Last month, a team of marine biologists from the University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research (CIM-UH) and Center for Coastal Ecosystems Research (CIEC) pulled off the impossible. A two-week long coral reef research expedition to Jardines de la Reina National Park, the largest marine protected area in the Caribbean, set sail on December 4, 2021. These intrepid scientists sought to establish a baseline of coral reef health in advance of major restoration efforts.

The expedition was originally planned for August 2020. This would have coincided with the spawning event of elkhorn coral, a rare Caribbean reef building species that today is only found in a handful of remote places like Jardines de la Reina. However, since 2020, one postponement after another due to the COVID-19 pandemic had the expedition hanging by a thread. Cuba, once reporting 9,000 COVID cases a day, is now down to under 100 daily cases. This is thanks to aggressive containment measures and the development of not one, but two Cuban vaccines.

Obtaining accurate measurements of coral health is critical in a time of increasing impacts of human development and climate change.

Corals are extremely susceptible to the latter, as disease outbreaks tend to thrive in warmer waters. Coral bleaching, for example, is directly attributable to warmer waters. Bleaching events peak toward the end of summer months and devastate corals as far as the Great Barrier Reef. Coral restoration was, until recently, thought of as a radical, last-ditch effort to save corals. However, it’s been one of our most promising tools to reverse coral declines of 50% of living coral since 1950.

During the expedition this month, scientists assessed the health status of a staggering 29,000 corals.

In addition, Noel Lopez, a world-renowned underwater photographer and diver for the Avalon-Azulmar Dive Center — which manages SCUBA tourism activities at Jardines de la Reina — took 5,000 photos and videos of corals and associated biodiversity. These will be critical in determining changes over time. Even a place as isolated as Jardines de la Reina is susceptible to human impacts and warming waters.

The baseline of coral reef health, documented on this expedition, will inform major restoration efforts in 2022 as part of a grant from the Caribbean Biodiversity Fund (CBF) Ecological based Adaptation Program. The CBF grant is critical in supporting multiyear efforts such as this one, that involve sharing coral restoration lessons learned with Caribbean nations. In Bayahibe, Dominican Republic, a major international workshop is planned for February 7-11, 2022. This will bring together Cuban and Dominican coral scientists to chart a course forward in implementing large-scale, sexually-fused coral enhancement. FUNDEMAR, the Dominican Foundation for Marine Studies, and TOF’s partner SECORE International will host the workshop.

Two repeat expeditions will take place soon after the workshop in Jardines de la Reina, and again in August 2022.

Biologists will collect coral spawn to fuse and use for replanting at Jardines de la Reina. Jardines de la Reina was named one of Marine Conservation Institute’s Blue Parks last month — joining 20 prestigious marine parks around the world. The Blue Park designation effort is led by Wildlife Conservation Society, Environmental Defense, TOF, and a number of Cuban agencies. It is proof that science diplomacy, whereby scientists work hand-in-hand to protect shared marine resources in spite of political tension, can generate important scientific data and accomplish conservation objectives.

The Ocean Foundation and the University of Havana have collaborated since 1999 to study and protect marine habitats on both sides of the Florida Straits. Research expeditions such as this are not only making new discoveries, but providing hands-on experience for Cuba’s next generation of marine scientists.