“NIÑOOO…! NIÑOOOOOOO!“ The sun is high in the sky, and in the mangroves there is hardly any wind. The temperature gives rise to a shimmering heat-haze, blurring everything and affecting our ability to resolve objects. The engine of the boat has been switched off, and we can’t even hear any birdsong.
“Niñooooo…! Niñooooo…!” We look at each other, and both think it pretty strange that we should be in the middle of nowhere shouting “Niño!” Can crocodiles actually be summoned by calling?
Just as we conclude that Niño isn’t home, we spot tiny piercing eyes breaking the surface. Our search for Niño has succeeded!
Niño is the nickname for every crocodile that lives in the Cuban mangroves of Jardines de la Reina. As it happens, Niño is an American saltwater crocodile, the type reported to be less aggressive than its relatives in Africa and Australia.
But once you slide into the water, and Niño opens his large mouth to show his huge teeth, you can only hope that this particular Niño got the memo.
We are in the water, but our guides haven’t entered with us. Is there a reason for that?
It’s only after the initial adrenaline rush and the first few close passes that you realise that this crocodile is pretty chill, and you can enjoy the moment.
We snorkel with the crocodile in shallow water. The bottom is covered with seagrass against a backdrop of mangrove – not a bad place to lose one’s crocodile-snorkel virginity.
Photography is a bit of a challenge, because the silt and seagrass bottom is easily disturbed by those fin-kicking carelessly. It needs only one kick to stir it up and block visibility.
But Niño doesn’t seem to care about reduced vis, and swims happily back and forth from shallow to deeper water. Thankfully, he swims close enough to touch our dome-ports, so clean images are still possible.
You can enjoy watching crocodiles from the comfort of your couch on TV documentaries, but nothing beats the real-deal experience of seeing them face to face. All the divers emerge from the mangroves with their limbs perfectly intact, an added benefit.
Apparently these dives all started because fishermen used to clean their fish close to the mangroves where the crocodiles live.
Now the sound of the boat-engines is usually enough to attract their attention, but they still expect a treat, and as soon as our guide throws a large piece of chicken, Niño thankfully grabs it and disappears to the safety of the mangroves.
Time flies when you’re having fun, and we are summoned back into the boat.
JARDINES DE LA REINA, the Gardens of the Queen, was given its name by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the Americas, to honour Queen Isabella of Spain. His logbook from May 1494 states: “The nearer we kept to the coast of Cuba the higher and pleasanter these small islands appeared, and it being difficult and useless to give names to every one, the admiral called them all in general ‘Jardines de la Reina’.”
Columbus was aware that the king tended to be jealous, so later on in his journey he also named a reef off the northern coast of Cuba “Jardines Del Rey”. But the real beauty lies within the Jardines de la Reina, a complex network of untouched marine eco-systems that scientists consider to be the original status of a reef, as the Spanish conquistadors originally found it.
Cuba’s many years of economic embargo and political isolation have left the place untouched, and its nature pristine. Tony, the representative of Oceans for Youth Foundation, told us that until recently no more than about 600 divers a year had enjoyed the privilege of diving amid the Jardines’ natural beauty and abundance of wildlife. This is a place that humans have yet to ruin.
The remoteness of the reefs also helped. To give you an idea, after departing from your hotel in Havana it takes a six-hour bus-trip to arrive in Jucaro, followed by another six hours by boat to reach this hidden paradise for divers.
IT IS COMMONLY BELIEVED that the reefs were a favourite spearfishing and scuba-diving spot for Fidel Castro, although Tony questioned this. Whatever the leader’s preference, the reefs were declared a marine reserve in 1996.
Crocodiles are not the only highlight when you visit this crown jewel of Cuba. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that a healthy population of sharks wanders these reefs.
On every dive we would see from two to five Caribbean reef sharks, and would usually enjoy a close encounter.
It was also striking to see how relaxed they were – usually they would make a big loop and return to check you out once again. They varied from youngsters to those of pretty impressive proportions.
But the cherries on the cake were the silky sharks. In the past, silkies roamed vast stretches of the oceans, but their populations have declined dramatically, by 70%, because of the demand for shark fins. So we were thrilled that several of our dives were organised to include silky sharks.
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.
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.
THE REEFS ARE HOME TO a very high biodiversity of marine life. Several consisted of a reef flat and a slowly descending reef followed by steep vertical walls dropping to 100m in depth, but we also dived deepwater pinnacles.
Mostly the reef consisted of pristine hard corals with very large tube and vase sponges. It was a delight to see these brightly coloured sponges against the blue backdrop. Many hundreds of brightly coloured reef-fish hung around, and tarpon lingered in little caves and underhangs, staring as they waited motionless but ready to move a few metres should a diver come close.
It was a pleasant surprise to see that the reefs were not affected by bleaching, and there was no evidence of dynamite-fishing or changes in ocean chemistry caused by human activities. This explains the pristine coral in its full bright colours, and the explosion of marine life.
Several of our briefings indicated that the next dive would be a drift-dive, but the reality was that at the end of each one we would return safely to the shotline and do our safety stop beneath the tender; an understatement of a “gentle drift-dive”.
We did only one night-dive. It proved impossible to switch on a torch without being eaten alive by thousands of little squirmy worms, which wanted only to check out our ears, and stinging jellyfish.
But on a positive note, surfacing offered a magnificent starry view, with the Milky Way prominently visible in the complete absence of light-pollution.
If you decide to visit Jardines de la Reina, you have to realise that you will be one of a happy few. There is no human settlement nearby, no commercial shipping, no phone and no Internet. But you will be rewarded with reefs that are relatively untouched by humans, and that are managed sustainably.
This is surely the place to go if you are a shark- or crocodile-lover; it will certainly live up to your expectations.
The 35m Jardines Aggressor can take 20 passengers in two deluxe and eight master cabins. Boarding is usually on a Saturday afternoon and disembarkation the following Saturday at 4am. The cabins are very small, with minimal storage space. Upstairs there is a dining-room, outdoor seating area and Jacuzzi, and on the top level a sun-deck, perfect for star-gazing at night.
It offers three day-dives and a dusk-dive daily, using two comfortable tenders which head off to different dive-sites to minimise the number of divers per dive-site.
Equipment stays on the tender throughout your stay, with tanks refilled via a long hose.
GETTING THERE: Most people fly to Havana and liveaboard operators organise transfers to the departure port. Divers travelling to Jardines de la Reina go via the port of Jucaro.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Jardines Aggressor, aggressor.com
WHEN TO GO: The area is sheltered, and unless there is a storm, the seas tend to be calm. Water temperatures average 30°C in summer, 25°C winter.
MONEY: Cuban Convertible peso (CUC), but Cubans tend to use the Cuban peso (CUP). On the liveaboard you can use sterling, euros or US dollars
PRICES: A nine-day trip (with two days in Havana and 5.5 days’ diving) can be booked with Scuba Travel for US $6180 per cabin), scubatravel.com
VISITOR INFORMATION: travel2cuba.co.uk