A Santa Lucia bull shark in a playful mood - note the yellow eyes

WAS I BOTHERED Well, yes. Here we were, in Santa Lucia, and the centrepiece of our 10-day Cuban roadshow seemed to be hanging in the balance.

We had arrived around 2am the previous morning, after an 11-hour drive north-east to the Atlantic coast from the Bay of Pigs. And we had risen soon after dawn, bleary but excited that our long-awaited bull shark dive was imminent.
Our tour guide Rafael Hernandez, a man whose motto was anything can happen in Cuba, had briefed us on route. The sharks hung out at the foot of a wreck in a channel through which 8-knot currents flowed. We had to be kitted up and ready for the turn of the tide, soon after 8am.
Only trouble was, no one had turned up at the Sharks Friends dive centre until after 8. It seemed there had been a communication breakdown.
Never mind, we had consoled ourselves, we still had another morning. Meanwhile, despite the wind and rain, we had enjoyed a couple of dives on what is Cubas longest coral reef system.
Now fireworks day had come, 5 November, and Zac and I stood watching the palm trees bending in the wind, as the clock ticked towards slack tide and we wondered once again where the hell everybody was.
Eventually Lemay, one of the dive masters, rolled up. He lived close to the site, and said he had seen the stormy weather and shark fins at the surface, and concluded that in the poor viz this was not the day to join them.
Youre joking! I pleaded. We have to be in Varadero tonight and this is our last chance!
There are not that many places in the world that encourage bull shark diving, and missing our slot was unthinkable. Staff were turning up now, the call went out for transport, equipment was assembled. It all seemed a bit tranquilo to me, with slack now minutes away.
Eventually we set off, to learn that our destination was several miles away along a rutted, flooded road that had to be negotiated with care to save the buss springs. (In Cuba vehicles are never scrapped - if the rest of it dies, the working parts go towards preserving another one.)
On arrival at the channel, the state of tide was tested using what was clearly a proven method - Joshua, the considerably bulkier of two brothers, hurled himself into the water.
The fact that he emerged only with some difficulty suggested that the dive-centre tide tables were about an hour out. Sharing that information could have spared my frayed nerves.

SO WE WAITED A GOOD HALF-HOUR before entering the water. How often do you jump in off the shore to find the wreck of a freighter sunk in 1905, and follow it down to find a bunch of bull sharks hanging around the stern at 25m Not often, in my case.
The well-colonised Nuevo Mortera would repay close investigation in its own right, but we were eager to reach the stern and take up our posts in the sand. It wasnt long before the mighty sharks materialised out of the gloom.
Sharks Friends come here regularly enough to be expected by these animals, but the divers are at pains to stress that they dont feed them as such. Lemay and Joshuas brother Mikael would wave a few barracuda morsels under the sharks noses, only to whip them away like bullfighters capes.
You might think this would irritate the sharks, but they seemed content to play the game. In 14 years there have been very few reported accidents to the unprotected matadors.
Fuelled on adrenalin and nitrogen,
I willed the sharks to approach closer each time they made their circuits, confident that they would swing their great grey bodies away at the last minute (Joshua carried a wand as a precaution lest they forget).
There were three sharks around on the day, each about 3m long and weighing some 200kg, though Rafael said he had seen a dozen or more here in good viz.
In the hazy conditions it was a curiously dreamlike experience, which we completed by finning slowly back up the port side and over the wreck.
We were up and out again after 45 minutes, the current still barely running. The trying build-up to this world-class dive had made its realisation all the more satisfying.
I asked Lemay afterwards if he recognised individual bull sharks.
I know the one with the yellow eyes - hes mean, he said. I hadnt got intimate enough to notice eye colour.
A flat tyre was made good by applying a 10-litre air cylinder to the valve, a typically Cuban quick fix, and we set off happily back to the hotel to pack for the next leg of our trip.

OUR HAPPINESS WAS TEMPERED on finding after lunch that the dive centre had been locked up with a load of my gear still inside. We drove around the countryside for a while in pursuit of various staff-members, but they seemed to have dematerialised.
In the end Rafael used his mighty brain and diminutive stature to good effect by forcing an entry through tiny shuttered windows into not one but two parts of the centre to retrieve my effects.
It was just one more occasion on which to admire his resourcefulness, not to mention his wealth of knowledge about Cuba, its diving, history, politics and culture. Rafael is a senior commercial specialist with Marlin, the body that runs Cubas dive centres, marinas and other coastal facilities.
And thanks to him, we were on the road again. Our tour bus, a Hyundai H1, was one of the more modern vehicles I saw on the Cuban highways.
My companions were Rafael, Zac and Marcelo, an Argentinian from the London office of Cubanacan, the tour operator, and great company with his entertaining line of Boratisms.
We got through three drivers and two vehicles while we were there - the first car and driver were sent back to Havana by rural police following an exciting night-time pursuit following allegations about his licence. Again Rafael showed his mettle by sorting the situation out calmly, and ensuring that our onward progress barely missed a beat.
The first leg of our journey had taken us from Havana through croc-populated swamplands to Playa Giron in the Bay of Pigs. Ancient Russian tanks and aircraft displayed near the hotel reminded us that this was where Fidel Castro and his troops had seen off the CIA-inspired invasion designed to bring Cubas leader down in 1961.
The hotel was very quiet, having just reopened after a refit. It was by far the least plush of our stopping points, with its gulag-like banks of chalets and their enthusiastic insect population, but it was welcoming and generous in its catering.
A short drive east took us to Caleta Buena, an isolated dive centre on the Zapata peninsula run by the cheerful Ronel. We took his small open boat out to a site called the Creek, left Marcelo in charge and made our first Cuban dive in the grey light of late afternoon.
The drop-off plunged to some 300m but we stayed above 30 to study healthy corals and sponges populated by snapper, grunts and the odd lobster.
At one point a big king mackerel hovered above. Later a remora took a shine to Zac as we surfaced under the boat. I thought someone was touching up my leg, he said. As if.
After Zac had rejected its advances, the remora tried to attach itself to the hull before departing disappointed.

THE BOAT WAS DESERTED. Marcelo, careless of the concept of surface cover, had decided to keep fit by swimming back to shore. He would have had a longer swim back the next morning from Maceos Crown, a site generously populated with reef fish and moray eels.
But on our last Bay of Pigs dive, we would all swim back to shore. While Marcelo was being taught to dive in the creek, we were ferried out onto the shallow house reef, even more populous and boasting interesting coral formations. Later we made our way over sand to find a vibrant outcrop of yellow staghorn corals bursting with snappers, grunts and other reef favourites.
Further on was a coral archway leading into a picturesque 20m-long tunnel, stuffed with good-sized chub and clouds of glass minnows.
At the far end, my vision blurred dramatically. A change in temperature from warm to Stoney Cove signalled that I had poked my head into a dazzling thermocline.
We surfaced in a cool rock pool before plunging back through the hole.
There was another surprise. On the way out, I saw what looked like a barrage balloon dipping across the blue archway before disappearing behind an outcrop. I found later that this enormous fish was a Cubera snapper, a species that can grow up to 60kg and 5ft long.
We were the only divers on this marine reserve, but Roneldo told us sadly that there seemed to be no way of stopping spear-fishing. So the presence of the massive snapper and earlier the king mackerel were a pleasant surprise.
We surfaced from our shallow tour of Caleta Buena after a leisurely 75 minutes, energised for our long drive to Santa Lucia that afternoon.
Half-dozing in the back of the Hyundai over poorly surfaced roads, I watched flat stretches of palms and sugar cane sweep by. Hitch-hikers waited at every crossing (state cars are obliged to stop by law if they have spare seats), and gauchos herded cattle.
The dusty towns were characterised by rows of single-storey houses with ornate wrought ironwork, horse-carts, bikes, spindly dogs, mules and invariably men cannibalising their cars and trucks.
And I wont forget the filling station where two workmen calmly lit up cigarettes before starting to dismantle a petrol pump. We didnt hang around.

SANTA LUCIA BOASTED an excellent Brisas resort populated mainly by Canadians, and there was far more to the diving than just bull sharks.
The tugboat wreck Alta Gracias lay near the edge of a drop-off, 20m long and on its keel at about 21m, though angled to port.
Big chub hung under the stern; black coral was draped from the rails. Inside we could examine the superstructure and look down into the engine-room and up into the funnel. Friendly snappers explored the sponges and small sea-fans - the colonisation was
not exceptional for 15 years submersion but it was a photogenic wreck.
Another pleasant dive was on the Steps, a series of ledges on the drop-off characterised by sponges and sea whips in a pleasing array of colours.
I noted big green moray eels and filigree nudibranchs among the marine population, though the fish were less numerous than at some sites.
From Santa Lucia our new driver took us back west to the place my Mares wetsuit was named after, Varadero.
This is Cubas main tourist trap, developed for that purpose, and reminded me of the Florida coastline that faces it100 miles or so away. It has hotels of a high standard, judging by the excellent Brisas Del Caribe (all the resorts we visited were run by Cubanacan). Holiday-makers could easily forget that they were in one of the worlds last remaining Communist states.
The Cubans made their choice nearly 50 years ago when Fidel Castro overthrew the US-backed Baptista regime. Today, as Rafael would carefully explain, those who bought into the Revolution enjoy excellent healthcare and education. They dont have to worry about pensions, utilities are inexpensive and so on.
What they sacrifice is freedom to buy flash new cars, plasma TVs and I-Pods, and eat themselves to death. Those who crave that sort of lifestyle either bite the bullet or make a break for Miami.
The CIA has allegedly made more than 600 attempts on Castros life, including sabotage of his scuba gear in the days when he was a keen diver.
Today only the USA and its acolytes Israel, the Marshall Islands and Palau keep up the economic blockade of the island (Palauan sanctions must be a
major headache!), but to the chagrin of a parade of American presidents, Cuba still gives them the big V across the water.

IT WAS THE TAIL-END of the hurricane season, and a cold front that had caused the unsettled weather in Santa Lucia was being followed by another, ruling out sea-diving.
On typical Caribbean islands you can often swap coasts depending on conditions, but on an island the size of Cuba its more complicated. From Varadero divers can be shuttled south, but its a long drive, and we already had our Bay of Pigs T-shirts.
We visited Barracuda, Varaderos biggest dive operation, with its 45 staff in five centres, hyperbaric chambers, doctors on site, and training facilities any centre would envy. From here instructor Elian joined our roadshow and directed us 30 miles inland to hilly Bolondron.
The roads narrowed until we left them altogether and bumped overland through a forest, Marcelo running ahead to clear the undergrowth. We kitted up in a sunny clearing before scrambling down a steep slope lined with tree-roots and boulders into the shade of one of natures more impressive creations.
Freshwater-filled limestone sinkholes are peculiar to Mexico, Florida and Cuba and often given the Mexican name of cenotes. Below us lay a blue hole overhung with stalactites and lianas. We couldnt wait to cool off in that water, so translucent that below the surface divers appeared to be suspended in crystal.
This Enrique el Pelu cavern had been dived by no more than a handful of people, said Elian. Supported by thick columns it extended some 50m back and 14m deep, inhabited only by tiny blindfish and scurrying albino crabs.
We explored using cautious frog-kicks, but though the chamber was big I found that considerable concentration was needed to maintain station in the triangle formed by the roof sloping one way and the floor the other, to avoid either touching the ancient stalactites or kicking up clouds of silt.
But Zac was happy with the dramatic sunbeam effects caused by the soon-suspended particles. We blessed the poor coastal conditions that had brought us this unexpected treat. Commercial cave-diving has been banned in Cuba since a horrific accident seven years ago, in which four ill-prepared divers died in a sea-cave, but there are hopes that this ruling will be repealed soon, said Rafael.
It was only when Rafael left us to attend a meeting the next morning that things went a bit pear-shaped. We had risen reluctantly at 3 to drive to Havana and fly south to Cayo Largo, where great diving was promised. But when we arrived, a dive centre representative informed us mournfully that the weather and viz were too poor for diving.
I looked around. It was drizzling and overcast, but the trees were unruffled and the waters flat. Hang on, I said, Weve just flown over to the island and the sea looked as good from up there as it does down here.
The manager soon revealed the real story. Two local men had disappeared in a catamaran two days earlier. All boats had been called in to search. Quite right, but why not tell us straight out - better still, why not have warned us yesterday

KEEN TO GET ON WITH THE DIVING, we flew back to Havana that evening. It was a wasted day but, as with Santa Lucia, it provided a useful lesson - anything can happen in Cuba, so double-check arrangements, then check again.
And again all turned out well, because we used our extra day in Havana to good effect. Based again at the well-appointed Comodoro Hotel, we headed for one of the citys two dive centres, the impressive Marina Hemingway, packed with opulent yachts from around the world (including the United States).
There was quite a swell, but it was hot and the Havana skyline, dominated by the menacing sci-fi monstrosity of the Russian embassy, glittered in the sun.
Our boat, clearly more often used for fishing, headed for the Wreck, another fishing boat but adorned with 10 years of extravagant coral and sponge growth. As picturesque and upright as Santa Lucias tugboat, it too sported black corals, in this case in the wheelhouse.
Guide Jose exhaled up the smokestack to get it working again, a lone sergeant-major bathing in his bubble-smoke. The fish were small, however, and we saw far more life on our second dive, a really enjoyable drift along the reef wall.
The colourful, vibrant reef provided a habitat for small yellow sting rays, trumpetfish and eels. One big honeycomb moray kept lungeing at me, emerging completely from its hole each time.
This final Cuban dive came soon after the first, and though no deeper than 18m we enjoyed it so much that we ended up doing about eight minutes of deco.
And for the full deco day, where better to spend time than Havana After a tiring and emotional night spent touring the rum bars in the old quarter, each with its house salsa band, and the rocking House of Music, a great live music venue, we set about exploring its daylight delights.
From the frantic activity at the cigar factory to the interactive rum museum (just what we needed); the huge fortress overlooking the harbour, where Che Guevaras office is preserved, to Revolution Square; from Ernest Hemingways apartment to the bar where he invented the daiquiri, we saw it all and enjoyed every minute.
Our whirlwind tour of Cuba provided a flavour of the tasty twin-centre Combo packages Cubanacan is offering this year. It has 11 permutations of six-night, six-dive holidays in various resorts at competitive prices.
My advice Go to Cuba while the offers there, but time your trip carefully to minimise the risk of poor weather disrupting your diving. Anything can happen in Cuba, and with a bit of luck and triple-checking, it will all be good.

width=100%
A spurned remora makes advances on the hull of a boat at Playa Giron.

width=100%
Moray eel in Santa Lucia.

width=100%
Every street has its cars being repaired or modified.

width=100%
Views of the Alta Gracias wreck in Santa Lucia.

width=100%

width=100%
Snappers and squirrelfish in Caleta Buena

width=100%
Disturbed silt may spoil the clarity but it makes for pleasing light effects.

width=100%
Entering the Enrique el Pelu cavern in the Bolondron region.

width=100%
The view from above the blue hole.

width=100%
Havanas Wreck.

width=100%
The smokestack blows again.

width=100%



FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Cubana (expect rather austere service levels) flies to Havana twice a week, stopping at Holguin in the east. Virgin Atlantic also flies direct, and Iberia and Air France via the Continent.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Havana: Comodoro Hotel, diving from Marina Hemingway. Playa Giron: Playa Giron Hotel, Caleta Buena ISCD. Santa Lucia: Brisas Santa Lucia Hotel, Sharks Friends ISCD. Varadero: Brisas del Caribe, Barracuda ISCD. Cayo Largo: Cayo Largo del Sur ISCD. Book through Cubanacan. Marlin runs 28 of Cubas 40 dive centres.
WHEN TO GO: The season is short on the north coast, November - April, and the weather can still be unpredictable. The south is more likely to be affected by hurricane weather.
COSTS: Return flights with Cubana cost £380. Two-centre Combo packages range from £215 (two nights in Havana, four in Varadero with six dives and transfers) to £300 (four nights in Guardalavaca, two in Santa Lucia, with internal flight). Other centres include Cienfuegos and Playa Giron.
MONEY:Pesos. US dollars arent welcome - take sterling or use credit cards.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Cubanacan, 0207 536 8176, www.cubanacan.co.uk