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Rumble in the Jungle: Cave Diving in Cuba

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stu 3I was busy humming the Indiana Jones theme tune as we made our way through the jungle. This was by no means a ‘normal’ diving day and had turned out to be a real life adventure complete with the full entourage of creepy crawlies. Our tropical surroundings were alive with squawking Birds, Crabs, Geckos, Snakes (not poisonous I might add) and other exotic bugs. I was definitely experiencing raw Cuba at its very best. Jorge Millet Corchete, the Manager of Eagle Ray Dive Centre, had told me about two, virtually un-dived, underwater cave systems located 70km from the popular beach resort at Guardalavaca. After buttering me up with the exciting bits he then hit me with the bad news: the first cave system, known as Ring Hole, was a 1km walk through dense bush in the swelteringly hot sunshine. Worst still, the second system called Blue Tank, which in Jorge’s mind was much better for photographs, clocked in at more than 3km’s from the drop off point. Why are the best sites always the furthest away and hardest to get too? The saying ‘no pain, no gain’ came to mind as I mentally prepared myself for the cardiac inducing hike.

Jorge said at the beginning they used to cover the journey in rented 4 x 4’s but the hire companies got wise when the Jeeps kept coming back completely trashed. Jorge seemed to think that the gentle ‘stroll’ added an extra ‘feel good factor’ to the whole experience. I didn’t have quite as many positive vibes as Jorge but after some gentle persuasion (one or two Mojitos – I’m cheap!) I agreed to take part in the event.

We stopped off at the town of Gibara along the way to pick up some 4-legged help. Jorge’s friend Floro owned the Mule that we were using to carry all our diving equipment. I asked Floro what the Mule was called but he told me that it changed daily depending on how he felt. I decided to call the Mule ‘Pepe’ as it seemed quite appropriate for this neck of the woods.

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stu 10We had also picked up Jose Corella, the local cave diving Guru. Jose, a Geologist by trade, had been diving inside the caves since the late 80’s and had clocked up more than 300 deep penetration dives. He became fascinated by above water caves from an early age. Military friends introduced him to the Blue Tank and the rest was now history. Jose showed me the detailed maps he had made of the cave systems. He had chartered more than 3,000 metres inside the Blue Tank and so far had not reached an ending in any of the 3 independent entrances. Jose had a theory that Ring Hole may well join up to the Blue Tank, it’s just that no one had tried to find out. As well as making maps Jose had laid most of the 3,000 metres of line complete with directional arrows for other divers to follow. As far as Jose knew Czech divers were the first to explore the caves back in 1982. Eagle Ray Dive Centre began offering guided dives to UK tourists in 2004. Jorge said that divers have to be minimum PADI Advanced qualified to explore in the light zone (around the entrances) and he prefers them to do several standard sea dives before venturing inside the caves. This gave Jorge a chance to check the divers out and see how comfortable they were in the water. Jorge said he would only take certified cave divers deeper inside. So far there have been no serious incidents at Ring Hole or the Blue Tank.

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We drove to a clearing and waited for Pepe the Mule to arrive. Jorge, an ex-Cuban Navy SEAL, had stripped down to his waist and was raring to go. I followed Jorge’s lead by ripping off my t-shirt and slapping on a good helping of factor 30. I had put the Strobes and other camera/dive gear into my rucksack which now weighed in at around 15kg’s. I thought it would be best to carry my housing and camera by hand. In no time at all Pepe had arrived, was packed, had a poo and began trotting down the jungle path. I followed along behind Jorge and Jose (dodging Pepe’s fall out). The track was mainly made up of broken uneven rocks making it very difficult to walk on. My flip-flops weren’t exactly the most appropriate footwear for this kind of terrain. I managed to stub my toes (and swore) a number of times. I asked Jose why they hadn’t made a proper pathway to the Blue Tank and he said that this would only encourage more locals to visit the spot and he preferred to keep them away. He told me there had been a 30 metre long underwater tunnel connecting the town’s popular swimming hole to the open sea. Authorities decided to block up the entrance, with a controlled explosion, after a number of people drowned trying to breath hold swim through the tunnel. Jose didn’t want the caves to suffer a similar fate. Jorge said ‘nearly everyone moans about the walk and they constantly ask ‘are we there yet?’ but when they see inside the caves they are much happier and forget about the return journey’. Jose talked non-stop for the whole 3km’s, which was enough to distract me from the ever growing number of Mosquito blotches appearing all over me (I counted about 30 in total).

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stu 9Jose said that the pond measured in at 30 x 15 metres. The seemingly ‘dead pool’ was surrounded by dense bushes and trees apart from one spot where there was a narrow pathway leading down to the water’s edge. Jorge saw a something break the mirror calm surface. A Turtle popped its head up and then quickly disappeared again. This is the first time he had ever seen a Turtle in the pond.

Jorge guided me to the first cave entrance which was big enough for at least six divers to enter side by side. The bottom of the pond was around 6-8 metres deep and covered in a thick luminous green layer of algae, branches and dead leaves. I stopped to take a picture of Jorge entering the cave and felt something feeding on my ankles. I looked down and saw hundreds of Prawns ‘cleaning’ any part of my skin they could find. The pond was far from dead. I had missed out on some really good Macro opportunities.

My equipment wasn’t adequate for a full-on penetration dive but I decided to take a risk and venture in more than 100m’s keeping a firm eye on the guideline and my air gauge needle. The inner chambers were massive with 2 metre long spiky Stalactites hanging from the roof and stubby Stalagmites growing up from the cave floor. When I’m taking photographs I sometimes use a finger touch on a rock just to steady myself. But as I touched the top of a small Stalagmite it broke off. It was only a small piece just a few cm’s long but I was absolutely mortified. It had been such a gentle touch. I had no idea that they were so fragile. I really did learn a valuable lesson and doubled my buoyancy efforts. A diver with bad buoyancy skills inside this cave would be equivalent to a Bull in a China shop – nothing would survive. Afterwards Jorge told me that the orange looking rock formations were much stronger than the white looking ones. I wish he had said something earlier!

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The huge chambers (as a rough guide – the size of a Bungalow) were an impressive sight and the further I went in the scenery just got bigger and better. The chambers seem to alternate between all Stalagmites and then all Stalactites. Jorge said that the maximum depth he had ever reached inside the caves was around 18 metres with the average depth being 15 metres. Water temp hovered around 24 degrees. Jorge suddenly made an ‘ugh’ noise from his regulator and as I turned around I caught sight of an Eel about 500cm long swimming away from us. Jorge said there were also 2 species of indigenous blind fish living inside the caves.

stu 8stu 2I made the mistake of putting my fins on the cave floor and found it was carpeted by a thick layer of silt. Within seconds my fin had totally sank into the soft quicksand. Even the slightest disturbance reduced the visibility dramatically. I was trying my best to ‘frog’ kick but my longish fins weren’t ideal for this type of environment.

Jorge, or should I say Pepe, had brought along 4 powerful lamps, two of which were brand new, never been used, retailing at $800-00 a-piece. The blue anodised metal cases certainly looked impressive. I strategically placed the lamps on the floor of one of the huge Stalactite chambers and pointed them upwards. They lit up the scenery like a theatre stage. I wanted to try and get some shots of Jorge surrounded by the spectacular scenery. Having no natural light to work with made the whole set up quite challenging which I guess is very similar to a night dive where Macro subjects don’t usually pose a problem, but wide angle is much more difficult to light up. I managed to fire off a few pictures and then one of Jorge’s new LED lamps started flickering on and off. When I looked closer I could see water inside the glass and the level was rising fast. This was not a good advertisement for the lamp manufacturer. Later Jose told me that he used to use normal flashlights sealed inside knotted condoms when he first started and never had any problems! We had a good nose inside another of the cave entrances and I was surprised how different it looked. There were far more orange formations and they were a different size and shape.

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Unfortunately there had been no time to properly plan and prepare for a full on exploration of the caves. My jungle dive had purely been a recon mission. I had completed a cavern course in the Brecon Beacons several years ago. We spent all of our time in a river or inside a mine shaft. Water temp was around 6 degrees. At the time I remember thinking what is the point in this? It was freezing cold and there was nothing to see, I know this was a training course, but it didn’t inspire me to progress any further. The Blue Tank was different. There were spectacular rock formations and even fish life to see and to be quite honest it was a nice feeling knowing I was only one of several hundred divers that had ever been inside the cave. As for the walk… well to be honest it wasn’t as bad as I imagined, and it did make me feel that I had ‘worked’ for my dive. We finished off our adventure with a few ice cold Bucanero beers and Lobster dinner at the El-Faro Restaurant. Not a bad ending to a full-on day! Jorge said the dinner is normally included in the package price and there’s no extra charge for Mosquito bites. Jorge has full cave diving equipment available at the dive shop but it’s only enough for the Instructors. Anyone seriously interested in going deep inside the caves should bring along their own gear.

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Stuart has spent the past 26 years taking pictures and writing stories for diving magazines and other publications. In fact, this equates to more than a year of his life spent underwater. There have been plenty of exciting moments from close encounters with crocodiles and sharks to exploration of deep wrecks and more recently rebreathers. He lives in Poole, Dorset and is very much an advocate of UK diving.

Marine Life & Conservation

Jeff chats to… Andrea Marshall of the Marine Megafauna Foundation (Watch Video)

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To mark International Women’s Day 2021, Scubaverse is sharing a series of videos that shine a light on some of the amazing women working in the world of scuba diving and marine conservation.

In this exclusive Zoom interview, Jeff Goodman, Scubaverse Editor-at-Large, chats to Andrea Marshall, co-founder, board member and principal scientist for the Marine Megafauna Foundation, about marine conservation and her work with Manta Rays.

Andrea is a passionate conservation biologist directing an experienced global team of Manta Ray researchers. She is a professional underwater photographer, technical diver and ocean explorer. A seasoned public speaker, educator and ocean ambassador, with on-camera experience. Andrea is also owner of Ray of Hope expeditions, an adventure-science travel company.

Find out more at www.marinemegafauna.org.


Rather listen to a podcast? Listen to the audio HERE on the new Scubaverse podcast channel at Anchor FM.

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Marine Life & Conservation Blogs

Mermaid Minute #1: Meet Mermaid Linden (Watch Video)

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In this new series on Scubaverse.com we will be sharing Linden Wolbert’s video series ‘Mermaid Minute’.

The “Mermaid Minute” is an ocean educational web series for children.  Each action-packed episode explores one subject, creature or habitat about our oceans for 60 seconds.

Professional Mermaid Linden Wolbert is a real mermaid whose passion is educating children about the wonders of our oceans, swimming safety and ocean conservation as well as exploration and inspiring our world’s youngest ocean ambassadors.


Do you LOVE MERMAIDS? This is Episode #1 of the Mermaid Minute, the only ocean education web series hosted by a mermaid! Mermaid Linden created this for kids and anyone who LOVES OUR OCEANS!

See and learn more about Mermaid Linden here: www.mermaidsinmotion.com

Follow Mermaid Linden here:

www.instagram.com/mermaidlinden​

www.facebook.com/mermaidsinmotion​

www.twitter.com/mermaidsnmotion

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Explore the amazing triangle of Red Sea Reefs - The Brothers, Daedalus and Elphinstone on board the brand new liveaboard Big Blue.  With an option to add on a week at Roots Red Sea before or after. 

Strong currents and deep blue water are the catalysts that bring the pelagic species flocking to these reefs. The reefs themselves provide exquisite homes for a multitude of marine life.  The wafting soft corals are adorned with thousands of colourful fish. The gorgonian fans and hard corals provide magnificent back drops, all being patrolled by the reef’s predatory species.

£1475 per person based on double occupancy.  Soft all inclusive board basis, buffet meals with snacks, tea and coffee always available.  Add a week on at Roots Red Sea Resort before or after the liveaboard for just £725pp.  Flights and transfers are included.  See our brochure linked above for the full itinerary.

This trip will be hosted by The Scuba Place.  Come Dive with Us!

Call 020 3515 9955 or email john@thescubaplace.co.uk

www.thescubaplace.co.uk

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