Following the more experienced divers as they plop off the back of the boat, Martin, our guide and my buddy, leads our select group of four round the front. We follow the anchor line down 13m into the depths, and gradually El Jardin de la Gorgonia (The Gorgonian Garden) reveals itself.
Hollow, lime green flutes straight from the vase section of Habitat jut from mounds of black coral, jostling for space with sponges and gently wafted by Gorgonian fans, some as delicate as cobwebs, others sturdier like bright red cacti. Over this dazzling reef dart skinny barracuda, striped khaki and white Nassau groupers and iridescent yellowtail snappers. Sometimes it’s possible to spot the odd turtle here and, in winter, whale sharks, but our biggest find is a huge black crab shyly crouching under a rock shelf.
“I’ve seen better marine life, but the coral’s amazing,” announces a veteran diver back on board. With gangs of fish and neon coral still flitting past my eyes, I’m more than happy.
While María la Gorda might be busy underwater, on dry land it’s anything but.
The sleepy resort has only two restaurants, one for casual lunches of pizza and sandwiches, and the other for a generous buffet of salads, seafood and freshly barbecued fish. The only hotel is the Hotel María la Gorda, where rooms are a series of wooden huts connected by walkways raised off the ground. Often the only sound as we walk between our rooms is the many red and black crabs scuttling below.
There’s no need for a bustling town centre, though, when you have a beach dotted with stripy palm trees that act as sunshades for the deckchairs, and the sand is met by a minty blue sea turning darker as it stretches out to the reef.
On the same beach a tug o’ war between staff and holidaymakers one evening signals the start of the celebrations of the founding of the Cuban Young Pioneers organisation and the Young Communist League.
Cuban politics can’t fail to penetrate even the usually water-tight world of a diving resort, and in the bar later that night awards are handed out for the winners of the tug o’ war competition, topped off by a speech singing the glories of Raul and Fidel Castro, and the revolution.
The day before, our guide Tony and our driver were asked to leave the same bar because the area is only for tourists. But while we are there, changes are taking place to stop this dichotomy between locals and visitors. Cubans are now allowed to stay in hotels and rent cars.
“I’m very happy about this,” Tony says. “I’m not going to stay in a hotel tomorrow, but just the fact we can do it is good.”
He is also granted permission for the first time to join us diving (Cubans were banned from going in boats in an unofficial capacity, lest they flee to Mexico or Miami). He doesn’t make it in the end, the previous night’s celebrations having gone to his head – but the fact is he can, and perhaps next time he’ll rise early enough to see the underwater world that makes María la Gorda so special.
Most dive schools will offer a ‘try dive’ session to beginners. For instance, dive schools linked to the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (Padi) have Discover Scuba courses, which involve two hours in a confined environment, such as a swimming pool, going through the basics.
The next step is an introductory course such as the Padi Open Water Diver course. The first part of this is the Open Water Referral, which alternates between a classroom and swimming pool as you learn basic scuba-diving skills. For the second part you’ll be let loose in the drink for four open water dives.
All the diving at María la Gorda is done from the International Dive Center at the Marina Gaviota, which is attached to the Hotel María la Gorda. There are three scheduled dives a day as well as night diving. A 45-minute dive is CUC$35, plus CUC$8 for equipment hire. There are three qualified instructors available and diving courses for all levels. Non-divers can fish, snorkel or take boat rides. For information see villamarialagorda.com.
More Caribbean diving
As Cuba is the largest island nation in the Caribbean, it follows that María la Gorda isn’t the only great dive spot. One of the most popular destinations is the Isla de la Juventud, home to underwater valleys, while there are several historic wrecks off the coast of Varadero.
The coastline of Belize is the jumping off point for the second longest barrier reef in the world (after the Great Barrier Reef) and three open-ocean atolls, including the legendary Blue Hole. A good place to start in the north is the laidback island Caye Caulker, while in the south Gladden Spit is renowned for whale shark sightings.
Say Mexico to a diver and the word that will spring to mind is Cozumel. This once-sleepy island was brought to scuba fame by Jacques Cousteau in the 1960s and, thanks to its extensive reef and dazzling marine life, it’s become one of the world’s most popular diving destinations.
Boasting the Cayman Trench, the Grand Canyon of the diving world, this is wall diving’s mecca. Particularly popular is Little Cayman’s Bloody Bay Wall, a drop-off that plunges vertically into the inky depths.
Once a sanctuary for pirates, today the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras are a launch pad for the world’s second longest barrier reef. Each island offers underwater playgrounds of coral, sponges and fish. Plus learning to dive here is very affordable.
» Amy Adams travelled with Intrepid Travel (020 7354 6169) The eight-day classic itinerary costs £445 plus a local payment of around £140.