Photo: School of blue-striped grunts

A school of bluestriped grunts and schoolmaster snappers swim in the Caribbean Sea off of southern Cuba. The Caribbean’s coral reefs support many tropical fish, but global warming is threatening the reefs and the fish that live there.

Photograph by David Doubilet

Written by Peter Benchley

Republished from the pages of National Geographic magazine

It was almost like a hallucination. Immediate. A sense of dislocation. Something was awry. A few seconds earlier, seen from the surface, everything had looked normal. The midday sun shot arrows of light through the dappled water, illuminating a routine reef in an isolated backwater of an exhausted sea. But no sooner had I submerged—my bubbles had had no time to disperse nor the mist to clear from my mask—than I knew I was in the grip of the weird.

Time was out of joint.

I had flopped overboard from a dinghy on a glassy Caribbean sea in the summer of the year 2000 and in an instant, apparently, slipped backward nearly half a century into an underwater realm that had not existed, so far as I knew, since the 1950s.

Residents swarmed over me, welcoming me to the neighborhood, animals in numbers and diversity I hadn't seen in decades, not since Lyndon Johnson was President and man had yet to set foot on the moon. Groupers of all descriptions and sizes lumbered around me: Nassau groupers, black groupers, even the patriarch of the grouper clan, the gigantic jewfish (aka the goliath grouper), creatures widely assumed to have almost disappeared from the Caribbean long ago—speared, hooked, netted, poisoned by men driven by poverty, hunger, and need.

Schools of yellowtail snappers and blue creole wrasses darted about in a frenzy, then quickly departed, their curiosity sated.

A squadron of glittering silver tarpon passed regally by, implacable eyes showing neither interest nor alarm.

Green moray eels slid partway out of their crevice homes, needle-toothed jaws mimicking menace as, rhythmically, they pumped oxygen-bearing water over their throbbing gills.

In the middle distance reef sharks scanned the coral for signs of wound or weakness, having appraised and dismissed me as worthy of neither fearing nor eating.

Nearer came a big, robust bull shark—pregnant, swimming close enough to let me feel the pressure wave of her passing, as if shouldering me aside.

I settled to the bottom and spun in a slow circle, my eyes searching every corner of this peaceable kingdom. Pairs of jacks tumbled along the reef line, squabbling, it seemed, or playing, but in fact breeding, as evidenced by tiny puffs of white that emerged from the commotion: eggs conjoined with sperm.

Fifty or sixty feet (15 to 18 meters) above, a pair of turtles swam locked together, one atop the other, snouts out of water…mating.

For an hour or more I luxuriated in this astonishing replay of halcyon days and cherished memories. Then, low on air, I surfaced. Photographer David Doubilet, who has either (as I suspect) grown gills from spending 45 years underwater or (as he claims) learned to draw breath only once every few weeks, stayed below capturing images to prove that these wonderful creatures, relics of happier, healthier times in the sea, still did, indeed, exist.

That they do exist—or, more accurately, that they could continue to survive and reproduce amid the shameful devastation of most of the surrounding sea—was thanks to an unlikely combination of factors: autocracy, bureaucracy, paucity, wisdom, ingenuity, dogged persistence in the face of a lonely ideology, and, finally, common sense…all of which are characteristic of the constantly changing enigma that is Cuba.

I was well aware that these particular paradisiacal waters were neither common nor typical. Cuba has more than 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers) of coastline, four primary reef systems (each of which is about equal to or longer than the Florida Keys), and more than 4,000 islands, islets, cays, humps, lumps, and spits. From conversations with Cuban scientists and environmentalists who have been working for more than ten years to develop a comprehensive, sustainable marine conservation program, I knew that many of the reefs were severely stressed.

"We're beginning to see serious damage from coastal development and overfishing," one scientist told me. "But look: We're a population of 11 million people, and we have to struggle for everything we get. There's only so much we can protect!"

Among the areas that are being protected is a patch off Cuba's southeast coast of roughly a thousand square miles (2,590 square kilometers) of reefs, mangrove swamps, and islands unnamed and named—Cayo Caballones, Cayo Cachiboca, Laguna de Boca de Guano, and so on—that is known collectively as Jardines de la Reina, or the Gardens of the Queen. It is a sedulously guarded marine sanctuary, off-limits to all but a few Cuban lobster boats and a handful of foreign divers and light-tackle fishermen.

Too far from land (50 miles, or 80 kilometers) to be accessible to most local commercial fishers and protected by strictly enforced government laws against poaching, the Gardens of the Queen had been allowed to flourish almost entirely free from human assault.

Still, distance and regulations alone could not be relied upon to deter the desperate, and the gardens were further sheltered by a public-private joint venture between the Cuban government and an Italian company named Avalon. The company had a license to operate a substantial catch-and-release fishing camp called La Tortuga from a floating hotel moored in the labyrinthine canals among the mangrove swamps. It shared its profits with the Cuban Ministry of Tourism, and its 20 small fishing boats were always on the water, carrying one or two of the hotel's 25 weekly guests to or from a fishing spot. They were a constantly vigilant presence.

"We bring our guests every day to every corner of the gardens," Giuseppe (Pepe) Omegna, resident manager of La Tortuga, told me. "We have the finest fly-fishing in the world for bonefish, tarpon, and permit, so obviously it is in our interest that nobody affects the area. We cooperate fully with the border police and the fishing authorities to take care of this paradise. We never leave the gardens."

If the Gardens of the Queen could be preserved in their natural state while at the same time be opened to carefully monitored groups of visitors, the thought occurred to me, they could become a template for sound development and a significant contributor to the chaotic Cuban economy.

When I returned to our boat, the 110-foot (33-meter) Ocean Diver, I was greeted by Manuel Mola, a tough, compact dive master who had been assigned to us by the Cuban government (nominally the Ministry of Tourism) as guide, adviser, and…well, let's be frank…minder.

"You see now why we always argue with the Ministry of Fisheries," he said with a grin. "They tell us how much fish are worth to the fishermen and their families. We tell them how much more the fish can bring in if they're left alive."

The conflict implicit in Manuel's remark—the value of fish as commercial product versus the value of all marine creatures as tourist attractions—reflected a change ongoing throughout Cuba. At a time when tourism is seen as the salvation of the Cuban economy, scientists within and without the government are struggling to balance the demands of growth with the need for preservation.

The island nation already receives more than two million visitors a year, and the government has ambitions to welcome more than five million foreigners annually by 2005. Gigantic hotels are bursting forth like mushrooms upon the shorelines. Aided by mammoth infusions of European cash, Old Havana is being lovingly, expertly, and splendidly restored, its colonial-era buildings supplied with all the modern amenities—from air-conditioning to Internet access—necessary to attract 21st-century businesses and visitors.

The Cuban government knows full well that in the tough competition for the global tourist dollar, environmental sensitivity is a valuable commodity.

I met one day with Rosa Elena Simeón, Cuba's minister of science, environment, and technology, in her cavernous office in the classic capitol building in Old Havana. A grandmotherly woman with eyes of burnished steel, Minister Simeón admitted that toughness was part of her mandate.

"Laws are only as good as their enforcement," she said. "We must be strict. We'll shut down any hotel, any factory, any investment opportunity that violates our environmental laws." She smiled knowingly and added, "Of course, we can be stricter. The control we have permits the maintenance of order." So, I noticed, did the size of her staff. Her young ministry, begun only in 1994, was now composed of 40 entities employing 9,000 people, including, she said proudly, "more than 350 Ph.D.'s."

Outside Old Havana, in a quiet residential neighborhood, Maria Elena Ibarra Martin, director of the Center of Marine Studies at the University of Havana, was, if anything, more direct than Minister Simeón in articulating her government's commitment to marine conservation.

"Because the government controls all levels of activity," she said, "implementation of order is easier than in other Caribbean countries. There is not much violation of our laws. As a result our marine environment is in better condition than elsewhere."

Cuba has another curious advantage over the rest of the Caribbean's island nations: Because of its political isolation, it lags more than 40 years behind in terms of massive tourism development and the concomitant destruction of marine life and habitat.

"Cuba can still be saved," I was assured by Ken Lindeman, a senior scientist with Environmental Defense who has worked in Cuba for seven years. "But there's not much time. There will have to be other sanctuaries as well protected as the Gardens of the Queen."

Indeed, the Chronicle of Cuban Marine Fisheries, published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, documents drastic decreases in the landings of certain species since the beginning of the 1990s. The chronicle concludes that "87.6 percent of fisheries resources are in a critical stage" with declines of 95 percent and 88 percent respectively in landings of Nassau groupers and mullet. Furthermore, development both on the shorelines and far inshore (dams, logging) is reducing nursery habitats for a great many marine creatures.

I had heard no tales of damage done by increased tourism, but I looked forward to seeing for myself.

I had joined Ocean Diver at Cayo Largo off Cuba's southwest shore, just to the east of the Isle of Youth, and my first dive was at a site known as Devil's Hole. Diving tourism is by no means a novelty in Cuba. Some popular, accessible sites, like Punta Francés off the Isle of Youth, attract as many as 30,000 divers a year. Devil's Hole had been brazenly promoted in tourist brochures, and I wondered if it would live up to the puffery.

The attraction eluded me, however, because as far as I could see, there was no there there. The charms of Devil's Hole were reserved for macrophotographers, whose trained eyes and special lenses could capture the minuscule life forms on the coral walls and within the countless sponges.

As we motored east toward the Gardens of the Queen, we encountered no other dive boats and only one or two small fishing boats. "Very few licenses, very little fuel" one of the crew told me quietly, trusting me to extrapolate: The Cuban government was carefully restricting and monitoring all seagoing traffic, wary of the ambitious captain who might be tempted to take his boat and all its gear, plus his family and friends and even, perhaps, a few paying passengers, on the journey across the Straits of Florida to the promise of asylum in the United States.

We did meet some mariners, though, who had managed to carve out livings for themselves within the maze of restrictions.

One morning our boat was approached by a large, ramshackle motor vessel that looked as if it had been at sea since Noah was a boy. The water was flat calm, so the two boats rested easily side by side a few feet from one another while representatives of the two crews carried on serious, sotto voce (but utterly cordial) negotiations. The result: Our boat acquired more than a dozen fresh lobsters in return for a bottle of rum, half a pound (0.2 kilogram) of coffee, four rolls of toilet paper, a few packets of powdered soft drink, and (our captain added proudly, as if these were the items that had sealed the deal) "two used spark plugs."

"All Cubans are ingenious," he said as he watched the lobster boat pull away. "They have to be. Ashore these men will get so little for their lobsters that they can't support themselves, even though by the time the lobsters land on the tourists' tables, they'll fetch maybe $500. So these guys stay at sea; they eat what they catch and barter for what they need. Above all, Cubans are survivors."

Time and again members of our crew proved him right. Several had advanced degrees: Irumis, our cook, was a veterinarian; Annie, the maid, had a master's in education. Ashore, in their professions, they might make the peso equivalent of between $10 and $15 a month. Their salaries on the boat were roughly the same, but here there was always the chance of tips in precious U.S. dollars.

And there were occasions for freelancing. Every morning and evening from our anchorages on the mudflats we could see dozens, scores, maybe even hundreds of large brown rodents foraging on the beaches of the tiny islands or scampering through the mangroves.

"Jutías," explained one of the young crew men. "They're a kind of tree rat." He paused, then added with a smile: "The government keeps them here in case of war."

"As what?" I asked. "Biological weapons?" "Food," he replied tolerantly. "Cuba is always prepared for war. The trouble is, jutías have no natural enemies around here except crocodiles, and they're eating themselves out of habitat."

The crewman was always willing to restore nature's balance and coincidentally, of course, to acquire a stock of scarce animal protein. Frequently he would go ashore in the twilight of morning or evening, dressed only in a bathing suit and scuba booties and carrying a machete. Nimble as a spider, he would vanish into a tangle of mangrove roots and branches and emerge, usually in under an hour, with three or four jutía carcasses swinging by their tails. Most he would skin, butcher, and freeze to give to his family; some he would share (unnecessarily generously, I thought) with us.

To my pampered palate, jutías were barely edible—slimy of texture and vile of flavor. But I, of course, had no firsthand knowledge of hunger or malnutrition. If I had, jutías might be as savory to me as veal.

The mangrove swamps that shelter jutías are vital organs in these marine ecosystems. They shelter, feed, and protect animals newborn, young, and vulnerable, and they filter the water that comes and goes on the tides. Though in the mangroves of the Gardens of the Queen we saw the inevitable signs of human intrusion—beer and soda cans, whiskey bottles, plastic spoons—mostly we saw healthy signs of burgeoning life: baby barracuda already swimming in the protection of schools; tiny, cylindrical tunicates dangling from underwater roots; infinitesimal shrimps and crabs. And somewhere in the rich and cloudy water, we knew, were the fingerlings of the larger animals of the reefs: the jacks, the snappers, and the sharks.

Snorkeling through the mangroves early one morning, I watched a young stingray bury itself in the bottom, fluttering its wings in the silt until nothing was visible but the cartilaginous lumps over its eyes. Suddenly a rush of pain stopped my breath; my cheeks and neck felt assaulted by a million flaming needles. Quickly I retreated, scanning the murk for villains while trying foolishly and in vain to douse the feeling of fire by rubbing my face.

It took me a few moments to realize that the answer to the pain lay not in what I could see but in what I couldn't: microscopic poisonous harpoons, the stinging nematocysts of hidden Cassiopea jellyfish, released from their repose in the muck by the turmoil caused by the stingray's wings.

All perfectly normal, all quite painful.

One phenomenon we encountered with increasing frequency, however, was not only not familiar to me but quickly became troubling. And then, as corroborative reports reached us from more and more places, it took an ominous turn. It goes by different names in different locales: In the Cayman Islands it is "sea itch," in Bermuda "sand fleas," in Florida "sea lice." Here in Cuba it is named after the Carib Indians, the fiercest of all the aboriginal residents. Cubans call it simply "Caribe."

I have no name for it, only a description: invisible, time-delayed, ambushing agony. It struck in shallow water or deep, on the bottom or at the surface, on the reef or in open water. It infiltrated any opening in mask or wet suit and, once within, would flood a human body with tiny, biting, burrowing, infesting, and infecting monsters.

First we all wore hoods and booties and gloves. Then, as they proved ineffectual, we swabbed petroleum jelly on all junctures of rubber and flesh. Finally we wrapped our ankles and wrists with waterproof tape.

And still they got us. I recall surfacing one day and turning back to take one of David's cameras from him, and as his head broke water, I saw that every millimeter of exposed skin was swollen with pustular sores.

Was the villain a flea, a bug, a jellyfish, a larval state of something? I asked the captain and crew; I sought enlightenment from the boat's radio. I found no answer. It was Caribe. Period. It came every year with the warming of the water, and every year the water seemed to be warming earlier. Usually it did not strike until August or September, but this year…yes, the water on the surface was already nearly 90°F (32°C), and it was still only early June. But, we were told, that was how it was with Caribe. Perhaps prayer would help. (It didn't.)

Some of us seemed to be more susceptible to Caribe than others. A few of the Cubans in our crew were immune, which suggested that whatever toxin was being delivered by whatever animal was an allergen.

We didn't care; all we wanted was a cure. We tried urine, we tried meat tenderizer, we tried (on some obscure authority) Head & Shoulders shampoo. Usually, nothing helped; sometimes, something seemed to, temporarily.

And then, inexplicably, Caribe began to abate. First there were dives when no one encountered it, then entire days.

I never discovered for certain exactly what Caribe was, a larva or a louse, and I expect I never will. But I'm sure that it will return next year and the next, for the fact that it has a name suggests that it's part of the natural rhythm of the sea.

As I left Cuba, new diving resorts were being developed rapidly, and existing facilities, like the one at Cayo Coco on the island's northeast coast, were being upgraded to receive jumbo jets carrying hundreds of foreign tourists. There was no way to know how thoroughly those waters and those reefs were being protected; for the time being, the Gardens of the Queen remained the best protected marine sanctuary in all of Cuba.

With the advent of a new administration in Washington, relations between the United States and Cuba had slipped into one of their cyclical freezes, and the amount of assistance American scientists and field experts would henceforth be permitted to offer to Cuba's ocean conservation program had become an open question…one we hoped would be answered positively.

As Environmental Defense's Ken Lindeman explained, helping Cuba protect its waters would be a win-win situation for all concerned. "Cuba is so close to Florida," he said, "and the ocean currents run north through the Yucatán Channel, so anything we can do to replenish Cuban fisheries will help replenish U.S. and other neighboring fisheries too."

All of us who have been privileged to dive in the Gardens of the Queen hope fervently that common sense for the commonweal will prevail over short-term political expediency.

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