Scientists Work To Protect Cuba's Unspoiled Reefs

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In 1997, the Cuban government banned fishing in the 386-square-mile area of islands known as Los Jardines de la Reina, The Queen's Gardens.  (Nick Miroff for NPR)
In 1997, the Cuban government banned fishing in the 386-square-mile area of islands known as Los Jardines de la Reina, The Queen's Gardens. (Nick Miroff for NPR)

Cuba has some the most extensive coral reefs in the hemisphere, but political strains between Washington and Havana largely have kept American scientists away.

A new partnership for marine research is trying to change that at one of Cuba's most remote places, far from people and pollution.

Off of central Cuba's southern coast, hundreds of tiny islands stretch into the Caribbean. They are ringed with narrow beaches and thick stands of red mangrove.

When Christopher Columbus arrived here, he named the area Los Jardines de la Reina — The Queen's Gardens. Five centuries later, there isn't a single town or road or permanent human presence.

The underwater gardens of pristine coral are still here. The Cuban government banned fishing over a 386-square-mile section of the islands in 1997, creating what scientists say is the Caribbean's largest marine reserve.

Only a few hundred divers visit each year. Dropping below the surface into underwater canyons of black coral and giant sea fans, U.S. scientist David Guggenheim of The Ocean Foundation encountered species he had only seen in photographs, like the nearly extinct Nassau grouper.

He looked stunned after he came up from his first dive in the islands and took off his mask.

"It's amazing. It's sort of like 'Jurassic Park.' Scientists are seeing these species they never expected to see in their life, because they're extinct. Well, these fish aren't extinct, but they might as well be for most of us. So I feel very lucky to see them," he says.

Guggenheim came to the area on a converted lobster boat with a Cuban marine biologist and two U.S. colleagues.

For him and other scientists, the area is like a large-scale experiment — a look back in time at a marine environment largely unaffected by fishermen, pollution and coral-killing fertilizer runoff. The waters are plentiful with huge fish, sharks, sea turtles and saltwater crocodiles.

As these species flourish, some will leave the reserve, helping repopulate other areas where their numbers are depleted.

"Fish are not just crops that grow in the sea for us to harvest — it doesn't work that way. Fish have important jobs to do, and when we remove them in numbers, they can't do those jobs. And we've seen time and time again that ecosystems collapse, especially coral reef ecosystems, when we upset that balance," he says.

One obvious sign of a healthy balance in Los Jardines is the sharks. Elsewhere in the region, their numbers have declined 90 percent or more. But in these royal blue waters, they're everywhere.

"To even see a shark in some places is a big deal these days, and to come to this area and dive with dozens of sharks is truly something special," says nature photographer Kip Evans.

Evans is working on a documentary about places around the world where marine ecosystems remain relatively intact.

"It's kind of disheartening when you go back to your favorite dive spot and it's changed, and the corals are dead, and the fish are gone. Now, I've spent my time kind of looking for those special spots that are still pristine, or they still have enough marine life in them that I can make some beautiful images," he says.

Another reason the reefs appear so healthy are the dense, green thickets of mangroves that spill from the shoreline, attracting wading birds like great blue herons and roseate spoonbills who feed on the small fish living among the mangroves' twisted roots.

"There's as much going on here as there is on the reef. You see a lot of the same fish. In fact, a lot of them are born and raised here and then move out to the reef as adults," Guggenheim says.

For years, he has been working to bring together American scientists and their counterparts in Cuba and Mexico. The three countries are now drafting a regional protection plan.

Cuban biologist Fabian Pina hopes that will lead to more joint research with the Americans.

"There are many, many resources that we share. We are very, very close in distance. We share the sharks, we share the snappers, groupers, corals, larvae, waters. We share many things. We need to work together to preserve these things," Pina says.

Standing on the beaches of these uninhabited islands, it's hard to image them remaining this way for long. With a new push in Congress to end U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba, ocean advocate Shari Sant Plummer said she worries about the fate of the habitat.

"With having more visitors, there's more risk. Right now, it is so far away from Havana and so inaccessible by a lot of tourists, especially from the United States, and a lot of fishermen. The sharks are so friendly, and they could be easily fished out," she says.

Guggenheim is organizing a meeting next year in Florida to finalize the agreement between American, Cuban and Mexican marine researchers. It will be the first time the scientists come together in the U.S.

There is much at stake, he says. Just one example in the Cuban waters he explored,: huge, glowing formations of elkhorn coral, a species he says has died off in the Florida Keys.

"It's really a time machine here in Cuba. And we've got another chance to look at these reefs the way they used to be," Guggenheim says. "It's almost as if someone's telling us: OK guys, you've got one more chance to get this right. Look around, see what it's supposed to look like, protect this, and use these lessons to protect everything else that you've screwed up over the years."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

You can find some of the most amazing coral reefs in this hemisphere in the waters off the island of Cuba. But American scientists have rarely had a chance to see them because of political tensions between Cuba and the United States. A partnership for marine research is now trying to change that. Reporter Nick Miroff joined a team of scientists from both countries to check out one of Cuba's most remote places.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

NICK MIROFF: Fifty miles south of Central Cuba, hundreds of tiny islands stretch into the Caribbean, ringed with narrow beaches and thick sands of red mangrove.

When Christopher Columbus arrived here, he named the area Los Jardines de la Reina - The Queen's Gardens. Five centuries later, there isn't a single town or road or permanent human presence.

Only a few hundred divers visit each year and the gardens are still here underwater.

The Cuban government banned fishing over a 386-square-mile section of these islands in 1997, creating what scientists say is the Caribbean's largest marine reserve. But there's been little research done since.

When U.S. scientist David Guggenheim of The Ocean Foundation came up from his first dive and took off his mask, he looked stunned.

Mr. DAVID GUGGENHEIM (Scientist, The Ocean Foundation): It's amazing. It's sort of like "Jurassic Park." Scientists are seeing these species they never expected to see in their life because they were extinct. Well, these fish aren't extinct, but they might as well be for most of us, so I feel very lucky to see them. Oh, look at the shark right - they're right at the surface here.

MIROFF: Guggenheim had come to the area on a converted lobster boat with a Cuban marine biologist and two U.S. colleagues.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

MIROFF: Dropping below the surface into underwater canyons of black coral and giant sea fans, Guggenheim encountered species he'd only seen in photographs, like the nearly extinct Nassau grouper.

For him and other scientists, the area is like a large-scale experiment. Take out the fishermen, pollution, and coral-killing fertilizer runoff and you get huge fish along with sharks, sea turtles, and saltwater crocodiles.

As these species flourish, some will leave the reserve, helping repopulate other areas where their numbers are depleted.

Mr. GUGGENHEIM: Fish are not just crops that grow in the sea for us to harvest - it doesn't work that way. Fish have important jobs to do, and when we remove them in numbers, they can't do those jobs. And we've seen, time and time again, ecosystems collapse, especially coral reef ecosystems, when we upset that balance.

Look at this guy.

MIROFF: One obvious sign of a healthy balance is the sharks. Elsewhere in the region, their numbers have declined 90 percent or more. But in these royal blue waters, they're everywhere - circling our boat and passing inches from the camera of underwater photographer Kip Evans.

Caribbean reef sharks are not exactly the black cats of the sea.

Mr. KIP EVANS (Underwater Photographer): No they're a little more aggressive. In fact, watch your foot.

MIROFF: If I could get my fin off, I'd get out right now.

Evans was glad to see the two key predators up close, even if their presence doesn't make for a relaxing dive.

Mr. EVANS: To even see a shark, in some places, is a big deal these days, and to come to this area and dive with dozens of sharks is truly something special. I haven't seen big fish on a Caribbean reef in 10 years - 10 or 15 years now.

MIROFF: Evans is working on a documentary about places around the world where marine ecosystems remain relatively intact.

Mr. EVANS: It's kind of disheartening when you go back to your favorite dive spot and it's, you know, it's changed, and the corals are dead, and the fish are gone. Now, I've spent my time kind of looking for those special spots that are still pristine, or they still have enough animal life in them, marine life in them, that I can make some beautiful images.

MIROFF: Drifting through narrow channels between the islands in a small skiff, we see great blue heron, pink spoonbills, and another reason the reefs appear so healthy: dense, green thickets of mangroves spill from the shoreline. The water is so clear you can dive among their tangled roots where reef fish hide for protection.

Mr. GUGGENHEIM: There's as much going on here as there is on the reef. You see a lot of the same fish here that you see on the reef. In fact, a lot of them are born and raised here and then move out to the reef as adults.

(Soundbite of boat engine)

MIROFF: For years, Guggenheim has been working to bring together American scientists and their counterparts in Cuba and Mexico. The three countries are now drafting a regional protection plan.

Cuban biologist Fabian Pina hopes that'll lead to more joint research with Americans.

Mr. FABIAN PINA (Cuban biologist): There are many, many resources that we share. We are very, very close in distance. We share the sharks, we share the snappers, groupers, corals, larvae, the waters. We share many things. We need to work together to preserve these things.

MIROFF: Standing on the beaches of these uninhabited islands, it's hard to imagine them remaining this way for long. With a new push in Congress to end U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba, ocean advocate Shari Sant Plummer said she worries what will happen.

Ms. SHARI SANT PLUMMER (Ocean advocate): With having more visitors, there's more risk. Right now, it is so far away from Havana and so inaccessible by a lot of tourists, especially in the United States, and a lot of fishermen. The sharks are so friendly, and they could be easily fished out.

(Soundbite of music)

MIROFF: On the last night on the boat, the group looked at underwater photos as a pair of small speakers played the only music for miles around. Guggenheim had dived at sundown through huge glowing formation of elkhorn coral, a species, he said, has died off in the Florida Keys.

Mr. GUGGENHEIM: It's really a time machine here in Cuba. And we've got another chance to look at these reefs the way they used to be. It's almost as if someone's telling us: okay guys, you've got one more chance to get this right. Look around, see what it's supposed to look like, protect this, and use these lessons to protect everything else that you've screwed up over the years.

MIROFF: Guggenheim is now organizing a meeting this spring, in Florida, to finalize the agreement between American, Cuban, and Mexican marine researchers. It will be the first time the scientists come together in the U.S.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Even if you can't get there yourself, you can see a slideshow of the Gardens of the Queen above and below the water at npr.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.