A first for Shark Week and marine research in Cuba

Daniel Whittle

This spring, we made history together with a Discovery Channel film crew and a group of divers and scientists, 50 miles off Cuba’s south coast.

For its 2015 Shark Week program Tiburones: Sharks of Cuba, Discovery had expressed an interest in returning to more science-driven programming and chosen Cuba as the place to shoot video. A decade ago, this would have been hard, if not impossible.

The Obama administration’s 2014 decision to normalize relations with the Caribbean nation - and the impending opening of embassies this month - won’t eliminate all barriers we face trying to support environmental projects in Cuba, or obstacles to document such projects. But it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

Already today – for each, cautious step our nations take to break down 60 years of sanctions and suspicions – we’re seeing some doors swing open.

Discovery filmed new way to tag sharks

Discovery’s Shark Week segment from Cuba was the first environmental documentary involving American and Cuban producers and filmmakers since the Castro revolution in 1959, and probably the first ever.

Notably, it was also an opportunity to connect Discovery’s producers with scientists from Mote Marine Laboratory and several Cuban agencies, and with the sharks that bind us all.

It became a trip where we deployed the first-ever remote-tracking tags on sharks in Cuba, and the first time large sharks were tagged without hooks, nets, ropes or spears. The trip yielded the first-ever coral transplant in Cuba, and it was the first time a longfin mako shark was tagged and filmed underwater in Cuba.

The whole experience was novel in this new era of normalized political relations between the United States and Cuba. And it signaled that by collaborating across borders, rather than sealing off borders, we can expand marine science to the benefit of everyone.

I’ve been working hard over the past 15 years to build relationships with Cuban officials and scientists. And today, I feel optimistic we can - together - secure a future for our shared seas.

Normalized political relations expand marine science

Although the embargo remains in place, the Obama administration’s changes to America’s Cuba policy makes it easier for outside organizations to legally donate sea time on research vessels, along with satellite tags and other equipment Cuban scientists and resource managers need to boost conservation efforts.

Improved relations will give more marine scientists from the U.S. access, and enable a much-needed flow of research funds, as well as grants and loans from international development banks that can be used to boost ocean protection programs and facilities.

Today, Cuban scientists do amazing work with limited resources, but they want – and need – to do much more to protect the country’s rich and, still, relatively well-preserved ocean. Our countries are separated by a mere 90 miles of water, and the sea life that lives there doesn’t recognize national boundaries.

So it’s of keen interest to both our nations that conservation efforts continue and grow - and that we broadcast them for the world to see.

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