As the wheels touched down at Havana’s International airport, the plane erupted with cheers and applause. Many of the passengers on board had waited years, if not decades, to return home and visit relatives in Cuba. As part of a small group of Americans visiting for the first time, I knew immediately that we were in for a special treat.
Traveling on permits from the U.S. Department of Treasury, we were embarking on a People to People Educational Exchange program, focused on ocean conservation, research and ecotourism—the first of its kind to allow U.S. citizens to legally travel and scuba dive in Cuba.
Our adventure began in Havana with three days of sightseeing, meetings and educational field trips learning about Cuba’s history and culture. Afterwards, we spent six days on a liveaboard dive boat at the Gardens of the Queen (also known as Jardines de la Reina) exploring the uninhabited archipelago of small islands 50 miles south of Cuba’s main island in the Caribbean Sea.
As we walked the streets of Havana, it felt like I had stepped back in time. Classic American cars from the 1950s and early 60’s were a constant reminder of a bygone era. Men gathered under large shade trees in city squares to discuss sports on a lazy afternoon and locals assembled around games of checkers and dominos on marble park benches or an apartment stoop. The newsstand still had Life magazine for sale on the bookshelves, and all around the city, building facades were carved in intricate detail. This was life as perhaps my parents remembered it, long before I complicated matters.
Mixed in with the nostalgia were reminders that Cuba is still a socialist country, struggling with their proud revolutionary history and capitalistic desires for a better life. Images of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara dot the landscape and armed soldiers stand constant guard at the Revolutionary Museum.
Meanwhile, subtle signage on side streets, advertise businesses, such as hair salons and restaurants, inside private homes. These slowly opening doors to private capitalism are part of the small reforms put in place by Fidel’s brother Raul since he was handed power in 2008.
Havana has a pulse to it that is mesmerizing. I am certain that part of the allure was simply being in a place that we had been told our entire lives was forbidden. However, from the live music coming out of doorways and the Cuban jazz on rooftop bars, to the hustle and bustle of the locals going about their daily lives, there is an energy you can feel.
There is also a dichotomy that comes from seeing modern art deco structures next to baroque, intricately carved building facades that are hundreds of years old. Add in fortresses with working cannons, Cuban cigars, rum, exceptional food and friendly people, and you have a fantastic melting pot of experiences.
An American and Cuban cultural icon, Ernest Hemmingway, lived in Cuba from 1940 to 1960 and is still widely revered. His former home, Finca La Vigia, is now a museum, maintained as it was left upon his departure. His books remain required reading for Cuban school children.
Novels For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea were written while living in Cuba, the latter earning him a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. Hemmingway dedicated the award to the citizens of the fishing village of Cojimar, the setting for the story. We toured the village and it was fascinating to see his inspiration in person and realize that the old man was likely based on a real fisherman and drinking buddy of Hemmingway’s.
Cuba and Havana are still struggling to rebuild from the economic downturn encountered when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. Years of electrical blackouts and limited fuel to run machinery or automobiles brought about food shortages and desperate times for a people accustomed to state provided nourishment and health care. Tractors gave way to ox and plows, and cars were replaced with horse-drawn carriages, as the infrastructure was ignored and left to decay in the tropical heat.
Fortunately, signs of rebirth and restoration were prominent during our visit. Scaffolding, providing face-lifts, surrounded many of the iconic buildings in old Havana. Cobblestone streets were torn up for new plumbing lines, and large cranes could be seen from the roof of our hotel. With over 3,000 structures in Old Havana of historical significance—the majority of which date back to the 19th, 18th and even the 16th and 17th centuries—resurrecting them all will be no easy task.
Marine research and educational exchange
While in Havana, we met with a scientist from the University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research. Founded in 1970, the center is responsible for training all marine biologists in Cuba.
The scientist showed us an impactful ten-part public service announcement campaign created by the center, which highlighted the connection Cubans have with sharks, turtles, eagle rays, marine pollution, etc, in their surrounding ocean. We had discussions regarding some of their ongoing conservation research, including work with sharks, sea turtles and a five-year study on manatees.
As part of the manatee study, researchers were able to verify evidence of a manatee traveling from Florida to Cuba through photographs and also create a tagging and tracking program to study the local population’s migration patterns. Additionally, they found that none of the manatees that were documented had propeller scarring on their backs like their Florida counterparts, perhaps in part due to the limited number of boats allowed to operate off Cuba’s coast.
The lack of available watercraft also serves as a hindrance for student research. The University has but one boat and limited funding for sending scientists out to sea. We were able to tour that lone research vessel and talk with some of the researchers on board while out at the Gardens of the Queen. The boat, named after famed Cuban scientist Felipe Poey accommodates 17 passengers and three crew members. There is one shared head on board, and everyone sleeps in lawn chairs on the deck.
As part of the permit that allowed us access to Cuba, these people-to-people educational exchanges were required but also very enlightening. We learned that conservation and the environment are viewed in a very positive light in Cuba.
The government requires environmental permits for all businesses; they are reviewed annually and may also be revoked. Science directs politics in establishing policy and also aids in the creation of a National Environmental Strategy, which is improved upon every five years, based on analysis of the success and failure of the previous plan. Each new design focuses on reforestation, the reduction of pollution both on land and in the sea, and the protection of biodiversity.
Several of the scientists we spoke with also emphasized the importance of collaboration between the U.S. and Cuba on environmental issues. One even went so far as to declare the environment as a national security issue—especially with regards to marine pollution and species preservation, as we all share the same ocean.
In order to see some of this environmental conservation in action, we spent a day at Las Terrazas, a sustainable development community and ecotourism settlement situated roughly an hour west of Havana. Las Terrazas is part of the Sierra del Rosario, a nearly 100-square-mile expanse of pristine Cuban wilderness, which has been recognized as a UNESCO world biosphere reserve.
Started in 1967 as a government reforestation project—following years of land clearing for a coffee plantation, and later, charcoal—the roughly 1,200 residents have replanted over eight million trees, encompassing 24 different species. The surrounding hillsides are lush with vegetation once again, and the villagers utilize conservation-minded sustainable practices to ensure they stay that way.
Our guide led us on a tour of the grounds where we visited a primary and secondary school, community center, library, movie theater, restaurants, a hotel and Cuba’s only zip line facility. Local musicians entertained us during lunch, as peacocks and chickens wandered around the grounds. Afterwards, we called on a resident artist’s studio to see world-class eco-conscious paintings and handicrafts depicting climate change.
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