by Simons Chase
The first sensation of the significance of my map coordinates (20°24”12.2’N 78°55”26.5’E) occurred while visiting the Gardens of the Queen (Jardines de la Reina), a palm-fringed national park situated along Cuba’s Caribbean coast. There sits a remote fish and diving center, operated by Avalon, like a floating village tethered to a point in time far in the past.
Reef action in the Gardens of the Queen. Video courtesy of National Geographic
50 miles south of the fishing village of Jucaro, Cuba, a windswept village itself teetering on the edge of the last century’s middle years, 20°24”12.2’N 78°55”26.5’E is actually anchored to a patch of sandy mangroves and coral that make up this archipelago, the subject of my exploration. The 75-mile-long spit of land is oriented east-west and sits precipitously on the edge of a 10,000-foot drop in the sea a short distance from its rocky shores.
When Columbus encountered the archipelago on his second voyage in 1493, he named it to honor Queen Isabella of Spain, his financier. The distance traveled, combined with the disappointment (my suspicion) in finding the land utterly useless in terms of animal husbandry, agriculture or gold mining, must have inspired the bold declaration of its “garden” quality.
Safe in the knowledge that Queen Isabella would never set foot in her Caribbean garden, the contours of his narrative about the archipelago’s floral qualities seem to betray the reality and is instead closer to something like the shape of the archipelago itself – long and serpentine.
Today, the archipelago looks virtually the same as it did when Columbus arrived – permanently unfinished by nature or man. Experienced mariners of his time were said to plot their course by major star constellations, meaning Columbus was virtually lost when he found and named the place. But the journey says more about the meridians of his ambitions than his navigation skills.
The few animals living on the archipelago are not afraid of humans.
Aboard the live-aboard diving vessel, newly encountered questions paralleled a palpable drift in my daily habits and shifted the way I experienced time over the course of my week-long visit. Certainly some aspects of living at the outpost must resonate with the experience of ship-bound early explorers.
Out there on the water I had escaped the modern day’s grid of predictability and found a fluid inner rhythm that was shaped by the dominant force at the outpost, the pendulation of solar and oceanic cycles. Sleep depended on physical exertion, and hunger drew closer to my nutritional needs. By the third day, I had not worn shoes or clothes (other than bathing suites) in two days. The lack of Internet finally broke my addiction to its brash demands for immediacy.
500 years of civilization had virtually eliminated the hazards of sea travel by the time my journey to 20°24”12.2’N 78°55”26.5’E took place. In fact, I was not denied essential refreshment at any time during my trip. I became acutely aware of the culinary distinction between Maine lobster and Caribbean spiney lobster. These benthic carnivores – Panulirus argus, a marine crustacean – have a fossil record dating back to the Cretaceous period – about 140 million years ago. Today, they are both abundant and legal for catching in small numbers in the Gardens of Queen.
In the evening, the wind freshens out of the East. Cuban flags, scattered ubiquitously around the outpost, pop smartly as if to celebrate. A total lack of light pollution makes the night sky brilliant and mesmerizing. The night’s first feature is not a brilliant starscape but a wink from Venus.
In an outpost like the Gardens of the Queen, the sun rises like a NASA launch video in slow motion. The water’s reflective quality concentrates the amber and white light in the vast zone surrounding the spectacle. Nothing escapes the probing rays of the sun. On the wall just inside the ship’s dining room is a frayed, fading image of a man sitting in the sun with what look like an Audubon society binocular case lying on the table next to his chair. His eyes squint in strange resonation with my morning’s sun. I imagined if music were filling the cathedral-like scene in front of me, the man in the image would be covering his ears, and smiling.
I soon learned why the Gardens of the Queen is considered to be among the best diving locations in the world – and certainly the best in the Caribbean. The depth profiles are numerous. There are shallow reefs as well as drop offs with spectacular walls filled with thriving flora and fauna. Other areas contain a gently sloping shelf that bleeds into a sandy slide into the abyss. These areas form a sort of water highway for turtles, sharks and rays to traverse the archipelago in a near still state, calculating their next feeding.
Diving has the unique quality of putting the traveler closer to exploring than sightseeing. The technical aspects of diving concentrate the mind on the visual sense and therefore enhance perceptual sensitivity.
Schools of parrotfish and Sargent Majors feed on algae on the top of the shelf.
Banded Butterfish are often seen moving in pairs in the forest of corals, indifferent to divers.
The shadowed world of the water, so long the carrier of surface dwellers, reveals her nurtured fruit to the newly initiated divers. Virtually none of this Eden-like bounty was known to the early explorers.
Today, the more practiced divers hunt for rare images captured with elaborate, tentacle-like equipment. I learned, for the experienced divers, these images are like seeds to be harvested later.
Perfecting my buoyancy is what allowed me to fly over and float into the features of the underwater world. With childlike curiosity, I communed with sharks, rays, turtles and goliath grouper. Endangered Elkhorn coral soar above a shallow seafloor, giving life to a universe of tiny animals.
My diving companion came across a seahorse. Waving me over to inspect the creature through his camera lens, my body floated into a perfect horizontal position, suspended – without movement – over a shelf with a 30-foot drop below. This jewel was no larger than my smallest finger. The camera’s magnification revealed aspects of intricate shape and subtle colors. There was also a sovereignty about the creature. The jagged lines and fractal shape of its tail suggested an eternal, ancient geometry. Its elegant patterns were the intersection of beauty and exquisite roughness found in rusted iron or broken stone.
Later that evening, I came to understand perhaps some aspect of Columbus’ voyage and the irony of an underwater Eden almost totally unknown to early explorers seeking the lottery winnings of gold discovery. I realized the seahorse’s infinite complexity was an inheritable trait passed down, like mine, through the manipulation of DNA. Contrasted with the brilliance of the new life form I had encountered, the flattering stars above my head – and our star, the garish sun – share none of this living vitality, despite their silent, priestly calling.
Instead, a star’s existence is determined by a lifeless equation that will extinguish its light sometime in a predicable future. Its sparkle is the result of fusion, a process where two hydrogen atoms combine to form a helium atom, releasing energy in the form of light. Compared to the seahorse, stars have an infinitely linear and simple path, worthlessly distant from man’s challenges and now impotent for navigation purposes.
Out of curiosity, I had pulled a string, touched a set of gears that grabbed my body and launched a constellation of reflections. I realized the way you think determines what you discover.