Against the Tide ; Cuba Is Opening Up to Mass Tourism but the Scuba Diving Set Has Yet to Discover Its Spectacular Marine Life. Kate Humble Clips on Her Mask for a Glimpse of a Brave New World
Humble, Kate, The Independent (London, England)
Divers are a pretty adventurous lot. When it comes to seeking out ever more extraordinary underwater experiences they'll travel to places as far flung as Papua New Guinea, Djibouti and Newfoundland. But oddly enough, very few go to Cuba, which, given that it sits in the Caribbean Sea, within spitting distance of some of the most popular diving destinations in the world, seems strange. But then Americans dominate the diving market in the Caribbean, and they are banned by their own government from travelling to Cuba. So the island, as far as many divers are concerned, is not really on the map.
That said, there are a few small hotels that cater for divers. We chose ones on the south coast, partly because the sea tends to be calmer there than on the north coast - important when you are as prone to sea-sickness as we both are, but mainly because we were told this was where the best reef was. Our first stop, Maria La Gorda, or as my husband, Ludo, called it, "Fat Mary's", is an area on the far south-western tip of Cuba: a broad semicircular bay, a white-sand beach stretching to the horizon in both directions, and coconut palms to complete the clich. Just one small hotel lies squashed between the beach and the dense woodland that borders the sand.
Poor old Fat Mary must have had a pretty lonely time here. According to the blurb in our room, this unfortunate woman had been kidnapped then abandoned by pirates, and she survived by providing "services" - one suspects it wasn't laundry - to passing ships. This area was hit hard during the hurricane season of 2005 and when we reached the coast, four hours or so after leaving Havana, the extent of the destruction was obvious. Large parts of the road had been washed away and a bulldozer had been used to clear the debris so that bleached coral, sand and stones lay banked up, several feet high, in petrified drifts at the roadside. The hotel, miraculously, had survived, a bit battered and tatty, but with hot water and only occasional power cuts. But how had the reef fared?
I love that first plunge, the first glimpse through the mask of the world beneath the surface of the sea. It's a through-the- wardrobe feeling of entering another dimension, and still, after all these years of diving, I find it astonishing that the surface of the sea can hide so completely what lies beneath it. The morning of our first dive the bay was so calm the water looked like molten glass, appearing iridescent turquoise over the white sand, changing dramatically and instantly to dark blue over the reef. The boat travelled a short distance out into the bay and anchored while we kitted up and followed our divemaster, Oswaldo, as he descended down the anchor line. Millions of years ago Cuba's southern shore was further south than it is today. Sea levels rose, submerging the cliffs and providing a perfect platform for corals to accumulate. The result is so startling, so spectacular, that were it possible, we would have been swimming with our mouths open. Great towers, pinnacles and peaks of coral rise up from the depths. Clinging to these towers are sponges, fans, soft corals and anemones of every shape and colour.
We finned along the top of the reef until we reached a narrow crevasse into which we plunged. A large, lone barracuda eyed our progress, un-moving as we passed, the gap between the walls of coral getting narrower as we descended through a tangle of sea whips. Just when we thought we might get stuck, we emerged 30 metres down at the edge of the wall and out into the blue. There is something exhilarating and a little unnerving about having more than 600 metres of water below you, and looking down into the depths has the same sort of magnetic pull as standing on top of a cliff or a high building - conflicting feelings of vertigo and wanting to leap.
We spent over an hour in the water, swimming through gaps and holes, tunnels and caverns, peering under ledges and into hollows. …