Gardens of the Queen, Cuba 2015

Saturday, January 17, 2015
Wednesday, January 7, 2015

After Trip Report: Traveling with David Guggenheim's ocean conservation organization, Ocean Doctor, WDHOF spent 10 days in Cuba above and below water engaging in educational and cultural sessions and interactions with marine scientists, educators and conservationists while diving the pristine protected reefs of the Gardens of the Queen.

Five WDHOF members, two Associate Members and five dear gentlemen took off for our grand adventure on New Year’s Eve, 2014, truly ringing in the New Year 2015 in the most magical way imaginable.

I can truthfully report that Cuba has made an everlasting impression on us, and very importantly, I can also very well say that Women Divers Hall of Fame and Friends also made a wonderful and lasting impression on Cuba as well.  David Guggenheim, founder of Washington, DC-based Ocean Doctor, writes, “WOW, what an incredible trip!!!! It was a delight and an honor for Mary Kadzielski and me to have the opportunity to spend time with you in Cuba. We’re so impressed with the Women Divers Hall of Fame, your dedication and passion.

Please accept our warmest thanks for your spirited participation in this special trip. I hope you enjoy bright and happy memories of your time in Havana and the Gardens of the Queen for a long time to come. It was an absolute pleasure getting to know you and to spend this time with you. Thank you for sharing this adventure with us.

At Ocean Doctor, we work to make your time as informative as it is enjoyable. It was my privilege to introduce you to our Cuban colleagues and their work. We hope that you enjoyed learning about the important environmental issues impacting our shared waters and that Gardens of the Queen gives you a sense of optimism for the future of coral reefs if we take action to protect them. Our Cuba Travel Program is a unique opportunity to raise awareness about the oceans and our ongoing work with Cuban scientists and conservation professionals.”

We first met David Guggenheim a year ago at DEMA and embarked on planning a grand adventure for WDHOF members in celebration of our 15th Anniversary – CUBA!  Many of us have yearned to go there, but legally, drawn by the stories of Ernest Hemingway, the infectious, enticing music, the ancient beauty and charisma of Havana, the Cuban food, and a society with a captivating, revolutionary history, suspended in time.  Excited by the 60 Minutes program on diving there, we felt we had perhaps a magical window of time to experience all the country has to offer now, before it’s perhaps modernized by tourism and the pressures that will inevitably bring. David’s work will help to support the continuation of Cuba’s dedication to her ecosystem.  Following our meetings with leaders of this work, our WDHOF members returned home with a sense of mission to assist the scientists in ways we might.  We were also privileged to spend time and dives with Noel López, Cuba’s most well-known underwater photographer.  The stories of how Cubans began to dive are reminiscent of our own pioneer stories before modern gear and organized instruction were available.

We all took away special memories. Maida Taylor reports, “While the espoused goals of our WDHOF Cuba adventure were to participate in people-to-people cultural and educational exchanges and to witness a truly effective ocean conservation and sustainability program, we experienced so much more.  We expected phenomenal diving, but add to that snorkeling with sting rays, calling young crocs by whistling, marveling at their territorial displays full of angry hissing and posturing, the color of their eyes, and the impressive mouthful of teeth!  My favorite creature encounter was with the Cuban hutia (jutia) waiting for an offer of water or a piece of fruit.”  It’s not easy for them, as also for the iguanas and the hermit crabs, to distinguish fingers from fruit!  

Patricia Polcyn, new Associate Member and California Wreck Diver, says, “When people ask how my trip to Cuba was, I struggle to find a word or phrase to best define how absolutely wonderful the entire experience was.  The country and its people will always be remembered in such a fond way.  However, the people I shared the experience with will forever be my friends.”  

Karin Lynn writes memorably and spontaneously of moments in time, “Stargazing on the Tortuga (houseboat) top deck, speeding turns through the mangroves, hermit crabs and iguanas, new friends, old friends, coffee & orange juice wakeup calls, overly generous, family-style banquets, bus tours, walking tours of Old Havana, Revolution Square, cross-country trips from the northwest to the south-central port of Júcaro, rooftop view from the hotel, New Year’s Eve full-blown celebration at a paladar (private restaurant) housed in a 400-year old mansion in Havana. Sharks.  Sharks.  And more sharks (silkies and black-tip reef sharks, one hammerhead). Goliath ate the Lion, (grouper & fish), then did it again!  Sugar cane drinks at Hemingway’s; cobblestones and old cars.  Arriving in Havana.  Bargaining, buying, choosing souvenirs, Bucanero beers, memorable Mojitos, hissing crocodiles, swimming green eel, barracuda, stingrays and harlequin jellyfish in the shallow mangroves, roadside bus stops, sugarcane, bananas, royal palms, goats, horses, cows, chickens, buggies, horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, packed stake trucks and buses, pedestrians, Audis, crumbling opulence, brave poverty, sustainable, reforested, eco-village, CUC’s and pesos;  zipline, earnest presenters needing support, cigars, rum, the ubiquitous cocktail greeting, music, gracious hospitality.  One will not soon forget skin diving among vibrant elkhorn corals and the life it shelters once again.”

The two most enduring and foremost impressions of Cuba for me are the universal warmth of the Cubans to us and the glory of their protected southern sea.  The diving is magnificent – we spent hours and hours each day in and on the water, diving or snorkeling.  I had every intention of getting in the water with a crocodile, but I lost my courage when the second and then the third one appeared in 3 feet of water. It suddenly became exciting enough to be up close and personal from the relative safety of the small boat. We quickly saw how important it was to not bend over too far toward the water!  We all agree we will return as soon as we can.  We’ve already been invited!  I heard over and over that it was the trip of a lifetime, and I believe so, too.  At what other time in our lives can we say we’ve traveled to a different culture, had great, great good fun, learned much, met with leaders, did some good, contributed to better understanding between our countries, enjoyed the tremendous company of our friends, and got some great underwater photographs!

Report by Erin O’Neill