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
Environmental officials and members of the U.S. Coast Guard are racing to clean up a mysterious oil spill that has spread to 11 miles of Delaware coastline.
- Trans Mountain Pipeline Spills up to 50,000 Gallons of Oil on ... ›
- Citgo Must Pay $143M for a Delaware River Oil Spill, Supreme ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
- The Complex and Frustrating Reality of Recycling Plastic - EcoWatch ›
- The Recycling Dilemma: Good Plastic, Bad plastic? - EcoWatch ›
- The Myth About Recycling Plastic? It Works - EcoWatch ›
Plain Naturals is making waves in the CBD space with a new product line for retail customers looking for high potency CBD products at industry-low prices.
Is More CBD Really Better?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2ODQyNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzYxMDMzN30.6B08i5QYW_Iq5bUf3qtm8oK8o6FKsRUZ74gdakgJ_TY/img.jpg?width=980" id="0ef5b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bac86abf3ce246742b18b0dc4052f4dd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Plain Naturals offers a 5000mg CBD oil tincture in 30ml bottle for $99.99.<p>Consumers have gotten used to paying high prices for low amounts of cannabidiol. Plain Naturals is beginning to change that. There are myriad <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5569602/%23:~:text=Chronic%2520use%2520and%2520high%2520doses,be%2520well%2520tolerated%2520by%2520humans.&text=Nonetheless%252C%2520some%2520side%2520effects%2520have,vitro%2520or%2520in%2520animal%2520studies." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">studies</a> showing that low doses of CBD (less than 50mg per day) are ineffective for many users. And many clinical <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5569602/%23:~:text=Chronic%2520use%2520and%2520high%2520doses,be%2520well%2520tolerated%2520by%2520humans.&text=Nonetheless%252C%2520some%2520side%2520effects%2520have,vitro%2520or%2520in%2520animal%2520studies." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">studies</a> have shown effective dosages of 100 - 800mg per day to be effective for many conditions ranging from <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5569602/%23:~:text=Chronic%2520use%2520and%2520high%2520doses,be%2520well%2520tolerated%2520by%2520humans.&text=Nonetheless%252C%2520some%2520side%2520effects%2520have,vitro%2520or%2520in%2520animal%2520studies." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">anxiety and depression to Parkinson's disease and cancer</a>. And several <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5569602/%23:~:text=Chronic%2520use%2520and%2520high%2520doses,be%2520well%2520tolerated%2520by%2520humans.&text=Nonetheless%252C%2520some%2520side%2520effects%2520have,vitro%2520or%2520in%2520animal%2520studies." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">studies</a> published by the National Institutes of Health have shown up to 1500mg per day to be consistently "well-tolerated" by adults. </p><p>Now it is always recommended to begin with a lower dosage and increase until an effective dose has been reached. But the advantage of starting with a higher potency CBD oil is that it is much easier to use less to start with and increase over time than to buy very low dose CBD oil and ultimately end up buying more and more stronger products. To start at 50mg per dose of a 5000mg oil, you would simply use ⅓ dropper or about 10-12 drops.</p>
The Truth About CBD Product Potency<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2ODMyNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDc2NTg1N30.OAm3iOTO_pKZLXi7KdJ7n0DGOFMdOmIYuG4ArGooFC4/img.jpg?width=980" id="d657c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee016a81b29caa699b9185b64ce345d6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
CBD gummies from Plain Naturals are 100% vegan and sugar free.<p>Unlike most CBD brands which can be much smoke and mirrors when it comes to stating their product quality, potency and consistency, PlainNaturals.com has <a href="https://plainnaturals.com/product-information" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">lab tests</a> conducted by FDA/DEA approved laboratories and publishes their product lab test <a href="https://plainnaturals.com/product-information" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noreferrer noopener">reports</a> right on their website so customers know the quality of the product they are buying. </p><p>In a recent <a href="https://crnusa.org/sites/default/files/RAC%2520attachments/CBD/CBD%2520RTC%2520Final.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">report</a> published by the Food and Drug Administration, FDA tested 147 cbd oils and cbd products. They found that of the 102 products that indicated a specific amount of CBD, 18 products (18%) contained less than 80% of the amount of CBD indicated; 46 products (45%) contained within 20% of the amount of CBD indicated; 38 products (37%) contained more than 120% of the amount of CBD indicated and of those 147 products, the FDA also found nearly half contained levels of THC above the limit of 3.1 mg per serving (or .3%). </p><p>So there's a 70% chance that a CBD consumer is not getting what they pay for and a 50% chance that the product they are buying may not be legal.</p><p>When you buy CBD oil online from <a href="https://plainnaturals.com/" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noreferrer noopener">PlainNaturals.com</a>, you also get an unconditional money back guarantee and the manufacturer's warranty of the product quality and potency.</p>
CBD and Hemp Creams offer high-benefit, low-cost options to consumers.<p>Plain Naturals has taken the uncertainty out of the online CBD store process. By offering detailed laboratory reports on all their products and offering a money back guarantee, PlainNaturals.com online CBD store puts control back in the hands of the consumer when it comes to making their decision about where to buy CBD online.</p><p>In all 50 states and at the federal level it is 100% legal to <a href="https://plainnaturals.com/shop/ols/categories/cbd-oils" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noreferrer noopener">buy CBD oil online</a> from an online CBD store provided that the product meets the standards set forth in federal regulations, containing not more than 0.3% THC and manufactured from industrial hemp.</p><p><a href="https://plainnaturals.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">PlainNaturals.com</a> offers CBD (Cannabidiol) products like <a href="https://plainnaturals.com/shop/ols/categories/cbd-oils" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">CBD Oils</a>, <a href="https://plainnaturals.com/shop/ols/categories/cbd-gummies--edibles" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">CBD gummies and edibles</a>, <a href="https://plainnaturals.com/shop/ols/categories/cbd-isolate-powder" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">CBD isolate powder</a>, wholesale CBD, <a href="https://plainnaturals.com/shop/ols/categories/cbd--hemp-creams--lotions" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">CBD and hemp cream</a> and <a href="https://plainnaturals.com/shop/ols/categories/essential-oils--aromatherapy" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">essential oils</a>. <a href="https://plainnaturals.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">PlainNaturals.com</a> continues to be a top supplier of wholesale CBD products to retailers and has also opened a retailer online portal for stores and CBD dealers to buy CBD in bulk.</p><p>EcoWatch readers can take advantage of a special offer from <a href="https://plainnaturals.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">PlainNaturals.com</a> and save an additional 25% off any purchase of $99 or more through 10/31/20 with coupon code <strong>ecowatch25</strong>.</p>
Towards the end of the final presidential debate of the 2020 election season, the moderator asked both candidates how they would address both the climate crisis and job growth, leading to a nearly 12-minute discussion where Donald Trump did not acknowledge that the climate is changing and Joe Biden called the climate crisis an existential threat.
- As Biden Embraces More Ambitious Climate Plan, Fossil Fuel Execs ... ›
- Climate Crisis Gets 10 Minutes at VP Debate - EcoWatch ›
- Climate Crisis Gets Just 10 Minutes at End of Presidential Debate ... ›
By Zheng Chen and Darren H. S. Tan
As concern mounts over the impacts of climate change, many experts are calling for greater use of electricity as a substitute for fossil fuels. Powered by advancements in battery technology, the number of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles on U.S. roads is increasing. And utilities are generating a growing share of their power from renewable fuels, supported by large-scale battery storage systems.