Photo: Eddie Gonzalez

Under a Trump proposal, government-sponsored group trips may be the only way to travel to Cuba for most Americans. Are the diplomacy tours working?

Standing on the deck with the captain and divemaster, I hung my head over the edge and looked deep into the water and to the ocean floor below. Even from the surface I could see massive coral structures—a brilliant ecosystem, vibrant and teeming with life, unconcerned with the world above.

“It’s incredible down there,” I said, not thinking anyone was listening.

“It is,” responded the charismatic divemaster, Martìn, as he joined me peering into the depths. “It is Cuba.”

Only a couple days before, Martìn and the 14 other Americans I was traveling with had been strangers. After many dives, boat rides and drinks together, however, a sense of familiarity had developed that can only be achieved through shared experience. These experiences were made more accessible when President Barack Obama began restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba in December 2014. As the Cuban government eased restrictions within the country, licensing more private businesses and improving the treatment of minority groups such as the LGBT community, the United States permitted individuals to travel to the island for the first time since 1963. And travel they did. In 2016, Cuba received a record 4 million visitors, and midway through the year, Cuban-Americans and Americans became the second and third largest groups to visit the island.

However, President Donald Trump has announced a reversal of Obama’s policy changes. Soon Americans may once again only be permitted to visit Cuba through government-approved diplomacy groups or for authorized purposes such as professional research or humanitarian work.

For people like Katie Thompson and Eddie Gonzalez, however, diplomacy is never top down, but rather ground—or ocean—up. Thompson is the program coordinator at CubaMar, the Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program. Gonzalez is an entrepreneur and independent nonprofit consultant. Together, they facilitated a scuba diplomacy trip for scientists, conservationists and diving enthusiasts in late August to explore the reefs off the Cuban coast and engage with Cubans themselves.

Though our visit focused on how the ocean connects Cubans and Americans, Thompson’s work often takes place on land.

“We concentrate on different aspects of marine science,” she explained as our charter bus lumbered towards Parque Nacional Peninsula de Guananahacabibes in southwest Cuba.

CubaMar brings together scientists, professors and students working on conservation projects or field research to exchange knowledge and plan work in a variety of areas, from coral reef protection to invasive species management. “We’re basically trying to facilitate binational and tri-national collaboration.”

A diver heads to the surface after exploring the underwater caves and valleys of the Cuevas de Pedro dive. Eddie Gonzalez

After the long drive from Havana to Guanahacabibes, our group of Americans met the three Cubans accompanying us: Abel, a passionate, young park ranger who literally leapt into the air when we came across a Bee Hummingbird (the smallest species of hummingbird in the world, endemic to the region); Martìn, and Rafael, our other divemaster, a quiet, handsome man whose love for the ocean was immediately apparent.

Abel, who worked with Gonzalez on a previous trip, welcomed us with open arms. Martìn and Rafael, on the other hand, seemed less inclined to open up, keeping interactions strictly professional. But with every dive we shared, the two divemasters not only showed us more of the reefs they know so well but more of themselves.

For Thompson, seeing relationships grow between Americans and Cubans is nothing new.

“Our work here is all relationship-based. Not only do we have to be doing good science and sound science, but we also have to be able to relate with each other on a very personal level,” she explained. ”So, it’s those personal interactions that are huge here.”

Diving, an adventure done almost entirely in silence, may not seem like the ideal setting in which to sow diplomatic connections. But as you explore the underwater expanse, hearing nothing but the sound of your own rhythmic breathing, you lose much of what sets you apart on the surface and become part of the greater group, moving, exploring and thinking together in a place where we’re all equally out of our natural element.

As the days progressed, the dives only become more breathtaking, from swim-throughs, where each diver moves in single-file through underwater caves bursting with life; to drift dives, where the current carries you across the ocean floor; to one of the true highlights, when the boat’s captain alerted us to a young whale-shark feeding just off the stern and we all jumped in with snorkel and fin to watch the giant fish cruise along gracefully.

Soon, our time with Martìn and Rafael extended to the shore, where the divemasters would come to share post-dive drinks and conversation with their American visitors.

On our final evening in Guanahacabibes a small group of divers joined Martìn and Rafael on a night dive. We left the docks at sunset and hurried to the dive site before the evening’s tropical storm rolled in. Just after the plunge, we lit powerful LED lights and explored a world filled with marine animals that only come out at night: massive spiny lobsters, a shy octopus, a sleeping hawksbill sea turtle and an adolescent green sea turtle. In a setting that felt furthest from the one we typically call home, our small group of divers had never felt closer. Before heading to the surface, we all held onto a buoyed rope and turned off our lights, watching the water explode with the greens and blues of bioluminescent plankton.

Back on the boat as we stripped off our gear amidst the now-arrived tropical storm, everyone hooted and hollered in excitement after a truly once-in-a-lifetime dive. Rafael called it one of the best night dives he had ever been on. As we sped towards the Cuban shore, rain coming down, all of the divers on the boat embraced, not as Americans or Cubans, but as lovers of the ocean and what lies within it.