Cuba south coast- Isla de Juventad, Playa Giron
Following is a copy/paste of my private email reply to question posted on Cuba diving. Wanted to share same info to board for folks interested in Cuba as dive destination.
Information covers Isla de Juventad (largest island south of Havana), and Playa Giron (Zapata pennisula, 'Bay of Pigs' area). 1 week diving at each location January 2011.
Yep, back from Cuba. BTW, actually spent some time in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, myself two years ago but mostly did cenote diving.
Regarding Cuba, yes I brought my own gear, since quality is variable depending on resort (most hotel resort areas have diving as a water sports options, however, it may not be a great dive destination so tourists doing 1-2 dives tend to be newbies and not provide good feedback via forums). Of course if only a one week trip, you may not want to lug the extra gear except essentials (mask, fins, regs).
During January 2011 I spent one week diving at Punta Frances (Isla de Juventad) which is the largest island just south of Havana. IMPORTANT: best way is to book a return domestic air flight Havana to Neuva Gerona ahead of time, since they always fill up weeks in advance. Other option is a 2 hour ferry (book return trips ahead as fills up days in advance).
The diving at Punta Frances was the best I have experienced in Cuba (other dives include Guardalavaca, Santiago de Cuba, Santa Lucia, Playa Giron/Larga, Trinidad, Varadero). Colony Hotel 40 minutes south of that main city on 'the Isla' is dive hotel. From the marina about 10am (after gear up) you get a 2 1/2 hour boat trip (cruiser- up to 10 divers) to a pristine marine eco park area. Lunch is served on a deserted playa (beach) with fresh seafood. The return boat trip around 4pm has the sun setting behind you. Lots of fish, morays, barracuda, soft and hard coral, deep dives through caves along drop off wall etc... Buy dive pass ahead of time direct from Colony Hotel or third party Canadian dive portal (e.g. wowcuba.com) or else quite expensive...one dive $39cuc.
I met two couples diving at Punta Frances, who said the diving was equal or not as good as the heavily marketed Maria La Gorda diving at Cuba's extreme west end.
Another week same trip spent diving at Playa Giron, Playa Larga, and Caleta Buena (25km strip of shore diving coast, Zapata pennisula area, 85km west of Cienfuegos- nearest international airport). Playa Giron Hotel is best location/price although lots of cheap casa particulars (bed & breakfasts for independent traveller types) in Giron also. Price is $25cuc per dive (note if you buy 4 dives, get 1 free). I would suggest buying dive package direct at dive centre, dive pass packages are actually more expensive or same price points- dealing directly will earn extra points and locations . They also offer night dives and cenote dives which were quite spectacular. Load up with gear on old school bus around 9:30am, get in 2 dives with rest break, back to hotel around 1:30pm. Really nice coral formations, but not the fish aquarium of Punta Frances (btw hear Cayo Coco is great for the fish also). All dives are done from shore. Many French canadians come here, and they know how to have fun.
I would definitely go back to the Zapata pennisula using last minute hotel/air package since dive price points for value are excellent. Planning ahead I would go back to Punta Frances in a heart beat. I also dream of the 'Jardines de la Reines' on Cuba's south coast, east of Trinidad (expensive live-aboards run by Italian/Cuban partnership), arguably the pinnacle of Cuba diving destinations, with Cayo Largo a fine alternate. >>>>Example on how cheap Playa Giron can get...I just did a search for Playa Giron hotel 2 weeks for C$922 including air (redtag.ca March 6th departure).
My focus on that January trip was Cuba south coast due to prevalence of cold fronts hitting north coast January/February. Now we are into March, I would also consider Havana (the blue circuit- amazing shipwrecks) and Cayo Coco (aquarium level fishies and fantastic beach).
Happy diving, Brian.