Written by: Alexandra Puritz, M.S. Candidate, Marine Ecosystems & Society, University of Miami's Rosentiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science
This past June, I participated on a CubaMar expedition to Cuba’s Isle of Youth. As a graduate student at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, I am collaborating with CubaMar to research marine protected areas (MPAs) in Cuba. Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, and its shores are comprised of diverse marine ecosystems including coral reefs and seagrass beds. To protect these marine environments, Cuba has developed an extensive national network of MPAs. The main objective of our journey was to learn about and participate in the community-based conservation projects taking place in Cocodrilo. Cocodrilo is a remote fishing town located on the southern coast of the island within a Protected Area for Managed resources and it is the closest community to Punta Frances National Park, which is an MPA located off the southwestern tip of the island.
The Isle of Youth is a very unique island. Isolated from mainland Cuba, the Isle of Youth seems like an almost forgotten place. On the cobblestone streets of Nueva Gerona, the island’s provincial capital, you are more likely to see horse-drawn carriages or motorcycles than cars. The history of the Isle of Youth reads like a historical adventure novel. The island’s past visitors include Christopher Columbus, Spanish colonists, pirates, and American settlers. Most notably, in 1953 Fidel and Raul Castro were imprisoned by then-president Gerardo Machado on the island’s jail, called Presidio Modelo, which is now a museum. Following the Cuban Revolution, Castro renamed the island the Isle of Youth, which had previously been called the Isle of Pines. The new name commemorated his initiative to turn the island into an international destination for young people to learn about the ideals of socialism. Dozens of boarding schools were built across the island for students from all over the world to attend. However, during Cuba’s economic depression known as the ‘Special Period’ following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the schools were shut down. To this day, when driving around the northwestern portion of the island, you can’t help but notice these abandoned and ominous Soviet-looking buildings. For an in-depth read on the island’s history, check out this Washington Post article.
The coastal town of Cocodrilo can be reached by a roughly 2-hour taxi ride or a 4-hour public bus ride from Nueva Gerona. In order to enter through the protected area, we needed to receive special permits from the Cuban Government and had to cross through a military checkpoint. Once through the checkpoint, as the road winds its way through the Lanier Swamp it becomes extremely bumpy and overpopulated with enormous coconut crabs. At the end of our trip when we passed back through this military checkpoint, young soldiers inspected our bags to make sure nobody illegally took turtle shell out of the protected area.
The Cocodrilo community was founded by Cayman turtle fishermen in the early 1900s, and to this day the Cayman influence remains. The houses have a Cayman architectural style and it was a surprise to be greeted in English by a woman whose ancestors were among the original founders of the town. Fishing is still the main livelihood for the majority of the residents, although in 2008 the Cuban Government banned the sea turtle fishery.
During our stay in Cocodrilo, our hosts El Nene and Rey taught us about their marine conservation efforts in the community. According to them, Cocodrilo’s coastal ecosystems can be considered the town’s most valuable assets, and they hope to encourage young people to conserve their marine resources. In particular, they hope to promote non-extractive ways to use these resources, such as through education and ecotourism. One of their current projects is a coral restoration nursery for staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis), which is an endangered coral species. In addition, our group participated in a youth-focused sea turtle festival led by the town’s leaders, which encouraged a sense of pride in conserving Cuba’s sea turtle populations. Children played games that taught them values relating to conservation, such as a paper version of Go Fish where they could only take fish above a certain size limit. Ultimately, projects such as these demonstrate the ways in which communities can be engaged in non-extractive ways of appreciating their marine resources. A longer-term goal for Cocodrilo’s conservationists is for the town to develop a niche in ecotourism, which would benefit both the environment and the community by providing an economic alternative to fishing and incentivizing conservation.
To learn more about Cocodrilo and future volunteer opportunities for supporting their environmental education initiatives, visit: http://www.cubamar.org/volunteer-in-cocodrilo.html.
Daria Siciliano, PhD, CubaMar, The Ocean Foundation
At the end of June I had the pleasure and privilege to attend the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS), the premier conference for coral reef scientists from all over the world held every four years. I attended my first ICRS presenting as a PhD student in October 2000 in Bali, Indonesia. I was then a wide-eyed grad student hungry to fulfill my curiosity of all things coral reefs – and that first ICRS conference allowed me to soak it all in and fill my mind with many more questions to investigate in the years to come. It consolidated my career path like no other professional meeting during my graduate school years, even including the 10th ICRS I attended four years later in Okinawa. The Bali meeting -the people I met there, what I learned- is when it became clear to me that studying coral reefs for the rest of my life would indeed be the most fulfilling profession. Fast forward 16 years, and I am living that dream to the fullest, as a coral reef ecologist for the Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program (CubaMar, http://www.cubamar.org/) of The Ocean Foundation. I am at the same time leveraging the amazing laboratory and analytical resources of the Institute of Marine Sciences of the University of California Santa Cruz, as an associate researcher, to carry out the lab work needed for our investigations on Cuban coral reefs.
The ICRS meeting last month, held in Honolulu, Hawaii, was also a bit of a homecoming. Prior to devoting myself to the relatively understudied and endlessly fascinating coral reefs of Cuba, I spent more than 15 years studying Pacific coral reefs. Many of those years were dedicated to exploring the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands archipelago, now called the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, the boundaries of which the Pew Charitable Trust is currently petitioning for an expansion. They were in fact gathering signatures for this endeavor at the ICRS meeting last month (https://www.facebook.com/ExpandPMNM/). I signed their petition enthusiastically, and also had a chance to reminisce about many underwater adventures in that fascinating archipelago with former colleagues, collaborators and friends I ran into at the conference. Some I hadn’t seen for a decade or more, some were still based in Hawaii, others had moved on, and it was just great to catch up with everyone.
With 14 concurrent sessions from 8am to well past 6pm featuring back-to-back talks on topics ranging from geology and paleoecology of coral reefs to coral reproduction to coral genomics, I spent ample time before each day planning my schedule to maximize the number of talks I could attend. Each night I plotted the next day’s itinerary carefully, estimating the time it would take me to walk from one session hall to the other, sometimes at the opposite end of the Hawaii Convention center, determining which was the shortest route there… (I am after all a scientist). Luckily the ICRS organizers put out a conference app to facilitate our planning. And I indeed managed to attend many interesting presentations as I had planned - more on this below. But what often messed up my careful plan was the simple fact that these large meetings are as much about running into old and new colleagues walking from one talk to the next, and taking the time to catch up, as it is to actually hear the scheduled presentations. And so we did. With my colleague Fernando Bretos, Director of CubaMar and the person who has worked the longest in the US on bridging the gap between Cuban and American coral reef science and study the two countries’ shared marine resources, we had many fruitful meetings, many of them unplanned. We met with Cuban colleagues we brought to the meeting, as well as with coral restoration start-up enthusiasts interested in work in Cuba (yes, such a start-up actually exists! Check it out: http://www.coralvita.co/), plus grad students we are mentoring, and seasoned coral reef scientists from the Caribbean and Pacific circles interested in collaborating. These meetings ended up being some of the highlight of the conference. But of course there were tons of interesting talks. On the first day of the conference, I mostly stuck around the biogeochemistry and paleoecology sessions, given that one of our current research lines at CubaMar is the reconstruction of past climate and anthropogenic input to Cuban coral reefs using geochemical techniques on coral cores (http://www.cubamar.org/paleoclimate-reconstructions-in-cuba-inferred-from-coral-core-aragonite.html). But I did manage to make it to a talk that day on the pollution from personal care products such as sunscreen lotions and soaps. The presentation went deep into the chemistry and toxicology of common use products, such as oxybenzone from sunscreens, and demonstrating the toxic effects they have on coral, sea urchin embryos, and larvae of fish and shrimp. I learned that the pollution stems not just from the products washing off from our skin as we bathe in the ocean, but especially from what we absorb through the skin and excrete in urine, eventually making their way to the reef. I’ve known about this issue for years, but it was the first time I actually saw the toxicology data for corals and other reef organisms - it was quite sobering.
One of the dominant themes of the conference was the unprecedented global coral bleaching event that the world’s reefs are currently experiencing. The current episode of coral bleaching started in mid-2014, making it the longest and most widespread coral bleaching event on record, as NOAA declared. Regionally, it has affected the Great Barrier Reef to an unprecedented level as well. Terry Hughes from James Cook University in Australia presented very recent analyses on the mass bleaching event for the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) that occurred earlier this year. Severe and widespread bleaching occurred in Australia as a result of the summer sea surface (SSF) temperatures from February to April 2016. The resulting mass bleaching event hit the remote northern sector of the GBR the hardest: from aerial surveys complemented and corroborated by underwater surveys, Dr. Hughes determined that 81% of the reefs in the remote Northern sector of the GBR have been severely bleached, with only 1% escaping untouched. In the Central and Southern sector the severely bleached reefs represented 33% and 1% respectively. The 2016 mass bleaching event is the third occurring on the GBR (previous ones happened in 1998 and 2002), but it is by far the most severe: hundreds of reefs have bleached for the first time in 2016. During the two previous mass bleaching events, the remote and pristine Northern GBR was spared and considered to be a refugium for bleaching, with its many large, long-lived coral colonies – but it’s clearly not the case today, and many of those long-lived colonies have been lost. Due to these losses “the Northern GBR will not look like it did in February 2016 any more in our lifetimes” said Hughes. Why was the Southern sector of the GBR spared this year? Dr. Hughes showed a slide detailing the path of cyclone Winston in February 2016 (the same that swept through Fiji and wreaked havoc there): it landed on the southern GBR and brought the SST down considerably there, thereby mitigating the bleaching effects. To this Dr. Hughes added sarcastically: “We used to worry about cyclones on reefs, now we hope for them!” Dr. Hughes concluded with more discouraging news: the two lessons learned from the third mass bleaching event on the GBR is that local management doesn’t ameliorate bleaching; and that local interventions may help foster (partial) recovery, but stressed that reefs simply cannot be “climate-proofed”. Finally, he reminded us that we have already entered an era when the return time of mass bleaching caused by global warming is shorter than the recovery time of long-lived coral assemblages. Thus the GBR has changed forever. Sigh.
In a more uplifting talk later in the week, Dr. Jeremy Jackson reported on results from analyses spanning from 1970 to 2012 from the wider Caribbean, and determined instead that local stressors trump global stressors in this region… these results support the hypothesis that local protections can increase reef resilience in the short term pending global action on climate change. In his plenary talk, Dr. Peter Mumby of the University of Queensland reminded us about the “subtlety” in coral reefs. The cumulative effects of multiple stressors are reducing the diversity of reef environments, so that management interventions are targeted at reefs that no longer differ dramatically. Management actions have to adapt to said subtlety in coral reefs.
By Friday, the last day of the conference, I noticed that there were still thousands of people at the conference. Usually, by day 4 or 5 of any 5-day conference, lots of people start to drop out, some getting a head start to their long trips home, others preferring to take their last opportunity to check out a local MPA or surf spot. But at this conference attendance remained strong. The lionfish session on Friday was still pretty well attended. I was pleased to realize that the biotic resistance hypothesis, whereby native predators, by either competition or predation or both, are capable of maintaining the lionfish invasion in check, is still being actively debated. That’s what we tested in Jardines de la Reina MPA in southern Cuba during the summer of 2014 (http://www.cubamar.org/pez-leoacuten-the-lionfish-invasion-mitigation-project.html). It is interesting to learn it is still a timely question.
Compared to the first ICRS meeting I was able to attend in Bali in 2000, the 13th ICRS was equally as inspiring, but in a different way. Some of the most inspiring moments of this conference personally happened when I would run into some of the “elders” of coral reef science, who were prominent or plenary speakers at the 9th ICRS in Bali, and today I could still see a twinkle in their eye as they talked about their favorite corals, fish, MPAs, zooxanthellae, or the most recent El Niño. Some well past retirement age… but still having so much fun studying coral reefs. Who would want to do anything else?!
Written by: Katie Thompson, CubaMar Program Coordinator
What can fishers from Madagascar and Mexico learn from each other? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot! Last week I was invited to attend a fisheries learning exchange in Baja California, Mexico organized by Blue Ventures, ProNatura, and SmartFish. The exchange brought three fishers from Madagascar to Mexico with the objective of learning how fishers from Bahía de Los Angeles in the Gulf of California manage their octopus fisheries. The fishers from Madagascar also got a chance to share how successful their community octopus fishery closures have been in Southwest Madagascar.
During the exchange we toured a fish market in Ensenada, saw a mussel and oyster farm off the Pacific coast, got a close up look at how fishers from Bahía de Los Angeles fish for octopus, attended a local fishers’ meeting, and saw how the octopus is processed and shipped. The fishers from Madagascar were eager to learn more about the octopus traps used by Mexican fishers (in Madagascar they use spears) and the Mexican fishers were surprised to learn about the important role women play in the Madagascar octopus fisheries (women make up about 70% of the octopus fishers in Southwest Madagascar, where in Bahía de los Angeles its almost 0%). Throughout the entire week it was clear participants were learning a lot from each other, even though most conversations required multiple translations (Malagasy to French to Spanish and sometimes English). It’s amazing how much knowledge can be gained just by getting in-person, hands-on experience.
My main interest in fisheries learning exchanges comes from a research perspective. Exchanges were the topic of my master’s thesis and I’ve been able to continue research and implementation of exchanges through my work at CubaMar. The research is part of an effort started at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center a few years ago, of which CubaMar’s Director Fernando Bretos is also a part. CubaMar has used exchanges in the past, specifically in our sea turtle research and conservation work. Check out our recent paper in Marine Policy on an exchange CubaMar organized on sea turtle conservation!
After 55 years of political isolation, change is afoot in relations between the US and Cuba. After the December 17, 2014 announcement by Presidents Barrack Obama and Raul Castro to normalize relations between the US and Cuba, CubaMar has found itself in a unique position to advance joint marine research between our countries. Yet even before the 2014 announcement, CubaMar had been hard at work building bridges through marine science through the Trinational Initiative (TNI), a collaborative platform founded by CubaMar, Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies (HRI) and the Cuban Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment in 2007. Through this platform, every year, scientists from the three countries that share the Gulf of Mexico (Cuba, Mexico and USA) have met to discuss research plans and chart the course forward for targeted research projects that help solve some of the regional problems facing the Gulf of Mexico and Western Caribbean. The last TNI meeting took place in November 2015 in Havana and had the largest participation since this platform was established in 2007.
The first week of May CubaMar, in collaboration with our partners at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and HRI, organized a workshop that brought together again members of the Coral Reef Working Group of the Trinational Initiative. Twenty-eight participants from the U.S., México, and Cuba representing 14 different government agencies, NGOs, and academic institutions met to define coral reef research priorities for the Gulf of Mexico and Western Caribbean region. The workshop was hosted by UNAM and funded by HRI and CubaMar.
This was an exciting meeting because it was the first meeting of any of the Trinational Initiative working groups (there are six of them) outside of the larger annual Trinational Initiative workshop. The idea came about during the last TNI meeting in November when members of the Coral Reef Group realized that the interest, the ideas, and the projects generated by a much larger group than previous years deserved more time to be discussed. Thus, shortly after returning from Havana, CubaMar and our colleagues at UNAM started planning the Mérida workshop to focus on developing research topics and specific objectives for coral reef research in the area.
The objectives of the workshop were:
The workshop opened with presentations on an overview of new coral reef research priorities in Cuba; a recent assessment of coral reefs at two MPAs in Cuba and Mexico; CONABIO’s information system of Mexico’s biodiversity; and an overview of the assessment methodology adopted by NOAA’s National Coral Reef Monitoring Program. There was also a panel on identifying funding opportunities for Trinational projects led by HRI, NOAA, and CubaMar.
Participants first brainstormed research priorities and gaps, then met in breakout groups where they developedspecific projects based on the expertise of the participants and the research gaps identified, and specifically discussed projects related to coral restoration, genetic and larval connectivity, population dynamics, ecosystems services valuations of coral reefs, human impacts on the reefs, and mapping of shallow and mesophotic reefs. Workshop participants are working together to further develop these projects and will get together again to update on the progress during the ICRS conference in Honolulu in June.
Outside of the workshop, participants enjoyed the wonderful food and unique sights of Mérida and México’s Yucatán Peninsula. Some participants even went night diving in a cenote!
Overall, the workshop was a resounding success. Participants were able to collectively develop Trinational coral reef projects and we believe this work will be particularly meaningful in the coming months and years, in light of the changes that normalizations of relations between Cuba and the US will bring about. We’re excited to see the Trinational Coral Reef Group’s next steps!
Written by: Katie Thompson, Fernando Bretos, and Daria Siciliano.
By Katie Thompson, CMRC Program Coordinator
Cuba’s Isla de la Juventud, or Isle of Youth, had always been described to me as a remote, beautiful, and curious place. It has a unique history and some of the country’s most untouched natural environments. I was able to visit the island last month as part of a scouting trip for future CMRC projects.
Just getting to the Isle of Youth is part of the adventure. The plane is Soviet-made from the 1960s or 70s and it was the first plane I ever boarded from a dropdown staircase in the rear. With one window every third seat the inside was slightly claustrophobic. Fortunately I was able to snag a window seat and watched the passing Cuban countryside below—large cement apartment buildings and small towns scattered among the many farms.
Upon arrival to Nueva Gerona, the major city on the Isle of Youth, I took a taxi to Hotel El Colony on the west coast of the island where I was staying. On the way we passed by grown-over fields of grapefruit trees, which was once the island's major source of income. We also passed what looked like large factories from afar but were actually the remnants of international boarding schools that once held students from African, Asian, and Latin American countries in the 1970s. (For a great overview of the island’s various development stages and unique history, see the article Cuba's Island of Broken Dreams by Nick Miroff of the Washington Post.)
Today, the tourists that make it to the Isle of Youth are mostly divers headed for one of the dozens of dive sites off of Punta Francés. I was able to go diving myself and see why the adventurous tourists make the trek. The crystal clear waters and healthy reefs were worth the trip. Not to mention the most delicious fresh lobster we had for lunch--it melted in my mouth and was exactly what I wanted after a day of diving.
I then headed to Cocodrilo, a small fishing village on the southern tip of the island. CMRC has a long-time relationship with Cocodrilo and CMRC’s director Fernando Bretos had always told me how wonderful the place was. It was founded in the 19th century by families from the Cayman Islands and there are still a few residents who are native English speakers.
Just like getting to the island, getting to Cocodrilo was also an adventure. I had to receive special permission from the Cuban government to enter the town. The trip was long (2 hours on a bumpy road in a 1948 truck) but well worth it. It was immediately clear why Fernando had always talked so highly of the place.
When I arrived I was received with open arms and fed a delicious meal of fish and congri (beans and rice). CMRC first began working in Cocodrilo in 2011 when we helped start local sea turtle conservation festivals. I was pleased to find out that Cocodrilo has continued to run the festivals even without our support. Evelio, the town’s mayor, couldn’t stop talking about next year’s festival and his plans to invite children from other communities. The growth of these festivals is significant considering fishers from Cocodrilo were catching sea turtles less than 10 years ago.
At the time I couldn’t tell what was different about my conversations with people in Cocodrilo as opposed to my conversations with people on other parts of the island. There was something about Cocodrilo I couldn’t put my finger on until writing this post. It's now clear, based on my experience, that on the rest of the island there is a focus on what was--people kept talking about what the island used to have. In Cocodrilo, however, the people continuously talk about the future, always looking ahead at what could be.
I headed back to Havana on the same plane on which I arrived after spending a 16 hour flight delay on the beach. Going to the Isle of Youth allowed me to learn a little more about a truly unique part of Cuba—I hope it’s the first trip of many.
By Katie Thompson, CMRC Program Coordinator
When Fernando (the director of CMRC) first told me I was going to Cuba, I couldn’t believe it. I had literally just graduated with my Masters in Marine Affairs from the University of Washington and had always wanted to work in Latin America in the marine realm. I had never imagined getting my “dream job” out of grad school, but somehow it happened, and my first major task: travel to Havana and meet CMRC’s colleagues in preparation for the Trinational Initiative Workshop, an exchange among marine scientists that will take place in November in Havana.
Because I was still in school mode, I spent the summer reading up on Cuba—it’s history, environmental issues, wildlife, etc.—but nothing could have prepared me for what I first saw and experienced during my first trip to the Caribbean nation.
It was immediately obvious we were in Cuba and not some other Latin America country I was familiar with when we stepped outside of the airport and there was old car after old car dropping people off (The rumors are true! There are a lot of old cars!). My first glimpse into the Cuban system was from our taxi driver when he told us he was an engineer but was working as a cab driver since driving a taxi paid more than any job he could get as an engineer. Driving the taxi even paid more than his wife’s job as a doctor! I couldn’t believe it. He went on to explain how the government owned practically everything—the taxi cabs, hotels, even the cows. This was the first of many memorable conversations I would have over the course of my 48-hour trip.
The next day we visited our colleagues at CIM (Centro de Investigaciones Marinas, essentially University of Havana’s Marine Research Institute) where, despite the lack of air-conditioning in 85°F+ weather and equipment typical to any scientific lab in the U.S., these people were doing amazing, groundbreaking work. In fact, when we were there two scientists were ecstatic to announce their publication of a book on Cuba’s algae—a huge achievement that was a very long time in the making. I was extremely impressed.
After our meetings at CIM, I took an almendrón (an old car that’s a cheap, shared taxi—something everyone should do if you visit Havana!). I was crammed into a car with five other passengers, and, yes, I felt like I was in a movie. The car was from the 1950’s (except the stereo, which had recently been replaced in order to play the ever so popular reggaeton). In route to Havana Vieja, we passed smaller buildings with colonial architecture scattered among tall buildings with soviet architecture. It was a strange mix and all needed repair from decades of use and no to little restoration.
Due to limited time, we had to rush through Havana Vieja, but I made time for my first Cuban coffee and street concert. The rest of the afternoon and evening I spent meeting more of CMRC’s colleagues and learning about the amazing work they do with very few resources. I felt proud to be part of CMRC, an organization that truly believes in collaboration and is supporting meaningful work on the ground.
The next morning I was back in the Havana airport waiting for my flight to Miami, buying a bottle of the famous Havana Club rum as a souvenir. While the trip was short, I met many wonderful people and learned a ton. I had never been to a place where the people were so genuinely warm and welcoming. I’ll be back in November to continue building relationships and learning a little more about the Cuban system I’ll probably never fully understand. But that’s what makes it forever interesting and exciting.
Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @cubamarine to stay updated on our work and future trips to Cuba.
3am… Rise and shine! Time for a quick shower then down to the hotel lobby for our six-hour bus trip to Júcaro. Located in Cuba’s Ciégo de Avila province, Júcaro is a small fishing town on Cuba’s remote southern coast. From Júcaro it’s another five hours by boat to my ultimate destination: Jardines de la Reina National Park. Known in English as Gardens of the Queen, it is the largest marine protected area in the Caribbean. Jardines and the Gulf of Ana María, the large body of water north of it is the focus of a research effort I am leading between the Center for Marine Research of the University of Havana, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and my own project called Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program (CMRC).
Since 1998 I have worked alongside Cuban marine scientists to study marine resources shared by our countries. The project I am working on now is called Proyecto Tres Golfos (P3G). Through P3G we are trying to understand how marine organisms between Cuba’s three largest bodies of water, the gulfs of Batabanó, Ana María and Guanahacabibes, are connected. Data from our three research cruises is also helping us study the relationships between coral reefs in the US and Florida, which share many of the same species as a result of the Gulf Stream, a powerful oceanic current that transports organisms between our countries.
We finally arrive in Júcaro and meet our “research” vessel, a liveaboard dive boat called “La Reina”. Cuba’s southern coast has always been sparsely populated. Some say it’s because most hurricanes that strike Cuba tend to come from the south. Others claim the southern coast is too swampy for human habitation and a lack of deep harbors made it difficult for earlier settlements to take hold. Júcaro is all of the above. Covered in mangroves and low lying, it lives off fishing and the presence of Avalon Dive Center. Avalon has an agreement with the Cuban government that limits the number of divers and anglers who can use the park to ensure that the reef community remains healthy.
Aboard La Reina we steam toward the Gardens of the Queen. My colleague Dr. Daria Siciliano, a coral ecologist based at University of California-Santa Cruz, and I are interested in determining how the condition of reefs is changing due to human factors such as agricultural pollution and warmer, more acidic oceans. It is painstaking work. We move underwater along transects and measure reef cover along 10 meter transects. We look at how much of the coral is bleaching or diseased or how much is covered in algae, which can choke out corals. The more coral cover and the less disease we see, the healthier the ecosystem is. In places like the Florida Keys, algae have taken over due to excess nutrients coming from fertilizers used for agriculture and golf courses on mainland Florida. Corals thrive in nutrient low systems so when too much nitrogen or phosphorous flow from land, it allows algae to thrive at the expense of coral. Since coral provides the food and habitat needed for organisms to survive it is important to measure coral health and determine if management efforts are effective.
In the Gulf of Ana María, large corals abound, precisely because there is less storm energy and more nutrients due to proximity to land. In addition to our coral transects we will be carefully removing cores of corals to look for important historical clues as to what conditions were like in Jardines de la Reina before large-scale agriculture and tourism could impact the reef.
We make it to the Jardines key chains and enjoy some well-deserved sleep. Our first two days are comfortable and we complete many health surveys. Day three brings heavy northerly winds and surge. After completing one habitat survey we try for a second but working here feels like being in a washing machine. Up and down, left and right, we slam into fire coral or the sea floor. Just before we were about to give up Daria spots an enormous patch of elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) just beyond the wave breaks. Elkhorn is type of coral that was once abundant in the Florida Keys but now increasingly rare. The coral is majestic with its bright orange branches reaching up toward the surface as if trying to tough the sunlight with extended fingers. These corals are considered reef-building corals because they have hard skeletons and live in some of the hardest conditions, providing a substrate for other corals and a shelter for reef organisms. In Florida, Elkhorn coral is affected by diseases such as white pox, which is spread through human effluent. But in places like Jardines, Elkhorn abounds, most likely due to lack of exposure from human threats to water quality.
We swam around admiring their beauty. Sadly it was time to go back as the other teams had finished their work and were probably even more tired than we were after getting beat up by the surge.
We steam further into the Gulf of Ana Maria to Cayo Algodón Grande (Big Cotton Key). Here we find some huge coral heads, perfect for drilling cores. Some coral heads are four or five feet tall and others reach within inches from the surface. Victor Ferrer, CIM’s young coral scientist, estimates the coral cover here at around 50%, which is quite high considering the average cover in the Caribbean is around 15%.
On the last day of our cruise at Algodón Grande we identify a Siderastrea sideraea coral that is perfect for coring. It is large, deep and spherical. My colleagues Konrad Hughen and Justin Ossolinski, both based at WHOI, are experts at removing coral cores. In fact, the longest coral Konrad ever took was four meters long from a reef in the Red Sea. We strap on our BCs and get into the water with all the heavy equipment required to take our core. My job is to ensure that the drill bit is straight and to pump water into the borehole so that grit is pushed out of the bottom and won’t clog the drill bit. It was like being part of a surgery. Konrad would make hand signals to Justin to add more bits to lengthen the drill or tell me to tell the boat captain to change the air tank once the drill was losing strength. We made great progress, removing a foot or two within ten minutes. This species of coral grows slower than others so a core a meter long can take us back in history at least one hundred years.
We continue to drill feverishly, stopping every few minutes to remove the drill bit or add another extension. We spend 20 minutes working the last section of core before we raise the drill bit one more time. Sitting inside the bit is one foot-long section of core followed by another. My first ever-underwater high five! We had the entire length of the coral and could now plug the hole and return to the surface. Konrad placed a concrete plug on the hole and hammered it gently. I asked him how these large corals cope when being drilled into. He assures me that after a year the coral grows back over the plug and continues growing leaving no evidence of a plug.
Once on board we put our core together end on end. It measured 1.3 meters (over four) and looking at the growth rings we estimated a growth rate of 0.7mm per year, meaning our coral is at least two centuries old.
This core’s chemical signature will be measured and we can determine that factors influence its health. We can also study climate patterns over time which can help us determine how Cuba’s corals might cope with higher temperatures and acidity which is threatening reefs all over the world.
Our weeklong cruise to Jardines was a huge success, revealing insights into how healthy Cuban corals are. Ahead of us are months of analysis to continue to get an idea of why they are healthier than ours. Back at University of California-Santa Cruz, Daria drills the coral core in two in order to take an x-ray. Looking closely at the growth rings she determines that the growth rate of this coral is more like 0.4 cm per year, meaning this coral emerged as a young polyp on the sea floor almost 300 years ago, around the same time George Washington was born.
Ola! Me llamo Yasmina. I am a Master’s student in Marine and Lacustrine science at the University in Ghent (Belgium). As part of my graduate program I had to do a professional internship. With a passion for sea turtles, an interest in Cuba’s rich history and traveling and exploring different cultures, I was convinced that working for CMRC was going to be perfect for me.
From the moment I set foot in Cuba I realized that this was going to be a challenge. From my overestimated Spanish to not being able to get cash, having limited Internet access and paying with double currency: everything seemed to be very complicated.
After spending a few days in Havana I got into a small van heading towards Guanahacabibes National Park with five Cuban university students who like me were embarking on a career in marine science. Talking to them made me realize that I would not only gain scientific experience but also really get to know everything about how Cubans live (or as they say it: sobrevivir which means literally to “survive”) in a country full of contradictions.
The beaches where we monitored the sea turtle nests were not exactly 5-star hotels but this desolate, untouched environment was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. During the day we would check the nests for activity or dig out the ones that had hatched. But most of the activity happened during the night where we would have shifts in teams of two volunteers patrolling the beaches for females or nests that were hatching. I remember the first time I saw a nest hatch, watching all these brave little turtles struggling and crawling, facing this immense challenge of getting to the water. I will admit to shedding a few tears and it made me forget all about the mosquitos or the fastidious jejenes (sandflies).
One of the things that struck me most during my stay was the hospitality of the guardabosques or park rangers, who would bring us food and take us on a ride with their mule and carriage. I cannot say our communication was fluent but I was happy I had a bottle of rum with me I could generously pour as a sign of my gratitude.
It was not until day 18 in Guanahacabibes, when we were patrolling the beach and decided to rest close to our tent and share our non-existing knowledge on constellations when all of a sudden I saw sand flying around. After a few minutes I realized what was happening: there was a female green turtle nesting right next to us. We sat there for more than two hours watching this amazing creature digging with such precision. When she finished digging and got into a trance we knew the eggs were coming. Cool as always, Randy, the University of Havana graduate student who was in charge of our beach who is doing his thesis on the monitoring program, handed me the gloves and said: “cuenta los huevos”. Even thinking about it now gives me goose bumps and I am eternally grateful to him for letting me have this amazing experience of counting eggs as they emerged from this enormous female turtle.
Leaving Guanahacabibes I already knew I wanted to go back soon. Being on the beach for 20 days living in such harmony with nature and being surrounded by wildlife and passionate young people was an experience like I have never had before. I knew this internship in Cuba would change me, but it’s the Cubans that changed me in more ways than I would have expected.
Ever dreamed of seeing Cuba? Wonder what keeps those old rat rod cars running? What about all the hype about Cuba’s well-preserved coastal habitats? This year The Ocean Foundation received its people to people license from the Department of Treasury, which allows us to bring US travelers to experience the island’s culture and natural resources first hand. The Ocean Foundation’s Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program has worked alongside Cuban scientists to study and preserve natural resources shared by both countries. These include coral reefs, fish, sea turtles and hundreds of species of migratory birds that stop in Cuba on their annual migration from American forests and pastures southward. CMRC is one of few US conservation programs that maintains active collaborative projects with Cuban marine science agencies. Established in 1998, our collaboration has served as the basis for the research theses of over 20 graduate students at the University of Havana. Together we are making new scientific discoveries such as a nesting population of approximately 2,000 green sea turtles in western Cuba that was previously unknown to science.
Our license allows any American, not just scientists, to travel to the island to see the work we do, meet our partners and engage in discussions with Cuban conservationists to develop solutions to shared environmental threats such as climate change, invasive species and sea level rise. But what if you could actually participate in research in Cuba? Imagine working alongside Cuban counterparts as a citizen scientist, gathering data that can help shape policy on both sides of the Florida straights.
The Ocean Foundation and Holbrook Travel are offering an opportunity to gather data about migratory coastal and shorebirds that call both countries home. You will join Dr. Rob Norton, who conceived of the Cuban Christmas Bird Count during a recent visit to Cuba. During your nine-day experience you will visit some of Cuba’s most stunning natural areas including Zapata Swamp, which in biodiversity and scope resembles the Everglades. This once in a lifetime trip to Cuba will take place from December 13-22nd, 2014. Not only will you be able to see Cuban ecological gems but you will be invited to participate first hand in the 2nd Annual Audubon Cuban Christmas Bird Count, an annual survey to estimate bird composition. By participating in the CBC, citizen scientists from the US to work alongside Cuban counterparts to study birds that make the US and Cuba home. And no prior bird watching experience is required.
Trip highlights include:
Encounters with local scientists and naturalists to learn about the island’s coastal ecosystems and to discuss ecotourism, sustainability, and conservation efforts that are in place.
Meet with representatives of the environmental NGO ProNaturaleza to learn about the program and its initiatives.
Be a part of helping to establish the CBC in Cuba and watch for endemic species like the Cuban Trogon, Fernandina’s Flicker, and the Bee Hummingbird.
Engage with local people in an important civic conservation effort.
Explore Old Havana, including the National Museum of Natural History.
Attend a special presentation by the Korimacao Community Project and discuss the program with the artists.
Eat at paladares, restaurants in private homes, for the chance to have intimate conversations with Cuban citizens.
We hope you can join The Ocean Foundation on this enjoyable learning experience. To receive more information or sign up please visit:
CMRC, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, University of Havana Partnership to Study Coral Reef Health is Off and AwayRead Now
In September 2014, scientists representing Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), Centro de Investigaciones Marinas (CIM) of the University of Havana, Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program (CMRC), and University of Maryland (UMD) gathered in Havana and Zapata Swamp to discuss research objectives and plan research cruises that will take place in 2015 as part of Proyecto Tres Golfos (P3G). P3G is funded by a grant from the Dalio Explore Fund via WHOI with supplemental funding provided by CMRC. P3G will investigate microbial to macro-organismal diversity, functioning and status among Cuba’s three largest and most productive bodies of water. The second P3G research cruise will take place in January 2015 to the Gulf of Batabanó.
The P3G research plan combines basic research of patterns and processes with conservation targets such as ecosystem health, threats, education, and the enforcement and enhancement of marine protected areas. Special emphasis will be given on Cuban scientists are being trained in cutting edge protocols introduced by CMRC, WHOI and UMD, further building the capacity of Cuban scientists. WHOI and UMD’s objective to study water column and coral-associated microbial communities is an important new component of P3G.
Participatingin the workshop were Dr. Jorge Angulo, Dr. Maickel Armenteros and Dr. Patricia González (CIM), Fernando Bretos and Dr. Daria Siciliano (CMRC/The Ocean Foundation), Dr. Amy Apprill (WHOI), Dr. Alyson Santoro (UMD).
CMRC is excited to get started on what will be new research in Cuban waters that will help build capacity for Cuban scientists.