Day 5: Journey to Cuba's underwater Eden

  • Rainforests of the sea

    Rainforests of the seaSnorkeling in the Gardens, divers pass through multiple habitats, from reef crests to mangroves. Only 500 fishermen and 1,000 divers are allowed to visit this sanctuary each year.Photo by: Ian Shive, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

  • Undersea treasure

    Undersea treasureThe dive boat drops off snorkelers at Anclitas Lagoon. We drift on the incoming tide, following clear water as it is swept from the offshore reefs through the inlet, past patch reefs and over seagrasses.Photo by: Rod Griffin

  • Drift snorkel

    Drift snorkelWe see many varieties of grouper today, including this exquisite yellowfin. Yellowfin are rarely seen elsewhere in the Caribbean, especially in areas were spearfishing is permitted.Photo by: Ken Marks

  • Yellowfin Grouper

    Yellowfin GrouperWe see many varieties of grouper today, including this exquisite yellowfin. Yellowfin are rarely seen elsewhere in the Caribbean, especially in areas were spearfishing is permitted.Photo by: Ken Marks

By Rod Griffin

Drifting through and undersea forest

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Today, we snorkel through the inlet to Anclitas Lagoon on the incoming tide, drifting effortlessly past patch reefs and over lush seagrass meadows into the mangroves that border the lagoon.

It’s like traveling by glider at low altitude – only the terrain beneath you is underwater. (I feel like I’m doing a fly-by of another planet.)

The marine life we see is astounding: Hawksbill turtles, butterfly fish, angel fish, 20-pound cubera snapper, mutton snapper, barracuda, red hind, Nassau grouper. The full array is too numerous to list. There’s even a pair of nurse sharks hunkered down under a coral canopy.

Even where stands of elkhorn and staghorn coral have been damaged by warming ocean temperatures – a problem throughout the Caribbean -- there are large mixed schools of snappers and grunts, suggesting a healthy ecosystem. “The fish biomass is off the charts,” says TNC’s Phil Kramer, who surveyed these reefs with Cuban scientists in 2001.

Jake Kritzer

EDF marine biologist Jake Kritzer

Photo by: Rod Griffin

I’m impressed by everything, but the experts are taken mostly by how the habitats are linked. In most places, marine ecosystems are either fragmented or severely degraded. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a place with the diversity of habitats so directly connected,” says EDF scientist Jake Kritzer, who has dived extensively in the Caribbean as well as in the Pacific. “I thought Turnoff Atoll in Belize was impressive, but this is mind-blowing.”

Kritzer’s research focuses on ways in which different reef habitats are ecologically connected through the movement of both tiny larvae and full-grown adults.

Habitat connections

Connectivity, it seems, is the new buzzword in marine science. I never knew scientists were so touchy feely. But as we drift on currents rich with zooplankton, I get it.

Even my untrained eye can see the different species make use of each habitat and how they are linked. As we drift inshore, you can see more invertebrates and crustaceans as well as juvenile fishes that will migrate to the reef when they grow older.

There are other more subtle connections as well; the grunts we saw sheltered amid the coral by day will disperse at night to hunt for food in the seagrasses. When they return to their resting spots, they transfer vital organic matter to the nutrient-poor coral reefs.

Healthy seagrass meadow

Healthy seagrass meadow

Photo by: Ken Marks

Green turtles, squirrel fish and moray eels do the same. Studies show there is higher fish biomass on reefs adjacent to seagrass meadows – yet another explanation for all the robust activity on this reef.

Finally, we reach the mangroves, which act as critical nurseries for virtually all of the bigger fishes on the reef. By trapping sediments and contaminants flowing seaward from inland farms and towns, mangrove roots help maintain coastal water quality and shield fragile offshore coral reefs from damage.

“As an adventurer and outdoorsman, the deep dives are thrilling,” says Kritzer, “but as a scientist I have to say this drift snorkel is inspiring.” Everyone agrees.