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Snorkeling the Healthy Coral Reefs of Cuba!

08 Dec Posted by in • Kim Powell | Comments Off on Snorkeling the Healthy Coral Reefs of Cuba!
Snorkeling the Healthy Coral Reefs of Cuba!

Naturalist Kim Powell describes the thriving coral reef ecosystem of Cuba, which has been relatively untouched by tourism and over fishing. She recently returned from her first women’s trip to Cuba and shared her incredible story!

“Before arriving  to Cuba, I had read about our forbidden neighbor’s thriving coral reefs.  A country frozen in time, Cuba is a matrix of islands forming an archipelago, a mere 100 miles south of Key West.  Our  local marine biology professor,  Nicole Crane confirmed this hopeful news from her travels through Cuba.  As I dipped into the warm water surrounding Punta Perdiz at Playa Giron, I felt like I was meeting the spry colleague of an elderly friend who had been terribly ill for many years.

In 1985, I began a career as a professional naturalist,  leading snorkeling trips to various destinations in the Caribbean. I first submerged into sparkling  crystal clear blue water as a junior in college in 1979.  Studying marine biology in Belize with a motley crew of college students would change my life. Coral reefs became a personal and professional passion.  After a month living  on a tiny Belizean Island,  my blood had turned blue and feathery gills replaced my lungs. I was deeply intrigued  by a mostly thriving coral reef  ecosystem. Sadly, by the late 80’s the integrity of  many Caribbean coral reefs had begun to decline.  The change has been rapid and heart wrenching. Corals are finicky and demanding creatures that sometimes respond more like a plant than animal. In fact, corals are fueled by the sun as the majority of their nutrients are obtained by zooxanthellae, photosynthetic algae living within the coral  tissues. 

Since reef building corals must photosynthesize to flourish, they require clear, warm water that lacks sedimentation. As tropical forests and mangrove shorelines are cleared for  development, sediments pour into marine environments blocking sunlight and smothering corals. With increasing nutrients in the water, large fleshy algae thrive and out compete  corals.  As human populations grow and swell during tourist seasons, many Caribbean locations experience a high demand on local fisheries. Without proper fisheries management, the removal of  herbivores such as parrotfish has devastating effects on a coral reef ecosystem. As grazers, these colorful reef fish keep a check on algae growth. Healthy populations of reef herbivores are critical to maintain a balanced and vibrant coral reef system. Cuba’s careful management of marine resources, organic farming practices, relatively slower tourism, controlled fisheries and slower coastal development are among the factors contributing to a thriving coral reef ecosystem just offshore at Punta Perdiz.

As I swam over the coral reefs at  Punta Perdiz, I was  thrilled to see an abundance of healthy Elkhorn Coral, Acropora palmata. Listed as critically endangered by the ICUN Red List of Threatened Species, Elkhorn Coral in the Caribbean basin has declined by 80% over a 30 year span  and is virtually gone in the nearby Florida Keys. Rapid coastal development, high nutrient loads,  intense hurricanes, poor fisheries management and disease has led to the demise of Elkhorn Coral. However, at Punta Perdiz, this  delicate form of branching coral was flourishing. Vibrant schools of blue tangs and parrotfish, keystone herbivores darted among the corals. Yellow tube sponges, feathery gorgonian corals, brilliant christmas tree worms and reef urchins were thriving among the predominantly live Elkhorn Coral branches. Peering into a tidy hole nestled within the Elkhorn Coral polyps,  miniature  claws of an old friend, the Elkhorn Coral Crab, Domecia acanthophora appeared. Living as a commensal species associated wth Elkhorn Coral, these minuscule crabs will also disappear as Elkhorn Coral declines. However, at Cuba’s Punta Perdiz, even the spry and spindling Elkhorn Corals are ready for some salsa dancing!”

Kim Powell is owner, operator and head naturalist at Blue Water Ventures in Santa Cruz, CA. Offering naturalist-led field trips for students and adventurous vacations designed to be relaxing with an educational component for women. Kim has been organizing single and multiple day excursions to extraordinarily beautiful places since 1985. Find out how you can join her next womens trip to Cuba in April and other upcoming adventures! www.bluewaterventures.org

www.epochalips.com

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