us down an alley, into an unmarked door, and up several flights of narrow stairs. We had time to get a little nervous since this was our first day in the country. However, he opened a door into a cute little bar with live music and plenty of mojitos. I think this was on Empedrado near the corner of Compostela.

La Tour de Habana (Friday, 2017-11-10)

We had a bus tour of Havana today. We saw the sights and did some shopping (especially rum and cigars as the new import rules are simply $800 worth).

It is said that the three greatest accomplishments of Fidel's revolution are education, healthcare, while the three greatest failures of Fidel's revolution are breakfast, lunch, and dinner. However, many private restaurants are making a name for themselves. We ate well. Today we had lunch at Atelier and dinner at Le Chansonnier. The food at both was tasty and filling and the service was friendly and prompt.

The long drive to the boat (Saturday, 2017-11-11)

We settled into a 6-hour long bus ride to the boat docked at Jucaro today. I expected a two-lane road the entire way. To be sure, there were two-lane roads, but the main thoroughfares through the island were an impressive three lanes in each direction. However, often the road was effectively one lane as the bus weaved back and forth to avoid the potholes. As cars are expensive, there wasn't much traffic. Indeed, it seemed there more more horses on the road than cars.

Eventually, we made it to the dock and were shown our cabins. We then had a four-hour passage to the Jardines de la Reines. We spent the time lingering over a delicious lunch with our first of many mojitos on board and the local beer.

We get wet (Sunday, 2017-11-12)

First dive day. Each dive began with a briefing. The dive master drew a map highlighting the dive profile and what we might see. Unlike other Aggressor boats, the dive master didn't say, "Pool's open!" Here we had to board the tender and then stay with the guides due to the rules within the park.

Tony from OFY (All week)

We received occasional talks from Tony, the owner of the non-profit Oceans for Youth Foundation about the conservation efforts of Cuba, including protecting the fish and reefs through parks such as the Jardines de la Reina. As a part of this program, we participated in a fish count. Having participated with the Reef Check, a rough count of a single species was pretty easy, but it still helps to track how the undersea creatures are faring in the park.

We meet El Nino (Monday, 2017-11-13)

Some time before we were due to come to Cuba, we learned that one of the experiences was to snorkel with a salt water crocodile. My first reaction was that I wouldn't get anywhere near the reptile, having spent some time in Australia and hearing stories about the salties taking dogs and small children.

And then I read this article in DAN's Alert Diver magazine. Maybe...

Hey, everybody dance! (Monday, 2017-11-13)

Day 3 (Tuesday, 2017-11-14)

Silkies! (Wednesday, 2017-11-15)

If you like diving with lots of sharks up close, this location is for you.

Slowing down (Thursday, 2017-11-16)

Last day (Friday, 2017-11-17)

It's the last day. We only do a couple of dives before heading to the airport the next day to avoid getting the bends on the plane. I have a tradition to "dive naked" the last day. It's fun, and gives my wetsuit an extra day to dry out. I took a break and left my camera on board as well, so there aren't any pictures below deck. Here are the maps though.

Cocktail party and last supper (Friday, 2017-11-17)

Normally, the boat pulls into port on the last night, and we're on our own for dinner. Since there isn't anything going on in Jucaro, the boat serves us another fine dinner after one of the finer cocktail parties.

Epilogue (Saturday, 2017-11-18)

If you remember from the board the previous day, we got up at 3 and hit the road at 4. We got back to Havana around lunchtime, and had a splendid lunch before heading back to the airport. All seemed to be going well until we landed in Houston. Lori, Deb, and Shari breezed through customs, but the officer I was stuck with grilled me for 10 minutes. It wasn't pleasant. I was wondering if I wasn't going to be entering my country today. He was obviously a Trump fan-boy who agreed that the Cubans should be punished and so should any American who wants to help them. Having spent a week in Cuba, I strongly disagree.

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