Team USA Sweeps Cuba to Win NORCECA Gold

The U.S. Boys’ Youth National Team defeated Cuba, 25-23, 25-21, 25-20 on Saturday to win the NORCECA Boys’ Under-19 Continental Championship in front of a boisterous crowd at the Cox Business Center.

  • Published in Sports

Shark Diving in Cuba's Gardens of the Queen

The Adventure Begins at Home

I don’t pack light. Ever. So when reps from the travel specialists who arranged our Treasury Department-approved flight to Cuba confirmed that all luggage — carry-on, cameras, gear, everything — could not exceed 44 pounds, I had to take a deep breath.

Diving is easy. Travel is hard.

I’m thinking that again one morning as I stare miserably at the tap in my Havana hotel room through which no water is flowing. It comes to me again as we bounce along a narrow, patchy highway on a white-knuckle, predawn bus ride to Cuba’s southern coast, six hours away.

Do tourist buses have ultimate right-of-way in Cuba? Our driver seems to think so. (On our return trip, two drivers would execute a shift change and swap places at the wheel without ever slowing down. The entire bus broke into wild applause.)

Thank God western Cuba is mostly flat.

Welcome to Gardens of the Queen

“Bet there’s a 9-footer right behind you.” 
I resist the urge to whip my head around and check. We’re splashing about off the back of Georgiana in 6 feet of water so clear, you could read a novel placed on the sea grass below. From the first moment eight of us boarded the 100-foot Avalon Cuban Diving Centers live-aboard in tiny Jucaro five hours ago, talk turned to sharks.

Gardens of the Queen, a pristine 90-mile arc of mangroves and keys that snuggles up to Cuba’s southeastern coast, is quickly gaining a reputation as the sharkiest spot in the Caribbean. The area encompasses an 850-square-mile no-take marine reserve where a young Fidel Castro once loved to spearfish.

Five of us had come legally to Cuba with Ocean Doctor, a Washington, D.C.-based conservation nonprofit with long experience in Cuba. A few other divers not with our group sneaked in illegally, risking thousands of dollars in fines on return if discovered. Experienced shark divers all, each had come to find out: What would it be like to swim with dozens of sharks in a truly wild setting?

We don’t wait long to find out. On our second dive, at a site called Los Mogotes, we descend right on top of several Caribbean reef sharks milling around a coral head so large, it had its own mini wall.
 As we fin over coral fields that would only get bigger as our dives progress, admiring the locals from gray angelfish to Nassau and black grouper, barracuda, triggerfish, blennies, jawfish and more, I glance at what I think is my buddy, half an arm’s length away.

In his place is a muscular 6-foot reef shark, swimming companionably in our midst. Immediately you notice at Gardens of the Queen that nothing runs from you: Here, animals from sharks to tarpon to barracuda and rays swim toward you, but only in curiosity.

To see a sleek, healthy predator up close in the wild, in harmony with its environment, is awe-inspiring. And, strangely, I feel no fear — just a sense that all is right with this animal’s world.

By the end of day one, exuberance all around.
“That was fantastic!” says Mike McGowan, from Breckenridge, Colorado. “This has totally exceeded my expectations!”

And that was only the start. For days, we would all look at each other, pinch ourselves and say, “We’re in Cuba!” And then dissolve into little-girl giggles.

Sharks and Classic Cars are Everywhere

“Cubans love Americans for two reasons,” says Antonio Luis (“Tony”) Cardenas, 38, a marine biologist who is manager of Avalon’s fleet of sport-fishing and diving vessels, the only operator in Gardens of the Queen by contract with the Cuban government. He holds up a finger.

“One, the cars.” He smiles. “And two: everything else.”

While sharks are the draw at Gardens of the Queen, the classic American cars plying the streets of Havana exert a magical pull all their own, on Cubans and Americans alike.

“I grew up in the ’50s,” says my dive buddy Charlie Brandenburg, 69, from Fort Worth, Texas. “It’s like going back in time for me.”

Tom Greenway, 53, an auto dealer from Morris, Illinois, was as excited about the cars as he was about the diving. “The sharks and the classic cars are in the same quantity — everywhere.”

Cuban ingenuity keeps these cars on the road — the most common thing you hear out of Cubans, regarding any obstacle, is, “We’ll find a way.” Maintaining these vehicles is a source of pride, but also a necessity: Under government price controls, a new car can cost the equivalent of $250,000. Most Cubans just laugh. And find another way.

Georgiana wasn’t built as a dive boat, but Cubans make that work too, diving from modern tenders serviced and stored at an amphibious dive center tucked in the mangroves near Avalon’s tethered “floating hotel,” Tortuga.

Their adaptability sustains these resilient, resourceful people who haven’t lost their hope for the future. That willingness to look ahead is why Gardens of the Queen, first described by 15th-century explorers, today comprises the largest no-take marine park in the Caribbean.

We meet Dr. Julio A. Baisre, vice
director of the National Aquarium, for dinner one evening in one
 of Havana’s burgeoning paladares, 
private restaurants encouraged by 
the government that are causing a
 small sensation in the Caribbean
 dining scene. In the mid-1990s,
 Baisre was a director of Cuba’s
 fisheries management. Giuseppe 
“Pepe” Omegna, Avalon’s Italy-
born owner, brought the idea for a reserve open to divers to Baisre. “It seemed like a nice idea,” Baisre says with a laugh. A few weeks later, the first marine protected area in Cuba was formally established.

The first problem was fishermen. Virtually every day, Omegna and Baisre were on the phone, dealing with violations. But they found a way, and the Cuban government stood firm — no fishing except for lobster — and supported scientific research that gave legitimacy to the idea. Eventually locals accepted the reserve because “they saw changes positive for themselves,” Baisre says. Today about 1,000 divers and 500 catch-and-release fishermen are permitted annually in the reserve, officially established in 1996.

Avalon’s underwater shooter and videographer Noel Lopez Fernandez started working in Gardens of the Queen about the time the reserve took effect.

“Seventeen years ago, you saw only one or two sharks, and they were far away; they didn’t come close. Every year, it’s better,” says Lopez, 48.

Not all of the Gardens is protected, or even explored. Avalon has identified about 50 sites, 25 of which are regularly dived.

“Right now we know maybe 45 percent of the Gardens of the Queen underwater,” Lopez says. “The rest we don’t know yet. We have a lot to explore, a lot of new things to discover.”

“Americans can go anywhere,” Cardenas says, a little wistfully — the right to travel is universally desired in Cuba. “But this place was discovered by Christopher Columbus. I want them to see that.”

To Bait, or Not to Bait?

Before our first “official” shark dive in the Gardens of the Queen — where every dive is a shark dive — a debate breaks out:

To bait or not to bait?

Avalon always asks divers if they want to use the bait box — Cardenas says that 95 percent of the time, the answer is yes. Our party is divided, torn between maximum shark and respecting Mother Nature.

We decide to try it both ways. Turns out, you don’t really need the box.

Before we are even out of the boat, at a site called El Farallon, silky sharks are circling en masse. Nervous laughter ensues.

Back-rolling on top of a dozen curious sharks seems totally loco. But the weird thing underwater is: no menace. Just indescribable beauty, and a Zen-like serenity induced by morning rays dappling the silkies’ smooth skin as they move in and out of the natural spotlights.

Moving away from the boat and the silkies, we drop to 90 feet through deep coral canyons festooned with tube and vase sponges, and enter a crack in the world with formations like jagged teeth — it looks impassable, but we soon discover it is not, shooting out of the swim-through, and flying over more hills of coral and a small mushroom bommie or two.

On our next dive, at La Cueva del Pulpo, sharks are waiting again, along with a toothy goliath grouper. A big spotted eagle ray flaps in and seems in no hurry to depart, circling back for another look.

Finally it dawns on me what’s so weird about diving here. On so many dives, I’m forever peering into the blue, straining to see a shark, ray, turtle — anything. But in Gardens of the Queen, the thing you’re looking for is swimming alongside you, sometimes for more or less the entire dive.
 The next day at a site called Black Coral II, we use the box.

The perforated white metal container about the size of a ladies’ boot box does seem to attract a few more sharks, and they are more active, but by this time, we are seeing so many sharks on every dive that they seem a part of the landscape, not a circus attraction. Still, they’re mesmerizing enough to keep us all at 80-plus feet until deco comes knocking.

NEED TO KNOW

When to go: Gardens of the Queen is a year-round destination. Cuba is in the Caribbean hurricane belt; storm season is roughly June through October, with more storms occurring in August and September.

Dive Conditions: Although the diving requires no advanced training, divers visiting Gardens of the Queen should be comfortable with the possibility of sharks in close proximity on every dive. Visibility can change quickly — particularly with afternoon tides — from 100-plus feet down to 30 to 60 feet; good navigation skills are a plus. Water temps vary from 77 to 80 degrees F November to April to 82 to 86 degrees F May to October. Avalon offers no night diving because of government restrictions.

Operators: Ocean Doctor (oceandoctor.org/gardens) partners with Avalon Cuban Diving Centers (cubandivingcenters.com), the only dive operator in Gardens of the Queen. Ocean Doctor guests are housed in four of Avalon’s half-dozen live-aboards, which vary in size. Diving is all from tenders.

Price tag: All-inclusive 11-day, 10-night trips are $7,240 to $8,830, including airfare from Miami. (Includes a $250 fee that supports Ocean Doctor’s conservation activities in Cuba.)

WHAT IT TAKES: 

Ocean Doctor is licensed by the U.S.Treasury Department to lead educational programs to Cuba. (under the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba, tourism is prohibited for U.S. citizens; licensed “people-to-people” educational visits such as those led by Ocean Doctor are permitted.) If you are a diver who only wants to be underwater and has no interest in cultural exchanges — a requirement of Treasury Department permits — such as meeting Cuban marine scientists at the University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research, or visiting topside nature reserves like Las Terrazas, a UNESCO bioreserve 45 miles west of Havana, Ocean Doctor’s trips may not be for you. If you are not flexible about last-minute schedule changes or working through small bureaucratic hassles, Cuba may not be for you.

  • Published in Cuba

Palestinian Ambassador to Cuba Denounces Massacre against his People

Akram Samhan, ambassador of the State of Palestine to Cuba, asserted on Thursday in this capital that more prominence of international organizations in favor of the cessation of Israeli attacks against Palestinian territory will be a determining factor to put an end to the massacre against his people.

On Thursday morning, Israeli forces reinitiated bombings against civilian population of Gaza Strip, with which they continued an offensive that began 10 days ago, killing 245 people, 55 of them children, said Samhan in a press conference.

So far, international mediations, led by the United Nations, have only obtained a humanitarian truce of five hours, while Israeli and Palestinian negotiators try to achieve in Egypt a wide ceasefire that would begin tomorrow, Friday.

Palestine’s ambassador to the Caribbean island informed that Israel has directed over 2,000 attacks against Gaza Strip and has used powerful armaments, which destroyed more than 700 houses, nine hospitals and three universities.

Israel wants to negotiate a truce, but adds to the agreement points that are not fundamental for Palestinians, not considering their basic rights and without referring to a possible lifting of the maritime, terrestrial and aerial blockade of Gaza Strip, he specified.

Samhan added that talks between Israelis and Palestinians have gone nowhere, particularly because the government of Benjamin Netanyahu and his extreme right wing want to prevent national unity between the Palestinian Hamas and PLO organizations.

  • Published in Cuba

Puerto Rican Solidarity-with-Cuba Group Arrives in Artemisa

A group of youngsters that are part of the Puerto Rican Juan Rius Rivera Solidarity Brigade began on Wednesday in Cuba a program of exchanges of experiences with various political and social organizations. These activities, in which 21 Puerto Rican children and youngsters participate, precede the visit of this friendship Brigade, which will arrive in October, on the occasion of the 23rd anniversary of its first visit to Cuba.
 
The delegation was officially received at the Julio Antonio Mella International Camp in Artemisa province, where they met with officials of the Cuban Communist Party and the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples.

During their stay, these youngsters will meet with members of the Young Communists’ League, the Federation of Secondary Teaching Students and the University Students Federation, in which topics referred to the realities of the two peoples will be tackled.

Included in their main activities is their participation in the rally to mark the 61st anniversary of the attacks on the Moncada and Carlos Manuel de Cespedes garrisons on July 26, 1953, which will take place in Artemisa, dedicated this year to the heroes of that province who were participants in these actions.

  • Published in Cuba

Cuba Qualifies for Semifinals

Cuba got an emotional victory over Mexico, 25-17, 19-25, 10-25, 25-17, 18-16 on Wednesday to qualify for the semifinals of the NORCECA Boys’ U19 Continental Championship at the Cox Business Center.

 

With the victory, Cuba improved to 3-0 and will advance straight to Friday’s semifinals. Mexico (2-1) will play in Thursday’s quarterfinals against Nicaragua (0-2).

 

After winning the first set, 25-17, Cuba’s mistakes started to catch up with it and it fell in the next two sets before winning the fourth. In the match, Mexico scored 41 points on Cuba errors while committing 21. Cuba led in kills (52-40) and blocks (16-9) while Mexico led in aces (10-8).

 

In the fifth set, the teams were tied 4-4 when Cuba’s attack went out of bounds. Mexico scored on a block, then scored the next three points on two Cuba errors and an ace from Ridl Garay. Cuba did not give up and with Mexico leading 10-6, it served into the net. Cuba’s Ismel Palayo took the serve and served for four more points, including an ace, to put Cuba ahead 11-10. With the score tied 11-11, Cuba was given a red card for its emotional reaction to a lost point. Mexico was awarded a point.

 

The teams traded points. Cuba reached match points first at 15-14 on a block by Luis Barrete and Javiel de Oca; but Mexico got a kill from Bruno Cruz. Mexico took its first match point at 16-15 on a block, but Cuba scored on a kill from Miguel Gutierrez. Cuba scored its final two points on kills by Pelayo to take the win.

 

“It was a very intense game. The whole game was tight and long,” Cuba Team Captain Daikel Fernandez said. “At the beginning, we did not play that good. But then we came back way better in the second and third sets.”

 

Cuba’s Gutierrez led all scorers with 24 points on a match-high 21 kills and three blocks. Pelayo added 20 points on 16 attacks, one block and three aces. Rodolfo Rodriguez totaled 16 points on eight attacks, a match-high six blocks and two aces.

 

Garay led Mexico with 17 points on 10 attacks, one block and a match-high six aces. Bruno Cruz added 13 points on 13 attacks.

 

Quotes:

 

Cuba Captain Daikel Fernandez: “It was a very intense game. The whole game was tight and long. At the beginning, we did not play that good. But then we came back way better in the second and third sets. Mexico is very intense in every aspect of the game, especially the blocks. But thank goodness we came back and won.”

 

Cuba Coach Roberto Garcia Garci: “I was expecting the win. But today, we had many mistakes. After tomorrow, it is a new competition. Whether we play the United States or Puerto Rico, we need to make fewer mistakes. Thankfully, we could recover the mental part during the match and I’m thankful that we won.”

 

Mexico Captain Ridl Garay: “We played as we were supposed to play. We played well but it was a tough game. I didn’t feel pressure, but I was very excited to play against Cuba because I knew it would be a good game.”

 

Mexico Coach Gabriela Alarcon: “The game overall was really good. I’m not happy that we lost. But it was a really close game. We are already getting ready for the next game against Nicaragua. We will keep positive. We hope to at least qualify for the semifinal.”

  • Published in Sports
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