Bracketed by the Caribbean Sea to the south and the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean to the north, Cuba has more than 3,500 miles of coastline. The Caribbean’s largest island is a shoestring of land, only 120 miles at its widest point. The sea is never far away. Its presence is felt even in the nooks and crannies of rural houses, where red land crabs hide in winter before they invade the roads in a march toward the shore to lay eggs in spring.
"Here is this 750-mile-long island that divides and defines the Caribbean. It’s like a great umbrella over the top of it,” says underwater photographer David Doubilet. Anytime a hurricane tears across the sea, what lies beneath that umbrella—on Cuba’s southern coast—is often spared: Colonies of coral polyps continue to shelter and feed multitudes of creatures, and tangles of mangroves remain a vital nursery for young fish. Though pollution, rising water temperatures, and overfishing have turned vibrant coral reefs into graveyards off Mexico, Jamaica, and the Florida Keys, Cuba’s reefs are thriving.
One might attribute the country’s pristine flora and fauna to long-stifled economic development, including poor roads and difficulty of access. But its lushness is also partly the result of government conservation efforts that began after the communist revolution. “We do not need any more transferring to the Third World of lifestyles and consumption habits that ruin the environment,” said Fidel Castro in 1992.
Today 25 percent of Cuba’s marine waters are protected (compared with 1.29 percent in the continental United States, or 16.3 percent if U.S. offshore territories are included). Roughly 80 percent of the country’s national parks area is reserved for conservation. The other 20 percent is considered “sacrificed places” where leisure activities like camping, fishing, and hiking are allowed. Even there, access is restricted and a guide is often mandatory.
In primary and secondary school, students receive mandatory environmental education. Residents of the island’s westernmost province, Pinar del Río, participate in a migratory bird festival in the fall and a turtle festival in the spring. (Fines for killing a sea turtle run up to 4,000 Cuban pesos—almost a year’s salary.)
Cuba’s unspoiled shores have benefited from at least one other factor: the U.S. embargo, which halted commerce and kept tourists at bay. But now that relations between the two countries are thawing, environmentalists express concern about whether Cuba can balance its desire for economic growth with the demands of conservation.
“Cuba has very good environmental law. So did other Caribbean nations. The problem was those other nations didn’t enforce their laws,” says David Guggenheim, founder and president of Ocean Doctor, which collaborates with Cuban scientists on marine conservation and research. He says the government will have to decide if it wants to embrace mass tourism or attract fewer tourists who pay more for an authentic experience.
The island is home to some of the Caribbean’s most important ecosystems and is almost completely encircled by coral reefs. More than 40 percent of the country’s fauna, including the two-inch bee hummingbird and 13-foot Cuban crocodile, exist nowhere else. “What I found was missing from the Cuban public is that they didn’t realize how much they have to be proud of,” says Guggenheim. “I tell them, ‘You guys have the healthiest coral reef ecosystems left in the Caribbean,’ and they say, ‘Really?’”
On the pages that follow, Smithsonian Journeys highlights the best of Cuba’s coastal treasures.
Jardines de la Reina
An archipelago 50 miles off Cuba’s southern coast, Jardines de la Reina, or Gardens of the Queen, has been described by scientists as an underwater Eden and a living laboratory. Jutting branches of elkhorn and staghorn coral—both threatened species—offer hundreds of square miles of refuge for fish. “It represents the way these ecosystems are supposed to look, with all of the species present without the profound impacts of fishing and pollution,” says Guggenheim of Ocean Doctor.
Fish once considered rare, like the 600-pound goliath grouper, glide by with ease. “They don’t have fear of humans because humans aren’t hunting them,” says Guggenheim, who has had “staring contests” with grouper while lying on his belly on the seafloor. “They are about a foot from my face, staring at me. They always win because they don’t have eyelids,” he quips. Schools of tarpon, yellowtail snapper, jacks, grunts, and angelfish knife past the silky shark, lemon shark, and Caribbean reef shark. There are ten times more sharks here than in surrounding waters. Scientists monitor these species, collecting knowledge that could prove lifesaving to other reefs that are dying out.
Christopher Columbus named this labyrinth of mangroves and sandy spits after Queen Isabella of Spain. Restrictions imposed in the 1990s by the government have preserved it from degradation. Fishing for anything other than lobster is banned in the 367-square-mile marine preserve. The number of scuba diving permits is limited to fewer than 900 annually. A floating hotel, Tortuga, offers just seven cabins.