Day 3: Journey to Cuba's underwater Eden

  • Bonefishing

    BonefishingThe Gardens of the Queen is a world-class bonefish, permit and tarpon site, attracting adventurers from around the globe. Photo by: Ian Shive, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

  • “El Nino”

    “El Nino”This American crocodile, dubbed “El Nino” by our Cuban guides, is one of many that reside in the mangrove swamps in the Gardens. Photo by: Fausto De Nevi Herrera

  • Mega lobster

    Mega lobster“Everything here is supersized,” says Waitt Institute dive safety officer Joe Lapore. Cuba is renowned in the region for sustainable lobster fishing.Photo by: Ian Shive, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

  • Tarpon

    TarponTarpon are one of the great saltwater game fishes. They are prized not only for their size (100 pounds or more) but because of their spectacular leaping ability. Photo by: Fausto De Nevi Herrera

By Rod Griffin

Ecotourism, Cuban-style

both

I skip the afternoon dive today and head to La Tortuga, a floating hotel moored amid the labyrinthine mangrove channels of Cayo Anclitas. I want to learn how the people who manage this beautiful preserve plan to protect it.

The Cuban government tightly regulates tourism here. Only 500 fly fishermen and 1,000 divers are permitted to come each year, and the fishermen have to release their catch. It’s all operated by Avalon, an Italian company, under contract with Marlin, a government-owned enterprise.

Every week, 20 or so guests come to La Tortuga from all over the world (this week they’re mostly Brazilians and Argentines). They pay top dollar for the privilege of exploring this wild place, which is not only a diver’s heaven but a world-class bonefishing and tarpon site.

Andres Jimenez, who co-manages the operation, sits with me on the deck of La Tortuga and explains how it all started.

Andres Jimenez

Andres Jimenez, co-manager of the dive operation in the Gardens.

Photo by: Rod Griffin

The Gardens sanctuary was the brainchild of Giueseppe “Pepe” Omegna, an Italian outdoorsman who ran a sportfishing operation in the Canary Islands in the 1990s. He and two partners wanted to set up a dive and fishing center in Cuba, and fell in love with the Gardens.

Back in Italy, Pepe faxed two proposals to the Cubans. The first, which he considered a pipe dream, was for a large marine reserve, where fishing for everything but lobster would be prohibited. The second, less fantasy-like, was for a small reserve. The government chose his dream. Why? “We only got one fax,” they later told him.

No one is complaining. The private-public partnership provides much-needed revenue and jobs for a lot of former fishermen and their families in nearby communities. In fact, the project has been such a success that the government is now considering Avalon’s proposal to double the size of the park. (Pepe is still Avalon’s CEO and now lives mostly in Havana.)

Argentines and Brazilians heads out for a day of diving

A group of Argentines and Brazilians heads out for a day of diving.

Photo by: Rod Griffin

“I worry about how to keep areas like this safe as tourism grows,” says Jimenez. The day after the 60 Minutes segment on the Gardens aired last December, Avalon got hundreds of hits on its web site. Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism, meanwhile, recently announced that record numbers of international tourists visited the island during its most recent “high season.”

“We have a strong scientific community here in Cuba, but we face many challenges,” he adds. Illegal fishing remains a serious threat, and realistically there aren’t enough resources for enforcement. “When I found out groups like EDF and TNC have the same goals as we do, it gives me hope,” says Jimenez.

Tomorrow: Are marine protected areas enough?