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Protecting the Coral Reefs of Cuba

The Remarkable Reefs of Cuba book

When you go to the beach and look out on the ocean, the sensations are of a serene vista that stretches to the horizon and beyond. But that’s not the case for David Guggenheim, because he knows what’s under those waters. 

Guggenheim, who puts on scuba gear the way most slip into a jacket, has spent decades watching the devastation and destruction that has gone on beneath the waves. He has seen species disappear both from overfishing and mysterious environmental causes; he has seen canyon-like scars along delicate reefs gouged by the weights of huge trawling nets; he has seen a surfeit of nutrients from the runoff of fertilizer and excrement—animal and human— feed algae that blots out the sun; he has seen waters warmed by climate change bring about myriad shifts in the undersea world; most of all, he has seen the spectacularly beautiful coral reefs that he first encountered as a teenager virtually disappear in his lifetime. 

And he has written a book about it. What’s surprising is that the message Guggenheim wants to deliver is one of hope. “It’s not too late” is what this adjunct professor in Johns Hopkins’ Advanced Academic Programs tells readers in The Remarkable Reefs of Cuba: Hopeful Stories From the Ocean Doctor

How the Reefs of Cuba are Different

The title of the book is a bit misleading. Certainly, it does tell a remarkable story about coral reefs off Cuba. But that is really only one part of a book that is everything from an autobiography of a life spent in service to the world’s oceans—he’s former vice president of the Ocean Conservancy and founded the nonprofit Ocean Doctor—to a very accessible explanation of the delicate balance required to maintain undersea ecosystems, to a history of post-Castro Cuba’s politics and agriculture, to an at times hilarious explication of the Kafka-like bureaucracies one encounters as a U.S. citizen trying to work in Cuba. 

Those frustrations were worth it because of what Guggenheim found off Cuba’s coast, he says. It was coral of the type that he first saw as a teenager at a marine education center in the Florida Keys called Seacamp that spawned a number of marine scientists like Guggenheim, who went on to get a PhD from George Mason University. One of the common experiences there was painful: stepping on the spines of a black sea urchin called a Diadema. They were ubiquitous on coral reefs in the Caribbean and then, mysteriously, they disappeared, taking with them their ability to clean those reefs of algae.

That was only one of many indignities suffered by these reefs in recent decades, their decline not only robbing divers and snorkelers of an incomparable aesthetic experience, but also fish of breeding grounds, coastlines of protection from storms, and oceans of a key component of their ecosystem. Which is why it was stunning when Guggenheim found seemingly pristine coral off the coast of Cuba, where he has traveled over 100 times in the last two decades, spending a total of more than two years there. 

David Guggenheim

We’ve helped the Cubans be proud of their healthy reefs, with good reason to show them off to the rest of the world, something important for a nation very conscious of their magnified presence on the international stage.” 

—David Guggenheim

How to Build on Success

The reason those reefs survive is a complicated story involving international politics, in particular the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which supported Cuba’s economy for three decades after Fidel Castro took over in 1959. The simple version: without that support, Cuba’s farmers could not afford fertilizer, instead growing beautiful organic crops. With no fertilizer running off into the Caribbean, the reefs were not choked with algae and flourished as in days of old. On his dives—one with Anderson Cooper for a story on 60 Minutes—Guggenheim has seen reefs flourishing even in warming waters that have bleached them in other parts of the world. 

Bottom line: Cuba has shown us what is possible. That’s the hopeful message of The Remarkable Reefs of Cuba. Guggenheim knows the situation is fragile. The loss of Soviet support led to what’s called the Special Period in Cuba, an underreported time of incredible deprivation. An improving economy could bring back industrial-style agriculture that would be bad news for the reefs. But Guggenheim has come across many Cubans who don’t want to spoil what they have. 

“The key is to help them build on all the successes they’ve had so they don’t follow our example and destroy those reefs,” he says, noting the potentially huge economic impact of tourism that a pristine ecology can bring. “I think we’ve helped the Cubans be proud of their healthy reefs, with good reason to show them off to the rest of the world, something important for a nation very conscious of their magnified presence on the international stage.”