By Jordan Sánchez, CMRC Intern
The anticipation of a pilgrimage began to consume me: Cuba, the last forbidden land in the Americas, had been on my radar for as long as I can remember. My thirteen-year old bedroom was laden with Che Guevara posters and books given by Dad and Godfather, from Mexico and Argentina respectively. Che’s famous quote, “Hasta La Victoria Siempre”, forever plastered in iron next to his iconic portrait in Havana’s Revolution Square, has been a driving force in my work ethic for the last ten years. This interest has also led me to deconstruct and critically evaluate the romanticism and mystique around Che, the Revolution, and Cuba. As an undergraduate at UC San Diego, I minored in Latin American studies and took several classes on Cuban history and modern day politics. The last missing piece was actually visiting the island I have spent countless hours thinking about.
Fast forwarding to spring 2014, with one semester of graduate school in the books I found myself with the perfect opportunity to legally visit the island. Every year the Monterey Institute of International Studies puts together a student delegation to spend 10 days in Cuba mainly consisting of touring government ministries, participating in exchanges with other Cuban university students, and visiting historical sites. Although the itinerary was booked pretty much down to the minute, I was determined to squeeze in my two side projects and passions: delivering surf gear to the Royal 70 Havana Surf Club, and meeting with Jorge Angulo from the University of Havana’s Marine Science Institute. For three months prior to departure, I sent emails to every person I could find who had worked on marine conservation issues in Cuba, or who supports surfing on the island, to be able to make these goals a reality.
Whenever I travel, one of the main vehicles I use for connecting to locals and fellow salty brothers is through surfing. A few years back I stumbled upon a New York Times’ article about the underground surf scene in Cuba and was fascinated. Surfers in Cuba risk incarceration every time they paddle out, because until only a few years ago, it was completely illegal to go further than 50 yards offshore. The level of dedication and passion to keep surfing under these political conditions and legal implications deserves the utmost respect from the surfing community. In the land of abundance and entitlement here in California, many kids have up to 30 surfboards sitting in their garages collecting dust, while Cuban surfers can’t even buy a bar of wax. In Cuba, surfers rely 100% on the donations of surfers from outside Cuba to physically deliver supplies. If donations fail to arrive, they are left to improvise… or as Cubans say, “Hay que inventar!” This is exactly what Cuba’s first surfboard shaper, Eduardo Valdes, and other Cuban surfers have been doing since the inception of surfing on the island in the early 90’s. The first boards that Eduardo began shaping were made of old planks of wood and ironing boards, using foam from old refrigerators and boat resin to shape “Una tabla Cubana”. To date there have been generous acts from surfers hailing anywhere from Japan to Italy in order to support surfing in Cuba. And now, it was my turn. Fortunately, Royal 70 Havana has a website and contact information for anyone interested in surfing and looking to help out. Royal 70 is the latest project of Eduardo Valdes and Australian surfer Blair Cording. I sent a round of “shot in the dark” emails and to my delight both Blair and Eduardo were stoked to hear about another brother willing to help out. They sent me a list of the most critical items needed, including resin, fiberglass, leashes, wax, and clothing.
Back home in Monterey, California, I rallied my friends and organized a benefit event for Royal 70, complete with a screening of “Surfing With the Enemy”, the 2011 documentary dedicated to surfing in Cuba, the first of its kind. The stars of the movie are Eduardo and his group of dedicated and passionate friends, who seek refuge amongst each other riding waves brought in by cold fronts across the Gulf of Mexico from December to March. For the surfers of Cuba, it is an escape from a grim economic reality that has led to the exodus of millions of Cubans since the 1990s. Most of them lack legitimate means to immigrate to the U.S., but dream of surfing in Hawaii, Costa Rica, and California, just as I have had the privilege to do. The struggle to get surfing recognized as an official sport and receive support from the government has been an ongoing battle, often full of empty promises, but their struggle to keep riding waves continues, and until then (as many of their tattoos read) they will “never stop surfing”.
Upon arrival in Cuba, the other important side activity I had planned, for Monday morning at 9:00am was an interview with Jorge Angulo at the University of Havana’s Marine Science Institute in Miramar. Jorge is an exemplary figure of a Cuban working toward a more just country. El Centro de Investigaciones Marinas (Marine Science Institute), or CIM, of the University of Havana is run like a family, and Jorge does everything in his power to ensure the well being of his staff. Among the many topics that Jorge and I discussed, one of the most interesting was how Cuba is going to deal with the economic pressures to develop its coastline in order to attract more international tourism. Over the past 10 years, Cuba’s economy has become increasingly reliant on tourism to recover from the financial crisis of the special period of the 1990s. In environmental terms, the lack of carte blanche foreign investment and unregulated coastal development has led to unrivaled pristine marine and terrestrial ecosystems, with Cuba often referred to as the “crown jewel of the Caribbean”. The greatest threat to Cuba’s environment outside of Havana is the potential for rapid coastal development in order to increase economic activity. Fortunately, people such as Jorge Angulo and his staff at CIM are tirelessly working with international organizations such as CMRC to conserve Cuba’s precious natural wonders. Although spending time in Havana is an integral part of any trip to Cuba, it is important to get out and see the country and its coastal and marine resources for all their beauty.
In early June, Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program and the Centro de Investigaciones Marinas will be participating on a major two week long expedition to study the coral reefs of Cuba's Gulf of Guanahacabibes as part of Proyecto Tres Golfos. CMRC Scientist Dr. Daria Siciliano will be blogging about the expedition. Please stay tuned.
On August 2nd, 2012, the first of five satellite tags was deployed on the carapace of a nesting green turtle at Guanahacabibes National Park and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, located on the westernmost tip of Cuba. Named Harriet, this turtle along with its four brethren, is being tracked from space for the first time. This research is revealing clues on the origin and life history of a significant population of green turtles (Chelonia mydas), whose migratory patterns, according to basic research already conducted, could range as far as Florida, Central America or even South America.
These tags were deployed by a team of researchers from the Centro de Investigaciones Marinas (Center for Marine Research)[CIM] of the University of Havana. The Guanahacabibes Sea Turtle Monitoring Project, is a Project of the The Ocean Foundation’s Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program. It is a collaborative effort between the Ocean Foundation’s Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program and CIM. Since 1999 scientists have collected data on a population of up to 1,200 nesting green turtles which was unknown to science before this project began. Female turtles lay their eggs along seven nesting beaches at Guanahacabibes Peninsula, a wild, relatively uninhabited coastal protected area.
The Project has not only accumulated critical annual data on nest size, nesting frequency, environmental impacts such as sand temperature and the impact of hurricanes for almost 15 years but is helping piece together the migration patterns of the broader Western Atlantic green turtle population and informing policy decisions by Cuban and regional governments to protect sea turtle populations from poaching, incidental catch in fishing nets and egg collection by coastal communities. Highly migratory species, sea turtles spend their life stages in a wide range of ocean habitats.
Guanahacabibes Sea Turtle Project
The Guanahacabibes Sea Turtle Project has provided a continuous stream of basic nesting data on a green turtle population that nests along an important marine pathway for Western Atlantic green turtles. Guanahacabibes, located on the westernmost tip of Cuba, is located between Mexico and Florida, both home to important turtle habitats and migration routes.
While simple in focus and execution, monitoring efforts at Guanahacabibes are critical in understanding and protecting this nesting population. Every nesting season (May-September), University of Havana students spend two-week shifts in the field where they patrol seven nesting beaches at night for nesting females. They take vital measurements of nesting animals and measure the size, location, temperature and depth of nests. In some cases where nests have been laid in sites vulnerable to surge or tidal flooding, they are relocated to places more conducive to hatching. The satellite tagging program was initiated this year and will continue with new tags every nesting season. It is allowing the Project to determine additional information about where these turtles come from and what they do after nesting at Guanahacabibes.
In honor of our partners, the five animals were named Harriet, Conchita, Eliosa, Elaine and Maria Elena. The latter was named after CIM’s former director, Maria Elena Ibarra Martin, who after a long career in Cuban marine conservation passed away in 2009( http://oceandoctor.org/cuba-loses-its-mother-ocean/) The tracks can be viewed in real time at: www.seaturtle.org/tracking/index.shtml?project_id=539.
Interestingly, two of the females, Harriet and Conchita are moving toward Florida. Could this mean they are residents of both Cuba and Florida? This highlights a theme commonly preached by The Ocean Foundation that Cuba and Florida are closely linked biologically. In addition to turtles, birds, larval fish and lobster and even manatees are known to migrate between Florida and Cuba. But with an embargo in place between the US and Cuba, how can we continue to protect our own marine resources without learning about those of Cuba?
By determining their movements, international and national policy decisions can be accurately informed to ensure their protection through a potential combination of fisheries management, the establishment of protected zones and educational campaigns that inform local communities to protect instead of harvest these animals. The Ocean Foundation is raising funding to acquire five more tags to deploy in 2013. Please visit (www.oceanfdn.org/ocean-conservation-projects/listings/cuba-marine-research-and-conservation) for more information about the Ocean Foundation’s work in Cuba