SANTA LUCIA, CUBA, April 2006
By Nicolas Lakoff
© Copyright 2006-2017
In the spring of 2006 I was ready for another dive vacation. At my travel agents suggestion I decided to wait after the spring break period for the prices to go down. Sure enough, once the month of March was behind us, the prices started falling. This time I was seduced by the promise of good diving and a great price for a two week stay in Santa Lucia on the North coast of Cuba. A little more to the east of Cayo Coco, Santa Lucia is part of the Cuban administrative Province of Camagüey. It has four major hotels, the Club Amigo Manayebo, the Club Amigo Caracol, The Grand Club Santa-Lucia and the Oasis Brisas Santa Lucia. For this stay I chose the Grand Club which had the better deal. The Grand Club is a fairly large resort with its reception area between the beachfront villas and bungalows and apartment like room complexes to the rear. As far as I could tell it’s an Italian run resort with lots of Europeans and Canadian tourists as its main source of clientele. The beach is not as nice as Cayo Coco but it comes in at a close second. It is carefully manicured and there are beach loungers and sunshades abound. The rooms are comfortable, clean and the A/C works well, this resort having modern wall mounted 5000BTU units from Asia. One of the things I really liked about the Grand Club was the ceramic decorations throughout the hotel and in the rooms. They were really very beautiful and not tacky at all. One thing I liked less was the disposition of the tables and gathering areas around the main pool which doesn’t do much to encourage interaction between the resort goers. Near the pools edge and close to the main dining hall there is a wonderful little coffee shop that has a very high end coffee machine that can make you anything from an espresso and cappuccino to a latte and Spanish coffee. Needless to say I hung around here quite a bit since I’m not that big a drinker especially in scuba diving mode!
Roaming the grounds there is a pair of Peacocks one female which is rather bland in coloring and a spectacularly feathered male that often goes into full display mode.
Once on an early morning walk to the dive shop I ran into a gorgeous and rather large marine Iguana taking in the morning sun on one of the resorts many pathways. There is also a pair of Pink Flamingos that wade in the small decorative pools near the reception, sifting the water for flies and other insects which is the mainstay of their diets. The resort also has a waterfront restaurant where your can dine on the sea, eating succulent meals such as lobster or fish for about 10$ US.
The Shark’s Friends Diving Center is located right in Between the Grand Club Santa Lucia and the Oasis Brisas. The two resorts are abutted to each other so it’s really a short walk to the dive center from the reception area. I was assigned a room further behind so my walk was a little longer but still wasn’t so bad. There is however no direct trail that leads to the center like there is for the Oasis Brisas. This is also a neglected corner of the resort with a rusted dilapidated fence and garbage, some of it dangerous to flip flop wearing tourists, strewn about. This is certainly an area that they could make an improvement to accommodate the many divers that come here every year especially for scuba. The dive center is the nicest one I’ve seen in Cuba so far and would rival any in other Caribbean location. The staff is very friendly, professional and experienced. In the admistration office you have Glenys, managing the center you have Macao, senior instructor Oro and the rest of the intructors including big Erick, Lazarro, Lemay, Gordy, Mikael and our regular boat captain Dingo.
The diving in Santa-Lucia is amazing. First off the weather was picture perfect; the sea was calm and the visibility amazing on most of my dives. After my great disappointment at not getting pictures of my Spotted Eagle Ray encounter in Cayo Coco I decided to buy my own diving camera for this trip. After looking around a little while I settled on a Canon Powershot A610 and its underwater housing. One of the features that attracted me to buy it was that it had in its software a diving mode that added red to the picture, much like an external filter, to reduce the loss of color in the water. On the first dive I lost the weights that I had bought for the camera due to the fact I probably didn’t screw them on tight enough but I had a couple of spare weights and was able to make due with a medium screw with an o-ring sandwiched in between the weights. The camera worked great and after 5 dives I was really thrilled at the pictures that I was taking. Then one evening as I was exploring all the functionalities of my camera I accidentally reformatted my memory card and lots all my pictures to date at that time. Experience is a great teacher and that is a lesson I shall not soon forget. On my next dive at a site called Poseidon IV, my dive buddy Daniel spotted a nurse shark nestles in the coral and I was able to take some amazing pictures of it and yesterdays reformatting debacle was history,…Yay!
During the trip I met a group of experienced divers from Quebec including a dive instructor who was on crutches following an operation on his knee but was okayed by his doctor to do scuba diving and the boys from Shark Friends helped him every step of the way. Can you say scuba obsessed! I picked up a few tricks from theses experienced guys like having a multi-tool for little repairs and having a waterproof bag to store your camera and other gear on the boat, definitely future purchases for me for certain.
Every dive was amazing but a few places stood out for me. One was Alta Gracia, a 1950’s American tug boat deliberately sunk as an artificial reef. It sits upright at about 88 feet (27 meters) on a plateau near the edge of a steep wall. It is extensively colonized by hard and soft corals and supports a large population of fish including, groupers, snappers, grunts, and squirel fish to name few. If you’re lucky enough to be one of the first to get there you might just see a shark or a large grouper that like to hide here. It is large enough that you can penetrate it but I would advise those who are not wreck qualified to just peek into it from the many openings. The smoke stack is quite impressive and you can see straight down to the engine room peering from the top.
Another dive that you must not miss is Mortera Wrecks. Mortera was an iron freighter that sank towards the end of the 19th century. This is also were there is the famous Bahia de Nuevitas Bull sharks come to reproduce and where the sharks feeding shows happen. This vast channel is where fresh water from the vast marshes in this area and the sea mix. These are the perfect conditions for Bull sharks to make and give birth since the Bull shark is one of the only sharks that can swim in fresh water. This year it seems that I’ve come too late in the season for the Sharks but the wreck is quite spectacular. It is in advanced state of colonization and decomposition and had many marine denizens calling it a home. If you attempt to pass through some passages make sure that your buoyancy is up to par because there are quite a few sharp corners here and there.
Not far from Mortera is an old Spanish fort that was built to defend the access to this waterway. At its foot, below the waves, there is a very beautiful dive site called Las Anforas. During the dive you can see the dozens of orphaned anchors, creating an eerie anchor cemetery.
Another impressive feature is the wine amphora’s and bottles that Spanish guards would throw over the side in order not to get caught drinking on the job. From the number of them, it seems that they had quite a taste for vino on the job! One of the things that impressed me here was the sheer number of fish that we encountered. Finally I was in dive spot with massive amounts of fish and great light and then disaster struck, the batteries in my camera died. I was so frustrated but it taught me this, change my batteries before every dive. Definitely a dive I want to do again in the near future.
Another of my favourite dives while I was in Santa Lucia was a night dive to Alta Gracia. For this dive we boarded what I can only describe as a real diving boat. It probably also doubles as a deep sea fishing vessel but its diving heritage is evident. It has a large covered deck to accommodate lost of divers and equipment, an open ramp for stride entries and bottle racks on each side. I was told that since the wreck is past the main coral break nightfall meant the waters would be a little choppier. Also this boat is equipped with underwater lights at the stern to help divers situate the boat in the darkness.
We set off a little before nightfall and were rewarded with a spectacular sunset during our 15-20 minute boat ride there. During the briefing Lazarro gave us some safety parameters and told us to stay closer together than we would on a normal day dive. We all had flashlights for this dive. At the beginning of the dive there was still a little light which help with getting oriented and quickly all remaining light was gone. Using the flashlights I was amazed at how much color exited and how much of it was camouflaged during the day by the seas blue haze.
Some divers took the “stay close together” instructions a little too much to heart and were really crowding me which got me a little annoyed to say the least. One thing is for sure, lots of sea life comes out to feed at night while others hide in order not to become someone else’s meal! As we ended the dive we could see the boat above but its movements indicated that the sea was less than calm. We could see the boats lights surging up and down from the swells and I was a little apprehensive about coming out. As I tried to exit I dropped Lazarro’s backup light which he gave me when the dives centers rechargeable one failed. He immediately went down to get it. Another diver from Ontario lost his personal dive light and was visibly upset once back on the boat. Lazarro told him not to worry since we would be back in the morning for a Black Coral dive and look for it.
So the next morning we were off on another beautiful dive with our dive instructor Lazarro to see Black Coral. Since the site is right next to Alta Gracia we stopped to get in the water right where we got out of the water last night. Believe it or not, Gerald my dive buddy found Steve’s lost flashlight in the first few minutes of the dive. Now that is quite a feat when you consider the Ocean is a big place (even if you have an idea of where you were) and that they have no GPS! Once the flashlight safely with its owner we quickly went down the wall to find our quarry.
Infamous for its black market use in jewellery, Black Coral is quite spectacular looking alive and in its natural habitat. These corals enjoy growing at deeper depths so this was a deep dive 120 feet. Some if it is in fine strands and some a little thicker. We also came across a large Barracuda which I suspect was pregnant from the tell tale bump on her belly. I got a great shot of a Spotted Moray Eel as well to round things out.
For me Santa Lucia was truly a diving revelation and I am sure I will be back here again!