By Alex Rose
Since the early 1960s, Cuba has been almost entirely off limits as a travel destination for Americans. The end of 2014 saw a major shift in policy including a reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean. As an environmental journalist, this is an exciting development that prompted me to visit this island nation in January of 2015. Due to the absence of US-Cuban commerce for the last five decades, arriving in Havana is akin to hopping into a time machine that brings you back to the 1950s where taxicabs are Chevy Delrays and Buick Centuries, and the aromatic scent of thick cigar smoke lingers around every corner. The estimated 60,000 vintage cars that crowd the streets of this time capsule city are a treat for the traveler, and the envy of any serious car enthusiast.
The buildings and atmosphere in Cuba aren’t the only relics from the past. Half a day’s travel southeast from Havana is the world-class marine protected area (MPA) Jardines de la Reina, or Gardens of the Queen. And diving these pristine reefs certainly does make one feel like royalty. Whereas many islands in the Caribbean have suffered greatly at the hands of destructive and irresponsible tourism practices, pollution from unsustainable coastal development, and severe habitat degradation from overfishing, Gardens of the Queen is a diamond in the world of marine ecosystems that has thankfully been protected from all of this. Fidel Castro was actually an avid scuba diver and friends with the famous French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, and he established Jardines de la Reina as an 850-square mile no-take marine reserve. It has been a National Park since 1996 and fewer than 1,000 divers are allowed to visit there annually. Commercial fishing there is illegal, so the species diversity and sheer quantity of marine life is astounding and unlike anything that exists in other parts of the Caribbean today. The only things you can see more of in Cuba than old cars, are sharks. Cuba boasts some of the “sharkiest” reefs in these waters because the ecosystem is so healthy. Sharks, despite how many people still misunderstand them, play an extremely important role in the marine food web. They are top predators that are in charge of keeping the populations of other reef-going animals in check, as well as ridding the ecosystem of sick or injured creatures that are a detriment to the overall health and success of coral reefs. Sharks are what we call “keystone” or “indicator” species because they are a barometer for reef health, so when there are no sharks, it’s clear that the reefs are in trouble. In that case, Cuba’s reefs are about as far from “in trouble” as possible. A diver can easily see three species of sharks in one morning, and then continue the day to photograph crocodiles, sea turtles, tarpons, Goliath groupers, jellyfish, eels, and undoubtedly more sharks.
Snorkeling with crocodiles is an experience unique to few places on Earth, but the mangroves of Jardines de la Reina is one of them. Accustomed to the boats and open to the prospect of raw chicken legs as an afternoon snack, the crocodiles oblige our photographic inclinations and allow us an uncomfortably close look at their intimidating jaws. Sharing the water with these toothy, reptilian predators was a careful balance between caution and curiosity, the latter aided by a large dome port that put a comfortable distance between our faces.
Not to be outdone by the charismatic megafauna, there are also myriad small fish species such as Royal grammas, Elacatinus gobies, blennies, and many damsels. It appeared as though it was impossible to see a cave or overhang that didn’t have at least five grammas in all their magenta and sunflower splendor darting around it. These small fish are often overshadowed by the constant presence of sharks, but for a closet ichthyologist, it was certainly a treat to see this level of biodiversity. There were also many species of invertebrates including the ever-popular arrow crab and even a mantis shrimp. Adult arrow crabs there seemed to live almost exclusively in long-spine sea urchins, whereas juveniles could be found in rock and coral crevices. The shallow mangroves were, for lack of a more elegant term, littered with jellyfish. Cassiopeia jellies were particularly abundant and are absolutely spectacular when highlighted by a golden afternoon sun.
The lack of nuisance algae on the reefs was obvious, and in stark contrast to most Caribbean reefs. This absence can be explained by the constant stream of parrotfish and surgeonfish grazing the habitat. Abundant Queen Conchs, gastropods with a diet of algae and detritus, aid in keeping reefs clean as well. In many parts of the Caribbean, these herbivores have been heavily fished for food, allowing the fast growing and opportunistic nuisance algae species to overtake corals and sponges. This is especially prevalent in areas where corals have been damaged by pollution and bleaching events and are trying to recover. It is almost impossible for them to do this though when algal growth runs rampant without being regulated by grazers. This is just one of the many reasons it is so critical to have a fully functioning ecosystem where no levels of the food chain are missing. It was refreshing and encouraging seeing how effective MPAs can be when waters are patrolled and laws enforced.
Despite the high level of reef health, the area is still plagued by lionfish, a species previously indigenous to the Pacific. These big, beautiful invasive animals have huge, indiscriminate appetites that threaten to consume an alarming number of reef fish that previously had few predators to worry about. Every diver in Gardens of the Queen carries a spear gun to help control the expanding lionfish population. There is also no shortage of sharks and large groupers to feed this unwelcomed guest to, and they don’t seem to be deterred by the lionfish’s venomous spines. In a growing number of places in the Caribbean, people have started eating lionfish too in an effort to reduce their numbers.
Lionfish aside, Cuba, both topside and underwater, is a photographer’s paradise. I hope that in the coming years we can maintain a balance between relaxed regulations and sustainable tourism so as to preserve this place in its current beauty for the foreseeable future.
If you'd like to travel to Cuba with us in 2016 and see this jewel of the Caribbeam for yourself, please click on "Expeditions" in the Travel dropdown menu and check out your options. We'd love to see you under the bubbles!