Written by: CubaMar Program Coordinator Katie Thompson
Photos by: Natalie Kraft
Since the day I started working for CubaMar, everyone was always talking about Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen). Jardines de la Reina National Park is the largest marine reserve in the Caribbean at 840 miles squared and is home to large swaths of mangroves, coral reefs, and seagrass. It’s known as the “Galapagos of the Caribbean” or the “Jewel of the Caribbean”. It’s home to marine life seen nowhere else in the Caribbean. And the story goes that Christopher Columbus named Jardines in honor the Queen of Spain—its beauty was fit for a queen!
Since its founding, CubaMar has conducted research cruises with our Cuban partners to study the richness of Jardines’ marine life. Fernando (CubaMar director) and Daria (CubaMar Lead Scientist) have always returned from these trips amazed and with a renewed motivation for our conservation work. In a way, visiting Jardines is like going back in time, especially today when roughly 90% of fish biomass has been removed from the average Caribbean reef (Valdivia et al. 2017). Fortunately, Jardines is an above average reef and is estimated to have the highest fish biomass in the Caribbean.
Jardines is one of the most well enforced protected areas in the region and has a unique partnership with a SCUBA diving and fly-fishing operation that brings tourists to the park. Its remoteness is another key factor in its protection—it’s located 60 miles south of Cuba mainland (about a 5 hour boat ride). The park has been protected from large-scale fishing since it was established in 1996 and only 1000 divers and 500 fly fishers are allowed to visit each year. This cap on visitors limits the impact of tourism, and as demand continues to rise so does the price to visit. I was wondering if I would every be able to see Jardines for myself…
Then it happened! In February 2017 I was part of research cruise where CubaMar partnered with Harte Research Institute to identify potential research sites and develop future research collaborations with our Cuban partners.
Even given all that I had heard about Jardines, nothing could have prepared me for what I saw on the many dives during the weeklong trip. In Cuba, like in other parts of the Caribbean, there are not many large fish at all because they have been overfished, but in Jardines, there were many. And the sharks! I had never seen so many sharks. It was also my first time seeing a sea turtle while diving in Cuba. The coral looked much healthier in Jardines than any other place I had seen in Cuba. I came up from every dive absolutely amazed. The mangroves were also a sight to see. Their importance in the region’s marine ecosystems became immediately clear seeing the large schools of juvenile fish hiding among the roots.
After experiencing Jardines, my perspective has changed. Now I understand how Cuban marine life was, what it could be (even thought I'm sure Jardines has also changed). I have a renewed sense of purpose for my work. I’m also hopeful. The same study that found that 90% of fish biomass has been removed from the Caribbean showed that marine reserves have greater fish biomass than unprotected sites. Meaning local protection can restore fish communities if well implemented!
My trip to Jardines shows how important perspective is in an ocean that is changing so quickly. We (scientists, conservationists, practitioners, citizens) need to be aware of what we are aiming for when we embark on this journey to save the world's oceans--a difficult but not impossible task if we work together.
Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program (CubaMar), a Project of The Ocean Foundation, supports collaborative scientific research between Cuba, the U.S. and neighboring countries, to advance and inform marine conservation policy efforts in Cuba and the Wider Caribbean