Day 2: Journey to Cuba's underwater Eden

  • The sharks’ den

    The sharks’ denThe Gardens of the Queen is known for the abundance of sharks, including Caribbean reef sharks (shown here), lemon sharks, silky sharks and occasionally whale sharks, great hammerhead sharks and tiger sharks.Photo by: Fausto De Nevi Herrera

  • Diving with silkys

    Diving with silkysMote Laboratory’s Kim Richie surfaces after mingling with a group of swirling silky sharks. This graceful species, named after its smooth skin, is generally an open-water shark and rarely found on inshore reefs.Photo by: Ian Shive, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

  • Caribbean reef sharks

    Caribbean reef sharksPhotographs fail to capture the sleek beauty of these top-level predators as they move effortlessly through the water. Reef sharks pose little risk to humans, unless provoked.Photo by: Fausto De Nevi Herrera

  • Yellow tube sponge

    Yellow tube spongeDivers in the Gardens encounter a mindboggling array of sea life, from microscopic plankton and surgeonfishes to this spectacular yellow tube sponge.Photo by: Fausto De Nevi Herrera

By Rod Griffin

Close encounters

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The daily routine on the Waitt Institute’s expedition vessel is designed to give us as much time on the water as possible. Every night, we organize all the scuba gear so we can make the first dive at 8 a.m. sharp.

Our first dive site is Octopus Cave, a natural tunnel in a reef wall 60-feet down. The surrounding coral gardens and canyons are known for attracting large numbers of sharks and other large predators. Their prevalence is part of what makes the Gardens so special. Elsewhere in the region, some shark populations have declined as much as 90% in recent decades.

Sharks have existed 450 million years, since before the dinosaurs. But their future hangs in the balance. EDF, working with the Mote Laboratory and other partners, is leading an ambitious tri-national effort to save sharks in the Gulf of Mexico – uniting Cuba, Mexico and the U.S. in an unprecedented conservation partnership.

Sharks

Pablo, our Cuban dive master, observes a group of silky sharks.

Photo by: Ian Shive, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

Sharks and me

I’ll be honest, I am terrified of sharks. I was 19 years old in 1975, the year JAWS came out. I, like many people, left the theater traumatized. I’ve never been able to entirely shake my fear.

According to U.S. Health Department statistics, I’m more likely to be bitten by a New Yorker than a shark. But there are six to eight times more sharks in the Gardens than anywhere else in the Caribbean. I know that’s a sign of a healthy reef, but seriously, what was I thinking?

In preparation for the trip, I read Peter Benchley’s 2002 non-fiction book Shark Trouble. His advice: “Well, you’d better be an experienced diver” and be prepared “to react counter intuitively.”

Did I mention that I only got my scuba certification a month ago?

As the tender motors to the dive site, I’m in a state of “controlled panic.” None of the other divers, all of them experienced, seem the least bit anxious. Clearly I’m the weakest diver of the lot. So will I look like baitfish to whatever is lurking below?

Too late to worry about that now as I step into the crystal-clear, aqua blue waters. My shark worries bubble out of me as I struggle with the more immediate challenge: breathing under water. “Find your yogi breath,” my wife would say. (I never was very good at that.)

Octopus cave

Once I regain my composure, I open my eyes to an oasis of color. A school of schoolmaster snappers passes by, followed by a squadron of bluestriped grunts and French grunts, which change direction with instant, perfect synchronization. It seems their maneuvers are choreographed to avoid predators; there’s strength in numbers. In the distance, a solitary sting ray cruises the sandy bottom like a stealth bomber, searching for prey.

We drop down to a shelf at 60 feet and follow a reef wall. In the canyons, we see enormous grouper and cubera snapper and a huge variety of gorgonians and coral. Finally, we come to a 5-foot opening that looks like a black hole.

Others disappear inside and join the octopi and moray eels lurking there, but I’m not quite ready for that.

 sting ray

A stealthy sting ray.

Photo by: Fausto De Nevi Herrera

I’m relieved by my sound judgment when suddenly a 7-foot Caribbean reef shark enters my peripheral vision just a few feet away. It’s the moment I’ve been dreading. But the shark, which obviously sees me as harmless, inedible or both, just moves on.

In all we see 15 or so reef sharks. Unlike the tropical fish beside them, which travel in compact schools, the sharks are loners. They glide by gracefully -- and nonchalantly -- as if on cruise control.

The sight of so many sharks elicits an odd mix of calm and exhilaration. Maybe I’m just relieved they seem disinterested, but mostly I’m in awe. These primordial creatures appear lordly, beautiful and remote but not menacing.

By day’s end, I can’t wait for tomorrow’s adventure.