Cuba's Coral Reef: The Best We've Never Seen

The most surprising thing resulting from the 50-year absence of American tourists in Cuba is the remarkable health of the beautiful coral reefs that line its shores.
coral reef, underwater, bright colors,

coral reef, underwater, bright colors,

Caribbean Coral Reef, Cienfuegos, Cuba

Photo by: Wolfgang Poelzer / WaterFrame / Getty Images

Wolfgang Poelzer / WaterFrame / Getty Images

The 1950s were a time of profound change in the Caribbean. Over the previous several hundred years, island economies had been locally based and agriculturally driven. But in the latter half of the 20th century, in a shift brought on by the advent of airline travel and other factors, these nations moved from farming to tourism. Americans, armed with new superpower success and leisure-time dollars, took aim at the sun-washed beaches and crystal blue waters. The Caribbean was in the crosshairs, especially the Yankee favorite of Cuba. Alas, those American tourists’ wealth would have to be spent elsewhere. So would their vacations. Cuba had its own plans.

The collapse of Cuban-American relations due to revolution and then embargo is a tale of epic consequence still felt today. But one of the most surprising aspects of this story and the resulting 50-year absence of American tourists in Cuba is the subsequent condition of the seas around this 770-mile-long island — in particular, the remarkable health of the beautiful coral reefs that line its southern shores.

Worldwide coral decline is common knowledge. According to David Guggenheim, founder and president of Ocean Doctor, a DC-based non-profit that’s dedicated to ocean conservation efforts in Cuba and elsewhere, “It’s basically coastal development and overfishing; that’s what’s killing reefs. Sedimentation and nutrient pollution fueling the growth of algae, which then smothers the coral.” 

No matter your stand on the causes of global climate change, this fact is indisputable: Corals all over the world, in all seas, are dying by the acre. The demise of these animals and the delicate reefs they construct, so fundamental to marine ecosystems, is one of the dreariest and most definite indicators of ocean environmental damage on a global scale. Coral extinction spells doom for ocean systems — and, possibly, for the planet. “The problem is we’re not only fertilizing the oceans with sewage and agricultural runoff,” Guggenheim explains. “We’re also taking out of the ocean the fish that eat the algae and keep the reefs clean. That’s what’s led to the loss of 50% of the coral cover over the past 50 years. Half the corals have died in the Caribbean in that time.”

In response to this bleak reality, in the 1990s, Cuba took bold action to create extensive coral reef preserves. The basic purpose of these preserves was to provide safe havens for fish to regain balance in populations. But it also assured that all development in these areas would be viewed as a potentially lethal threat against the reefs. “Corals are sensitive to a lot of things, both local and global threats,” Guggenheim says. “But so far, it appears to be the local threat that has much more of an impact.” For all these decades, development on Cuban shores has been curbed where it might have such a deadly effect. Fish have been left alive.

The results, quite simply, are healthy coral reefs, some of the most bountiful in the world. They are the direct beneficiaries of strict environmental policies and the ironic upshot of absent droves of tourists, specifically Americans.  Says Guggenheim: “By stemming US tourism, the embargo has limited the amount of coastal development in Cuba that would have been needed to accommodate those millions of Americans. Also, it limited local fishing, recreational and otherwise,” allowing the reefs to thrive.

So with American tourists now predicted to return to Cuba in droves, will these policies hold? How can the island maintain its precious natural resource and still build 5-star hotel rooms with ocean views? It’s one of the big questions for the years ahead. “Already, they’ve announced 12 new golf resorts just to accommodate US tourism,” Guggenheim says. “China is building at least one of those specifically to meet US demand.”

There’s optimism, for the moment. Guggenheim’s group, for one, has begun a new initiative called CUSP — the Cuba-US Sustainability Partnership — to encourage sustainable tourism “by engaging private-sector investors, corporations and non-governmental organizations in Cuba in a unique partnership that’s committed to a code of ethics and guiding principles.” The lucky fact is that large-scale resort development is coming late enough to Cuba that its leaders now have the real opportunity to create a better form of tourism than found elsewhere in the Caribbean. Cancun, for example, is the exact model of what Cuba doesn’t want to become. 

“Places like Cancun — it was an empty promise,” Guggenheim says. “They displaced the local community. The good jobs went to outsiders, and the lousy ones to locals. They lost their community, their culture. What stands there now is an Americanized caricature of Mexico for the tourists — and they killed the coral reefs, the natural resources.”

He continues: “Look at Cancun, and you see Cuba’s possible future — and that scares the hell out of me. We’ve actually turned it into a verb, the ‘Cancunization’ of the Caribbean.”

Guggenheim’s message? Cuba can be different. Considering the strength and resilience of a people who have had to live through 5 decades doing without, they seem uniquely qualified to resist the forces that might otherwise destroy their delicate underwater environments. “Cuba can be the shining green jewel of the Caribbean,” Guggenheim declares. “They can do for global sustainability what they’ve already done in medicine and biotechnology. If someone wants to learn how to do it right for sustainable energy, organic farming and tourism, it’s a no-brainer. They’ll go to Cuba!”

For American tourists, especially those donning tanks and masks and plunging into this new scuba paradise, the lesson is humbling. We are visitors to this legendary island, nothing more, nothing less. Embrace the beauty without damaging it. Again and again, we’ve seen the effects of tourism gone wrong. Cuba — so ironically, so poetically — is our chance to get it right.

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