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Discovering Cuba's underwater treasures

Amy Houghton made her first scuba dive at age 10 in the crystal waters of the Rainbow River.

"I just remember it being so clear and seeing the bubbles come up," she said.

Seventeen years later, Houghton gets a kick out of looking up her name under "author" on amazon.com.

"I can't believe that I'm there," said Houghton, who moved to St. Petersburg about four years ago and now lives in this beach city.

Houghton's first book, Cuba Scuba, was released last month. It's a scuba diver's guide to Cuba, where many of the waters are uncharted, the food and drink are cheap, and few people can say "been there, done that."

When her parents divorced in the late 1980s, her dad, Bill, surprised her with scuba lessons as a way for the two of them to stay close. The hobby was especially interesting because Houghton and her parents lived in landlocked Huntington, Ind.

Father and daughter have since traveled to many of the world's top dive spots: Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Australia, Belize, the Galapagos.

"He's been my primary diving buddy," said Houghton, now 27. He also helped her conceive the idea for the book.

Houghton majored in liberal arts and Spanish at DePauw University near Indianapolis. Panic set in halfway through her senior year in 1998, when she realized she'd soon have to get a real job.

"I was looking for something meaningful, but something fun to do," she said. Her dad advised her to do something she loved. They came up with the idea of writing a scuba book, then brainstormed on the location.

"He started out, "Well, let's see,' " Houghton recalled. "He was visualizing the peninsula and he said, "Well, just below Florida there's Cuba.' "

Houghton made up her mind as soon as she had heard the first word.

"I just chose Cuba because of the mystique of it all," she said.

She knew the locale would appeal to divers in search of something different. She also would be able to use her Spanish skills.

She's since made 11 visits to the country, each time circumventing strict U.S. rules about spending money there.

"The first time I went I was really nervous," she said. "I was like, are they going to throw me in jail or something?"

Houghton attended a philosophy seminar that also included tours around the country. Since it was an academic endeavor, Americans were allowed to participate. In the book, she describes several similar ways U.S. citizens can travel to Cuba, although she thinks most of the buyers will be Canadians and Europeans who are allowed to travel there more freely.

"It's really like being in a movie," Houghton said of Cuba. "It's really neat. It's exactly like what you see on TV in terms of the old American cars with the diesel smoke . . . and salsa music playing."

The 235-page book is laden with color photos, maps and "insider tips" on dive sites throughout Cuba _ exotic names such as Los Jardines De La Reina (Gardens of the Queen), a chain of islands off Cuba's southern coast. To reach Houghton's favorite dive spot requires a plane trip from Havana to a nearby town, then a car to the coast, then by boat to a floating hotel that caters to fly fishermen.

Houghton shopped the book to several large publishing houses but was rejected, she was told, because the book's subject was too narrow. Then one day Houghton was drinking coffee in Barnes & Noble with her grandmother and discovered a book by Cruising Guide Publications in Dunedin. The company specializes in books for boat owners and sailors who want to visit other countries.

"Amy and her dad came into the office just literally off the street," said Nancy Scott, who owns the publishing company.

But Scott already had published a boating guide to Cuba and was reluctant to take on a similar book before Cuba is opened to American tourists.

Houghton, who was working on her MBA at the University of South Florida, wrote a marketing plan to persuade Scott.

Cruising Guide printed an initial run of 6,000 books, with a possible second printing of 9,000. The Cuban government recently agreed to buy 1,100 of the books for distribution to tourists.

For now, the book is mostly being marketed here and in Houghton's hometown in Indiana. It's available locally at Barnes & Noble.

Houghton is unsure she'll write another book. Right now, she has her master's degree and is looking for a job where she could use her knowledge of Cuba and business, maybe in the export-import arena.

She spends her free time in the water, whether it's far away or just outside her waterfront condo, where's she's lived for about a year.

A four-foot long shark Houghton caught off the coast of Maui when she was 13 hangs on one wall. There are no keepsakes from Cuba, other than some coffee brewing on the counter.

"The rest of the souvenirs are just kind of like in my heart and in my memory, I guess," she said.

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