First U.S.-flag passenger vessel offers Cuba charter service

M/V Spree was built by Swiftships in 1976 as a crewboat M/V Spree was built by Swiftships in 1976 as a crewboat

NOVEMBER 4, 2014 —A dive boat operator has gotten in ahead of the cruise industry and ferry operators in opening the door for seaborne travel between the U.S. and Cuba.

The M/V Spree, a 100 ft aluminum former crew boat, returned to Key West, FL, on October 30 from a week-long trip during which 10 divers got to experience the wonders of diving in Cuba.The 141 gt Spree —  listed in the Equasis data base as a "Passenger (Cruise) Ship — was built by Swiftships in 1976 and has operated as a liveaboard dive boat since 1993. Since 2002 it has been operated by Spree Expeditions, Inc.

Until recently, U.S. citizens had not been allowed to charter a U.S.-flagged vessel to scuba dive in Cuba since 1962. However, the M/V Spree has now been authorized as a travel provider to take U.S. citizens to Cuba on diving excursions for person-to-person and educational opportunities. The U.S. Department of Commerce has licensed the M/V Spree for multiple education and research trips, and the charterer, the Gulf Reefs Environmental Action Team (G.R.E.A.T.), has been granted permission by the U.S. Department of the Treasury to conduct people-to-people educational tours of Cuba.

"We're thrilled to be able to lead the way," said Frank Wasson, Captain of the M/V Spree. "Our objective is to offer the opportunity for U.S. citizens to participate in person-to-person and education-focused dive trips with U.S. departures."

The Spree has worked closely with the Hemingway International Yacht Club of Cuba, and its Commodore, Jose M. Diaz Escrich, to forge a new relationship. '

"The Hemingway International Yacht Club of Cuba has reached out to institutions, primarily American, who are willing to contribute to the protection and conservation of the Cuban maritime heritage, including the underwater heritage, given our concern of a likely increase in recreational water activities in our seas," said Commodore Escrich.

The Spree, as a recognized Blue Star Operator within her home sanctuary of the Florida Keys, strives to assist with this goal and provide services to promote and maintain the health of Cuba's reef systems.
"The walls and reefs on the north coast of Cuba rival those in Grand Cayman," said Captain Wasson, "and were very healthy. In some places, the coral cover was a remarkable 45%."

More than 125 unique species of fish were recorded in only 11 dives, including some rare and uncommon species infrequently encountered elsewhere. All of the passengers on the Spree talked about the clear visibility and wide variety of fish life they encountered diving the walls north of Cayo Levisa

On the first trip, the Spree carried professional educators who were tasked with development of the itinerary and lesson plans that will be utilized for future U.S.-to-Cuba trips.

"This trip was an excellent opportunity to explore the possibility of developing an itinerary and lesson plan for diving in the established diving centers in Cuba with the guidance of Cuban divemasters aboard the boat," said Captain Wasson.

The educational program plans to include a visit to the National Aquarium in Havana to learn how the Cuban people care for their own reef systems.

"The walls and reefs on the north coast of Cuba rival those in Grand Cayman," said Captain Wasson, "and were very healthy. In some places, the coral cover was a remarkable 45%."

More than 125 unique species of fish were recorded in only 11 dives, including some rare and uncommon species infrequently encountered elsewhere. All of the passengers on the Spree talked about the clear visibility and wide variety of fish life they encountered diving the walls north of Cayo Levisa.

The M/V Spree is typically based in Key West, Florida, and dives and conducts research on the reef systems of the Dry Tortugas, Bahamas, Florida Keys, U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and now Cuba.

The M/V Spree is certified to carry 12 passengers and 12 crew on international voyages. In domestic operations, she carries 22 passengers, two trip leaders, and up to eight boat crew, for a maximum of 32 people aboard. Individual passenger bunks, each with its own privacy curtain, are arranged in four cabins of four and a large common area of eight.

The M/V Spree is powered by three 12V71 Detroit Diesel engines and runs at a top speed of approximately 16 knots. She has two 30 kW generators to keep the lights on and the air compressors pumping

The boat has tank racks for each diver, a large camera table and camera rinse barrels, gear rinse tanks, two boarding ladders with a large swim platform, and a large sundeck
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