Day 6: Journey to Cuba's underwater Eden

  • Knee-deep in the sea

    Knee-deep in the seaMangroves provide protection for a variety of wildlife and are vital nurseries for juvenile fish.Photo by: Ian Shive, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

  • Jutias

    JutiasMangrove islands in the Gardens are inhabited by jutias, a tree-living rodent endemic to Cuba.Photo by: Ken Marks

  • American crocodile

    American crocodileThe American crocodile is slightly larger – and less fierce – than the rare Cuban crocodile found only in the Zapata Swamp and Isle of Youth.Photo by: Fausto De Nevi Herrera

  • Iguana

    IguanaIt’s not uncommon to encounter native iguanas on island beaches, which are made of coral rubble rather than sand.Photo by: Ken Marks

By Rod Griffin

Exploring mangroves

both

Today, Phil Kramer, the director of The Nature Conservancy’s Caribbean program, and I paddle a kayak to a small mangrove-fringed island in the Golfo de Ana Maria. Phil is the perfect guide; he knows the area and also happens to be a marine geologist and coral expert.

Straddling land and sea, mangroves occupy a zone of stifling heat, choking mud, and salt levels that would kill an ordinary plant. Yet mangroves swamps are among the most productive and complex ecosystems on Earth. They are the biological engines of the reef – and are important nurseries for a range of species, including grouper, sharks, snapper and lobster.

Mangrove roots

Tangled mangrove roots are ideal habitat for shellfish.

Photo by: Ian Shive, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

They are also disappearing. The world has lost about one-fifth of its mangraove forests since 1980. They are sacrificed for salt pans, aquaculture ponds, roads, port facilities and farms.

“These mangroves are extremely healthy,” Kramer notes we approach the island. “You can see that the black mangroves have stabilized the shoreline -- and are building outward.”

I’ve read that the world record for traveling 100 meters through a mangrove forest is 22 minutes. I can see why. It’s incredibly arduous to make your way among the tangled prop roots.

As we move inland, we find gumbo limbo trees with 3-foot termite mounds alongside, poisonwood and cactuses. It’s inhospitable terrain for humans -- silted ponds comprise roughly a third of the real estate – but ideal habitat for crocodiles.

And that’s not all. Our arrival causes a night heron, one of the island’s myriad inhabitants, to take flight. On one stretch of beach, we see iguanas and “jutias” (endemic tree-living rodents) that have no fear of humans. (Elsewhere in Cuba, they’d likely end up in a stew.) We also watch as a Wilson’s plover feigns injury, fluttering its wings, to distract an interested iguana from its eggs.

Living on the edge

Cuba has the most extensive mangroves in the Caribbean, covering half of its southern coast. They act as carbon sinks and buffers against coastal pollution. It’s no wonder reefs off Cuba’s south coast are so pristine.

But even here the mangroves are under threat. According to one of our guides, the Soviets planned to build a golf course on an island in the Gardens back in the 1970s. The project was never completed, but a cracked, overgrown airstrip remains, a monument to the failed dream of some nameless Russian golf lover.

TNC’s Phil Kramer

TNC’s Phil Kramer slogs through a silted pond.

Photo by: Rod Griffin

To help avoid that sort of debacle, EDF worked with Cuban experts to write a Spanish-language coastal policy handbook. As the economy opens up and tourism grows, the handbook is being used to guide Cuban planners and policymakers on how to avoid damaging mangroves, wetlands and other sensitive environments.

By the time we return to the boat, it’s 6:30 pm. While we were off exploring, the vessel’s crew ventured to Jucaro, a tiny fishing village on Cuba’s south coast. They returned with our supper – mutton snapper procured from a local fisherman in exchange for three Dr. Peppers and a T-shirt. In case you are wondering, Cubans are an enterprising lot.

As evening falls, we marvel at the lack of debris -- the stray fishing nets and plastic trash that invariably wash up on even the most remote shorelines. “It’s just remarkable,” Kramer says. “That’s Cuba for you.”

Tomorrow we’ll head back underwater.