By Ivana Orlovic
It is almost like the end of the world, and beyond! To give you an idea just how remote this place is, I have been travelling by car, plane, bus, and boat for three whole days. This is a hidden utopia for divers, underwater photographers and videographers. In addition to decades of economic embargo and political isolation, Fidel Castro declared this part of Cuba a national reserve in the nineteen sixties. Few people have had the privilege to come here and enjoy its unscathed nature and abundant wildlife. There is no commercial fishing, no oil pollution and no commercial ships. This is a place untouched by commercial activities. This is Jardines de la Reina, the Gardens of the Queen, a barrier reef off the southern coast of Cuba.
On the speed boat, surrounded only by the sea as far as eye can see, I could not believe anything would appear out of this infinite expanse of blue sea and sky. And then, far on the distant horizon, small, green, low-lying islands seem to rise out of the blue. From between the lush mangrove foliage, I see a floating white platform nestled in the midst of the shallow waterway. Tortuga is a small floating hotel with support of all the essential amenities for intrepid explorers. It is like a hotel in Jurassic Park. A warning interrupted my wonderment at the beauty of our surroundings: “We remind you that you are guests here, so act like one. Gustav will be watching you.” Gustav is a 3-metre long American Saltwater Crocodile.
Photo By Michael AW
Each day, we had three scuba dives and one snorkel with crocodiles. Every encounter with the crocodiles left me breathless. After 33 years of diving, that is the only way I can describe the experience of swimming with crocodiles. The habitats of the American Crocodile are primarily coastal areas. It is the only species other than the Saltwater Crocodile (C. porosus), to commonly live and thrive in salt water. They can be found on the beaches and small island formations such as the many cays and islets across the Bahamas and the Caribbean.
Despite their large size, American Crocodiles do not usually attack large animals as most big crocodilians do. Fish, reptiles, birds and small mammals, make up the majority of their diet. Like any other large crocodilian, the American Crocodile could be potentially dangerous to humans, but it is not an aggressive species and attacks are rare. Adult males range from 3 to 4 metres in length and can weigh up to 382 kilograms; females are slightly smaller. This animal is considered an endangered species in nearly all parts of its North, Central and South American habitats.
After entering one of the secluded lagoons, the boat stopped and Noel Fernandez, our naturalist and guide, started shouting out for Niño, Niñoooooooooo, much like calling his kids home for dinner! Pairs of eyes soon appeared out of the mangrove forest and started swimming towards our boat. Four crocodiles soon surrounded us. At Michael Aw's clearance, we slipped into the water, armed to the teeth with cameras. With mask, snorkel and suit on, and my camera rig in hand, I slipped into the water as quietly as possible. For the first time in my life, I wished I had eyes in the back of my head. As long as you have them in sight, things are under control, but when a crocodile dives down, kicks up the sand from the bottom and moves somewhere below your feet, you get a bit nervous.
The crocodiles were not bothered by our presence. After a couple of days, I reached out to touch one of their tails, to feel their skin that turned out to be as soft as a baby’s bottom. I cannot imagine using their beautiful skin to make bags, belts or shoes. If one of us got too close, they would open their jaws, showing rows of sharp teeth, a gesture that meant “Back off”.
Some people wonder why I would choose to swim with such a dangerous animal. My primary objective is to meet with all living beings that inhabit our world’s waters to observe their habits, behaviour and evolution. There are two kinds of people on this planet: those who enjoy their favourite cup of coffee and explore our beautiful blue planet on screens and in books, and those who quickly drink their coffee and then jump in and live the dream.
Photo by Michael AW
Then there were the sharks. I have followed sharks all around the world and I always try to get close, but they consistently keep their distance. Here though, sharks do not view humans as predators so they allow people to get closer – of course, fresh sardines, their favourite delicacy, help as well. Here I jumped into their world and became part of the pack. Some of them just passed by me, some rubbed a pelvic fin against my side, and some came to take a closer look. I did my best to capture those fleeting moments.
The Caribbean reef shark is the most commonly encountered shark in the Caribbean Sea, measuring up to three metres. The Silky shark is named for the silky look of its skin, with an average size between two and three metres. This shark is not shy and will attack when provoked so divers are encouraged to keep their distance. My heart was conquered by Caribbean reef and Silky Sharks. They were so graceful, yet dominant as they slid silently around me.
Tonic immobility is technique that puts sharks “to sleep” and is used here as a non-invasive method to tag them for scientific research. I learned from the local scuba instructor that the manoeuvre is completely harmless to them. It is amazing to have such a powerful and potentially dangerous animal relax in your hands. When they wake, you can feel their strength and speed.
Photo by Brett Lobwein
I do not know if I will have the opportunity to come back to this divine part of the world, but I do know that it will always have a special place in my heart. I sincerely hope that despite the forthcoming changes in Cuba with its opening to the world, Jardines de la Reina will remain a time capsule. I hope humans will not find a way to destroy it in the years to come.