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"Deep Cuba: The Inside Story of an American Oceanographic Expedition" (2002)

Read an Excerpt from "DEEP CUBA":

El Uvero is a smattering of thatched roof bohios tucked away in the creases of the green valley that cradles the Rio Macambo. When I go on deck of the R/V Seward Johnson early this morning, Uvero is already there, forming itself from the fog-like mist that shrouds the Sierra Maestras, occupying a special cleft both in geology and time. As the tropical sun rises higher in the sky, the cumulus burns quickly away. Only the peak of the mile-high Pico Turquino holds tight to the vapor, disappearing convincingly into a ceiling of white.

From the stern of our ship, I can see a roadway curling in and out of the boulder-strewn coast barely a quarter mile away, skirting the edge of the turquoise sea. Fast-lane locales in the Caribbean---The Caymans, Cozumel---might have a coastal lane like this lined with time-share condos and billboards and tourist shops with varnished blowfish wearing little sombreros. But along the road to Uvero, there is only coconut palms and sand and wild tropical foliage, interrupted, momentarily, by a cow out for a stroll.

The Cristobal Colon, the largest and most fearsome of Spanish warships was sunk nearly a century ago just off this beach during the Spanish-American War--- known among nationals as the "War of Cuban Independence." Chased out of the Santiago harbor by American gunships, the Colon was grounded by its defeated captain to keep it from being used by the enemy. He need not have bothered: The Spanish, after being pounded by courageous Cuban nationalists for several years, was already at the tail end of its glory in its New World colony. And, the more proficient American ships---newly entered into a civil war for less than honorable reasons--- were running circles around the Spanish Navy. Oddly, Cubans aboard the Seward still seem riled over historic reports attributing at least part of the Colon's failure to escape the American ships to "inferior Cuban coal" which it used when the "high-grade Cardiff coal" ran out. Cuban government Navy Observer Ariel Ricardo reminds us all the fuel came from Europe, along with the ship. "We have very good coal here in Cuba," he says, agitated over a century-old historic footnote. "That was never the problem."

Regardless of the fuel’s origin, we will scuba dive on the Colon this morning to see what we can find. I am not certain what our adventure on the shipwreck will turn up for natural science. But it will surely make impressive theater for our documentary, and I for one, am looking forward to getting a front row seat. As I gather my gear out of the rubber Tuffy can on deck, our small jet boat zooms ashore with Ricardo aboard to get a fix on the wreck site. But as it approaches the boulder-strewn coast, its engine dies, a large wave washes over it, and it bobs helplessly in the rise and fall of the sea.

Up goes a flare to get our attention. I worry that locals---based on history of the last four decades---might be a bit rattled by gringos shooting off rocket-like devices near their shores. But, no one stirs, save a goat, which now occupies the road. The reaction back on the ship is equally underwhelming. "Where is Falco when you need him," cracks one crewmember, evoking the omnipresent Coustean TV expedition diver who was always enlisted when a daunting challenge arose. "Yea," says sub engineer Jim Sullivan, "I always thought 'Falco' was French for 'dumb shit.' Here’s a job that could drown you: ‘Hey Falco, come here.’"

A crane lifts a larger and more seaworthy vessel off its cradle and sets it down in the water to aid in the rescue. It is a sort of Boston Whaler, but with a large rubber Zodiac-like bumper around it. As it zooms off to shore, another crew member uses a faux French accent to describe the hapless jet boat. "Zee boot, eeet is, how you say, becoming leek a flon-der." All soon return to the ship, the good skiff pulling the bad with a towrope, its passengers soaked but unharmed. As they putter up to the side, underwater producer Al Giddings shouts down to a soggy but smiling Ricardo, informing the Official Cuban Observer he has just logged his first dive of the expedition.

Back in the conference room, Giddings previews the upcoming action with his unique panache: "We’ll make an exploratory dive on the wreck, and if it’s spectacular, we’ll make a film dive later…. Okay, now, let’s go! It’ll be rock-and-roll out there in the water, and don’t expect good viz." Indeed, the best visibility off this southern coast is usually from February to June, which are the driest months. It is December, at the end of the rainy season, and while it is surely dry enough, but that alone may not be enough.

I load my own scuba gear aboard the larger rubber-sided launch, and five of us head out to the general vicinity of the coastal wreck site. Giddings tells me when he was first here 15 years ago, a portion of the Colon’s deck jutted out of the water, providing an easy marker. But, today, that wreckage is nowhere to be seen.. Seaman Mike Conda drives the Whaler up and down the shore, while all aboard----including Biologist John McCosker, underwater cameraman Randy Wimberg and associate producer Karen Straus---peer over the gunnels into the aquamarine sea, searching. The bottom falls quickly here; barely 300 yards from shore, the depth finder shows 400 feet worth of water under us, well outside scuba range. Conda steers us in, 50 yards or so closer and the slope rises to 100 feet. Giddings decides a better view is needed and volunteers Wimberg, who wearing only mask, snorkel and fins, is pulled behind us from a ski rope, his long frame skimming like a log through the water. Still no luck. Nearby, on the brown flat beach, what must be most of Uvero finally arrives--nine men, women and children and one dog. They wave at us. McCosker says he will swim in to the beach and ask if they know where the Colon might be.

"Do you speak Spanish," asks Giddings, obviously forgetting he spent a month in the Galapagos with McCosker, during which the icythologist routinely conversed with Ecuadorian naturalists there in their native language.

"Naaah," says McCosker. "I’ll just ask them where ‘El Wrecko’ is."

With that, McCosker jumps overboard and swims ashore. When he returns, he tells us we are very close to the site. As for the once-protruding wreckage, the locals told him it is in their homes and farms---hammered into useful tools and hardware. The people of Uvero are guajiros, fiercely independent rural campesinos, making a meager living from livestock and farming, augmented by whatever else comes their way—including the maritime fodder of history. Like the Cubans who keep the ancient American Pontiacs and Studebakers running back in Havana, they have learned to do a lot with a little.

With McCosker back in the boat, Conda starts the engine and we move slowly through the sea until we see the Uveritos waving their arms frenetically when we finally reach the site. Down goes an anchor. Giddings free dives here and returns to tell us that after a surge-churned layer of sediment under the surface, the water clears at around 40 feet and the wreck can be seen below that. Then, the Alpha filmmaker puts together the dive plan on the spot: Giddings, Wimberg, and McCosker will descend to one side of the wreck; Straus and I to the other. Straus is a quiet, handsome woman, and at the moment, also Giddings' girl friend. Born in South Africa, she is an accomplished underwater still photographer and a dive instructor, as well as a producer. She seems to know exactly what she is doing, and goes about her business of assembling her gear with an unruffled confidence. But after he announces the dive plan, Giddings turns to me to explain that Straus is a veteran diver--- implying I will have nothing to worry about, even though I am unacquainted with her, and she is also a woman.

With our tanks on, we fall backwards overboard, Giddings and team first, and then Straus and I a couple minutes later. Just under the surface, Straus and I fin over to the anchor line and pull our way down through the surf-churned murk of the surface, hand-over-hand. Giddings was right—the first ten meters are murky and stiff with current. But once we are beyond the upper layer of surge, the visibility begins to clear and one end---the stern or the bow?---of the once-mighty 300-foot-long Colon gradually emerges. Earlier, in a shipboard briefing, Latin American scholar Richard Fagan, along as a consultant, had given us a "Clift Note’s" version of the Colon’s demise: On July 3, 1898, this armored steel warship steamed westward on the remote Cuban coast out of Santiago Bay, firing 120 mm shells at its American pursuers. Realizing he was outgunned, the captain grounded her on the rocks at Uvero and opened the sea cocks. Americans boarded her later, and inexplicably, towed her back out to sea, where---with the plugs pulled---it sank. Later, the Colon settled down on the sandy bottom, one end at 40 feet, the other below 100. And here it has been ever since.

I reach the uppermost tip of the wreck and duck down in its lee as soon as I can to avoid the heavy surge whiplashing back from shore. I am carrying one of Straus' still cameras, which she will use when she exhausts the film in her Nikonos. While the camera is nearly buoyant down here, it is bulky and cumbersome and requires some adjustment to my diving style. It gives me far greater appreciation for what Giddings and Wimberg must have to constantly deal with, for the video housings they carry are each the size of a small TV set. Certainly, holding anything underwater will affect what divers call "trim", the dynamic in which even dangling gauges make movement less efficient.

As we fan out on the wreck, Giddings, Wimberg and McCosker disappear over a distant edge of the ship. Straus pauses, touches her forefinger to thumb, giving me the OK sign; I respond in kind, and we both fin away to the opposite side, and then sink to 90 feet.

The deeper I go, the more the Colon reveals itself to me, a slow film-like dissolve in reverse. Just as Spain once colonized this island, obliterating the indigenous Taino culture with its own, the sea has colonized the Colon. Nearly every inch of surface is covered with invertebrates----delicate feathery hydroids and bryozoans; red and yellow sponges molded into fingers and branches; soft corals configured into rods and fans and whips. A newly-vacated cowry shell glistens, while tiny blennies the size of a pencil point poke their heads cautiously out of worm holes, ducking back in as I pass over ---I must seem like some giant holiday parade balloon to them.

Time and tide have collapsed the hull in upon itself, ripping holes in the deck, as well. I flipper down through a jagged maw of one, shining my light in dark crevices below. Back in one corner, a school of copper-colored glassy sweepers cluster, shy of the light. Thin and discus-shaped, the juveniles in the school are almost transparent. Behind them, a still-round port hole looks out over the seascape and I position myself just inches from it, imagining long-gone Spanish crewmen once pressing their faces up against this same port, a half a world away from home.

Perhaps they wondered, as I do now, what will happen next...

The Johnson Sea-Link being launched off the southern coast of Cuba during the expedition