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Crew says 'Spree' makes history with Cuba diving trip

American divers prepare to plunge into Cuban waters from the 'Spree' liveaboard dive boat on the Stock Island-based vessel's first trip to the island nation. On the dive deck are (from left) Whittney Warner, Krista Ross, Lonny Anderson, Dianna Bolton and Jess Snook. The October voyage apparently was the first of its kind from the U.S. to Cuba.
American divers prepare to plunge into Cuban waters from the 'Spree' liveaboard dive boat on the Stock Island-based vessel's first trip to the island nation. On the dive deck are (from left) Whittney Warner, Krista Ross, Lonny Anderson, Dianna Bolton and Jess Snook. The October voyage apparently was the first of its kind from the U.S. to Cuba.

Frank Wasson moved his liveaboard dive boat from Texas to Key West in 2009, even then planning a voyage that took place last October.

"We figured Cuba was going to open eventually," Wasson said this week. "We wanted to be ready for it."

The Spree made its first trip to Cuba the last week of October -- apparently becoming "the very first legal passenger vessel trip from Key West to Cuba since the '50s," Melanie Wasson said.

That exploratory trip carried scientists and educators who will be involved in future voyages.

A 100-foot aluminum crew boat converted for open-water diving, the Spree returned to Cuba for its first trip with paying customers in mid-April -- weeks ahead of the Carnival cruise ship Adonia and its newsmaking trip from Miami to Havana last week.

Getting the Spree cleared for its first trip required months of advance work and "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to meet all regulatory requirements, like dealing with the U.S. Department of Commerce's Bureau of Security and Industry, and being issued an "international load line" certificate from the U.S. Coast Guard.

"It took a lot of time but actually it was all pretty straightforward," Wasson said.

"First, everybody gave me the hairy eyeball. Then in the end, we got permission."

The Spree left Key West on Oct. 24 and arrived the next morning at the Marina Hemingway.

"As the sun came up, the members of our merry band would come into the wheelhouse, rub the sleep from their eyes and squeal 'That's Cuba!' And it was," Wasson wrote in a trip log.

Cuban officials -- a physician, law enforcement and the Guardia Frontera (Cuban Coast Guard) -- all boarded at various points.

"The Cubans were very happy to see us," Wasson said. "They are a gracious and welcoming people, and we saw no resentment at all."

Divers found clear water and deep walls with coral cover estimated at about 45 percent, a healthy level.

"The Cuban reef is in absolutely great shape with not a lot of coral bleaching," Wasson said. "In a lot of areas, nobody lives along the beach so there's little pollution."

The Spree crew consulted with Cuban dive professionals for sites along the island's north shore, but largely had to do their own exploring since Cuban dive masters were not allowed to travel aboard the U.S. vessel.

The Spree aims to make a half-dozen more trips to Cuba this year, in addition to its schedule of Dry Tortugas cruises and specialty tech-diving trips.

The Cuban trips are allowable as educational opportunities, so the cruises include presentations by experts on coral threats and marine biology. The Spree carries 14 passengers (a dozen paying divers and two non-paying "excursion leaders") plus a crew of 10.

An itinerary includes at least three dives per day, all drift dives. With no anchoring or mooring buoys on the reef, no night dives are held. The final day is spent ashore in Havana.

The Spree is based at Robbie's Boatyard on Stock Island. A diving cruise will cost around $3,000 per person. For information, send an e-mail to whittney@spreeexpeditions.com.

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