Cuba Scuba Holidays

With over 5,700 kilometres of coastline, Cuba has an abundance of thriving marine life to explore. Find out more about the best diving spots in the island.

Cuba has hundreds of diving sites along its 5646 kilometres of coastline and a total of 31 scuba diving centres in 18 different locations, with new areas being developed each day. The waters surrounding the Cuban archipelago are every diver's dream playground with stunning varieties of corals, rich and diverse marine life, spectacular reefs, walls and amazing wreck diving sites for divers of all abilities and all levels of expertise. Find out more about where to find the best spots for exploring Cuba's underwater world here.

From £869 per person

Scuba diving in Cuba

Turn back the clock on the underwater world and experience scuba diving in Cuba's coral gardens of Eden boasting the most vibrant and pristine reefs in the Caribbean.

With coastal seas akin to underwater rainforests bursting with exotic marine life, Cuba's secret shores are a scuba diver's dream paradise. And with some of the last healthy coral systems to be found in all of the Caribbean, plenty of accredited dive centres dotted around the island, plus countless mapped dive sites, this wonderful sub-aquatic world is accessible to all.

Here you'll find information about where to scuba dive in Cuba, the top scuba diving centres to be found around the largest of the Antilles and some tips to make the best of these experiences, both for professional divers and beginners.

Scuba diving in Cuba in a nutshell

Cuba is definitely the best place in the Caribbean to immerse yourself in the underwater world, and we're not saying it just because we love Cuba or because we are clearly biased about everything Cuban, this is purely the opinion of creditable sources, marine biologists, scientists and experts.

They all agree that Cuba's marine life is the most untouched and outstanding in the Caribbean archipelago. In Cuba time has stood still above and below the water, with marine biologists and environmentalists heralding its underwater gardens as an untouched Eden richer than anywhere else in the region.

Surprisingly for the largest island state in the Caribbean, the vibrancy of Cuba's coral reefs far surpasses that of its neighbours, with pristine crystal-clear waters free from pollution and human traffic. Science Magazine, one of the world's most highly-regarded scientific journal states:

"Though roughly the size of Florida, Cuba has four times as much coral reef, and much of its coast is underdeveloped" (Edition - June 2015: p. 751)."

Cuban government policy and an accident of history have combined to conserve nature's riches. While the rest of the Caribbean developed rapidly over the last half century, industrialisation stalled in Cuba after the 1950s revolution, ensuring its waters were less polluted. Then a visit from the famous underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau in the eighties, to film his "Cuba, Waters of Destiny" documentary, convinced the Cuban leader Fidel Castro to protect the country's underwater habitats. As an avid diver himself, Castro had a personal stake in preserving Cuba's bountiful marine life and today, a quarter of Cuba's waters are protected by law.

Cuba's constellation of vibrant coral reefs are orbited by an abundance of luminous marine creatures and form an oasis for larger ocean dwellers and rare species that have disappeared from other areas. Akin to a giant open aquarium, Cuba's dive spots enjoy visibility of up to 40 metres in places and spectacular underwater cliffs, canyons and caves are blanketed in coral and filled with natural treasures.

Divers can see huge tree-like gorgonians stretching towards the surface and spreading sea fans swaying in the current, puzzle at peculiar brain corals and barrel sponges, and be dazzled by a myriad of techni-coloured fish – angelfish and squirrelfish, blue chromis and groupers. Turtles, sharks, blue marlin and swordfish are also regular visitors to Cuba's lush reefs.

There are around 30 diving centres scattered around Cuba offering packages for everyone from beginners to pros, hiring out equipment and guiding divers to hundreds of incredible mapped dive sites. You can try virtually every kind of dive imaginable – from drift dives, wall dives and wreck dives to shore dives, coral gardens and pinnacles.

Cuba's northern coast is skimmed by the world's second largest coral reef making it a scuba-diving hotspot. Beach resorts such as Varadero, Guardalavaca and Santa Lucia are the most accessible and best equipped places for diving, while the coral cayes of the northern Jardines del Rey islands offer a more castaway setting. But Cuba's most magnificent reefs can be found beneath its more remote and sheltered southern shores – most notably the offshore Canarreos archipelago and the Jardines de la Reina.

The best time to dive in Cuba is dry season between December and April when there is optimum visibility and calm seas. Due to the US embargo on Cuba, American diving accreditor PADI is not well represented on the island, but all instructors and dive guides have reputable CMAS, ACUC or SSI qualifications and dive centres are subject to the same safety checks and regulations found elsewhere. Along with professional dive centres, there's the added assurance that Cuba has a good healthcare system, including several recompression (hyperbaric) chambers in case of emergencies.

Jardines de la Reina

The brightest shining jewel in Cuba's coral necklace

Cuba's most precious reef system surrounds the scattered mangrove-covered isles of the Jardines de la Reina or "Gardens of the Queen" archipelago, a chain of 250 mangrove and coral islands found some 80 kilometres off the southern coast of the island. It is an underwater garden of delights that has been described by marine biologist David Guggenheim as "a living time machine" that shows the Caribbean's reefs as they were 60 years ago. Named by Captain Columbus after Queen Isabella of Spain, the area is one of the largest marine reserves in the region with thriving coral gardens and a myriad of marine species not seen elsewhere.

This untouched aquatic Eden is an underwater theatre where divers can glimpse rare queen conch and elkhorn coral, while fluorescent pink and yellow schools of fish encircle huge pillar corals. A seascape of feathered and fanned corals in pinks, reds and purples are patrolled by huge goliath groupers and reef sharks, and frequented by turtles and rays. Divers eager to encounter sharks can have a once-in-a-lifetime experience diving amidst these fascinating sea creatures in these virginal waters which are home to a handful of different types of sharks – a true sharks paradise. But this remote and untouched underwater heaven is only open to 1,000 divers per year, with Avalon's dive boats running tours that depart from the town of Jucaro in southern Cuba.

So uniquely rich and fertile is the coral reef system here that John Bruno, a UNC Chapel Hill marine ecologist, together with Cuban post-doctorate, Abel Valdivia, measured 600 grams of fish per square metre – that's an astonishing six to eight times more fish mass than what is found at most Caribbean reefs! The marine creatures found here consisted primarily of snapper, grouper and shark. These abundance of predatory species is what may help keep the Jardines de la Reina archipelago so healthy, by effectively reducing the population of fish that hurt corals.

Jardines del Rey

The aquatic Eden of Cuba's northern cays

Skimming Cuba's central northern coast, the Jardines del Rey archipelago is a chain of little coral islets encircled by iridescent blue waters and vibrant reefs. Made accessible from the mainland via long causeways, the paradisiacal islands of Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo and Cayo Santa Maria are dotted with low-key tourist developments and a handful of dive centres. The area is part of a UNESCO-protected Biosphere Reserve and the sunlit shallows are home to kaleidoscopic marine life in a variety of colours, shapes and sizes from the bottom of the food chain to the top.

Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo's hotels, looking out over long swathes of creamy smooth sand gently shelving into the sea, make excellent bases for diving. In Cayo Guillermo dive trips are organised by Cuba Divers at the entrance to the cay near Villa Cojimar. It's well worth taking a boat trip to the western tail of the Jardines del Rey, which skims the second largest barrier reef in the world, supporting more than 100 different species of fish and harbouring more than two dozen sunken shipwrecks.

The Canarreos Archipelago

Secret southern islands with spectacular diving

Cuba's remote Canarreos archipelago is strung across the Caribbean waters of south-west Cuba, wild and unspoilt and virtually uninhabited. Lack of easy access means its beauty is largely hidden from the world, but its second largest island, Cayo Largo del Sur, has a little airport, a clutch of hotels and diving facilities at the Marina Puerto Sol allowing visitors to discover its underwater riches.

Considered one of Cuba's best dive destinations, the island's shallow and crystal-clear waters harbour more than 30 dive sites with undisturbed coral gardens and a rainbow of fish, as well as resident turtles and dolphins. In the summer months, you can join the night watch to glimpse sea turtles nesting on the island's north-west tip. Here you can find amazing wreck diving sites (the best in Cuba) with the remains of over 200 ships forever frozen it time on the seabed. These sank between the 16th and 18th centuries and make for an exciting exploratory dive. Adjacent to the wrecks you'll also find plenty of tunnels, caves and cliffs home to colourful coral and hundreds of reef fish.

By far the largest island of the Canarreos, little-visited La Isla de la Juventud or "Isle of Youth" is harder to reach via a 3-hour catamaran ride or a chartered flight from the mainland, but it's perfect for intrepid divers who want a dedicated diving holiday. Robert Louis Stevenson is said to have based Treasure Island on this isolated Cuban outpost, but in a place encircled by amazing sub-aquatic spots the real booty lies below the waves.

Hotel El Colony on the western "Pirate's Coast" is the main base for scuba, named after the spectacular El Colony diving area located offshore, which encompasses 56 diving sites. Amid coves and caves, the husks of centuries-old sunken ships are now home to colourful marine life with parrotfish, angelfish and hamlets spotted between neon tube and basket sponges, while hawksbill turtles, barracuda and goliath groupers linger in blooming coral gardens of fans and sponges.

Colorados Archipelago

A little discovered, secluded and remote diving paradise

Found along Cuba's north-western coast, hugging the shoreline of the westernmost point of the Pinar del Rio province, the Colorados Archipelago, also known as Archipelago de Santa Isabel or Archipelago de Guaniguanico, comprises 100 pristine kilometres of blessed coral systems adjacent to a number of small keys, the most famous of which is Cayo Levisa. Also the only one of these to be developed for tourism with one single hotel and diving centre, Cayo Levisa's pristine, virginal and uninhabited conditions have made the government declare it one of the Areas of Protected National Systems of Cuba within the category of Protected Natural Landscape.

The thriving marine life blossoming under the surface in Cayo Levisa makes for some of the most spectacular diving to be had in Cuba – the waters here are home to three of the most important ecosystems in the tropics, with swamps, coralline reefs and pastizales or seibadales. That goes without even mentioning the untouched state of the powdery soft white sand beaches and the lush tropical vegetation – a truly isolated, remote and uninhabited island paradise with a rich world of fascinating underwater life to be discovered.

The next few sections will outline the best scuba diving destinations in Cuba by geographical region, here we'll list the top scuba diving centres closest to you depending on where in the country you stay.

Central Cuba

Beautiful peninsulas bordered by rich coral reefs

Directly across the island, the more sheltered southern coast of Cuba shelves gently into the Caribbean Sea and has a slight edge over the north in terms of water clarity and dependable weather. Bordered by sprawling mangroves, verdant forests and deep lagoons, the waters around the Peninsula Zapata are as rich below the surface as they are above. From the little beach resorts of Playa Giron and Playa Larga that look out over the infamous Bay of Pigs, travellers can experience some of the best shore dives in Cuba.

Beyond the reef shelf, there is a steep underwater drop-off encrusted with beautiful staghorn and elkhorn corals, and the area also offers unusual dives exploring caves, cenotes and rare black coral reefs. The Hotel Playa Giron has its own dive centre with an enclosed area to learn to dive from the shore.

East of the Peninsula Zapata and close to the colonial heritage city of Trinidad, The Ancon Peninsula's has two reputable dive sites: one in Playa Ancon and another in Cayo Blanco and Casilda. The Ancon Peninsula's arc of bleached sand is framed by ultramarine waters concealing a rich bounty of colourful coral formations and the international dive centres are right on the beach. Marlin Marina serves as the main port and the best starting point to explore the reefs that surround the area; they provide liveaboard experiences, diving excursions and deep-sea fishing trips in chartered yachts, while the Marina Trinidad also offers diving and fishing trips.

Eastern Cuba

Charming beach resorts with dive sites aplenty

In the north-east of Cuba there are a clutch of well-established beach resorts with excellent diving facilities and world-class dive sites just offshore. Set beside a long silky ribbon of sand with calm clear waters protected by one of the largest and best preserved reefs in the tropics, Santa Lucia is a great base for scuba-diving in the Caribbean.

Offshore there are more than 35 mapped dive sites from 7 to 35 metres deep where you can see flourishing coral and huge spreading fans, caves and tunnels set in underwater ridges and reef drop-offs, as well as a myriad of multicoloured marine dwellers and sunken ships more than 100 years old. Dive operators here offer some unusual experiences; Sharks Friends International Dive Centre specialises in diving with bull sharks. The resort is not far from the main highway that runs the length of the island and has a small airport nearby, making it easy to access by road or air.

Further east, Holguin province is home to one of Cuba's best-equipped water sports hubs – Guardalavaca – where some of the country's most upmarket hotels cluster around a string of idyllic pearlescent beaches with incredible coral reefs just offshore. The main beach, Playa Esmeralda is a sun-dappled stretch of white-gold sand with vendors nestling beneath the high palms.

There are more than 22 dive sites along the area's 30km-long coastline with steep reef walls and underwater canyons encrusted with hard and soft corals surrounded by clouds of reef fish, with larger pelagic fish visiting from the deeper waters. Coral House is a shallow dive great for beginners – a garden of large gorgonians and sea fans like palms and shrubs swaying in the gentle currents. The Pretty Song dive site is great for spotting octopi, crab and lobster.

In this area there are two dive centres, the most famous and modern of which is the International Diving Centre Eagle Ray sitting right next to the Club Amigo Atlantico hotel and offering new ScubaPro equipment as well as very professional service. The other diving centre in Guardalavaca is found behind the stunning crescent moon bay of Playa Pesquero, close to the Blau Costa Verde hotel. Several of the hotels also have their own dive schools.

Pristine Playa Esmeralda, named for the deep emerald hue of its calm waters, is protected by extensive coral reef and backed by a natural park. The beach is overlooked by the Sol Rio de Luna y Mares hotel and the luxury all-inclusive Paradisus Rio del Oro eco-resort and spa, both of which have diving facilities.

Western Cuba

The wild, serene and unspoilt tip

Cuba's largest, most famed beach resort, Varadero, offers some of the most accessible diving in the island. Spread out along the white sandy coast of the Hicacos Peninsula in Western Cuba, Varadero has three marinas and two diving clubs offering daily shore and boat dives. Around two hours' drive east of Cuba's capital Havana and with its own international airport, Varadero is perfect for novice divers and those with only a short time on the island.

You shouldn't miss a trip to one of the little cays beyond Varadero's shores, where the sunlit shallows are home to pristine reefs brimming with colourful fish. Halfway between the seaside city of Matanzas and Varadero, Playa El Coral stands out for its stunning reef frequented by snorkellers and divers. You gain access to it directly from the beach and the reef has a maximum depth of 15 metres. It's home to over 30 different species of coral, some so large they almost reach the surface while others are intertwined with each other forming different channels, passageways and small caves. On the other hand, the translucent waters that surround Cayo Piedras del Norte, found some 8 nautical miles northeast of Varadero, are also idyllic for snorkelling and diving.

In the farthest reaches of Cuba's wild and unspoilt Pinar del Rio province, Maria La Gorda is another diving hotspot, with the well-equipped International Diving Centre offering trips to more than 40 enchanting dive sites nearby. The area's unique seascape features a shallow reef shelf sloping away from the beach to a dramatic underwater drop-off colonized by rare black coral and enormous sponges.

Pitted with grottoes, the reef wall also attracts larger marine creatures from the deep blue – manta rays, turtles and barracuda are often spotted, while whale sharks pay a visit around August and September. Four different species of sea turtle can be seen amid the pristine reefs, and the beach is also a known turtle nesting ground where you can witness them coming ashore and hatchlings making their first dive. Legends of pirates give dives around peaceful Corrientes Cove extra intrigue, as the seabed is littered with old anchors, cannons and mysterious objects that add credence to the tales.

World-class scuba all around Cuba

From one of earth's longest reefs, skimming the north of the island, to the protected coral wilderness harboured beneath its southern waters, Cuba has a rainbow-coloured constellation of underwater wonders encircling its tropical shores. With a vibrancy and health unmatched anywhere else in the region, divers can see rare species and large fish like goliath groupers that have vanished from other reefs.

Wherever you are staying on the island, chances are there are some great dive sites nearby. And with such a huge variety, you can easily experience dozens of different underwater destinations from one resort. Novice divers will be particularly well looked after in the dive centres of Varadero, Guardalavaca and the northern cays, which are used to welcoming beginners, but there are dives to suit all levels of experience including night dives, wrecks and even diving with sharks.

Serious scuba enthusiasts should consider a trip aboard Avalon's live-aboard dive boats to explore the exquisite virgin reefs of Jardines de la Reina – said to be some of the last untouched coral gardens in the world. In short, if you are travelling to the Caribbean to experience its famous sub-aquatic treasures, then Cuba is definitely your best option.

As marine biologist at Boston University, Les Kaufam puts it, compared with the rest of the Caribbean:

"...there's a better chance of Cuba hanging on to its healthy coral reef."

So the time to dive the Cuban archipelago's marvels is now, right now, even when it doesn't look like Cuba will ever lose the intact quality of its marine riches.

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