I was lying on my back across the seat of the taxi, slowly savoring a short story as we hurtled eastward along the freeway back to Havana. I spaced out in the middle of my reading, staring at the car ceiling, when I noticed our driver pulling over to the side of the road—the car had overheated. I stepped out into the blazing midday sun, eyes squinting, and leaned against the tired car, waiting for the car to cool. After three rounds of frantically pushing the car down the flat, barren freeway, it jump started and we were on our way. It was the perfect ending to my first field expedition in Cuba: adversity, perseverance, ingenuity, and—eventually—a solution.
As a PhD student at the University of Miami’s Abess Center, and in partnership with The Ocean Foundation’s Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program, I am doing my doctoral research on a coral reef ecosystem in western Cuba. I decided to focus on a Cuban reef for several reasons. The country has been relatively successful in maintaining the integrity of its marine ecosystems thanks to low levels of development, some reefs’ uniquely stable ecosystem dynamics despite climate change, and its extensive (although inconsistently enforced) National System of Protected Areas. However, improved relations between the Cuban and U.S. governments have already led to increased tourism, and experts are expecting more coastal development and up to 10 million tourists visiting the island per year in the near future. The country’s reefs—which support Cuba’s tourism economy, and also serve as important sources of genetic diversity for reefs across the region—are highly vulnerable to these sociopolitical and environmental changes. For my project, I will be looking at how these external forces are currently impacting coastal ecosystems in Guanahacabibes, a national park on the western tip of the island. The goal of this project is to understand how these tourism-based impacts can be managed to make sure Guanahacabibes does not suffer the all-too-common fate of beautiful, coastal areas left degraded and spoiled by unregulated tourism.
Finally, we entered the park, and I realized first-hand why a study of tourism impacts on this site made sense. Guanahacabibes is a tourist’s dream: one convenient road connects a network of foot trails, winding through coastal tropical forests, teeming with iguanas and over 170 species of birds, leading to white sand beaches, native turtle nesting grounds, crystal clear waters, and beautiful coral reefs. Its most prized attraction, the Maria la Gorda dive resort, lies toward the eastern end of the park. It sits on a slightly protected part of the Bahia de Corrientes, and hosts tourist activities such as cruise ship landings, SCUBA diving and snorkeling, boating, and trail excursions.
For my project, I will be collecting and analyzing data on these tourist activities to determine how they are impacting the area, and at what levels they should be limited. In order to do this, I first need to figure out what factors are impacting these ecosystems the most. Are SCUBA divers trampling coral? Are boats carelessly dropping their anchors, leaving gaping holes in the reef? Are cruise passengers destroying native dune vegetation during their beach parties? As a first step, I presented our ideas for my dissertation research to a group of park managers and rangers, including our close colleague and park manager Dr. Dorka Cobián Rojas, to figure out what impacts we should focus on measuring. After a productive hour and a half of discussion, we left with a long list of important factors to consider, which we are currently working on whittling down. Once we have a short list of factors, we can figure out what data we will need, and how these data will be used to estimate how many tourists the site can accommodate before it becomes significantly degraded, known as the site’s carrying capacity. Estimating carrying capacity is important because, unlike sites in the Florida Keys or Cancun, Guanahacabibes has not yet seen huge impacts from tourism, and a carrying capacity measurement could allow us to preemptively manage these reefs.
We went through a gaping hole in the surface of the reef, which quickly became a narrow crevice, lined with rare black coral and sponges of all shapes and colors. I eventually saw a narrow strip of blue in the distance and eagerly swam towards it, emerging from the massive walls of the crevice onto the cliff face of the reef tract, looking out into infinite amounts of water in all directions—a deep, sapphire blue abyss of pure ocean. I felt dizzy, almost hypnotized, as my eyes strained to register the enormous expanse. Then, all at once, I took a deep breath and snapped myself out of it—the clock was ticking, and there was work to be done.