Day 8: Journey to Cuba's underwater Eden

  • Elkhorn coral

    Elkhorn coralThere are several tracts of vibrant, healthy elkhorn coral in the Gardens. Still, like elsewhere, most stands of reef-building elkhorn and staghorn coral are threatened by warming seas and ocean acidification.Photo by: Fausto De Nevi Herrera

  • Mote Lab’s David Vaughan

    Mote Lab’s David Vaughan“This is what the Keys were like when I was a kid in ‘60s, It’s like a flashback to 13 years old. This is the way it’s supposed to be.”Photo by: Ian Shive, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

  • Vase sponges

    Vase spongesAzure and pink vase sponges are among the wondrous sights divers encounter in the Gardens.Photo by: Fausto De Nevi Herrera

  • Field of dreams

    Field of dreamsCorals in the Gardens may be more resilient than elsewhere due to their distance from the mainland and lack of fertilizer runoff.Photo by: Ian Shive, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

By Rod Griffin

The Old Man and the Acropora


With his gray beard, wizened face and intense gaze, David Vaughan, director of the Center for Coral Reef Research at Mote Laboratory, looks like Ernest Hemingway. “Or a homeless person, a pirate or Fidel,” jokes Vaughan, a world renowned coral expert and a very funny man.

After several days of searching for a healthy stand of elkhorn (Acropora palmata) and staghorn (Acropora cervicornis) coral, Pablo, our dive guide, finds the site he was looking for. The irrepressible Vaughan is the first one in the water.

“That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” he exclaims on first view of the healthy corals. The rest of us jump in after him. What we discover are several acres of fully intact – and alive – coral, with large schools of fish hovering among them.

“This is what the Keys were like when I was a kid in the ‘60s,” Vaughan says later. “It was like a flashback to 13 years old. This is the way it’s supposed to be.”

Kim Richie, another Mote scientist, is equally jazzed, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Reefer madness

For the scientists who have spent a good part of their lives studying coral – and watched its heartbreaking global decline — it’s an emotional moment. “It like seeing an old friend,” says EDF’s Rod Fujita, who did postdoctoral research in the Keys in the 1980s.


Life on the reef is balanced, with a variety of corals coexisting with grunts and coral-eating parrotfish, algae and sea urchins, one sign of a healthy reef.

Photo by: Ian Shive, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

For a neophyte like me, the elkhorn coral, whose golden branches really do resemble antlers on an elk, are stunning. I imagine it’s how John Muir felt when he entered virgin forests of sequoias and redwoods. Some of the coral stands we see are thousands of years old.

Elkhorn and staghorn are important reef-building corals that also provide critical shelter for lobsters, shrimp and reef fish. Yet they are dying off throughout the Caribbean (since 1980 the Florida Keys have lost 90-95% of their elkhorn).

Scientific exchanges

For more than a decade, EDF and TNC have been conducting scientific exchanges with Cubans. Working closely with Pedro Alcolado, the guru of Cuban coral science, we helped convene a series of tri-national coral workshops between Cuba, Mexico and the U.S. starting in 2007. Our goal: to learn why and how coral thrives or dies, and find ways to maintain or recreate healthy coral reefs.

Total coral cover in the Gardens is probably less than half what it was in the first half of the 20th century, but still better than most other places in the region. “It’s holding its own here,” says TNC’s Phil Kramer, who conducted a coral survey with Cuban scientists in 2001. “It’s reproducing, apparently both by larval settlement and re-sheeting.”

One question is on everyone’s mind: Why is one field of coral so robust, while others 100 yards east or west are damaged? There’s speculation it could be due to additional nutrients in the mid-channel or because the coral is being shielded from ultraviolet rays by turbid water.

Pedro Alcolado

Pedro Alcolado, the guru of Cuban coral science.

Photo by: Rod Griffin

Whatever the cause, there are lessons in this stand of healthy coral for the future.

Recent scientific papers suggest that reefs with more intact trophic structure and higher fish biomass overall – like what we see here – will be healthier in the future, and more resilient to climate change and ocean acidification.

“The news isn’t all bad,” says Mote Lab’s David Vaughan. “We now have the technology where we can replicate reefs. It might take 100 years, but we can do reforestation underwater.” His lab in Summerland Key, FL, has 3000 to 5000 specimens that can be replanted.

“You can re-sheet the surface of damaged coral with live polyps,” he says. “The Cubans could do it right here, using the live coral on the same reef next door.”