Deep Cuba

Voyage to the bottom of the embargo

interview by Chris Clarke

Bill Belleville was part of a Discovery Channel-financed expedition to explore Cuba’s waters. From the trip came Belleville’s recent book, Deep Cuba (University of Georgia Press, 2002).We caught up with Bill at his home in Florida.

Tell us a little bit about the expedition that’s the subject of Deep Cuba.
The Discovery Channel chartered an oceanographic ship—complete with deep-diving submersible—from Harbor Branch Oceanographic in Ft. Pierce Florida for six weeks. Eight scientists, including two renowned Cubans, were invited to come along. The challenge was straightforward: No major scientific expedition from the US had been to Cuba since the embargo, over 40 years ago. What would we find there? It was a bit like Cousteau and his Calypso—except we were American, and our ship was extremely high tech. We were able to poke about in places not even Cubans had seen before. I’m an environmental writer with a strong interest in both freshwater and marine environments, and I had a chance to use my diving skills to help me better understand what was there.

So why Cuba? Aside from the political barriers to US expeditions there, what makes Cuba interesting to oceanographers?
Cuba makes up one-third of the land mass of all the Antilles, and terrestrially, nearly half the trees, and 90 percent of invertebrates, like snails, are endemics. Biological diversity is extremely high because of all that land. The rest of the Caribbean has been widely studied by Americans, and Cuba has been intensely studied by Cubans. But for most of the world, Cuba and its natural history was like a large black hole. And it’s hard to manage—or understand—the wider region if a big chunk like this is missing.

What kinds of marine habitats surround Cuba?
We spent our entire time on the southern coast, which is more isolated than the north. We skirted the edges of several large gulfs or bays, each with its own crescent of mangrove and sand islands. To the east, the gulfs of Anna Maria and Guacanayabo were rimmed with an island chain called Jardines de la Reina—Gardens of the Queen.

Farther to the west, the large gulf of Batabano was surrounded by Los Canarreos. There were about 1,000 islands in each chain, from a few acres in size to the massive Isle of Youth. Very few were populated, and from the sea, it looked as if the conquistadors could have sailed through yesterday.

There’s also nearly 1,000 miles of coral reef off the southern coast (and 1,200 more to the north). Much was untouched, as time-stuck as the old cars in Havana.

We hear about the environmental sins committed by Eastern Bloc socialist countries. How does Cuba rate in protecting—or abusing—its marine resources?
Castro’s very astute about conservation, and as a former scuba diver and spearfisherman, he was more familiar than most American politicians about the marine world. He has banned spearfishing because it targets the larger “mother” fish, the taking of live coral (for souvenir sale), and has helped make the spiny lobster fishery sustainable—which helps not just the lobster and the fishermen, but creates a valuable export product. The government has also established 51 Marine Protected Areas. Most are off the more remote southern coast.

Cuba’s marine wetlands are in great shape—in fact, Cuba has the most extensive mangrove forest in all the Antilles.

But the economic situation is so precarious that when Castro is gone, massive investment from the US is predicted to pick up where Batista left off. There is some current concern about oil drilling now taking place off the northern coast for a low grade crude, with some prospecting in the Gulf. Most of Cuba’s energy comes from these wells.

If we were to reestablish diplomatic relations, we could negotiate such things. We are, after all, downstream from Cuba courtesy of the Gulf Stream—what Hemingway called “the Great Blue River.” One ruptured oil well could kill Florida’s own reef, damage our water quality, and cost millions in damages to the tourism economy. And nuclear power, which Cuba has been toying with, could result in accidents far worse than oil spills.

Did you meet many Cubans? How did they react to you?
There were four Cubans aboard—biologists Rodolfo Claro and Pedro Alcolado, and two official government observers. I got to know Pedro pretty well. They were very bright, modest, friendly. And very proud of their country. We met average Cubans on the street in Havana and Santiago, as well as some villagers on the Isle of Youth and some lobster fishermen. I encountered no animosity whatsoever. When we were moored in Havana harbor, Castro himself came about for a couple of hours to talk about fish ecology, mariculture, drugs from the sea—especially drugs to slow aging; he’s in his early seventies—Jacques Cousteau, a massive great white shark once caught near Havana, and… cities in outer space. The guy had an abiding curiosity about many things beyond politics. He was charismatic, had a sense of humor and liked being in the spotlight. Understandably, he was also a bit of a bullshitter.

What effect has the embargo had on Cuban oceanographers?
Good and bad news. It’s given them a more intact ocean to study—with all the glorious mangrove wetland and sea grass pastures and coral reefs in great shape because of lack of coastal tourist development.

But they have little funding to study it. The Institute of Oceanography in Havana is dilapidated, hardware is deteriorating, and its very astute and well-trained scientists are vastly underpaid. Nonetheless, they partner as much as possible with institutions from other countries—including some NGOs from the US to squeeze as much bang for the buck out of their situation as they can.

What did you find in Cuba that would surprise US readers most?
We get so little information in the mass media about the natural history of Cuba, that everything I saw was new for me. The most startling thing about Cubans was that contrary to the popular pack journalism portrayal, they are not wallowing in despair. They have no luxuries and staples are tight, but they are proud and they make do with very little. I’ve seen far greater despair and anger in Kingston, Jamaica and Iquitos, Peru—or Miami for that matter.

Is there hope for preservation once tourism gears up?
Despite the embargo, Cuba has a strong tourism industry. In fact, tourism surpassed sugar as the major GNP just in the last two years. Much of that tourism is “Beach and Sun” playpen style in designated tourist areas. Ecotourism could be a godsend for the country if practiced ethically because it would engage locals, sustain the environment, and make money. You hope they would look at what we’ve done to our own islands and reef in south Florida and not make the same mistake. The US has a very real stake in the health of Cuba’s waters; if they overdevelop their coast, we’re going to get hammered with current-borne sediment and assorted toxins. As it is now, we benefit by having those currents deliver us larvae of sport fish, lobster, and conch. The ocean with its critters washes freely between the US and Cuba with little regard for man-made laws and embargos.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our biweekly newsletter.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our biweekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.