We awoke to the blaring of a depth meter and water cascading in the sides of our cabin. The boat was dangerously catapulting itself over rising seas as the reef underneath crept dangerously close.

Somewhere in the open ocean south of Cuba, we were saying our prayers in the front cabin of a creaking catamaran. Being pulled by a one engine dive boat with a failed electrical system, the best effort of communication included our Cuban crew screaming over the wind and using our underwater photography lights to shine directional signals. Vacation in paradise? Well, you have to start somewhere. And in Cuba, ingenuity is king when it comes to survival. Nothing comes easy, and be prepared for things to not go according to plan.

A rough start it was, but not one that did not have its merits. Traveling with a team of experts from the Environmental Defense Fund and Lindblad Expeditions on a ten-day reconnaissance exploring the southern coast of Cuba, we were reviewing the state of its seas for future educational expeditions focused on sustainability, especially with respect to marine and coastal ecosystems. No place truly worth discovering is not an avid exploration away!

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Cube, Kristin Hettermann

Cuba is currently regarded as one of the “hottest” tourist destinations in the world. With the restrictions on American travel and business interactions loosening, more and more people are yearning to explore the previously forbidden. The largest land mass in the Caribbean islands, Cuba is known for its white sand beaches, gorgeous mountains, cigars, rum, dancing, free spirit revelry, and turquoise seas. The seduction of the illicit has created a romantic allure for Cuba, an allure that is now stronger than ever. The cars, the colors, the characters…yes, they are all here on parade, ready to pose.

Dive after dive, we were speechless over the gorgeous canyons and gardens of coral and soft sponges, seemingly lasting to infinity. 

But from my experiences, the real treasures of this seductive siren of the Caribbean are in the oceans. As colorful as Cuba is above sea level, it is equally rich in the deep blue. With over 4,000 islands and cays that dot the horizons, the Cubans know they have something special. The Cuban National Center for Protected Areas has set an ambitious target of designating 25 per cent of their coastal waters in MPAs (Marine Protected Areas). Currently, just more than 15 per cent have been officially approved as MPAs, including the world renowned Gardens of the Queen.

Dive after dive, we were speechless over the gorgeous canyons and gardens of coral and soft sponges, seemingly lasting to infinity. Add to that stage set expansive sea grass beds, mangrove forests, and an abundant marine life — including sea turtles, many species of reef fish, sharks, dolphins, and manatees — and yes, welcome to underwater paradise. In our explorations alone, during the course of ten dives, our EDF research scientist identified more than 130 species of fish.

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Cuba, Kristin Hettermann

There could be many reasons why the seas of Cuba are still abundant and full of biomass, including Cuba’s attempt at environmental protection coupled with low development and economic stagnation…the status quo for decades during Fidel Castro’s rule and a partial result of the United States’ commercial and financial embargo.

As colorful as Cuba is above sea level, it is equally rich in the deep blue. 

The stunted economy no doubt has led to lower levels of development, pollution, and fishing. However, a little-known fact is that Fidel is an avid lover of the ocean and was a scuba diver and spear fisherman. Because of his passion for the ocean and its creatures, parts of Cuba’s marine system have been protected and these places boast some of the healthiest coral reefs on this side of the globe. Cuba’s low population density (about 102 people per square kilometer) and relative isolation as an island have also helped limit environmental damage. 

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Cuba, Kristin Hettermann

The rush to see Cuba is on. Every day brings Cuba closer to the possibility of a fully lifted U.S. embargo, with increased tourism being one of the many mixed blessings. The common statement, “get there before it’s too late,” has launched a PR campaign for the country that rivals some of the top efforts in international travel. How Cuba embraces the responsibility and benefits of open global partnership, how the world embraces what Cuba has to offer…that story is yet to be told. Some conservationists see Cuba’s position as an opportunity to set a constructive example. One can only hope that in the rush to open Cuba more openly to the world, the natural assets that it is so lucky to have will not be sacrificed in the process. 

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