Day 1: Journey to Cuba's underwater Eden

  • Paradise found

    Paradise foundChristopher Columbus called this soft-breezed isle ‘the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen.” Here, in the Gardens of the Queen, the coral reef ecosystem is a time capsule, a unique place almost entirely free from human influence.Photo by: Ian Shive, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

  • Expedition of discovery

    Expedition of discoveryOur undersea adventure was made possible by the generosity of the Waitt Foundation, which provided use of its dive boats and crew.Photo by: Ian Shive, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

  • Safe haven

    Safe haven The Gardens marine sanctuary provides refuge for an abundant array of sea life, include this school of horse-eye jacks.Photo by: Fausto De Nevi Herrera

  • King of the Gardens

    King of the GardensA lone Caribbean reef shark glides behind massive pillar coral, surveying its domain.Photo by: Ian Shive, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

By Rod Griffin

Bienvenidos a Cuba!

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Arriving at the port of Cienfuegos (pop. 186,000), I’m struck immediately by the lack of tourism. Almost anywhere else in the Caribbean, this city of stunning colonial architecture, originally settled by the French and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, would be jammed with gleaming condos and pleasure boats. There are perhaps a dozen catamarans, but that’s basically it.

From the start, few things go as planned. Our departure for the Gardens is delayed by half a day as three separate waves of Cuban officials board the Waitt Institute’s expedition vessel to inspect our papers.

One stern-looking official, dressed in olive-green fatigues, arrives with a search dog to check for contraband. As soul music plays quietly in the background, he pauses to listen. “Ah, Barry White,” he says appreciatively. Ah, Cuba.

Cuba

Near the port of Cienfuegos, a Cuban welcome.

Photo by: Rod Griffin

In 1996, the Cuban government set aside the Gardens as an 850-square mile marine reserve – the biggest in the Caribbean – as part of a planned island-wide network of protected areas. Only 500 catch-and-release fishermen and 1,000 divers are permitted to enter the Gardens each year.

Underway

We steam past a small flotilla of fishing boats – rowboats mostly. Even today in Cuba, many fishermen still use handlines to catch jack and snapper, much like Santiago did in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. A motor and fuel remain luxuries few can afford. But Cubans are renowned for their resourcefulness: One “vessel” is just a surfboard with a chair affixed to it.

Once we hit the open water, we don’t see another vessel for hours. Under a cloudless sky, the surface of the deep-blue sea is broken only once by a whale surfacing just 50 meters to starboard.

On the 12-hour voyage to the Gardens, I think about this island nation’s amazing biodiversity. It has more than 3,000 miles of coastline and four primary reef systems (each roughly as long as the Florida Keys).

hawksbill turtle

An endangered hawksbill turtle.

Photo by: Fausto De Nevi Herrera

The sheltered lagoons, dense mangrove swamps and seagrass meadows are a haven for fish and other sea life, including sea turtles, sharks and sponges. The island’s varied coastal landscapes also provide habitat for an array of shore birds, as well as migratory species such as black-throated blue warblers and American redstarts.

Amid so much natural wealth, the Jardines de la Reina, named by Christopher Columbus for Queen Isabella, is the crown jewel. The archipelago is a string of hundreds of mangrove-fringed islets and keys stretching over 90 miles along Cuba’s southern coast.

The Gardens offer a window into the Caribbean as it may have looked in Columbus’ time

Dan Whittle EDF's Cuba Program Director

Dan Whittle organized this voyage with partners from The Nature Conservancy’s Caribbean program. In addition to Whittle, my shipmates include EDF senior vp for programs Diane Regas, TNC’s John Meyers and Phil Kramer, UC-Berkeley resource economist Chris Costello and Waitt Institute marine archaeologist Dominique Rissolo.

Scientific collaboration

With commercial fishing here restricted to lobster, the Gardens provide a baseline for gauging the health of sea life and habitat in adjacent areas, which lack such restrictions.

For more than a decade, EDF and TNC have collaborated with Cuban scientists to protect our shared marine resources. “We’re here to take a look at one of the most inspiring parks in the region and to think about what can be done in Cuba to strengthen the effectiveness of this and other marine protected areas,” says Whittle.

Cuban fishing boat

Cuban fishing boat.

Photo by Rod Griffin

Among the questions we hope to answer: What differentiates this reef from others in the Caribbean? How healthy are the fish populations, including top predators like grouper and shark? What are the biggest threats to this preserve, as tourism expands and the Cuban economy opens up? How can we work together to minimize them?

The existence of this area, one of Fidel Castro’s favorite spearfishing sites, was little known outside Cuba until last December, when Anderson Cooper did a 60 Minutes segment on the Gardens. Suddenly 20 million Americans realized that the most unspoiled ecosystem in the Caribbean was literally next door.

That exposure has heightened the need to find ways to protect this irreplaceable treasure, while Cuba works hard to meet it development goals.

“Cuba is really special and has a lot to share with the rest of the world in terms of how we protect marine and coastal ecosystems,” says John Myers, deputy director of TNC’s Caribbean program.

Entering the Gardens

Fifty miles from the mainland, a string of coral keys sparkle like teardrops in the distance. The water turns aquamarine – milky green in the shallows. As we draw closer, you can see patches of dense mangroves connected by stretches of pure white beaches.

It’s 8 pm, and our vessel comes to anchor near Cayo Anclitas, in the heart of the Gardens. As the sun slips beneath the horizon, a frigatebird soars overhead, riding an updraft. Silhouetted against the apricot sky, it’s identifiable by its broad wingspan and forked tail. By 11 pm, we're in our bunks. Everyone is eager for tomorrow’s dive and a close-up view of the big predators that are the real kings ands queens of these Gardens.

This 10-day expedition was made possible by the generosity of the Waitt Foundation.

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