Scientists Work To Protect Cuba's Unspoiled Reefs

The reefs of Cuba's Los Jardines de la Reina are protected i i

hide captionThe reefs of Cuba's Los Jardines de la Reina are protected from fishermen, pollution and fertilizer runoff. The waters are plentiful with huge fish, sharks, sea turtles and saltwater crocodiles.

Courtesy of Noel Lopez
The reefs of Cuba's Los Jardines de la Reina are protected

The reefs of Cuba's Los Jardines de la Reina are protected from fishermen, pollution and fertilizer runoff. The waters are plentiful with huge fish, sharks, sea turtles and saltwater crocodiles.

Courtesy of Noel Lopez

Cuba has some the most extensive coral reefs in the hemisphere, but political strains between Washington and Havana largely have kept American scientists away.

A new partnership for marine research is trying to change that at one of Cuba's most remote places, far from people and pollution.

Off of central Cuba's southern coast, hundreds of tiny islands stretch into the Caribbean. They are ringed with narrow beaches and thick stands of red mangrove.

When Christopher Columbus arrived here, he named the area Los Jardines de la Reina — The Queen's Gardens. Five centuries later, there isn't a single town or road or permanent human presence.

The underwater gardens of pristine coral are still here. The Cuban government banned fishing over a 386-square-mile section of the islands in 1997, creating what scientists say is the Caribbean's largest marine reserve.

Only a few hundred divers visit each year. Dropping below the surface into underwater canyons of black coral and giant sea fans, U.S. scientist David Guggenheim of The Ocean Foundation encountered species he had only seen in photographs, like the nearly extinct Nassau grouper.

He looked stunned after he came up from his first dive in the islands and took off his mask.

"It's amazing. It's sort of like 'Jurassic Park.' Scientists are seeing these species they never expected to see in their life, because they're extinct. Well, these fish aren't extinct, but they might as well be for most of us. So I feel very lucky to see them," he says.

  • In 1997, the Cuban government banned fishing in the 386-square-mile area of islands known as Los Jardines de la Reina, The Queen's Gardens.
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    In 1997, the Cuban government banned fishing in the 386-square-mile area of islands known as Los Jardines de la Reina, The Queen's Gardens.
    Nick Miroff for NPR
  • Fish and vegetation have flourished in this untouched habitat, where the reefs are protected from fishermen, pollution and fertilizer runoff.
    Hide caption
    Fish and vegetation have flourished in this untouched habitat, where the reefs are protected from fishermen, pollution and fertilizer runoff.
    Courtesy of Noel Lopez
  • Only a few hundred divers visit the reefs each year.
    Hide caption
    Only a few hundred divers visit the reefs each year.
    Courtesy of Kip Evans/deepdeep.org
  • Large formations of elkhorn coral grace the reef. Elkhorn coral is a species that has nearly died off in the Florida Keys.
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    Large formations of elkhorn coral grace the reef. Elkhorn coral is a species that has nearly died off in the Florida Keys.
    Courtesy of Kip Evans/deepdeep.org
  • Goliath grouper can weigh over 800 pounds when fully mature. American scientist David Guggenheim describes Los Jardines de la Reina as a sort of "Jurassic Park." (Courtesy of Noel Lopez).
    Hide caption
    Goliath grouper can weigh over 800 pounds when fully mature. American scientist David Guggenheim describes Los Jardines de la Reina as a sort of "Jurassic Park." (Courtesy of Noel Lopez).
  • Sharks such as these Caribbean reef sharks are a good sign of a healthy ecosystem. As different fish species begin to flourish in the reserve, they will begin to leave and populate other habitats.
    Hide caption
    Sharks such as these Caribbean reef sharks are a good sign of a healthy ecosystem. As different fish species begin to flourish in the reserve, they will begin to leave and populate other habitats.
    Courtesy of Kip Evans/deepdeep.org

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Guggenheim came to the area on a converted lobster boat with a Cuban marine biologist and two U.S. colleagues.

For him and other scientists, the area is like a large-scale experiment — a look back in time at a marine environment largely unaffected by fishermen, pollution and coral-killing fertilizer runoff. The waters are plentiful with huge fish, sharks, sea turtles and saltwater crocodiles.

As these species flourish, some will leave the reserve, helping repopulate other areas where their numbers are depleted.

"Fish are not just crops that grow in the sea for us to harvest — it doesn't work that way. Fish have important jobs to do, and when we remove them in numbers, they can't do those jobs. And we've seen time and time again that ecosystems collapse, especially coral reef ecosystems, when we upset that balance," he says.

One obvious sign of a healthy balance in Los Jardines is the sharks. Elsewhere in the region, their numbers have declined 90 percent or more. But in these royal blue waters, they're everywhere.

"To even see a shark in some places is a big deal these days, and to come to this area and dive with dozens of sharks is truly something special," says nature photographer Kip Evans.

Evans is working on a documentary about places around the world where marine ecosystems remain relatively intact.

"It's kind of disheartening when you go back to your favorite dive spot and it's changed, and the corals are dead, and the fish are gone. Now, I've spent my time kind of looking for those special spots that are still pristine, or they still have enough marine life in them that I can make some beautiful images," he says.

Another reason the reefs appear so healthy are the dense, green thickets of mangroves that spill from the shoreline, attracting wading birds like great blue herons and roseate spoonbills who feed on the small fish living among the mangroves' twisted roots.

"There's as much going on here as there is on the reef. You see a lot of the same fish. In fact, a lot of them are born and raised here and then move out to the reef as adults," Guggenheim says.

For years, he has been working to bring together American scientists and their counterparts in Cuba and Mexico. The three countries are now drafting a regional protection plan.

Cuban biologist Fabian Pina hopes that will lead to more joint research with the Americans.

"There are many, many resources that we share. We are very, very close in distance. We share the sharks, we share the snappers, groupers, corals, larvae, waters. We share many things. We need to work together to preserve these things," Pina says.

Standing on the beaches of these uninhabited islands, it's hard to image them remaining this way for long. With a new push in Congress to end U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba, ocean advocate Shari Sant Plummer said she worries about the fate of the habitat.

"With having more visitors, there's more risk. Right now, it is so far away from Havana and so inaccessible by a lot of tourists, especially from the United States, and a lot of fishermen. The sharks are so friendly, and they could be easily fished out," she says.

Guggenheim is organizing a meeting next year in Florida to finalize the agreement between American, Cuban and Mexican marine researchers. It will be the first time the scientists come together in the U.S.

There is much at stake, he says. Just one example in the Cuban waters he explored,: huge, glowing formations of elkhorn coral, a species he says has died off in the Florida Keys.

"It's really a time machine here in Cuba. And we've got another chance to look at these reefs the way they used to be," Guggenheim says. "It's almost as if someone's telling us: OK guys, you've got one more chance to get this right. Look around, see what it's supposed to look like, protect this, and use these lessons to protect everything else that you've screwed up over the years."

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