Crown Jewel of Cuba’s Coral Reefs

Jardines de la Reina, a vibrant marine preserve, is thriving even as other ocean habitats decline.

Comments: 67

  1. Beautiful photographs. I hope this area will stay highly protected.

  2. This will be a distant memory once Trump installs a couple of golf courses.

  3. Mind your trumps and trolls then; reign them in.

  4. Of they can build a golf course at Grand Canyon, the reefs are gone, Bud lite bottles bobing in the water.

  5. I wonder whether the pristine waters around Cuba have anything to do with farmers not having much money for fertilizer that may end up being washed into the surrounding waters.

  6. The lack of commercialized fertilizers and pesticides have paid a decisive role in preserving these pristine reefs. The decline and failure of reefs in the Mexican Caribbean should be the red flag for the Cuban government on the terrible downside of the Ugly American tourist descending in hoards on one of the last remaining holdouts against free market pillage and destruction.

    A lottery for access should be instituted in Cuban waters using the proceeds for strict enforcement. The richest lottery for access winners should pay a very high price to subsidize less fortunate winners of the lottery for access. Keep it to 3,000 per year, no tourist hot spots and this wonderful world treasure may have a chance to survive the free market onslaught that is at its gates.

  7. See the Chesapeake Bay for one horrendous example.

  8. The farmers don't need much money for fertilizer, and especially for pesticides. They grow their food organically, mostly on small plots (tiny by USA standards) and much of it in the cities. Cuba's ecological revolution is real — I've been there and checked it out myself.

  9. Another reason for normalizing relations with Cuba. Let's protect this treasure.

  10. Is this sarcasm that slipped by the moderators or do you really, honestly think that somehow the US getting closer to Cuba means better preservation of Cuba's natural environment? The exact opposite will be the case no matter how much money is directed from tourism to eco-preservation.

  11. Thanks NYT, starting with this article, you have contributed to those millions descending upon this pristine wild nature.

    What Cuba sorely needs now is a massive influx of NGO aid for environmental enforcement and protection.

    I can only hope against hope.

  12. Like Haiti? NGOs are the last thing Cuba need. They do fine on their on.

  13. Nature is so humbling and precious and any example of successfully preserving and protecting it is always an inspiration to me. Hopefully, stories like this alert Americans that regimes we don't agree with are capable of doing some things right, maybe even better than us. (Imagine that!) Maybe that realization can lead us to take a more rational and respectful approach to international relations in the future. The economic embargo should end, but hopefully, that would lead to destruction of precious habitats.

  14. Beautiful! Even though I was born in Cuba, most of the country is unknown to me. I hope one day I'll be able to see some of those places, God willing.

  15. For the sake of the world, I wish the Cubans the best of luck in protecting this natural repository of the earth's marine bounty.

  16. Perhaps Cuba will stick to its communist roots and philosophy. Unlike China, maybe these areas will not be despoiled by unrestrained capitalist greed.

  17. Unfortunately, most fo the Communist world (Soviet bloc, China) was an environmental disaster that put anything the west did to shame. It isn't a magic cure.

  18. I visited recently. Cuba is pristine because of the embargo/prohibition on travel from here. Truly a Hobson's choice for them as word gets out on how spectacular this country is.

  19. I visited too. The embargo hasn't affected European, Canadian or Mexican tourists so Cuba isn't untouched by tourism. This reef is pristine because of their environmental policy which I hope they continue.

  20. Florida could learn from Cuba on how to manage its reefs. Florida has been reluctant to protect its reefs from over fishing. It is interesting that Cuba's reefs are much more resilient to Climate Change.

  21. It's pretty bad when Fidel Castro is more progressive than the governor of Florida!

  22. Too late. The lesson to Florida has been lost for a very long time. The reefs are dead in Florida. The Developers won. Hoping that Cuba stays the wiser.

  23. The oceans are highly resilient because they are well mixed and most organisms have a very high egg to adult ratio. Note that the reserve is only 20 years old. Where reserves are established a vibrant community will be established and adjacent fishing areas will benefit.

  24. Oh my god, I cannot wait to visit Cuba!

  25. Something is the matter here. We have been told how bad Cuba is under the Castro regime. Now we see some remarkable evidence of good. First, there is no homelessness. Also, no one goes hungry. Everyone has access to good medical care--not anywhere as good as the best one can get here, but no one is being falsely diagnosed with cancer to make a doctor rich.

    Now we see--and I saw remarkable video last night on PBS--that, in spite of the nationwide poverty inflicted upon the Cuban people by our embargo, Cuba has the best conserved reefs and breeding grounds for the world's sharks.

    Compare that with our "capitalist, free-enterprise" abuse of coral reefs and fisheries and our system does not look so much better.

    We can do better as a society, and it behooves us to look at the positive things Cuba has done and learn from them.

    No, I'm not advocating a totalitarian regime, just one in which it is not necessary for everything to go to the highest bidder.

  26. You are wrong. FIrst, people do go hungry. If you knew anything about Cuba's food rationing you would not, ipso facto, make such an informed statement.

    Second, the American embargo is not the reason for Cuba's poverty. For fifty-five years Cuba has had full diplomatic and economic relations with Canada, Mexico, the European Union, Russia, China, and all of South America. I am almost positive there are business people there willing to trade with Cuba. The reason for Cuba's poverty is the same that accounts for the USSR's poverty, China's poverty, and the economic devastation of every Marxist regime in history. And it is quite telling - except to the deaf American left - that they all have sought to "fix" communism by introducing free enterprise capitalism.

  27. If the US embargo/blockade of Cuba has no effect, then you should be in favor of eliminating it. Also, I've been in Cuba a lot and I've never met a single person who went hungry on a regular basis. China's "reforms" have made life worse for most people there--all they have done is make a tiny handful rich.

  28. I highly doubt that Hutias need bottled water. In fact, it's a shame that plastic is allowed anywhere near such a beautiful reserve. Get that out of there.

  29. A map of the area described would have been useful. Fortunately it is on the south coast of Cuba away from the potential oil drilling sites between Cuba and Florida. The great barrier reef of Australia has seen a large increase in tourist traffic since the 1950's and the impact on the reef is probably downplayed since it is a big business. It is hard to see how Cuba will be able to resist the bucks. The area is not too far from the Zapata swamps, the site of the Bay of Pigs, and a tourist side trip there will likely be offered by the big cruise ships anchoring offshore.

  30. That this will likely be destroyed by US tourists within 10 years is the first really good reason I've heard why opening relations with Cuba may not be smart.

  31. As laudatory as this article is, it does reveal something (which reader Gene S. has missed) about the food insecurity caused by the Castro regime in one of its captions: "Hutias, nutria-like rodents, are hunted and eaten in some parts of Cuba."
    These are not some delicacy, and they are not still consumed all over the Caribbean where they are equally available. These are big rats which, like some unfortunate cats, are regularly sold as rabbit meat in markets to unsuspecting or simply indifferent meat-deprived Cubans.
    Thus, the hutias are eaten not only because of the failure of Communism to provide sufficient food, but also because the Capitalist tendency to market a scarce good can never be fully suppressed. Cuba is full of these sad ironies.

  32. Sewage and refuse from hordes of investors and developers and tourists will bring those reefs into conformity. Slums will grow as people are displaced. Over and over and over. Whatever pays. The "Banks" will own it soon.

  33. What are you talking about? The whole island is a slum! People without ties to relatives outside of Cuba are going hungry and suffering privations undreamt of by the poorest welfare recipient in L.A.!

  34. Strangely, though, somehow Cubans have a life expectancy equal to the US and lower infant mortality rates than many places in the US.

  35. Because of modern science and information technologies, Cuba will serve as the modern world's best-documented example of how swiftly capitalism can take something from pristine natural baseline to commercial, permanent ruin.

  36. thank you for wonderful story. bravo to cuba for protecting this beautiful area. i hope we (u.s.) also respect and protect this pristine, unique area. i have always admired cubans, and the important work done by dr pina with next to zero resources is an example of cuban intelligence and resourcefulness. i hope to visit before i die. and thank you to pew and edf for money for this deserving endeavor. a u.s. /cuba partnership should be a great thing for both countries and the world. but, i look forward to spiny lobster, not large rat

  37. I hope that Cuban has the vision to keep this area pristine and realizes that as a marine park it can be an income generator forever.

  38. Although capitalist and communist governments alike have trashed the planet, it is well known that Cuba has some of the most well-preserved natural environments in the world.

    However, clearly people long for more economic freedom, and economic development always brings environmental destruction.

    Edward Abbey wrote "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell" as a criticism of capitalism. But the ideology of a cancer cell is what drives almost all countries during Post-History.

  39. It is about ignorance.These ambitions to be or look "modern." About mimicking an allleged "modernity" even if it is Mc Donald, Disney World, or Miami. Noise and glitter. This opening up to the craziness of US capitalism (particularly US) will be a Faustian deal for Cubans.

  40. I sincerely hope not. Rather, we should take the Cuban model as our own, and eliminate corporate trawlers and long-liners from our own waters.

  41. As someone who has been to Cuba on numerous occasion early in this century I am not surprised by this story, just glad to see NYTimes starting the conversation. That being said, the solution is to protect these pieces of nature like Disney Land protects it's brand. It's really simple: Only a given number of guest may ride through on glass bottom electric boats with HD cameras. Cuba establishes a lottery system for guided dives by local divers. NO ONE has close up access to coral. It is eco-tourism for the future economy and study in Cuba. You may argue that a lottery system invites corruption, but that is to be expected during the tourist stampede. What's at stake is the future of a culture and country locked off from the US for a half a century.
    History should teach us that our past regimes in Cuba were selfish, destructive and deceitful for the Cuban people. Let us tread lightly and remember our own native cultures we disregard in America. My most memorable experiences were staying with Cubans and learning about their lives.

  42. And it will remain ok until consumer capitalism takes over Cuba, and land and sea become commodities, to resource in whatever way benefits those with money. Then the garden will become a desert.

  43. Maybe if you do not place it in the front page of the NYT it would have greater chances at conservations. Keep them secret or discreet. You're wetting future tourists' and developers' appetite.

  44. Thank you for this article. It's important to get the word out about the many things that make Cuba a special place, and the Cuban people unique — before the country is invaded by American tourists and capital. In general, Americans, obsessed with their own "exceptionalism," fail to appreciate or even be aware of the achievements of others. After 50 years of negative propaganda about the Cuban "regime" in the US mainstream media, most Americans think of the island as being something like Russia under Stalin.

    I've been to Cuba on an organized eco-tour (which had plenty of flexibility for independent investigation) and learned that nothing could be farther from the truth. The Cubans take pride in and care of their land, and of each other, in ways that are hard for the average American to even imagine. Along with the many benefits the society provides for all its citizens — free eduction, medical care, child care, housing, adequate food and so on — there is the odd fact that there is no poverty in Cuba.

    Yes, there are poor people — most Cubans are much poorer than the average American — but there is no poverty in the sense that someone without money is alienated from the society. If you're broke in the U.S. you're homeless, without medical care, despised — an outcast. A million people live at the dump in the capital of capitalist Mexico.

    No such condition exists in Cuba. Everyone is part of society, cared for and valued, just as the land is cared for and valued.

  45. I do not know from what experience you speak, but I know I can safely say was not in Cuba. Aside from family and friends living there, my sister just came back from there yesterday telling of how Cubans - from taxi drivers and paladar owners to hotel maids and 'maniceros' - are voicing their unequivocal disdain for the system under which they live and the unelected criminal cartel that rules them.

    Perhaps you know something they don't. Perhaps they are just merely ungrateful for 55 years of stagnation, hunger and privation visited upon them by the unapologetic autocrats who rule them.

  46. I am glad Cubans are protecting this international treasure and hope they will be able to manage these resources in a rational and balanced manner in the future. Let's also hope they look north to Florida for guidance in what not to do.

    Cubans, however, don't have an exactly untarnished record in environmental matters. A number of years ago they created a 12 mile causeway in the northern coast to Cayo Coco to serve tourist operations there. This has caused much damage and disruption to the ecosystem of the shallow waters of Bahía de los Perros (Dogs Bay).

    Let's not engage in another form of propaganda and paint Cuba as a paradise or Cubans as somehow morally superior. Cubans are like everyone else.

    Let's pray they do a better job of resisting the temptations of pursuing short term economic gains that have wrecked so much havoc in the Caribbean and the developing world, when they confront the hard choices and chimerical opportunities that await their further engagement with the colossus to the north.

  47. If it's so terrible, how come Cuba survived after the USSR and the rest of the "socialist" countries collapsed? Why weren't there big popular uprisings in the 1990's when Cuba had almost nothing?

  48. “The blockade, what you call the embargo, has had a huge impact, especially in environmental science,” Dr. Pina said.

    This is the most telling sentence in this piece. All Cuban's call it "el bloquéo," the blockade, because the Cuban government has lied to them and have had them believe the U.S. was physically "blockading" the country. Meaning, the reason Cuba's were going hungry was American hostility, instead of the truth which is Cuba was stagnant due to communist economic policy.

    I am sure Dr.Pina does excellent oceanographic work. However, in a political sense he doesn't know what he's talking about. The U.S. is the only country on the planet that sanctions Cuba. All the resources that Cuban scientists need are available from any of the countries with which Cuba has full and normal economic and political relations: The E.U., Canada, all of South America, and China. I am almost certain any of these would love to sell Cuba new rope or a GPS.

    The problem is not the American embargo. The problem is that Cuba's Marxist economic policies have destroyed the Cuban economy, which only now, as it makes capitalist reform, begins to show signs of life. Like China, Cuba now attempts to "fix" socialism with a good dose of capitalism. And like China, Cuba's leadership thinks it can hold on without ever having to acknowledge the complete and utter failure of their policies to bring prosperity and material well-being to its citizens.

  49. Perhaps you can explain how it is then that Cuba has the best environmental record in the Caribbean? Just lucky?

  50. Perhaps it is do to too much hard core dictatorship from the Castro government, and the cruelty towards the Cubans that they set aside and forgot the potential of exploiting Cuba's coral reefs.

  51. I'm a vacation sport diver. I don't know a lot about things, but can report that things underwater are getting worse. Curacao, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico have lots of good reefs. The Bahamas, less so. Lionfish, fishing by locals (who have a right to live from the sea), and over diving can cause problems. One of the few benefits of the embargo was just tourists, hard to get a boat (for obvious reasons). There is a brief period of time that this area will remain pretty...I saw an area in Curacao that had, maybe, a two degree change, and it wasn't beautiful in that spot. Places where the water came off the ocean floor were cooler, and the life was spectacular. The problem is, as temperatures change, and the ocean acidifies, that there are less areas that are "natural". I've seen it as a non hardcore, non expert rec diver. I hope to dive Cuba before it too changes.

  52. Get ready for it: articles like this will unleash the eco-tourists who will swarm down into the region bringing along a stream sewage, oils, soaps, waste of all kinds. It won't be long before we'll talk about the these wonders in the past tense, as we've grown accustomed to elsewhere in the world.

  53. I hope that lifting the embargo improves science. Unfortunately, the reality is more likely to see countless selfish, irresponsible American tourists, most of whom have no business being anywhere near the water, insensitively thrashing around and irretrievably degrading these pristine areas.

  54. This could be a model for managing our coastal waters. But first, we must eliminate corporate otter trawlers. Trawling for fish is like bombing for deer.

  55. I have every confidence that as we begin tourism in earnest, and people start SCUBA diving, the habitat of this area will slowly erode, eventually to be destroyed. Thank you for sharing these photographs, as they will be nothing more than a remembrance of things past, in the long run.

    This is an area that has not yet been destroyed by American "know how" and greed... just wait.

  56. I am a scuba diver and have dove in many of the best dive sites in the world. The vast majority of scuba divers respect the reef and do not damage the reef in any way. No diver ever uses a spear gun because that will make the fish fear divers.

    Like all other types of travelers/adventurers, the ones with money will be attracted to dive sites that offer very good accommodations in addition to superb coral reefs and fish. Live aboard boats are the best option and those boats are very expensive to outfit and maintain. I doubt if there is sufficient capital in Cuba to establish a live aboard dive fleet. It is important that the local people see economic benefits from the scuba divers visiting their waters. Hopefully this is a win win situation for all.

  57. I have the same fear. Over-touristing, trashing, ignorance, souvenir collecting--bringing the U.S. to Cuba could very well be the worst thing to happen to that island.

  58. I am a diver and a marine scientist who has lived on and studied coral reefs.

    I have seen many, many divers who should never be allowed anywhere near a reef. Too many divers cannot maintain neutral buoyancy. Too many divers touch the corals. Too many divers are too careless. The extensive branched growth of the elkhorn corals seen in this video will be reduced to rubble within ten years if the average American diver is allowed to "love" this site.

    And... if no diver ever uses a spear gun, then why do spear guns exist? Who uses them, if not divers?

  59. I am interested to know why communist Cuba can keep its environment pristine and communist China can not - is the adoption of state capitalism in China is the cause? Or Castro find out better way to implement communist principles in Cuba. I hope, Cuba will learn deeply from China experiment and avoid the mistakes of China and make Cuba economicaly grow without destroying her environment. Let us get out of this stupid debate of capitalism and communism and learn from the different experiments - we need a world that is fare and supports all its citizens aspirations without destroying the environment.

  60. Perhaps you should the number of cars per capita in Cuba vs those that exists in the most polluted cities in China. That will help understand while there is less smog in Cuba!

  61. China is an industrialized country, Cuba is not. Unemployment and sub employment in Cuba are notorious.
    Don't worry, if you can give cubans jobs and decent salaries they would definitely be able to polute as much as anyone else.

  62. As I prepare for a trip to go diving in Hawaii, I appreciate this report from Cuba. I am not sure the sporting gentlemen smoking cigars at the end of the video really have Cuba's best interest at heart. I hope so - I really do.

  63. I took my first trip to the Caribbean when I was seven years old, and now, almost 50 years later, I am saddened by the islands that have allowed too much development, particularly with golf courses and huge resorts. The reefs have been decimated by development. In Cuba, there is a chance to save a beautiful ecosystem and to use it as an example to rehabilitate other areas. Visits to the Jardines de la Reina should be limited. There should be no development in the area beyond perhaps another floating hotel for divers and snorkelers. The reef will remain pristine.

  64. Reading comments from scuba divers makes me fear for this marine preserve's future. Divers, myself included, negatively impact a coral reef no matter how careful and respectful we are. And not all are as careful as they could be. I believe the only way Cuba could maintain the pristine beauty of The Queen's Gardens is if the quota of 3,000 visitors per year remains in place.

    A fair way to dole out the rights to visit the Gardens would be to reserve about half the quota for Cubanos--for obvious reasons--and sell the other half in a Dutch auction. A Dutch auction would maximize income for the country.

  65. Amazing what is possible when you have a trade embargo to keep the Americans away from your island.

  66. Having been to Cuba and the incredible Jardines several times, what strikes me is that one of the reasons that the ecosystem is so pristine and healthy is the utter lack of heavy industry on the south side of Cuba. No industry, no effluent, no pollution. While I'm happy for the Cuban people that their standard of living should greatly improve with the lifting of the embargo, I am concerned for the virtually inevitable environmental degradation that will surely accompany it.

  67. The marine reserve,Fernando de Noronha in Brasil, is a good example of how you can control tourism.