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Diving Cuba’s Waters: Taking a Stroll Through the Gardens of the Queen

The first time I went to Cuba was well over 10 years ago. Wandering the landscape with a friend in a beat-up old car from Havana to Viñales, Cienfuegos to Trinidad, I spent my time talking to strangers, shooting photos of old buildings and old cars, allowing myself to be engulfed in this land frozen in time. It is easy to get lost in the dream-like feeling of nostalgia as one sees the mottled peeling paint of times past hanging from old wooden doors and euro-style pillars. My creative eye sees this as a perfect opportunity to shoot patches of colors with texture. The stark contrast with a far tougher reality is clear when a child eyed my apple as if it was the best thing on earth and when an old lady cried into my chest with thanks when I gave her a bar of soap and razor as payment for using her phone.

First trip to Cuba and the kind woman who lent me her phone.

Not long ago I returned to Cuba but only touched land to step onto a bus that would take me halfway down the island to the town of Juraco where I would then board a boat. I only set foot on the mainland again when it was time to leave the country. To say I have really seen Cuba twice would be false, but I did get to know it’s worlds both above and below water. My time was spent exploring the underwater seascape of Jardines de la Reina…and indeed, as its Spanish name indicates, it is a garden worthy of a queen. I can say with great conviction, that this is one of the most pristine reefs I have had the privileged of diving on and from I can deduce, the main reason for this is the absence of people’s impact.

Thanks to a willing subject- one of my first underwater macro shots.

Safely locked away in it’s housing, I take my camera down with me for the first time (challenging myself with a macro lens!) and quickly realize I could not have chosen a better place to start shooting underwater. From 5 to 35 meters below the waves, a plethora and variety of coral decorates mounds and cliffs, offering shelter and food to just as many fish. Schools of grunts move to and fro in an unhurried pattern and much like a flock of birds in the sky, they dance in a perfect synchronicity of effortless flight. Purple fans sway with the gentle current, sunlight shining through their delicate patterned weaving revealing more subtle nuances of color. Long slender sponges interrupt the landscape like towering condominiums, skittish little stripped gobies perched in their penthouse suites until a shadow has them darting into the safety of their yellow high-rise.

Taking a photo of a stunning pillar coral. Photo: Çapkin van Alphen

Now and again a wide-eyed squirrelfish peeks out from its hiding place, surveying the world with a look one might humanize as total bewilderment or fright. In the background a few groupers hang around, their eyes rotating here and there to glance at me, away, and back at me again. Curious, they return regularly, perhaps keeping tabs on the visitors of this garden much like the guardian of a park. A damselfish swims hesitantly to look out from the layers of coral while a passing barracuda stops to hover just above. Little crabs and neon shrimps find shelter in crevices and near a giant sponge a group of silky sharks circle around, claiming a stake on their territory. Their beautiful sleek skin shimmers as they glide effortlessly through the water. It feels as though I am swimming in an aquarium freshly stocked with all the right species.

Abundant life. Photo: Çapkin van Alphen

Above water once again, everyone exclaims wonder at the abundance of life and we laugh like giddy children at what we have captured in photos and video. What a contrast to most places we have seen under water where we humans have pillaged all life for our greedy need of overzealous consumption. Perhaps the Queen’s Gardens is a place worth referencing as what we need to recuperate, but even her majesty’s territory needs continued protection.

As posted on TakePart.com