As director of CubaMar, I have a dream job working on marine conservation in Cuba. Cuba, with its 3,000 miles of coastline, is the largest island in the Caribbean. It is also the country my parents emigrated from in 1961 as teenagers meaning that Cuba is also something of a home. My passion to study and conserve Cuba’s and the surrounding region’s marine environments is what motivates my work today. One field of research that is dear to me is the study of sea turtles.
Once I saw my first female green turtle nesting turtle on a beach in 2002, I fell in love with these sentinel creatures who over 200 million years ago left their comfy lives on land to navigate the oceans in search of food, mates and every year or two, a beach to lay their eggs. And that’s only the females. Male turtles live their life at sea, which makes them even more difficult to study. But the females offer us an exclusive glimpse into the behavior and physiology of these highly evolved reptiles.
The island’s abundance of beach habitat and ample foraging grounds, especially on its southern platform, make it a hotbed for sea turtle nesting and foraging. Primarily, three species of turtle nest and feed in Cuban waters: green, loggerhead and hawksbill turtles. In 2000, I came across a unique citizen science project that is gathering critical information about sea turtles in Guanahacabibes National Park in extreme western Cuba. Initiated in 1998 by the renowned marine scientist, Dr. María Elena Ibarra Martín, this project has engaged University of Havana students in patrolling Guanahacabibes’ beaches for nesting activity. It has become the largest ongoing nest-monitoring project in Cuba. University of Havana students spend two-week shifts at the park walking the length of seven beaches looking for nesting activity.
Working on this project has been one of the highlights of my career. In addition to supporting the project, one of my tasks has been to co-host regular international Cuban sea turtle workshops. The first four workshops (2002, 2005, 2009, 2013) focused on different research and conservation objectives. The 2002 workshop was devoted to advancing tagging efforts, while the 2005 workshop explored ways to engage fishing communities near Guanahacabibes National Park in protecting turtles for tourism purposes rather than for their value on a plate. The 2009 workshop took place at the Isle of Youth and was dedicated to working with fishermen throughout Cuba in reducing turtle bycatch. Our 2013 workshop at Guanahacabibes National Park explored ways to study turtles in their ocean habitat as opposed to solely on beaches. Each of the four workshops has brought together the Cuban research community and provided a formal setting to take stock of Cuban sea turtle science and chart the course forward.
Most recently in August, sea turtle scientists from Cuba and the U.S. gathered for the 5th International Workshop on Cuban Sea Turtle Research and Conservation in Cayo Largo, Cuba. Cayo Largo is the most important nesting site in Cuba with an average of 2,000 green and loggerhead nests per year on approximately 15 km of beach. Cayo Largo is also an important tourism site with five all inclusive hotels operating within walking distance of regular active nesting activity. Walking on the beaches at night during the nesting season involves taking very careful steps not to step on a nest.
The objective of our workshop was to conceive a plan to restore regular research efforts during the nesting season, organize satellite tracking efforts on the island and develop a permanent sea turtle rehabilitation program in Cuba to address turtles adversely impacted by incidental bycatch, disease (particularly fibropalliloma tumors) and turtle strandings.
Sadly, tourism to Cayo Largo, which mostly consists of Canadian and Italian beachgoers, does not take advantage of the beautiful natural denizens of the island. While there is a rescue center that organizes the public release of hatchlings (an activity that is shunned upon by turtle scientists) from nests laid in areas threatened by tourism, there is no ethic to encourage tourism that offers unique views of these creatures. In essence the island needs more tourism, especially in the summer nesting season, which coincides with the lowest tourist season, to create incentives for the five hotels operating on the island to care more about their conservation.
The consensus decision at the workshop was to secure funding to support three trips to Cayo Largo (June, July and August 2018), whereby Cuban scientists and volunteers will patrol beaches and collect nesting and hatchling data. Also, Cuba lacks a wildlife rehabilitation center whereby diseased turtles or those caught incidentally by fishers can be treated and returned to the wild. At our workshops we identified a wildlife veterinarian named Eddy García, who will undergo training in Florida in January 2018. There Mr. Garcia, a trained veterinarian and manatee biologist, will learn firsthand from staff of a wildlife rehabilitation program as they treat injured turtles in Tampa Bay.
Our 5th workshop was a great success and we look forward to creating this new program at Cayo Largo, Cuba’s most important sea turtle nesting site. This project is just one piece of CubaMar's dedication to sea turtle conservation in Cuba.
UPDATE: Unfortunately a week after our workshop, Hurricane Irma ravaged the north coast of Cuba as a category five storm. Not only did Eddy García lose his house in Santa Clara but two of the research institutions I work with here badly damaged. Please consider donating toward their recovery here.