By Michele Heller
This past June, my co-worker and I set off into the unknown that is Cuba, with Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program (CubaMar). At the time we were affiliated with The Ocean Foundation (CubaMar is a project of TOF) and were stoked to get out of the office and get our hands dirty. We had a general idea of our itinerary, which consisted of staying in Old Havana for a couple of days and then heading south to Isla de la Juventud, (The Island of Youth) to visit a remote village at the Southern tip called Cocodrilo. This one horse town (OK, fine, three horse town) was established over a 100 years ago by fishers from the Cayman Islands, and the last few direct descendants still speak English today.
Our mission was to assist a small group of conservationists in Cocodrilo, led by our hosts in the village, Reinaldo and Reynaldo (there was some confusion upon first arriving), that are leading the charge to restore the endangered staghorn coral and to develop a marine conservation voluntourism program. As the first of, hopefully, many tourists to come, we timed the trip so that we would be present during the town’s annual Sea Turtle Festival and spent our days exploring the watery realm of Cocodrilo. But first – to get to there!
The journey to Cocodrillo was quite an eventful one! Flying domestically in Cuba is not for the faint of heart and after buying additional tickets on top of the ones we had already purchased and hiring a “fixer” (who may or may not have bribed airline officials), we touched down on Juventud 1.5 days later than we were supposed to. Another 3 hour drive down a bumpy jungle road swarming with giant coconut crabs and we had reached our destination in the middle of the night and rendezvoused with the rest of our group. We awoke that first morning to the sound of roosters calling to the sun rising over the jungle and casting it’s light on a geologists dream: an entire coastline made of fossilized coral reef. Let the adventures begin!
We spent about 5 days snorkeling, free diving and SCUBA diving on Cocodrilo's reefs and in and out of caves along the coastline. Although most of the big fish, sharks and sea turtles have been fished out, the reefs were healthy and full of life, albeit small wonders that require a patient eye. We saw plenty of moray eels, squid, and most wondrous of all, the endangered staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis). Local community members have established a coral restoration nursery and program that they were diligently monitoring and regularly cleaning of debris.
This little town has a lot of spirit and character, and we got to witness that during the Sea Turtle Festival. During the day, the festival focused on the town’s school children. The community leaders created an atmosphere of learning and exploration through videos highlighting the local reefs, games that taught the importance of protecting sea turtles and not fishing for them, and positive reinforcement of the idea of growing up to be environmental stewards and caring for their ocean. Our group helped with decorations, setting up, supplying generously donated brand new school supplies for the kids! It was a wonderful event to witness and to be a part of and I’m so excited to see what this generation of citizen scientists will accomplish.
Cocodrilo is unlike anywhere you’ve ever been and I highly recommend visiting. There is so much potential for the town’s conservation programs, and the fact that this little one horse town (ok fine, three horse town) has a coral restoration program and plans to establish a campus for visitors with classroom and bunks, is a testament to the spirit of this community and their relationship with the ocean.
Cuba is an incredibly special place to visit and it’s hard to describe one's experience. The beauty of the country, the people, and vibrant culture can be overshadowed sometimes by a roiling history of revolution and frequent moments lacking any rhyme or reason, but it’s there if you look close enough.