When everyone else was hibernating for the winter, Joey and I decided to get our dive gear out and head book a quick last minute vacation down to Cuba.
Cuba is a place that can make you feel trapped in time.
Having been isolated from the rest of the world, thanks to the Cold War nuclear crisis and subsequent strained relationship with the USA, the country has had to fend for itself, living at the edge of poverty. The shabby colonial cities, old school vehicles, and cobblestoned streets have a very unchanged and historic feel to them. They are a testament to the countries hardships and ingenuity.
As things are beginning to amend themselves with the USA, Cuba is now becoming a cheap hotspot winter destination.
Being the largest of the many Caribbean islands, Cuba is growing in hotel infrastructure and overall tourism. Everything they do is geared towards bringing travelers in and stimulating their economy. And it should come as no surprise that aside from the timeless beauty of the old cars, Cuba is also timeless in its scuba diving opportunities.
On our second day in Cuba we immediately booked our scuba diving excursion through the travel agent at the resort. We didn’t waste any time; it was the main reason we had come down south and we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to blow some bubbles. Barracuda Dive Shop was the outfitter that our resort recommended. We decided to do two days of diving, one day on the Atlantic side of Cuba and one day on the Caribbean side.
Our dives in the Atlantic ocean were from a chartered boat. We met the crew right across from our resort, at the marina. Upon our arrival, I knew it was going to be a long day dealing with less than competent divemasters. The equipment left a lot to be desired. Just looking at the rust building up on the regulators and holes in the wetsuits I could tell that this equipment lacked proper maintenance and care. It was in that instance that Joey and I decided that we would never travel without our own personal mask and regulator again.
The boat took off as soon as everyone had their equipment loaded up. We weaved in and out of the mangrove canal towards the open ocean. The surf was choppy but not enough to give anyone the nauseating feeling of seasickness. We had a large enough group that there were two divemasters accompanying us on the boat. They split us between themselves, and we got put in a group with some interesting characters. The two that really stick out in my mind was the older German couple with the GoPro. They both had a burly physique. The man was a little more friendly than his better half and we exchanged a little bit of small talk on the boat ride. I can’t even remember our divemasters name, but I can tell you he barely spoke a word of English.
In about an hour we arrived at the shipwreck, our first dive location. The boat slowed to a light putter, giving everyone the signal to suit up. After the divemaster, I was one of the first ones to hit the water. I checked my equipment following my entry into the water to ensure everything was still working properly. That was when I noticed that my depth gauge and compass were flooded and now dysfunctional. What a pain, everything had seemed to be fine on the boat was now breaking in the water. I went to signal the divemaster that my equipment was broken. As I was showing him my console and trying to communicate my problem (which was already challenging given the language barrier), the divemaster took it upon himself to grab my BCD hose and deflating it, sending me underwater. What an unprofessional idiot, I didn’t even have my regulator in. I was livid and thankfully a strong swimmer. I moved away from him and ripped my hose from his hand. I now had two choices, climb back onto the boat and can my dive day (they obviously did not have the intelligence to bring spares) or stay extra close to my dive buddy, Joey, and use his depth gauge. I decided to dive with the malfunctioning equipment.
We descended 90 feet to the shipwreck some more gracefully than others. Invasive lionfish swam in an out of the portals while colorful fish aggregated in schools. We drifted on the current away from the ship and above a reef teeming with life. It was hard to watch some of the amateur divers bump up against the coral with not a second thought about repercussions. We ended the dive at another shipwreck and partners ascended in no particular sequence as their air dictated.
The surface interval lasted only about an hour before we slipped back into our dampened wetsuits. It was just enough time to eat some snacks that we had taken from the resort buffet that morning. The second dive was a reef dive. The boat had traveled to a new shallower location while we had been eating. You could see the massive coral silhouettes towering under the waves. GoPro in hand Joey stride jumped into the lapping water in front of me. It was nice to be back under the water. We descended as a group and toured the reef. Morays, grunts, yellow snappers, groupers, and puffers are a small list of the millions of species we saw. In what felt like an instant the dive was over and we got the signal to head towards the surface. I was glad that we had booked a second day of diving, I can never get enough of it.
On the second day of diving we traveled several hours to the Caribbean side of Cuba to reach our dive destination. A big bus with only a handful of other divers picked us up at our resort before the sun rose. A Russian, the same German couple from our previous day of diving, a man from Czechoslovakia, a friendly Brit and two divemasters greeted us as we piled into the bus. Following the chaotic diving day, we had the day before, I was really happy when our divemasters came and introduced themselves to us and both spoke fluent English. Not only was he charismatic and a lot more personable, he took the time to tell us all about the landscape we drove through on our way to the coast.
We parked oceanside at a rocky beach, unloaded and assembled our gear. As if the turquoise sea wasn’t colorful enough, locals flocked the area with souvenirs, local delicacies and a few even had some alligators and snakes for tourists to hold. We entered the rocky escarpment and the water felt like a warm bath as it seeped through our wetsuit. Supposedly the Caribbean sea heats up a few degrees more than the Atlantic. As I put my mask on and sunk my face inside the peacock water, I felt like I was diving in an aquarium. The two shore dives took us out to a huge coral encrusted ledge dropping off into a blue abyss. Years of brilliant coral and sponge formations in all shapes and textures covered every inch of the wall. Schools of fish mingled around us just out of reach as if trying to coax us to touch them. Naturally, Joey and I faded back to the end of the group having way too much fun taking pictures and looking at the penis shaped sponges. On both dives, a 2 foot long silvery barracuda darted out of nowhere and proceeded to follow us like a lost puppy looking for a treat. Barracuda are attracted to and love shiny objects. One look at its menacing face and I was pretty happy that I had been smart enough to take all my rings off before we left the resort.
No matter if you’re a snorkeler, scuba diver or swimmer, exploring the diving around Cuba is something you can’t miss!
Having dove both the Atlantic and Caribbean ocean of Cuba, we would strongly encourage anyone to try it out. The visibility was spot on, the water temperature was bathtub warm and the wildlife was bountiful. Who doesn’t love swimming in a colorful aquatic environment?!
The only part we didn’t enjoy was the unsafe dive practices by the scuba outfitter on the first day. Therefore if your diving in Cuba, we caution you on who you decide to dive with – even a shop selected by the resort can have some bad apples.
That being said, above and beyond the first day, everything else was picture perfect and thankfully in our case, it’s easy to forget the hint of bad when you are distracted by so much scuba goodness!
The prices for scuba diving in Cuba are in correspondence with the number of dives you want to do and are relatively stable across the island. Expect to pay at minimum $CUC 160.00 ($200.00) for pickup and 4 dives spread over in 2 days. The dive shops typically try and get you diving on the north (Atlantic) side of the island and the south (Caribbean) side of the island.
For travelers looking to hit the books and do a scuba diving course the prices vary depending on which certification they are trying to accomplish: open water $CUC 347.00 ($433.00), advanced open water $CUC 172.00 ($215.00), oxygen administration $CUC 247.00 ($308.00) and rescue diver $CUC 172.00 ($215.00).
The calm waters of Cuba are a pretty unprecedented place to try scuba diving. Here the diving is good most of the year. The dry season lasts from November to late April and typically offers the best sea conditions and visibility. In the months of May to July, diving favors the southern coast and from May to late October there is hurricane season to keep in mind.
Most dive shops will gladly take you scuba diving as long as you can present a valid open water certification, some might even take you even if you don’t have a certification.
After our sketchy experience, we can only recommend that you make sure you are diving with a highly rated and reputable dive shop and please make sure you are following safe diving practices and only diving if you are properly certified.
Here are the scuba diving companies located around the Varadero peninsula. On our trip, we used Barracuda Dive Center, and while we will never recommend them because of an unprofessional experience, they seemed to be the goto dive shop in the area. Here are all the dive shops around Varadero:
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