500 Years After Columbus, Cuba's Gardens of the Queen Still Pristine
[Editor's note: Conor Kennedy traveled this summer to Cuba to dive the Gardens of the Queen, one of the most pristine marine environments in the Caribbean, to conduct ecological assessments of the coral reef ecosystem with Ocean Doctor. This is Part IV of a five-part series. Read Part I, Part II and Part III and Part V.]
We spent three days exploring rich, varied undersea bottom topography with its mélange of deep canyons, steep cliffs, coral ledges and lofty pillars rising from sandy bottoms 60 feet deep. At each dive site the skiff would drop us at one point and we would swim to the bottom and travel about a quarter of a mile underwater to our take-out, moving with the current under spectacular overhanging ledges, through caves and catacombed buttresses, many of them housing cleaning stations where larger fish would stop to have their teeth brushed by tiny gobies. Since these waters had not been fished for nearly 20 years, thick schools of curious reef sharks, many of them more than 8 feet long, and 300 pound Goliath groupers—mostly extinct elsewhere in the Caribbean—followed and occasionally nuzzled us like friendly Saint Bernards.
Dive Day 1: El Quebrado
Near the end of our first dive at a site called El Quebrado, we moved back into shallow waters around 40 feet in depth, where we floated, captivated, above vast forests of vibrant, towering Elkhorn coral. Our dive master Noel Lopéz Rodriguez told us that we were seeing the best living example of this species remaining in the world. During later dives at Octopus Cave and Finca de Pepe, we saw Hawksbill and green turtles swimming over crowded groves of sponges and brain coral, sea cucumber and thick forests of hard and soft coral tubes. I was excited to see tangled webs of black coral in great abundance in just 20 feet of water. In the rest of the Caribbean that species is rare in waters shallower than 90 feet, having been plucked and cut by divers to feed the jewelry trade. Over the next few days we made a dozen similarly spectacular dives.
Dive Day 2: Cabezo de la Cubera
On the second morning we dove Cabezo de la Cubera, a site dropping from a bustling shallow reef down a 50-foot wall accompanied by our ubiquitous posse of sharks and Goliath groupers to find a shipwreck housing giant green and spotted moray eels. A glistening cloud of tarpon, shiny as mirrors, surrounded, and then enveloped us in their school. Living organisms occupied every inch of space on the busy reef. I recognized live brain, staghorn and sheet corals, and basket and vase sponges beneath the bushy expanses of waving sea fans. The reef was alive with colorful aquarium fishes like sergeant majors, purple and yellow fairy basslets and bluehead wrasse, along with multi-colored micro lichens, sea urchins, tiny iridescent shrimp and long legged arrow shrimp that looked like daddy long-leg spiders with blue bodies and shiny yellow claws. We watched blue and peacock colored parrot fish, brilliant red file fish, triggerfish and angel fish grazing on the coral while squirrel fish and spode fish hid on their sides in the crevices, holes and under ledges.
Large Black Grouper. One of the species benefiting significantly from the protected area of Cuba's Gardens of the Queen. Photo credit: Noel Lopez
Dive Day 3: Five Seas
During an early morning dive we followed schools of tarpon along the sandy bottom below the cliff base, past caves and over hanging rocks covering the sandy bottom below the towering bluff. As usual, there was too much to see and my brother Aidan and I ran short on air. In a hurry to surface, we exited upward through a steep coral chimney, chasing a giant barracuda that loped warily above us while a large reef shark pursued us from behind, then suddenly rose up between us; close enough to brush us both with his sandpaper skin as he passed.
Back at the Avalon II, to pick up fresh tanks, we found two uniformed officials from a Cuban government vessel who had arrived during our absence with a letter from Castro thanking us for visiting his beloved Gardens of the Queen and encouraging us to report back to him on the conditions of the reef ecosystem and how the reserve has responded to government protection.
After our second dive at a site called Five Seas, we stopped for a picnic lunch at an island named Boca de Predra. The moment we beached our skiffs, we were mobbed by what seemed to be a pack of Cocker Spaniels in the shape of rats. They turned out to be giant rodents known as “jutias" who rushed from the mangroves to greet us on the shore. As friendly as kittens, they stood on their hind feet begging for food. Aidan gave them pineapple from our lunch box. Dad fed them watermelon from his mouth until he got scratched on the face and bled. Encouraged by our generosity to the rats, waves of iguanas and hermit crabs followed the jutias out of the mangrove. Soon the beach was crowded with rodents, reptiles, crustaceans and humans, all just searching for food and friendship.
Katie Losey and RFK, Jr. watch an invasive Lionfish hover over a basket sponge. Photo credit: Noel Lopez
Atlantic Spadefish. One of the many awesome schools of fish that visited us at Boca Grande. Photo credit: Noel Lopez
Conor assists local dive masters in controlling invasive Lionfish populations. Photo credit: Noel Lopez
Dive Day 4: Luisa's Reef, Los Mogotes and Cayo Alcatraz
During early morning dives at Luisa's Reef and Los Mogotes we dropped over a 60 foot ledge carpeted by healthy coral and found an amphitheater encircling a shrine of standing coral pillars each laden with multiple cleaning stations. Among the living columns we found Nassau grouper, goliath, tiger and black grouper, tarpon, barracuda, jacks and sharks. Then, at Noon, we lit out for unexplored regions motoring west 27 miles to Cayo Alcatraz to explore new frontiers near the edge of the marine reserve. We moored next to a mangrove island adjacent to a frigate bird rookery called Cinco Ballas, where thousands of baby frigate birds and egrets begged for food from nests a few feet off the sand.
The Cuban government has done an excellent job preserving the Gardens of the Queen and we hope our survey of these remote reefs will help bolster Cuba's enthusiasm for marine protection and provide data to support an economic justification to enlarge the reserve. The government requires that any jobs lost by fishermen be replaced by jobs in tourism, fishing, diving or in outfitting expeditions. For example, many of Avalon's staff of safety divers and skiff pilots and chefs were former fishermen. The Cuban government must make delicate calculations that preserve jobs, protect the reef and limit tourism to sustainable numbers. The Explorers Club scientists and conservation experts believe it's possible to extend marine protection to the new zones with sustainable eco-tourism as an economic driver to protect existing jobs and create new ones.
Dive Day 5: Cayo Pedra de Pitoto Nino
During a shallow snorkel dive at Cayo Pedra de Pitoto Nino we found a massive heap of tightly meshed dead corals, possibly pulverized by tropical storms and hurricanes over time. Wave currents and tides had since pressed and woven the skeletal mound into a consolidated pile nearly an acre in size. The marine biologists and scientists in our group were ecstatic to find new, living brain, stag, elkhorn, fire coral and sea fans sprouting from the skeletal stack. The newly rejuvenated reef is a sign for hope elsewhere. Duke University marine biologist and professor Rebecca Vidra told us that this was an exciting discovery for the world's marine biologists, many of whom are struggling with the problems of reef restoration around the globe. To her knowledge, it was the first example of obliterated reef rejuvenating itself in this way. Man-made efforts to resurrect reefs damaged by ship strikes or pollution have, sadly, been largely unsuccessful. It is believed that local fishermen have named this submarine feature the “floating reef" because it appears to move unanchored about the sandy bottom posing a navigational hazard.
That night, violent storms lit up the evening sky. In the morning a three-foot iguana swam up to our boat and climbed aboard, with my dad's help. The lizard demonstrated its gratitude by trying to bite his nose.
Aidan photo surveys unexplored areas of the Gardens of the Queen. Photo credit: Noel Lopez
Iguanas would swim out from the mangrove islands, sometimes with crocodiles, to investigate our expedition. Photo by David E. Guggenheim
Dive Day 6: Los Mogotes
At Los Mogotes, we had the best dive of the trip—and of my life. At around 70 feet at the base of a steep escarpment we found a sandy bottom bristling with an exotic living geology of coral towers catacombed with caves, holes and chimneys. We explored vibrant coral cliffs cut with deep crevasses and steep buttes where every tiny crevice and cranny was occupied by giant coral crabs, squirrel fish, sergeant majors, porcupine fish, stone crabs and moray eel. In the larger caverns, we found metropolis of spiny lobster, some of them quite massive. A giant porcupine fish hid in a thick grove of stag coral. Above wide coral prairies, a pair of reef sharks cut innocuously through a school of jack crevalle and then herded the jacks into a rolling fish ball and pushed it through the water column, keeping pace with us as we swam with the current.
Individual jacks peeled away from the school to pursue the sharks and rub their skin against the sharks' sandpaper hides, a maneuver that clearly annoyed the giant predators. We watched rivers of yellow tailed snapper cascading over the palisades to school in the middle of the water column followed by gleaming strata of tarpon that pooled above them mingling there with Jack Crevalle, horse-eye jack, yellow jack, big cubera snappers and sleek cero. A few large barracuda and a half dozen species of grouper, hugged the bottom just above the reef.
It felt like Grand Central Station at rush hour as thick aggregations of fish commuted to and from work with tarpon above, grouper below and the snapper schools in between. Only the giant southern sting rays seemed to have missed the wake-up call, snoozing on the sandy bottom between coral ledges surrounded by gargantuan conch moving glacially. Aidan and I took time to stroke the long scythe-like tail of a nine foot nurse shark hiding in a shallow cave. He wagged his tail to scold us away.
That night Ocean Doctor President Dr. David E. Guggenheim confided that those aggregations were the biggest fish highways he'd seen in 40 years of diving. On the way to our take-out, we followed 120-pound snapper loping lazily through a canyon as Aidan shot voracious reef killing lion fish with a tiny Hawaiian sling as part of an experimental study program to try to teach local predators—groupers and shark—to eat this spiny exotic.
Seeing this living reef with almost no visible bleaching—all teeming with robust reef fish and pelagic fish populations, made many of us feel like we had made a journey back in time. To me, the ocean looked the way it does in the old Jacques Cousteau films—with every part of the reef and surrounding sea crowded with bustling populations of living corals and fishes. We were especially excited to think that we might have been the first humans to see this particular underwater paradise.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
The U.S. reported more than 55,000 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, in a sign that the outbreak is not letting up as the Fourth of July weekend kicks off.
- The U.S. Isn't in a Second Wave of Coronavirus – The First Wave ... ›
- Navajo Nation Has Highest Covid-19 Infection Rate in the U.S. ... ›
- U.S. Coronavirus Cases Top 2 Million as All 50 States Start ... ›
By Jason Bruck
Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
Cetacean Collaborators<p>To build a drone that can stealthily collect spray from moving dolphins, we needed more data on their eyesight and hearing, and this is data that couldn't be collected in the wild nor simulated in a lab.</p><p>We worked with dolphins at facilities like Dolphin Quest in Bermuda, which provides guests opportunities to learn about dolphins while allowing <a href="https://dolphinquest.com/about-us/our-story/" target="_blank">scientists access to animals for noninvasive research</a>. Here the dolphins can swim away if they choose not to work with us, so we had to design the study like a game; the way a kindergarten teacher entertains a class. If the dolphins aren't interested, we don't get to do the science.</p><p>Over the course of hundreds of sessions, we sought to answer two questions: What can dolphins hear and what can they see around their heads?</p><p>To test dolphin hearing, we set up microphones and cameras to record dolphin behavior as we played drone noise in the air. We analyzed the responses to each noise – such as how many dolphins looked at the speaker – and used these as a proxy for their ability to hear the sounds.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
- Drone Footage Captures Rare Finless Porpoises in Hong Kong ... ›
- Brazil's Amazon River Dolphin Faces Extinction After Fishing ... ›
- 10 Surprising Dolphin 'Superpowers' - EcoWatch ›
Sunscreen pollution is accelerating the demise of coral reefs globally by causing permanent DNA damage to coral. gonzalo martinez / iStock / Getty Images Plus
On July 29, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a controversial bill prohibiting local governments from banning certain types of sunscreens.
- Your Guide to Reef Friendly Sunscreens - EcoWatch ›
- Hundreds of Sunscreens Don't Work or Have Unsafe Ingredients ... ›
- FDA Study: Sunscreen Chemicals Seep Into the Bloodstream ... ›
By Kelli McGrane
Oat milk is popping up at coffee shops and grocery stores alike, quickly becoming one of the trendiest plant-based milks.
- Is Oat Milk Gluten-Free? - EcoWatch ›
- What Nutritionists Think About Starbucks' Three New Plant-Based ... ›
- 6 Alternatives to Milk: Which Is the Healthiest? - EcoWatch ›
"Emissions from pyrotechnic displays are composed of numerous organic compounds as well as metals," a new study reports. Nodar Chernishev / EyeEm / Getty Images
Fireworks have taken a lot of heat recently. In South Dakota, fire experts have said President Trump's plan to hold a fireworks show is dangerous and public health experts have criticized the lack of plans to enforce mask wearing or social distancing. Now, a new study shows that shooting off fireworks at home may expose you and your family to dangerous levels of lead, copper and other toxins.
- No Social Distancing or Mask Requirement at Trump's Mt ... ›
- Trump's Fireworks Show at Mt. Rushmore Is a Dangerous Idea, Fire ... ›
By Ashutosh Pandey
Billions worth of valuable metals such as gold, silver and copper were dumped or burned last year as electronic waste produced globally jumped to a record 53.6 million tons (Mt), or 7.3 kilogram per person, a UN report showed on Thursday.
Environmental and Health Hazard<p>Experts say e-waste, which is now the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, poses serious environmental and health risks.</p><p>Simply throwing away electronic items without ensuring they get properly recycled leads to the loss of key materials such as iron, copper and gold, which can otherwise be recovered and used as primary raw materials to make new equipment, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of raw materials.</p><p>Refrigerants found in electronic equipment such as fridge and air conditioners also contribute to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents, or about 0.3% of global energy-related emissions, were released into the atmosphere in 2019 from discarded refrigerators and ACs that were not recycled properly, the report said.</p><p>E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR), and simply burning it or throwing it away could lead to serious health issues. Several studies have linked unregulated recycling of e-waste to adverse birth outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth, damages to the human brain or nervous system and in some cases hearing loss and heart troubles.</p><p>"Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures," said Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at the World Health Organization. "One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment."</p>
Europe Leads the Way<p>While most of the e-waste was generated in Asia (24.9 Mt) in 2019, Europe led the charts on a per person basis with 16.2 kg per capita, the report said.</p><p>But the continent also recorded the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/the-eu-declares-war-on-e-waste/a-51108790" target="_blank">highest documented formal e-waste collection and recycling</a> rate at 42.5%, still below its target of 65%. Europe was well ahead of the others on this front. Asia ranked second with 11.7%.</p><p>The authors said while more that 70% of the world's population was covered by some form of e-waste policy or laws, not much was being done toward implementation and enforcement of the regulations to encourage the take-up of a collection and recycling infrastructure due to lack of investment and political motivation.</p><p>"You have to think about new economic systems," said Kühr.</p><p>One approach could be that consumers no longer buy the products, but only the service they offer. The device would remain the property of the maker, who would then have an interest in offering his customers the best service and the necessary equipment. The maker would also be interested in designing his products in such a way that they are easier to repair and easier to recycle, Kühr said.</p>
- Dangerous Chemicals From E-Waste Found in Black Plastics From ... ›
- Electronic Waste Study Finds $65 Billion in Raw Materials ... ›
- Electronic Waste: New EU Rules Target Throwaway Culture ... ›
- COVID-19 Masks Are Polluting Beaches and Oceans - EcoWatch ›
- Plastic Packaging Use Increases During the Coronavirus - EcoWatch ›
- Coronavirus Worsens Thailand's Plastic Waste Crisis - EcoWatch ›
- Coronavirus Plastic Waste Polluting the Environment - EcoWatch ›