The instruction at this school is good and the people are nice and friendly but DO NOT do your Open Water SSI training with them at present because SSI will not recognise your training and will refuse to grant you the OWD licence...this happened to me last month. SSI claim that Francisco (the boss at Octopus) is no longer associated with a dive centre and that he is therefore no longer SSI certified, even though they considered him a valid certified SSI instructor when he lived in Germany. If you want to confirm this fact, simply go to the SSI web site (www.divessi.com) and search for registered dive centres in Cuba. Playa Larga will not appear on the map. The blame for this foul-up can probably be apportioned equally between SSI and Francisco but the fact remains...do not do any training at Octopus as it will not be recognised and you'll have to repeat the training elsewhere at your own cost. If all you want is recreational diving, there is no problem...they are a good bunch of people, the equipment is good, it's a nice reef, etc. But for your own sake, go to another school for certification and training.
Playa Larga and Playa Giron at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba are well known for their political and revolutionary history. Most tourists opt to visit the Bay of Pigs museum on a daytrip from Cienfuegos. They might stop off at the seaside for a quick lunch but most people miss out on this stunning area. The Octopus dive Club located at Playa Larga offers some of the most exciting scuba diving in Cuba. Although the open water dives are fairly standard - for standard read amazing as it is the Caribbean - the cave dives are what makes this dive school truly stand out. Prices are the cheapest in Cuba and the deals are great. 5 dives for 100CUC (roughly 85Pounds) including equipment and transport is a real bargain. Cave dives, night dives and Nitrox dives are 40CUC each and all standard dive courses are available. Please not that as Padi is an American company you can only get SSI licenses here but they will recognize Padi as a dive qualification.
When I first met Franci, the owner of the Octopus Dive Club, I was not impressed. He did seem incredibly cocky and not particularly friendly. However, within a few hours of knowing him he turned out to be a genuinely nice person (although with a strange love to 80´s broken heart songs like Hotel California) and one of the best and most experienced divers that I have ever met. He is a qualified technical diver and holds a variety of specialty licenses. What impressed me the most is that he tells you straight away if your diving is rubbish. Some people can't deal with being told that their buoyancy is off but it is important for them to know in order to improve and not endanger others. He judges your ability and only lets you go on more challenging dives if he thinks you are up for it. Very impressive and definitely making me feel very save diving with him and his staff.
Franci as well as a couple of the dive masters speak English very well and I never felt like I was not understood or I could not voice concerns/questions properly. Some Spanish does help obviously but at least the underwater dive signals are the same wherever you go. Just to be on the safe side dive signals were explained before every dive. Franci himself allocated the equipment by looking us up and down and the choosing appropriate sizes for wetsuits and BCDs. He gave me a lot less weights then I usually use but told me to trust him. Obviously I didn't and complained all the way to the dive site - where it obviously turned out that I was weighted absolutely perfectly.
The equipment shows obvious signs of frequent usage and the wetsuits are a colourful mix of all different makes and styles. With it being the Caribbean you only need a 3mm shorty to stay warm. We never experienced any problems with the equipment and diving with the short, stubby bottles was way more comfortable then with the longer ones. Obviously you are welcome to use your own equipment if you have it with you.
We were promised a lot and could not wait to get our feet wet. So off we went with one of the DMs towards Playa Giron. The drive is very scenic, following the ocean for a few kilometers. There are a few small dive outlets dotted along the coast where the equipment can be stored.
* * * Taking me lower, lower underground * * *
The first dive site we went to was opposite the main outlet next to the Cueva de los peces with others being down all the way to Playa Giron. All open water dive sites are in this area start within a few meters off shore. The shallow water areas are great for beginner but the guides never failed to find us more challenging bits like tunnels, canyons and of course the stunning drop off running along the coast. Corals, gorgonians and sponges are plentiful and varied supporting an abundance of marine life. We saw the usual reef fish as well as some big barracudas and rays. As it is a Bay don´t expect any sharks or turtles though. The reef is in good condition although not as pristine as the Punta Frances dive area.
My favourite open water dive was a bit further along the coast. There is nothing that indicates any kind of dive station. Basically, we stopped right next to the ocean, were told to kit up and jump off some rocks into the water. We descended right next to the shore line and were immediately surrounded by a school of schoolmasters (tiny yellow and black stripped snapper). Adorable! We went down to 18m very quickly and swam through a few tunnels. The drop off was stunning and visibility was good until 40 meters depth. Ascending slowly towards the shore line we swam again through some tunnels. When we came out of the last one we found ourselves to be right in front of a sunken fishing boat. Nice wreck that you could even dive through if you are confident in your buoyancy. Lovely dive site with a lot of variety and definitely a bit challenging with the narrow tunnels and the wreck. The DM swam through the tunnels first and made sure that we came through ok. It is always good to know that somebody was looking out for us. He pointed out interesting things and checked our air regularly. Also he did make sure that we never went deeper than 40 meters - the depth limit for recreational diving.
As much as I love open water diving I could not wait to try cave diving! The pictures at the office look stunning and even the slightly higher price tag of 40CUC could not stop me from booking a couple of cave dives for the next day. Cueva de los peces is a tectonic fold around 500meters away from the beach. You walk through the forest to a bar next to a natural pool surrounded by trees and rocks. Tour groups stop here and it can get very crowded with loads of people jumping from the rocks and taking family pictures. The best way to escape the crowds is to go cave diving! Cueva de los peces is Franci´s second home. With over 400 dives he knows this cave probably better than I now my living room. And you could really feel that. He dive was very enjoyable I had the feeling that in case something goes wrong Franci would make sure that everything was fine. The cave itself is more of a cavern, m meaning that there is always a hint of natural light. Don´t be fooled by this though - cave diving is a serious sport and it would be very, very stupid to be anything than highly alert. Pay attention to Franci leading the way and never shine your light directly at other people. There is a weak halocline before you enter the actual cave. This is the point where you rely mostly on your underwater torch that is clipped to your BCD. Single file formation all the way through with the DI leading the way. The dive was incredibly exciting but nothing for the faint hearted - it does get very, very dark in there.
On our last Day Franci offered us a final cave dive for 25CUC instead of the usual 40CUC. He only took me and my buddy and told some other interested people that they were not experienced to come on this dive. He also took a spare tank with him just in case one of us would run out of air while in the cave. Obviously I did appreciate this from a safety point of view but it did make me feel slightly nervous. The drive to the dive site was nothing spectacular, following the same ocean road we used to get to Playa Giron all week. When we then turned on a tiny dirt trek into the forest instead of towards the beach we did think for a second that this here was serious stuff. Stopping in the middle of the forest we were told to kit up. Feeling slightly surreal we put on our gear and were then shown to the dive site - a tiny hole in the ground in-between a few rocks. The Jump as it is amply named is one of the most stunning caves in the area according to our dive instructor and far more challenging than the previous one. The 2 meter drop off that we had to jump down was not my particular highlight. Being terrified of heights all I can recommend is keep your arms and legs neatly locked and jump as quickly as possible, no point in standing there looking down into the dark hole.
The dive itself is absolutely stunning. With a very pronounced halo and thermocline it is a true spectacle to descent. Where fresh and saltwater mixed the differences in density and temperature causes the water to look oily and we could see waves inside the water. Physics has never been so interesting before. The thermocline is very pronounced, the freshwater layer is nice and warm but as soon as you enter the saltwater layer it gets fairly cold. Towards the end of the dive I was very happy when we went up as my 3mm shortie did not offer much in terms of protection against the cold.
Diving in caves is incredibly exciting and the stalagmite and stalagmite in the flooded cave were highly interesting and spooky at the same time. A few times I did think that the passages were a bit narrow but this dive involved nothing of the take your tank off and pass it through a hole type of stunts seen in cheesy action movies. It is however nothing for anyone suffering from claustrophobia. We are talking about dark passages without any natural light. There is an added highlight that you will see on this dive but I´m not going to take the surprise from you - just go there and enjoy!
* * * Never, never going to leave * * *
By the time we came back to Playa Larga I was ready to beg Franci to let me stay there and do my Dive Master course right away. Which he happily agreed to but not having much money left and a university degree to finish it was time to leave. Playa Larga has been the best diving I have ever done before and Franci was an instructor that I would happily trust with my life. His movements underwater are stunning to watch, it looks like he was floating and not bothering with things like moving his fins as we mere mortals have to. With every dive he made sure we had a proper briefing, knew about what to expect and treated our equipment with care.
Although I paid an obscene amount of money for my time at Playa Larga I regret nothing of it. The dives are the cheapest in Cuba simply due to the fact that all dives are shore dives. In other locations a boat is needed to reach the reef making it a lot more expensive. What I liked very much is that there were heaps of dive masters, meaning that we always dived in small groups tailored specifically to our needs. Nothing is more frustrating than going on a six meter depth dive just because there is a newbie in your group. I love diving but there are only so many times that you can get excited about a shallow water reef. At this dive school they offer the right mix of easy to incredibly challenging dives and they are not afraid to tell you if you are over judging your abilities.
The Octopus Dive Club is the only Scuba place in Cuba that I would feel confident in doing a dive course as a beginner. One of the guys that I met there did is Open Water with Franci and knew much more about dive theory and equipment than I did after over 50 dives. They also offer guided snorkeling if Scuba diving is not your thing. Highly recommended for dive beginners and experts. Just make sure you communicate your abilities and needs beforehand and you are guaranteed to have an amazing time.
* * * Quick Info * * *
Located at Playa Larga, South Cuba. Closest town is Cienfuegos (40km)
200Km from Havana, can be reached in 2 ½ hours by car. Taxi should not cost more than 60 to 70CUC one way.
Scetchy public transport, no bus at all during low season.
Accomodation available in many casas in Playa Largo.
Octopus dive Club located next to the main beach in Playa Large.
Open water dives: 25CUC
Night, cave and Nitrox dives: 40CUC
All prices include equipment hire, air and transport to and from the dive sites.
Exclusively shore dives
Small groups with Dive Master or Dive Instructor. One to one tuition also available.
Fully SSI certified. Offers courses from Open water to specialty courses.
Ask at any guesthouse to get in contact with the dive school. Everyone here knows Franci and they will put you in touch with him.