For many of us who grew up in South Florida, Cuba was seen as the forbidden fruit. We could only imagine what might await on the shores of largest island in the Caribbean with it’s more than 3,500 miles of coastline.

Thriving Elkhorn coral garden in the shallows of Cuba’s Jardines de la Reina, the Garden of the Queen
Thriving Elkhorn coral garden in the shallows of Cuba’s Jardines de la Reina, the Garden of the Queen.

It wasn’t until the late 1990’s that I began hearing reports and rumors from a few intrepid divers who actually made the journey inside the island nation that was, for the most part deemed off-limits to US citizens.

But as parts of the sugarcane curtain came down, a growing number of dives from the States deemed Cuba ripe for exploration. And the most desirable destination was undoubtedly the celebrated Jardines de la Reina— the Gardens of the Queens – which lies some 60 miles off Cuba’s southern coast.

School of Tarpon milling in the shadow of a large reef ledge
School of Tarpon milling in the shadow of a large reef ledge.

During my more active years working as a photojournalist, I have had a great opportunity to see and photograph a wide range of underwater landscapes across a wide swath of the Bahamas and Caribbean. But Cuba remained that destination that continued to elude me. My chance finally came in the spring of 2019, and my destination was the Gardens of the Queens. I will leave the tale of getting there for a related post and jump right into what awaits the underwater explorer.

The Gardens of the Queen are part of Cuba's second largest archipelago, comprised of some 600 cays and small islands paralleling the main island's southern-central coast for 93 miles / 150 km

The Gardens of the Queen are part of Cuba’s second largest archipelago, comprised of some 600 cays and small islands paralleling the main island’s southern-central coast for 93 miles / 150 km. One part of this string of islands is called the Laberinto de las Doce Leguas (The Labyrinth of the Twelve Leagues).

The middle portion known as Jardines de la Reina was so named by Christopher Columbus in honor the Queen of Spain, Isabella I of Castile. Fidel Castro made the archipelago his personal fishing grounds, which had the benefit of keeping commercial fishing interests at bay. In 1996, the Jardines was designated as a no-take zone and a marine protected area with limited visitation.

The reserve encompasses 840 square miles (2,170 sq. km) and takes in mangrove islands and an underwater landscape dominated with coral formations with steep ledges, canyons and towering pinnacles.

Towers of Power

Having missed seeing these fish throughout nearly all of the Caribbean, and a good chunk of the Bahamas, it felt like these black groupers were falling out of the sky. No matter what reef dive site we visited, they were with us on every time from start to finish. Viva effective management and protection of a marine park!
Having missed seeing these fish throughout nearly all of the Caribbean, and a good chunk of the Bahamas, it felt like these black groupers were falling out of the sky. No matter what reef dive site we visited, they were with us on every time from start to finish. Viva effective management and protection of a marine park!

With the Cayman Islands being relatively close neighbors to the south, you might think that the underwater topography of the Jardines might be similar. But, when venturing out towards the drop, instead of steep, vertical walls, the bottom terrain is a gentle slope to depths of 120 to 150 feet, punctuated by massive coral pinnacles rising abruptly to depths 55 feet of the surface.

Some, like Caballones and Los Indios, are singular formations, while others like Finca De Pepe have several towers standing in progression like a group of giant dominos with deep canyons in between.

Making these formations even more intriguing is the number and variety of large marine life that are present, from silky sharks that would often gather just under the boat to reef sharks, grouper, schooling horse-eyed jacks and tarpon, which cruise around the base of these coral towers.

While this unlikely pair (a large black grouper with an adult Nassau grouper) would be a very rare sight in this day and age in the rest of the Caribbean, it is pretty much commonplace inside Cuba’s Jardines de la Reina marine park.
While this unlikely pair (a large black grouper with an adult Nassau grouper) would be a very rare sight in this day and age in the rest of the Caribbean, it is pretty much commonplace inside Cuba’s Jardines de la Reina marine park.

In addition to seeing both silky and reef sharks on the same dive, what most caught my attention most was the resident population of Nassau and black grouper. While Nassau’s can still be readily seen in places like Little Cayman and the Brac, the Bahamas and the Turks & Caicos, black groupers have pretty much disappeared throughout the rest of Caribbean.

But here in the Gardens of the Queen it was a different story. No matter what reef site we visited, the presence of both species had me feeling like they were falling out the sky. Adding to the pleasuring of seeing a robust grouper population, the likes I have not witnessed in close to 35 years, was the lack fear they have for divers. Several even stayed with us from start to finish of nearly every dive. Viva the protections and effective management of a marine park!

Silky sharks up close and personal
Silky sharks up close and personal.

From the day it was first declared a marine park, the Gardens have received strict and well-regulated protection by the Cuban Sciences and Environment Ministry. Today, the park is opened to a limited number (6 currently) of liveaboard dive yachts keeping the total number divers visiting to around 3000 annually. As a result, the entire area is regarded as one the healthiest coral reef ecosystems in the Caribbean.

Goliath grouper giving a yawn. In addition to the Garden's robust population of Nassau and black groupers, divers are also provided the opportunity to meet the largest member of the grouper family, the Goliath grouper, which can grow to weights in excess of 400 pounds.
Goliath grouper giving a yawn. In addition to the Garden’s robust population of Nassau and black groupers, divers are also provided the opportunity to meet the largest member of the grouper family, the Goliath grouper, which can grow to weights in excess of 400 pounds.

In addition to the Garden’s robust population of Nassau and black groupers, divers also have the opportunity to meet an even rarer and the largest member of the grouper family – the Goliath grouper. These big fish can grow to weights in excess of 400 pounds. During my one-week stay in the Garden’s I actually met three, one in the 350-pound range that wasn’t feeling particularly social and two 80-pound puppy’s that made a habit of being completely underfoot. Name a place in the Caribbean that can lay claim to that!

Mangrove Dragons

American saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus acutus).
American saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus acutus).

The second attraction to the Gardens of the Queen, is the archipelago’s collection of small islands and mangrove forests. This million-acre size wetlands is considered one of the Caribbean’s last pristine marine environments of its kind, and more than 60 percent is comprised of sea grass beds, which serve as vital nursery area for young fish and lobster.

American saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) showing off its pearly whites for the camera.
American saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) showing off its pearly whites for the camera.

In addition, this marine park acts as a critical refuge for North American birds migrating along the route through Florida and the Gulf of Mexico to South America. This wildlife sanctuary hosts more than 68 species of migratory birds. Above and below the water’s surface, forests of red mangroves provide protection from open ocean wave energy along with a labyrinth of narrow channels and creeks worthy of exploration for snorkelers.

I should also add, there be dragons here. To be more precise, crocodiles.

crocodiles

Cuba is home to the American saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus acutus), a species that exclusively lives in coastal saltwater marsh environments in parts of the Bahamas, South Florida and Mexico.

Fortunately, although they are close relatives of the ones you see on Discovery Channel, this species is surprisingly shy and reclusive around humans. But here in the Gardens of the Queen, snorkelers get the rarest of opportunities to meet one face-to-face, plus the chance to get a few great portrait shots to prove you did it.

Diving the Jardines De La Reina with Avalon

Avalon Outdoors operates a number of liveaboards in the Gardens of the Queen. The most notable include the Tortuga, a 110-foot double deck houseboat that stays almost permanently inside the park and is set up for hosting 20 guests between 8 cabins. Next is the Avalon I, a dive yacht first introduced 2010 with 8 cabins accommodating a total of 18 guests. In 2014, the Jardines Avalon II was added.

It is a slightly larger 120-foot vessel with 10 cabins for 20 guests. The last of this foursome, the Avalon III is the newest entry coming online in February 2019, measuring 160 feet set up with 15 staterooms for up to 30 guests, including 4 suites with balconies. For the purpose of this trip I was on the Avalon III, which you can read more about it here: Liveaboard Report: Avalon III

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