Until recently, travelling to and around Cuba has been for the intrepid traveller, an esoteric adventure due to the travel restrictions and U.S. embargo in place for almost six decades. In the last decade it has become much easier, thanks to current Cuban President Raúl Castro, encouraging tourism and more recently, with U.S. President Barack Obama re-establishing diplomatic ties. Hola Havana!
I could taste the salt in the air. Or was it the Havana Club? The excitement was building. My travelling companions were dozing like reptiles, soaking up the sun while I gazed wide-eyed at the horizon, restlessly pondering the secret I had heard these magical, forbidden Cuban waters held. “Did you see that?” No answer. Startled mid-breath, a turtle dived deep down away from the boat’s wake. “Wow, look at that!” Again, no answer as two flying fish sculled the water with their tails, opening up their pectoral fins, gaining momentum and flitting along the surface.
Suddenly, I spot patches of submerged mangroves glistening like mirages on the horizon, some connected by large stretches of sandy beaches. We cruised over water so clear, it was as if they had poured white rum and then mixed it with every shade of blue. As we coasted closer, the water turned from aquamarine to milky green in the shallows. And our home for the week came into view, Avalon’s Tortuga (the 35-metre double-deck floating steel houseboat with eight guest cabins) our stationary live aboard, securely anchored in a protected channel in the mangroves. For a split second, I considered diving off the back platform to celebrate my arrival to Jardine de la Reina, but also waiting for us somewhere in that water was Gustuv, a 3.5-metre American saltwater crocodile, who liked to drape its front two legs over the mooring ropes.
Castro and Hemmingway, communism and colonial buildings, classic cars and classic crops (rum, sugarcane, tobacco), percussive Cuban music, baseball, Caribbean white sandy beaches with crystal clear water and swaying palm-fringed beaches trees, were all synonymous with my visions of this richly diverse, vibrant island nation.
These expectations were met and shattered from the very first day in Havana. Cuba was everything and nothing that I had imagined. I expected remarkable architecture, cigars and mojitos, a cultural contrast of capitalist versus communist, socialist versus democratic, vintage classic cars and revolutionary Che Guevara posters all to a soundtrack of the deep soothing voices of the Buena Vista Social Club wafting out of bars. I immediately began looking for evidence of détente in the cobblestone streets and narrow back alleys of Havana, in the tourist meccas along the old el Prado known as Paseo de Martí, and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.
What I did not expect were the contrast of apartments with their overhanging balconies on the verge of ruin next to well-preserved buildings and glamourous historic hotels, momentous statues, the forts, the convents and churches, the palaces, the alleys and the arcades, the ancient geology and the human density. But what I really did not expect were the tourists, including bus tour groups of North Americans, which were everywhere.
The classic cars are pops of vibrant colour and pastels against the rambling ruins and bright white of the restored government buildings. My favourite was a flamingo pink vintage Cadillac. The 1940s, 1950s and 1960s American automobiles are a kaleidoscopic rainbow lining the hotel streets and Paseo del Prado and serve as readily available taxis – perfect to tour the sites around the city, or to visit Ernest Hemmingway’s estate La Finca Vijía, where he wrote two of his most famous novels — For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea.
Walking the streets of bustling La Habana, a UNESCO World Heritage site, Havana distinguishes itself from other global cities in a myriad of ways – look past the classic cars and see the deterioration and the rescue of detailed buildings that reflect the town in its past glory days. Havana at night looks distinguished and even more beautiful. The darkness hid the obvious processes of restorations, the moonlight and streetlights romantically illuminated the buildings along the boulevard, Paseo del Prado.
It takes a whole day to travel from Havana to Jardines de la Reina. A bus picks you up at your Havana hotel early in the morning and over several hours you are transported along Cuba’s well maintained highway network to Júcaro Port, through agroecology agriculture fields and farms of sugar, produce and tobacco. There is a world of difference between Cuban life in the city and in the country. As the city merges into fields, the convertibles, classics and tourist horse carriages catalyses into horse-drawn carts, tractors, trucks and people-mover buses from yester year.
Jardines de la Reina, or “Gardens of the Queen” as proclaimed by Christopher Columbus in 1494 to honour his patron the Queen Isabella I of Spain, is a magical archipelago chain stretching over more than 660 uninhabited coral reefs, sandy ‘cayos’ and mangrove islets. About 80km off the southern central coast of Cuba, a couple hours transfer boat ride south from Júcaro Port.
Of the total 2,170 km2, the marine portion of 1,995km2 is now classified as an ICUN Category II Protected Area. Since 1996, as a marine conservation initiative supported by Fidel Castro (an avid scuba diver and fisherman), the Cuban Government declared an initial 950 km2 to be classified as a Zone Under Special Regime of Use and Protection (ZUSRUP) according to the Ministry of Fisheries Resolution 562/96. Access to the area is heavily restricted and commercial fishing is strictly prohibited – only sustainable tourism and conservation activities are permitted. This means only 1,000 SCUBA divers and 500 catch-and-release fishermen are permitted to enter the Gardens each year, under the supervision of the sole operator, the exclusive government-controlled joint venture Avalon Cuban Diving Center.
Decades of limited development in Cuba due to the relative geographical and diplomatic isolation, restricted fishing and mass tourism activities and exclusivity thus has protected the habitats and marine ecosystems of Jardines de la Reina. Over the years, the reefs and marine wildlife have flourished and thrived, perhaps to the conditions of 50 years ago. As a Marine Park, The Gardens provide a baseline for gauging the health of sea life and habitat in adjacent areas, which lack such restrictions. It is a model for what can be done to repair a damaged environment.
All these conditions combine to provide home to rich marine biodiversity and biomass, a vast array of species and abundant populations reliant on the healthy coral reef, sea grass beds, coral sandy cays, mangrove and open ocean ecosystems including migrating seabirds, reptiles, mammals and fish. Thriving ecosystems support thriving fish populations, which in turn support local fishing communities and - attract ocean enthusiasts. This ‘Pearl of the Caribbean’, ‘Galapagos of the Caribbean’ is a ‘Hope Spot’ if there was ever one.
The marine sanctuary provides refuge for an abundant array of sea life -just like the nation itself, the Gardens of the Queen has been in its own protective bubble. To dive in relative safety with the massive Goliath Groupers, Silky and Caribbean reef sharks and the opportunity to snorkel up-close with American saltwater crocodiles is what pulls intrepid water loving humans here.
It may have been embargoed by the United States, but geologically Cuba has always been a part of the North America Plate. Plate movements are pushing Cuba to the west and tilting Cuba gradually to the north. The southern coastline (where Jardines de la Reina is located) is being gradually submerged, producing a series of wetlands and mangroves running from the Ensenada de Cortés in the west to the Gulf of Guacanayabo in the east. The shallow seas which now form Cuba's continental shelf were dry land, and the coastline generally followed the line of Cuba's 4000-plus offshore islands: including Jardines de la Reina to the south.
We anchored in a clear channel with a sandy bottom, bordered by mangrove flats. “Bait, bait…. Niño Niño”. Our dive guides Noel Lopez Fernandez and Fausto de Nevi Herrera, were apparently saying’ ”Come here boy.” in Cuban Spanish but I swear he was saying 'bait’!
One by one, the salties emerge from under their camouflaged cover, only the top of their heads exposed. I waited for my Brett, my husband to test the waters first with his protective barrier (camera housing) in place. I watched the prehistoric predators slipping stealthily through the water, propelled with easy strokes of their smooth, scaly tails – it was actually more beautiful than scary! Encouraged by adrenalin, I trusted the saltwater smarts of Noel and covered up my chicken-morsel-looking fingers and toes, bit my lip, tried not to squeal, summoned my own crocodile courage, and slipped in. Like most animal interactions, nothing quite compares to encountering them in their natural environment.
Crocodiles have always had my respect, admiration, fascination and fear not only because of their large size and strong teeth, but because of the aggressive reputations earned by their distant cousins in Australia and Africa. Worthy of awe and respect, yes; the feeling of fear, however, may be misplaced. This preconceived idea kept me at a safe distance from these large reptiles. In this hidden paradise of Jardine de la Reina, stereotypes are washed away.
Crocodiles have reigned as key predators in wetland and marine environments for millions of years and, as an important part of the food chain, they help keep our wetland environments healthy. In the words of the great Sylvia Earle: ”Far and away, the greatest threat to the ocean, and thus to ourselves, is ignorance. But we can do something about that. You have to love it before you are moved to save it.” Sometimes to learn, you have to swim out of your comfort zone, and now I love the American Crocodiles.
Congregations of Caribbean reef and gang of Silkies sharks You can actually get a bit blasé about the number and type of sharks you see on each dive – that is how abundant and healthy they are Jardines e la Reina. Swimming through the large and calm shoals of different varieties of Carcarinus – namely the Silky shark and Caribbean reef sharks that are a fundamental part of the environment – and the possible encounter with nurse, blacktip reef, Lemon, Hammerhead and, rumour is, the whale shark, that can be seasonably found in the area.
Sharks, as top predators, play a critical role in maintaining population balance. The waters inside the Jardines Marine Park hold 10 times as many sharks as outside, and a study found that fish populations increased an average of 30% since the sanctuary was created. The prevalence of Caribbean and silkies in the Gardens indicates the health of the reefs. As Sylvia Earle states, if you are lucky enough to see lots of them, it means that you are in a healthy ocean.
Broadly-sized Caribbean reef sharks (Carcharhinus perezii) were a common site at every dive location - cruising and coasting by, patrolling the coral mountains, circling the divers and then curiously gliding gracefully in close. At Black Coral II, right on cue the resident nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum) arrives, woken up from its daytime slumber to boldly muscle in on the bait box, showing the pereziis whose boss.
One of the many dive experiences that made this week so special was our dusk dive with a group of Silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis). Everyone was excited as we back rolled into the dark blue water, and found ourselves surrounded by sleek silkies. As the last whit of light was drown off by the setting sun dipping below the horizon, the deftness of the sun's rays turned the waters, their caudal fins and pale white underbodies liquid gold for a moment.
Completing the Apex Predator Triad
“I have never seen or heard of such a fish. But I must kill him.” Unlike Hemmingway’s Santiago, I do not need hindsight to understand and appreciate the worth of this large fish -in this case, the Goliath grouper. I did not need to kill him just to feel “all his power and beauty” – it has more value alive than dead.
Known as a Grouper’s Heaven, Jardines de la Reina is home to an abundance of these endangered species including the black, Nassau, yellow mouth, yellow fin and tiger. I was lucky enough to come face-to-face with the overexploited and rarely observed Atlantic Goliath grouper (Epinephelus itajara – formerly gigantic Jewfish), keeping me company for almost twenty minutes and rewarding me with its colossal yawn . Although my banded and mottled mate was of a modest size, as are most observed today, this IUCN critically endangered fish is aptly named for its size — it can reach ginormous lengths of two metres and weigh over 455 kilograms. Goliath groupers are extremely vulnerable to overfishing due to a combination of life history traits such as slow growth, long life (30-50 years), late sexual maturity (5 to 6 years to become sexually mature), strong site fidelity and the formation of spatially and temporally predictable spawning aggregations (where they are easy target). Consequently, like many of the Caribbean groupers, populations of goliaths declined severely over its entire range by commercial and recreational fishers. Several regulations prohibit its harvest including continental USA (since 1990), US Caribbean (since 1993) and Brazil (since 2002).
OG ambassador in Cuba
It is not just the big three that gets your heart pumping - the macro life also is thrilling, especially if you spot some camouflaged wonders living on and between the forests of gorgonians, corals and sponges, like the lettuce leaf nudibranch (Elysia crispate), or spiny head blenny (Acanthemblemaria spinosa) poking out their little heads out of their red sponge hiding holes, and the kaleidoscopic Gaudy Clown Crab (Platypodiella spectabilis) we found at the Cueva del Pulpo. This 10 mm crab is a little OG ambassador with its spectacular variable orange camouflage carapace and unique life ecology. We spotted this tiny specimen on a type of stony coral (Porites astreoides) that Noel had never seen it on before in his 16 years here. After much research, we are still not too sure why – the Gaudy crab’s usual hosts are encrusting zoanthid corals or sponges that have zoantharian.
There is plenty to explore when you come up for air. Visit one of the coral sandy cays vegetated by mangroves, and the moment you step on the beach you will encounter inquisitive iguanas (Cyclura nubila) huddling hermit crabs and friendly Hutias (Capromys pilorides) all investigating you for scraps of food. These cays have literally a flood of Queen Caribbean Conches at the tide line (Lobatus gigas (aka strombus gigas), a sight I have never seen anywhere else due to overexploitation. It is amusing to watch the conch pole vault itself upright and along the shoreline, extending its foot into the substrate, and then throwing the shell forward in a leaping motion.
Get there before all the old is lost!
In February 2016, from the moment we stepped off the plane, we clearly understood why they say Cuba is where the old world is forced to meet the new - you are have no option but to slow down your pace as you wait for your baggage on the Havana José Martí International Airport Luggage ‘Rueda’. One. Item. At. A. Time.
But those times are changing. Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism reports that tourist arrivals in January-March 2016 increased another 13% compared to the same period in 2015. Exactly one month after we were there, the Rolling stones followed in the footsteps of AudioSlave and Major Lazer - it was symbolic that a group considered to be the epitome of Western decadence, was allowed to roll into the country to perform.
Cuba is must see before it changes. Discover Cuba before the hordes of tourists arrive, or you may find you are too late. Cuba has survived, developed and managed its resources in its own little bubble for decades, but now Cuba is suddenly ‘cool’ - rock stars, reality television stars, business and religious leaders, the President of the free world, is all just the beginning of the rush.
Tourism in large doses presents its own threats - increase in coastal development, increase use of natural resources, introduction of non-native species, pollution, and potentially illegal activities. I hope the diving and fishing quotas will remain small, keeping the area exclusive.
The Cuban government’s relatively early designation of marine protected area, gives me hope that tourism will be carefully balanced with conservation, that the long-term value of healthy habitats will be higher than the short-term profits of their development goals.
I hope the tides of change that sweep through will be gentle to the people, music, dance, art, architecture, flora and fauna which have either been preserved in time or evolved in their own Cubana style. We were lucky to visit before the Cuban thaw. It is a time capsule of the 20th century but may not remain so for long. I just hope Cuba will be able to retain a few facets of a time when the time stood still. So make your way to Cuba but be a responsible traveller. Take your time and sip a mojito slowly (without a straw). Beware, like Hemmingway, you may never want to leave!
by Sarah-Jo Lobwein ( OG 37)