Hogfish were moving about every where I looked, there must have been 50 to 100 of them, so many that my brain needed a few seconds to catch up with what my eyes were seeing! I had never experienced anything like it. Hogfish are easy to spear and reportedly taste good, so they are usually one of the first fish to disappear from the reefs where there is overfishing, which is virtually everywhere you might visit in the Caribbean. Over the next week, while exploring the clear blue water of the Jardines de la Reina in Cuba with the M/V Oceans for Youth, I would keep seeing signs of a wildly healthy and diverse tropical coral reef ecosystem. One that in all my 25+ years of snorkeling and diving in the Caribbean I have only ever heard about from “old-timers,” recanting stories usually after hearing that phrase every traveler hates to hear, “You should have been here 30 years ago.”
Well I am here to tell you to start making your travel plans, book that airfare and get to the Gardens of the Queen’s (the English translation) coral treasure as fast as you can. You will finally be in the right place, in the right era, where you will at long last get to see a vibrant and fish rich Caribbean coral reef ecosystem, with intact mangroves and seagrass beds in abundance. Hopefully, one that will serve to remind all of us that experience it of just how productive other areas of the Caribbean should be, and what conservation objectives we should be working towards when trying to “restore” Caribbean coral reefs. Jardines also serves as a reminder of how, with some strict protections in place, Mother Nature is resilient, able to thrive when left alone and when man is prohibited from overharvesting Her biodiversity.
Our expedition took place over a one-week period in mid August of 2017. All of us had been invited out by the M/V Oceans for Youth to see the Jardines for ourselves and learn about the research being carried out by the scientists there Fabian Pina Amargos and Tamera Figueredo Martin, that the foundation is set up to support. Each day we jumped in the water at 3 or 4 different sites to snorkel or dive among the great stands of Elkhorn Coral, many with large schools of snappers and grunts slowly swimming underneath the large arms of coral. We snorkeled alongside sponge covered mangrove roots, a kaleidoscope of colors and a haven for young barracuda, snappers, and groupers. Multiple times we did drift snorkels over thick forests of seagrass interspersed with coral head patches, many of which had 5 to 20 lobsters underneath. On the edges of the seagrass beds were open sandy tracts. In one of these open areas I counted over 75 Queen conchs plying the sandy bottom, their many tracks in the sand crisscrossing and interconnecting so that hardly a single grain of sand was untouched.
Back on our comfortable boat we were provided with daily talks focused on the marine life we were encountering. The talks also covered ecology of the Jardines, the recovery of certain coral species that have been in decline in other areas of the Caribbean, and the current research being conducted to help understand and protect the biodiversity found there. When we were not preparing to get back out in the water or being given talks by Fabian and Tamara, the boat’s crew was making sure we were well fed. At dinner each evening we had multi-course meals better suited to a high-end cruise than our motley crew of tour organizers and non-profit conservationists. Each day seemed to be better than the last as the expedition team had a plan in place to progressively show us better and healthier areas as our week went on. At more than one place we all agreed that it was both amazing and wonderful to be snorkeling where there were so many fish that you could barely see the reef below them. In addition to these big schools of snappers and grunts pulsating throughout the shallow reefs, we frequently had larger individual Tarpon, groupers and snapper come over and say hello. On multiple occasions we saw nurse sharks and reef sharks while exploring the reef crest, and more than a few hawksbill sea turtles, as the islands of the Jardines have the highest nesting population of the endangered Hawksbill in all of Cuba.
One of the highlights for me involved a day where we started the morning off by snorkeling alongside an American crocodile. A reportedly calm reptilian that I had been hoping we would have a chance to see. As with most predators, their public reputation causes one to be overly fearful, but once you see them in their natural setting you cannot help but be taken with their grace and vibrancy. Much like those of you that have been lucky to see a bear in the wild, you definitely respect its strength and power, but you are also taken with its majesty, and typically walk away from the experience simply feeling lucky that you had such an amazing moment in nature.
As we headed back from the Jardines on our last day it further resonated with me just how special this area was. I am happy for its isolation and the inherent challenges in getting to experience it, but I also realized the amazing value in having as many people as possible visit Jardines so they may come away with a proper baseline perspective of what a Caribbean coral reef can look like. A robust connection of seagrass beds, mangrove stands and coral reefs, all working in concert to maintain a highly productive and vital predator dominated landscape. It is what much of the Caribbean once was. It is a place of great hope, where those visiting can be inspired to envision a future where collaborative conservation efforts, working across borders, might allow for areas like the Jardines de la Reina to no longer be such an anomaly.
Oceanic Society plans to offer 2 to 3 snorkeling eco-exploration programs on the M/V Oceans for Youth in 2018/19 in support of the Oceans For Youth Foundation. Each of these expeditions provides funds that directly support the Foundation’s marine research in the Jardines, and the platform (boat) from which they are conducted. I hope you will be able to join us on one of these special expeditions. For more information contact www.oceanicsociety.org
By Wayne Sentman – Wayne has worked for over two decades in international conservation and has core expertise in the organization of ecotourism supported development of community conservation efforts in remote settings. As Director of Conservation Travel Programs for the oldest US marine conservation non-profit, the Oceanic Society, Wayne designs and develops mission driven international ecotourism and voluntourism programs.
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