Traveling to Cuba, the Caribbean’s Most Unique and Protected Island
By Brad Nahill, SEEtheWILD & SEE Turtles Co-Founder
Most of what I had heard about Cuba was about “la Revolucion” and “el Comandante” Fidel Castro and how the island stands out in the hemisphere for resisting the temptations of capitalism and democracy to forge its own socialist path. I had heard very little about the country’s natural beauty and wildlife. In the world of sea turtle conservation, Cuba was well-known for attempting to maintain the trade in hawksbill turtle shells, long since closed by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, to sell off a stockpile of pieces to Japan that had been confiscated by the government.
The charter flight from Miami was half full and possibly the shortest flight I’ve ever taken, clocking in at about 35 minutes in the air. Once in Havana, we made our way to our hotel, the charming hotel Santa Isabel, located on the beautiful Plaza de las Armas in Old Havana. There we met up with our group of marine biologists and conservationists, organized by our host Fernando Bretos. Fernando is an American marine biologist who is leading efforts to study the biological connections between Cuba, the US, and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. His project, Cuba Marine Research and Conservation, has shown that Cuba’s turtles can end up in both the Florida Keys and off the coast of Mexico.
From the rooftop view of this historic hotel, you can see a variety of old forts and historic buildings and the lively plaza full of small booksellers and vendors of communist propaganda. Leading off from the plaza is Calle Obispo, a pedestrian street that epitomizes Havana, with sections of perfect cobblestone and restored buildings interspersed with dilapidated facades and piles of rubble. Dinner was served family style at a wonderful restaurant, accompanied by just about everything else in this country with music.
Before sunrise the next morning, we were off to the island’s domestic airport for a short flight to Isla de Juventud, a large island to the south that is part of the country. For the second straight day I greeted the sunrise getting off an airplane, this time boarding a taxi for the 40-minute ride through pine forest and open savannah. A quick nap in the 1950’s-era resort El Colony was enough to revive our energy before hopping onto our dive boat to explore the coral reefs that circle the island.
Though I’ve worked with sea turtles for 15 years, this was my first diving experience. Most of my experience has been on the beach, waiting for the turtles to come ashore, outside of snorkeling for fun. This time I was able to immerse myself in the water, exploring the incredible coral reefs much more fully. Starting shallow and slowly working to deeper areas over several dives, I saw walls of schoolmaster snappers, plenty of triggerfish (fish), moray eels, a stingray, and plenty of lionfish.
Despite their incredible natural beauty, lionfish are not supposed to be here. Unfortunately, they are becoming much more common throughout the Caribbean, far from their native Indo-Pacific reefs. One good thing is that these fish are delicious once the venomous spines are cut off. We caught a couple to go along with our delicious sustainably-caught lobster for lunch. Lobster are quite abundant on the seagrasses and reefs of the Isle of Youth. In fact, almost all of Cuba’s lobster fishery is based here.
Day two on the island, on our third dive, I finally felt that feeling that makes diving one of the most addictive of adventure sports. The dive master and I settled under the boat, about 30 feet down, in the middle of a half circle of coral with a large rock formation in the center. The lobster carcasses attracted an extraordinary collection of fish and standing on the sandy bottom, I felt removed from the human world for the first time in my life.
Back on board the boat, after digesting a lunch of lobster, lionfish, beans, and rice, we hopped back into the water with our snorkels to explore a small cave. The coast along this stretch of the Isle of Youth is craggy limestone rock and in one spot, you can swim through a cave about 10 feet to a small beach encircled in the rock. A short walk over the rocks to a tiny perfect beach led us back to the water. The only downside to this perfect day was finding pieces of a hawksbill turtle shell, discarded among the rocks, a sign that work remains to be done to save Cuban turtles.
We again rose before the sun the next day, this time for a boat ride back to the main island. Our group watched the spectacular sunrise over the Caribbean, occasionally passing mangrove islands at the remote Cayos los Indios and Cayos de San Felipe as we crossed the Gulf of Batabano to the town of La Coloma. This town, a major hub of Cuba’s fishing industry, will be key to protecting the incredible reefs that we just dived.
Our group of marine biologists transferred from boat to van in the coastal town of La Coloma for the short ride to Pinar del Rio, the largest city in the province with the same name. The “stuck in time” feeling one gets traveling through Cuba was especially strong here, as we passed actual milkmen delivering their dairy canisters in horse-drawn wagons. Entering the city, the skyline was dominated by a large, stark, gray apartment building that seemed transplanted from Moscow.
We were headed to Guanahacabibes National Park, which covers the far western end of the island, for a workshop on Cuba’s sea turtles. As we waited for our colleagues coming from Havana to meet us, we passed the time with Cuban beers and music in a hotel bar. Once on the bus, we passed through charming towns with every house fronted by columns as well as empty fields waiting for the next tobacco crop to be planted.
Eventually, the fields gave way to forests as we entered the park. Large iguanas lined the road as we wound down to the coast. We stopped for pictures at a lighthouse that marks the westernmost point of the island, just 100 miles or so from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The island and the peninsula are intimately linked, by migratory ocean animals like sea turtles, as well as topography, with its limestone rock foundation. The exposed limestone is so rugged that Cubans call it “diente de perro” or dog’s teeth.
The park is home to one of Cuba’s most important green turtle nesting beaches. This season was the most successful period for nests that our partners with the Center for Marine Research at the University of Havana have ever had, with nearly 900 nests, nearly double their previous high. Our Billion Baby Turtles project recently supported this work, providing enough funding to save roughly 14,000 hatchlings, putting us over 100,000 hatchlings saved for the year. This visit was our first opportunity to see the hatchlings that we have helped to save and our partners didn’t disappoint.
Spreading out among dozens of nests that were nearing maturation, our partners found one ready to go. Dozens of green turtle hatchlings made their way over the sand to the clear blue waters while our group watched in awe. This beach is the most important nesting beach on Cuba’s main island and second most important overall though funding has been hard to come by to adequately monitor the several beaches in the park where turtles nest.
The next day was an intensive course on the sea turtles of Cuba.
Researchers from local projects spoke of the history of Cuba turtle conservation (complete with a photo of Fidel and a turtle). International turtle experts (including yours truly) presented on how the country can develop tourism that benefits conservation efforts and local communities while avoiding the negative impacts that the industry has had in many places especially in the Caribbean.
That evening, at the Villa Maria la Gorda, the group bonded over Cuba’s favorite pastimes, music and rum, at the oceanside bar. The hotel’s odd name (translation: Fat Mary’s) comes from Guanahacabibes’ legendary patron who supposedly watched over pirates that formerly inhabited the area. The latest of a string of extraordinary sunsets over the water provided the backdrop to the music and conversation.
Guanahacabibes is known as a world-class diving site but generally is left off the itineraries of people coming to visit this Caribbean island. The water drops off quickly from shore to over a thousand meters providing a number of dramatic options for experienced divers. The terrestrial part of the park also has its attractions. One day a few of us took a guided tour to the Pearl Cave, an impressive collection of underground halls and rooms carved out by rain.
On our last day at the park, I hopped into the water with Fernando for a quick snorkel around the resort’s dock. An incredible amount of fish was sheltering in the dock’s shade as we swam through the crystal clear waters. Even in the areas built by humans, we found a diversity of ocean life, a microcosm of this intriguing island.
Cuba Marine Research & Conservation
Green Sea Turtles