Cuba’s Unique Marine Resources


Corals in the Gardens of the Queen may be more resilient than elsewhere due to their distance from the mainland and lack of fertilizer runoff. Elkhorn and staghorn are important reef-building corals that also provide critical shelter for lobsters, shrimp and reef fish. Yet they are dying off throughout the Caribbean...since 1980 the Florida Keys have lost 90-95% of their elkhorn. Photo: Ian Shive

Grant Recipient: Environmental Defense Fund & The Nature Conservancy
Project Support: Expedition to Jardines de la Reina National Park (Gardens of the Queen)

Funded by the Waitt Foundation, a two week scientific marine expedition jointly led by the Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy was launched in April 2012 to explore the health of Cuba’s ecosystem and the conservation issues facing the country’s unique marine resources.  Aboard the Waitt research vessel, some of the world’s leading experts in ocean conservation from Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy, University of California Santa Barbara Bren School, Mote Marine Laboratory, Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment Program along with Cuban Marine Scientists from Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology & Environment, University of Havana, the Cuban Center for Coastal Ecosystems Research, Center for Marine Research, and Cuba’s National Protected Area Center collaborated in a scoping trip to Cuba’s Jardines de la Reina National Park (Gardens of the Queen) and Havana.



In 1996, the Cuban government set aside Jardines de la Reina as an 850 square mile marine reserve – the largest in the Caribbean – as part of a planned island-wide network of protected areas. Only 500 catch and release fishermen and 1,000 divers are permitted to enter the Gardens each year.  Having been granted permission by the Cuban Government to explore their diverse marine habitat, the Waitt Foundation’s mission was to support a scientific expedition off of Cuba’s southern coast to characterize important areas for expanding and strengthening Cuba’s network of marine protected areas and to gather preliminary baseline information about biodiversity, reef fish and sharks. Exploring this underwater Eden was a rare opportunity that allowed researchers to collect valuable data for analyzing possible future environmental threats to this relatively unspoiled patch of ocean.

Cuba’s natural marine environment is world class, but at a critical juncture. During five decades of isolation from mass tourism and rapid economic development, Cuba’s marine and coastal resources have thrived. Its coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangroves abound with beauty and biodiversity, providing shelter and sustenance to more than 200 species of valuable fish, crustaceans, mollusks and sponges. As both “the gateway” to the Gulf of Mexico and the “crown jewel” of the Caribbean, Cuba and its natural resources provide important regional benefits to the United States and Mexico as well as the rest of the insular Caribbean.

The majority of Cuba’s commercially important fish stocks, however, are in critical condition. About half may be fully exploited and 40% are overfished, with consistently declining catches. This decline in productivity represents a major environmental and economic threat for both Cuba and the United States. With Cuba just 90 miles from the Florida Keys, the health of our marine ecosystems is tightly interconnected. Cuba’s thousands of islets, keys and reefs provide important spawning grounds for lobster and reef fish that help populate waters along the southeast U.S. and in the Gulf of Mexico.

Jardines de la Reina “Gardens of the Queen”

Cuba’s southern archipelagos, especially the remotely situated Jardines de la Reina is one of the most outstanding jewels of the Caribbean islands and has been declared an IUCN Category II National Park. A very popular area for diving and fly fishing, Jardines de la Reina is mostly untouched and boasts the largest and best preserved (and least studied) coral reef system of the entire insular Caribbean. Jardines de la Reina is located 60 miles off the coast of central Cuba and spans more than 837 sq miles.


Often called the “Pearl of the Antilles,” Cuba is by far the most biologically rich and diverse island in the Caribbean. It is home to crucial nesting sites for the critically endangered hawksbill turtle and has a healthy fish and shark population including the endangered Nassau grouper. Resilient coral reefs, and robust populations of sharks and other finfish have led scientists to describe the region as a “window to the past,” conjuring comparisons to what the Caribbean may have looked like 50 to 100 years ago.


Cuban Fishing Boat. Even today in Cuba, many fishermen still use handlines to catch jack and snapper. A motor and fuel remain luxuries few can afford, but Cubans are renowned for their resourcefulness. Photo: Rod Griffin

Only 90 miles from Florida, Cuba is a world apart – a step back in time with the most intact coral reefs in the region. With 3,000 miles of coastline, the island has mountain rainforests and wetlands abundant with rare plants and animals, some of which are found nowhere else.  Isolated lagoons and coral gardens like the famed Gardens of the Queen harbor an amazing array of shark species – Silky, Caribbean Reef, Blacktip, Lemon, Nurse and Whale Sharks – a sign of ecosystem health and resilience.

Expedition Overview

As a member of the expedition team, Rod Griffin with the Environmental Defense Fund documented the daily activities above and below the ocean’s surface.  Rod’s 10 part series includes amazing photos and his personal diary describing the unique adventure.  Please visit his blog for additional details outlining Waitt’s expedition to the Gardens of the Queen complete with background information on the park and on Cuba’s marine conservation efforts.  Journey to Cuba’s Underwater Eden by Rod Griffin.


Yellowtail goatfish and French grunts seek refuge under branches of healthy elkhorn coral. The abundant fish biomass in the Gardens is one sign of a healthy reef. Photo: Ken Marks

During the first week, expedition participants dove at sites en route to Jardines de la Reina and throughout the park to assess the health of the ecosystem.  They focused on exploring the interior portions of the Gulf of Anna Maria and proposed expansion areas of the park in the far eastern and western sides of the area.

Field Observations:

Patch reefs, lush seagrass meadows, and healthy-looking mangroves.  (Location:  Anclitas Lagoon)

Hawksbill turtles, butterfly fish, angel fish, 20-pound cubera snapper, mutton snapper, barracuda, red hind, Nassau grouper, and nurse sharks.  (Location:  Anclitas Lagoon)

Large mixed schools of snappers and grunts, suggesting a healthy ecosystem with very high fish biomass levels even where stands of Elkhorn and Staghorn Coral have been damaged by warming ocean temperatures – a problem throughout the Caribbean.  (Location:  Anclitas Lagoon)

Impressive connectivity between the mangrove, seagrass, and patch reef ecosystems which is unusual given the fragmentation that is common in the Caribbean.  (Location:  Anclitas Lagoon)

The island of Cayo Guinea appears to have extremely healthy mangroves; robust seagrasses; and an abundance of urchins. No apparent human impacts. 


Aboard the Waitt research expedition vessel, writer Rod Griffin consults with TNC’s Phil Kramer about the dive plan. Photo: Ian Shive

Week two of the expedition, researchers explored reefs, bays, and channels around the center of Jardines de la Reina.  Scientists found that the classic mosaic of mangrove, seagrass, patch reefs, fringing reef and reef slope seems highly intact with abundant fish, sharks and other marine life in most areas.

Field Observations:

Abundant lobster, conch, and fish, but live coral mainly localized to fringing reefs close to major channels.  Five reef sites surveyed. (Location:  Gulf of Ana Maria – North facing fringing reefs along Cayo Caballones)

Small isolated but lush mounding coral structures with abundant snapper and grunt schools at depths of 15-45 feet.  Turbid water and abundant growth rates suggests very high primary and secondary productivity.  Six sites surveyed.  (Location:  Deeper reef structures within the Gulf of Anna Maria)

Shallow Elkhorn Coral reef in relatively poor condition in various states of decline, mostly dead.  Adult long-spined sea urchins were abundant in crevices.  (Location:  Western boundary of the Jardines de la Reina MPA)


Queen Triggerfish. Photo: Fausto De Nevi Herrera

Massive structures of 90% dead colonies of Elkhorn Coral with very little living tissue (possible hurricane damage). Very sparse fish and little long-spined sea urchin present.  (Location:  Far Western boundary of the Jardines de la Reina MPA)

Several sites that had been surveyed in 2001 during a previous expedition showed modest increases in fishes and long-spined sea urchin.  Live coral showed minimal increases, and in some cases, had declined. Interesting reef structures occurred in deeper waters (50 feet) inside of the Gulf of Ana Maria.  Rising in some cases nearly 30 feet off a mud/sand bottom, the patch reefs contained amazing concentration of fishes as well as large number of massive corals. These appear to be drowned reefs and are currently being heavily bioeroded and also seem to receive trawling impacts associated with the white shrimp fishery that fishes the area.  A total of 13 sites were surveyed.  (Location:  Far western margins of MPA around Cayo Cinco Balas and North into the NW corner of the Gulf of Ana Maria) 


The Gardens of the Queen is known for the abundance of sharks, including Caribbean reef sharks, lemon sharks, silky sharks and occasionally whale sharks, great hammerhead sharks and tiger sharks. Photo: Fausto De Nevi Herrera


Deep reef with abundant silky sharks and complex underwater topography; Abundant large grouper, mid-size predatory fish, and sharks (possible indicator of intact food web).  Very high abundance of sharks and large grouper.  High abundance of lionfish.  Nice diversity of coral species. An extremely healthy-looking Elkhorn Coral reef with high live coral cover, abundant sea urchins, and abundant fish – rare in the Caribbean. (Location:  Near the reef crest and slope of MPA around Cayo Cinco Balas).

Over 90% living coral. Fish densities were extremely high, and were nestled under the coral canopy of the Elkhorn branches.  Long-spined urchin was also present in very high densities, with grazing halos surrounding the coral patches. Occasional broken branches were re-growing upwards from fragmented pieces. (Location:  Eastern boundary of the Jardines de la Reina MPA)


Divers in the Gardens encounter an amazing array of sea life, from microscopic plankton and surgeonfishes to this spectacular yellow tube sponge. Photo: Fausto De Nevi Herrera


Fish and lobster noticeably smaller and less abundant outside of the MPA. A total of 14 sites were investigated (Location:  Proposed expanded boundaries from the chocolate cays around Cayos Pingues, far eastern margins of MPA around Cayo Cinco Balas and North into the NW corner of the Gulf of Ana Maria)

Numerous shallow reef structures with many exposed at low tide and exposed to strong tidal currents that drain the bay.  Seagrass dominated “mounds” within the channels, some over 15 feet high, were found to be mostly composed of relict Staghorn Coral reef rubble.  (Location:  Eastern entrance of the Gulf of Ana Maria)

Shallow mangrove rivers and patch reefs. Very prolific in seagrass densities and leaf number and length, especially for turtlegrass. Hard coral patch reefs also seemed healthy and populations of finfish were prevalent. Long-spined urchins and sponges were also abundant and seemed to utilize high flows and nutrient laden waters from the mangroves to their advantage.  (Location:  Eastern entrance of the Gulf of Ana Maria)


The lionfish, an invasive species native to the Indo-Pacific Ocean and the Red Sea, is beautiful but destructive. They first arrived in the Gardens in 2009; now they are everywhere. Photo: Fausto De Nevi Herrera


A reef slope which contained abundant fish in most trophic levels, high abundance of lionfish, large fish body size, large sponges (possible indicator of high productivity in water column), high abundance of a variety of coral species; shallow Acropora reefs in good condition; extensive seagrass meadows; extensive mangrove islands with a high degree of channelization and young trees, indicating good health and high resilience to damage.  (Location:  Eastern entrance of the Gulf of Ana Maria – various reef habitats near the reef crest, slope, and shallows near mangrove islands)

Large numbers of Tarpon, Cubera Snapper, and sponges. Mangroves in excellent condition, although observed some large die-offs on several of the eastern islands that were reportedly caused nearly a decade ago by a pathogen or insects.  (Location:  Interior portions of Cayo Anclitas and Cayos de las Doce Leguas)

The Waitt Foundation encourages collaboration among our grantees and we would like to thank the Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy for making this unprecedented expedition a reality.  The data and information gathered during the expedition will be useful for future projects in Cuba.

Cuba: Preserving the Cradle of the Caribbean with Dan Whittle, EDF’s Cuba Program Director


Environmental Defense Fund
The Nature Conservancy
Journey to Cuba’s Underwater Eden by Rod Griffin with EDF
EDF’s Work in Cuba, an Audio Slideshow with Dan Whittle

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