ON THE FIRST SUCH DIVE, the briefing indicated that we would go down to the reef at 25m to see reef sharks, then return to shallow waters to spend remaining time with the silkies. We briefly exchanged looks and came to a mutual agreement – our dive on the reef would be short and the safety stop very long!
Who would not want to optimise time with the silkies? We touched the reef, then signalled to the dive-guide that we would start ascending. The silkies were already there, enthusiastically swimming around to welcome us. Most of them averaged 1-1.5m, though a few big ones also put in an appearance.
These graceful, streamlined sharks get their name from the smooth and silky texture of their skin. A few small silkies darted onto the scene and started to play with these strange aliens with cameras. They seemed unafraid and highly curious about our presence, but soon gave way if a bigger shark appeared. Clearly there’s a hierarchy among them, and size matters.
Luckily our tour leader had planned both a morning and an afternoon dive with these beauties, and the difference in behaviour second time round was noticeable. The afternoon dive started slowly, but the action picked up when our captain tossed a few scraps into the water. It wasn’t really a feeding frenzy; the sharks simply tried to get their share of the cake. Certainly, this rates as one the “sharkiest” destinations we have dived for some time.
If sharks and crocodiles are not enough, the Jardines present another trump card: giant and super-friendly grouper. Some simply follow you during the dive, interested by their reflection in your dome-port.
Super-friendly giant grouper are one of the area’s trump cards.
Grouper as a species have suffered from human interference, because they tend to migrate to a few specific locations to spawn. All over the world fisherman had figured this out, and targeted these sites. Furthermore, it takes several years for grouper to reach sexual maturity.
Luckily, in Cuba, the spawning sites are in the marine reserve, so the impact of humans is negligible and a healthy population can be found in the Jardines de la Reina.
They have this peaceful demeanour and, despite their large size, come across like pets, each with its own personality. They are bold and curious and it is difficult not to be amused by them when they try to wriggle between your legs.
Nearly every site had a resident grouper or two, mainly black and Nassau though a few times we came across a Goliath grouper.
Between dives we planned to go ashore on a small island to admire a wild jutia. As soon as we approached the white-sand beach we were greeted by a large group of iguanas hoping to be fed, and in their wake came the jutias.
The jutia is some sort of a cross between a rat, chipmunk and beaver, and has the average dimensions of all these. They knew the drill, and approached us with no sign of fear in hope of a slice of fruit. Apparently they are considered a culinary delicacy in Cuba. but these jutia are too much of a tourist attraction to disappear into a cooking-pot.
Before we realised it, we had moved on to another highlight of the trip. Most of us will have admired fairy basslets, and attempted to photograph this vibrant blue-purple-yellow fish. But Cuba has something special in store. Scientifically described as a new species only as recently as 2010, the golden fairy basslet was initially believed to be endemic to Cuba, but recently its range has been extended.
The fish has a golden body and fins, except for the front of the dorsal and the ventral fins, which are deep blue.
Naturally, we joined in the treasure hunt and, having failed to spot it on a few dives, were glad when our friendly dive-guide backtracked to find us, tapping enthusiastically on his tank to attract our attention.
At a depth of 15m we could see the fish we sought dancing between a group of normal fairy basslets. The little beggar needed some time to get used to us, and was prone to retreat into his tiny hole, but as soon as we backed away from the reef he would show himself, and the fun started all over again. We spent an entire dive shooting this beauty.