Shark Diving + Hurricane Evacuation = Adventures Galore

One of the downfalls of operating your own business is a serious lack of vacation time. In our case, my husband and I try to steal a long weekend here or there, and a lot of our travel ends up being work-related. One of the few week-long vacations we took together was back in 2009 when we embarked on a shark diving holiday to the Jardines de la Reina off of Cuba’s south shore in the province of Ciego de Avila. We’ve been diving pretty much all over Cuba, but had always wanted to visit this destination, which a lot of the dive masters we know in Cuba call Cuba’s “dive mecca” due to its geographical location several hours offshore by boat, and its protected marine habitat. The biggest attraction for us was without a doubt the shark diving though. We’d never been diving with sharks before, and we were told that we’d sometimes even see up to several species of sharks in a single day. We ended up getting way more of an adventure than we’d bargained for.

We scheduled our holiday in late August, low season for our travel bookings and also to coincide with my birthday. We chose the Tortuga floating hotel for our accommodations – with a satellite WI-FI connection it meant that I wouldn’t be totally out of touch and could keep up with my daily emails via my laptop during down time. The evening prior to departure we saw on the local news that there was a hurricane warning for the south coast of Cuba and briefly debated whether to modify our plans. We ended up deciding to go forward with the plan as scheduled so the next morning at 04:00 we were boarding the collective transfer bus at the Armadores de Santander hotel in Havana. The Italian representative of the travel company Avalon that manages this destination, Luisa, was aboard the bus along with her daughter & husband who were vacationing in Cuba, and several other tourists from Germany, Argentina, the UK and Croatia who had been picked up at their respective Havana hotels. We asked Luisa what the word was on the pending weather situation, and she advised that so far no change in plans had been issued by local authorities, that the storm was still too far away to know which direction it would take, and until then all plans were full-steam ahead. Having been through many hurricanes and an evacuation or two already in Cuba, and knowing what a great advance advisory and evacuation system Cuba has in place, off we went to the Jucaro Port.

When we boarded the vessel that was to take our small group to the “Gardens of the Queen”, everyone was given the obligatory ham & cheese sandwich & soda for lunch, and then it was smooth and sunny sailing for several hours before we finally arrived to our home for the next week. The Tortuga is a 2-story barge that’s been converted into a floating hotel with 7 rooms with private baths, a sun deck, bar and restaurant. Pretty luxurious accommodations for somewhere several hours offshore in the middle of the mangroves. After we got settled in, tried some pizza, and met the local crocodile, we all headed off in the speedboats to get an overview of the dive zone. The captain of our boat spotted what appeared to be a tuna feeding frenzy, and immediately directed the boat to that location. He explained that it would be really likely that we’d see a whale shark, which feed on the tuna. And he didn’t disappoint. A German diver on our boat with over 1000 dives under his belt was freaking out because he’d never seen a whale shark before and he was wanting to jump overboard with no gear or anything. Thankfully, we could observe the large mammal pretty well from the boat as he swam under and around us. After that, we headed to a sandy beach where our dive master showed us some sea turtle nesting areas. Our dive master was a former employee of Cuba’s national aquarium, and had all kinds of interesting information to share.

Arriving back to the lodge, we got showered and ready for dinner, then as we headed downstairs to the dining room we began to suspect that the idyllic vacation was about to come to an end before we ever really even got started. We saw the Avalon staff quietly convening with the boat captains in a corner by the bar and knew that they had probably received the evacuation order from the local authorities. Over dinner in the restaurant, they shared the news and the plan that they’d agreed upon. The coast guard’s orders were to return to the mainland, but the captain was being cautious and indicated that he did not want to make the crossing at night, but would prefer to wait for first light to head back to Jucaro. So after a very enjoyable meal, all the tourists headed to bed while the Avalon staff dismantled a lot of equipment, and stored everything away that could be stowed out of potential harm’s way.

At 4 a.m. everyone got a wakeup call and we were provided with minimal breakfast provisions. My husband & I took some lemons to smell, hoping to ward off seasickness as the water was fairly choppy by then. Everyone, including all staff, was evacuated from the area in two vessels. The return crossing took about twice as long as the trip over, and more than a few people succumbed to nausea on the way back. An Argentinian lady was positively green, and didn’t notice that she’d placed her bag full of library books right under a window where water would occasionally enter as we were hit with waves. When we finally made it back to Jucaro, I thought the captain deserved a medal for getting everyone back safely under less than ideal seas. The local press was there to greet us before we made our way to the Ciego de Avila hotel to wait out the storm, which was expected to enter sometime after nightfall. The Argentinian woman realized at some point that she left her wet library books behind on the bus that took us to the hotel. Luisa gave her the bus driver’s contact information, but was mostly focused on accommodating guests as best as possible at the hotel and maintaining contact with the coast guard to be current on the weather situation.

The storm ended up passing with very little force, and the evacuation only ended up being for two nights. In the meantime my husband & I explored around Ciego de Avila a bit, eating pork sandwiches in the street and shopping for odds & ends in the local stores. Our philosophy is that you might as well make the best of a situation when things don’t go quite as planned. It’s nobody’s fault the weather went afoul, and the evacuation was government-ordered far enough in advance that everyone’s safety was secured. In the end, everyone was getting anxious to get on with the dive holiday, and on the second morning of the evacuation Luisa asked everyone to stay close to the lobby for any new developments that were informed by the coast guard. We finally got the order to head back to JDR, and everyone boarded the bus. Except the Argentinian lady who was still complaining about her misplaced library books, and wondering why everyone else but her had been informed about the return. Well, perhaps because everyone else except her was following Luisa’s instructions to be in the lobby?! On the bus again, one of the English girls had asked Luisa for a Gravol while we were in the lobby so Luisa handed it to her on the bus so that it would take effect in time for the crossing. Ms. Argentina had something negative to say about that too because she thought Luisa should have given Gravol to everyone (even if they’d not asked for them). She was definitely the rotten apple in the bunch, but rather than allow her to continue trying to spoil everyone else’s holiday I told her that she’d better zip it…or else! I don’t think I heard a peep from her the rest of the trip. My precious vacation time was definitely not going to be jeapordized by an “imperfecta”, as they say here.

On the return trip we went up to the top deck and about halfway over saw dolphins swimming beside our boat. Luisa advised us that she was going to be able to extend our stay by a day since the next group was coming in a day later, so we were really happy about not losing any dive time. All of a sudden, the captain started shouting orders and we realized that the boat was taking on water. He radioed ahead to JDR to send out the speedboats, and everyone was asked to put on their lifevest. It’s funny that I never felt at all in danger, but was concerned about my laptop and cell phone, and asked my husband to make sure they were as high up on the boat as possible… I remember chuckling at Luisa’s daughter who had fished out her mask and fins and was ready to swim to shore if need be. In the end, it was simply a hose that had disconnected and was rapidly reinstalled by the resourceful crew. The speedboats ended up just escorting us back to the Tortuga, rather than really having to rescue us from a sinking ship. But it was just one more adventure to add to what was already a story that we’d be telling our friends for years to come.

We saw lots of Caribbean reef sharks, silky sharks, and nurse sharks on our three daily dives. We also saw a host of other creatures including sea turtles, rays, and huge groupers among others. Between the morning dives we’d usually head to a sandy virgin beach where you could feed scraps of mango or bread to the “jutias” and iguanas. Abel & I would plug the dive master with all kinds of questions about what we’d seen or what he expected we’d see on the next immersion. We learned quite a bit about the invasive lion fish. Another of the dive masters on our boat occasionally brought fish to feed the sharks, and caught a tooth for me as it slipped out of a Caribbean reef shark’s jaws while feeding. There was a cute little remora fish following us (and more likely the sharks) for quite awhile. I remember looking forward to the tasty little pizza snacks that were always served piping hot at the bar/lounge area after our last dive. The Italian folks at Avalon had taught their kitchen staff some of the best techniques of Italian cuisine. Pasta dishes were also very well-done at dinner, and of course we were treated to a host of fresh seafood dishes. Desserts often consisted fresh seasonal fruit or Cuban flan. Especially welcome were juices and coffee delivered to our room before we even came down for breakfast in the morning.

All in all, despite the bumps in the road and the extra excitement brought on by adverse weather conditions, this is a trip that I’d love to repeat someday. The diverse group of people that embarked on the journey made for interesting conversations. Knowing that the unexpected excitement along the way was always backed up by a resourceful, responsible, and caring team to look after us all is what made it so memorable. Hats off to all the folks at Avalon for pulling it off. Our trip to Jardines de la Reina will be fondly remembered for many years to come.

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