Cuba Has Some of the World’s Last Unspoiled Reefs—Will American Tourists Ruin Them?

As the U.S. and the Communist nation normalize relations, conservationists fear a cruise ship invasion could destroy a coral paradise.

(Photo: Robert Wintner)

Mar 3, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

An unexpected side effect of Cuba and the United States’ strained relations can be seen about 70 miles off the island nation’s southern coastline.

A chain of hundreds of small, pristine islands dot the Caribbean, outlined with sandy beaches and red mangroves—a breathtakingly beautiful habitat.

Called Jardines de la Reina, or the Queen’s Gardens, the 1,100-square-mile marine reserve is considered one of the world’s most vibrant coral reef habitats.

(Photo: Robert Wintner)

“It’s got the levels of biodiversity, coral cover, and apex predators like sharks and groupers that make up a complete ecosystem,” said Robert Wintner, scuba diver, owner of Hawaii-based Snorkel Bob’s dive shops, marine conservationist, and author of the book Reef Libre.

It hasn’t always been like this, Wintner said. Fishing boats and bottom trawlers once decimated much of the fish population and reef habitat around Jardines de la Reina. But in 1997, the Cuban government banned commercial fishing in the region, creating one of the largest marine reserves in the Caribbean.

Since then, fewer than 3,000 divers and a few hundred fishers (catch and release only) visit the reserve annually. Cuba’s coastline has been free of much of the pollution, development, fishing pressure, and agricultural runoff that’s reduced the Caribbean’s coral reef cover by 50 percent.

Now that U.S. and Cuban relations are thawing, the result could be a “tourism tsunami,” the Miami Herald reports.

That’s led Wintner, an underwater photographer, to capture and catalog the beauty of Cuba’s reefs as they are today.

“I don’t know what effect it will have on the marine reserve, but I can see what development, tourism, and the aquarium fish trade has had on Hawaii’s reefs, and it’s not pretty.”

Wintner talked to TakePart about Reef Libre and his experience in Cuba.

TakePart: What was your visit to Jardines de la Reina like?

Robert Wintner: From Havana, it’s a seven-hour bus ride to Jucaro, then a six-hour boat trip to the reef. We dove it about 25 times to get the photos and video footage for the book and the DVD. It’s got the stuff that just makes your jaw drop. Groupers, sharks, full reef coverage. Even on the way up, where you typically stop at about 20-foot depth for three minutes to equalize, we’d stay for about 45 minutes, because the sharks would follow us from depth toward the surface. When you’re surrounded by 16 or so apex predators, that was a “Eureka, this is it,” moment.

(Photo: Robert Wintner)

TakePart: But it wasn’t just the marine reserve that you dove?

Wintner: No, we did dives right off the coast of Havana, about 40 feet deep. We found all types of critters: cowfish, trunkfish, and feather duster worms—things you don’t find in Hawaii today. It’s a good sign that Jardines isn’t just an isolated case, but Cuba’s reefs could have benefited from the country’s lack of development, compared to other areas where growth has pushed out many of these species.

TakePart: What inspired this book?

Wintner: The point of this book is not to promote tourism and not to promote dive sites. It’s to ask the question, With things changing as they are, now what? The locals are under such pressure here to make ends meet and to put food on their tables. If a developer wants to offer something, it’s going to be hard for them to say no. I’ve seen what happens when Americans love going to a place—just look at Cancun. It’s not good for the marine environment; it’s ugly. I’m saying this, and I’m in the tourism business. I’m real hesitant to ever recommend a spot as a must-see, because soon enough, it won’t be.

TakePart: What do you think will happen if tourism is increased and it’s easier to get to Cuba’s reefs?

Wintner: If you remove the barrier, then a site like Jardines de la Reina will go away. Only 2 percent of Hawaii’s near shore coral reefs are protected. The other 98 percent remain in decline. Pollution, fishing, and the aquarium trade are all decimating our reef systems.