Crocodiles and Corals: Face-to-Face With Cuba’s Coral Reef

National Geographic Young Explorers Grantee Erika Bergman is sharing the thrill of diving in a submersible with classrooms and onlookers all over the world. With external and internal cameras mounted on her sub, viewers experience a new vantage point as Erika pilots through the deep coral reefs of Curacao and Honduras. Follow her expedition and post your comments right here on Explorers Journal or tweet your questions at @erika_bergman


There is a place that renews my hope for the ocean, a safe haven teeming with the quirky, frilly microorganisms we must squint to find, all the way up to the keystone predators which find us. It is a reef archipelago 50 miles south of mainland Cuba called Los Jardines de la Reina, the Gardens of the Queen.

Each journey here reminds me of how absolutely resilient the ocean is. Brimming with sharks, crocodiles, and goliath grouper that outweigh me by 300 pounds, the Gardens of the Queen is a paradise for all of the predators we love to fear and fear to lose. The proof is right here bumping into my camera lens.

How close is too close? In a world where the American Crocodile is an endangered species, the population in the Gardens of the Queen is thriving. Photo by Erika Bergman
How close is too close? In a world where the American Crocodile is an endangered species, the population in the Gardens of the Queen is thriving. Photo by Erika Bergman

Interlaced with the islands, clusters of mangroves are prime habitat for the endangered American Crocodile. Heavy tidal currents wash through these channels carrying nutrients which work their way up the food chain and sustain these prehistoric hunters.

Over several trips to these islands and into the mangrove lagoons, I’d felt I’d found a kindred spirit with one particular crocodile named El Niño. Our boat captain affectionately nicknamed me La Niña, as if I were his sister. I swam with him often, staying out until the sun had almost set and the fading light called us home.

With his jaws agape, he drew close and gave me a few exploratory nudges with his pearly whites. This behavior was not an act of aggression but a form of curiosity. It was important to stay in front of him though, to ensure that any contact he made was with my camera. If I turned away, he might examine my arm or foot with his open mouth, and I intended to avoid the stress of that scenario…

A short distance from the mangroves, the sea floor drops off into deep coral canyons.

This nudibranch is tough to spot, it is surprisingly well camouflaged on a reef which is as vibrantly colorful as this elegant invertebrate.
This colorful creature is a lettuce leaf sea slug. They are surprisingly well camouflaged on a reef which is as vibrant as its own fluorescent frills. Photo by Erika Bergman

Diving through the canyons is like roaming around an ocean which time has long forgotten. The reef is covered in vibrant corals and home to some of nature’s more extravagant life forms.

There is something fishy about this Banded Shrimp. Spot it and you'll get a gold star and a twitter shout out from me!
There is something fishy about this Banded Coral Shrimp. Spot it and you’ll get a gold star and a twitter shout out from me! Photo by Erika Bergman

It hasn’t always been this way though. Twenty years ago this reef was traumatized by overfishing like many reefs worldwide. A concerted effort led to the formation of this 850-square-mile marine park which constitutes a whopping 4% of Cuba’s coastline. This protection led to a hearty recovery and now naturally bleached coral rapidly repopulates itself, the ratio of corals to algae is balanced, and there are half a dozen sharks nearby in any direction you turn. Just don’t turn around too quickly–you may bump your head on a fin.

On February 28th, Erika Bergman participated in a National Geographic Google+ Hangout, along with ocean explorers Enric Sala and Tierney Thys. Watch the Hangout and hear what they had to say.


  1. ulaiasi
    nausori fiji
    August 1, 2014, 6:05 am

    thisn is what we call food chain

  2. sumeet
    March 9, 2014, 12:04 am

    This shrimp eats fungus and dead tissue of fish by cleaning them. It is like a spa treatment for fish and buffet for our shrimp. Am I right ?!!

  3. Andy
    March 8, 2014, 1:22 pm

    @Brian Grimshaw it didn’t happen by accident, it happened by evolution.

  4. stephen
    Long Island, ny
    March 7, 2014, 9:20 pm

    the gold star is for the starfish beneath shrimps (maybe).

  5. Tina
    Glen Burnie, Maryland, united states
    March 7, 2014, 9:01 pm

    It looks like there’s a small clear fish near the mouth and eye of the shrimp. Awesome photos!

  6. TL
    Glen Burnie, Maryland
    March 7, 2014, 8:59 pm

    It looks like there is a tiny clear fish near the shrimp’s mouth and eye. Great photos!

  7. David Richardson
    Vacaville, California
    March 7, 2014, 1:57 pm

    For one thing he looks like the shrimp from the movie Finding Nemo that was in the aquarium in the dentist office. Also his feet and claws are cattywhampus.. He has three claws, two on one side and one on the other pointing backwards. And it appears that he is either inside something or on top of it. He is definitely eligible for disability insurance and a special seat on the bus. Poor guy. At least he doesn’t know it. Shall we call him Nemo?

  8. Kent T Spotts
    Clintonville WI
    March 7, 2014, 8:17 am

    Doesn’t this shrimp have a third pincer, when they normally have 2?

  9. Mimi
    March 6, 2014, 9:26 pm

    I think the shrimp is sitting on top of the fish,

  10. Blue castle
    March 6, 2014, 7:56 pm

    This tell us that only the Great and Awesome God Creator ,Sustainer,Provider ,Redeemer and Friend of the entire universe could have done this.

  11. Marlena Boyce
    March 6, 2014, 7:15 pm

    There does seem to be small slug or worm hitching a ride! Terrific photo,s love your sense of humor;-)

  12. Kasi
    March 6, 2014, 5:33 pm

    The shrimp is sitting on a fish’s head…

  13. Steve Biddle
    Santa Barbara Ca
    March 6, 2014, 5:11 pm

    its crawling on the mouth of a fish.

  14. Lee Eaddy
    Montgomery, Al
    March 6, 2014, 3:44 pm

    Great picture. There appears to be a little fish eye staring at us just below the shrimp head level.

  15. Edward
    United States
    March 6, 2014, 2:57 pm

    What odd perfection on this Earth, from the smallest creatures to the largest, to our Universe; I am in awed.

  16. Nancy
    March 6, 2014, 2:52 pm

    Is the something fishy a little red fish just below the shrimp?

  17. Blair
    Boca Raton , FL
    March 6, 2014, 1:45 pm

    These are GREAT SHOTS! I wish I had been with you, since it’s miles from my Backyard.
    We see a lot of the same things but not what you have here.
    I’ve been all over the Islands, in my 46 of Diving & Snorkeling off South Florida, All of the Out Islands…..
    Of course, now development is starting to cover up the best reefs, that’s why I appreciate your shots of “underdeveloped”
    Cuba. The Ocean is our world not even close to being explored yet……
    Thank you!

  18. Justin L
    March 6, 2014, 1:01 pm

    The shrimp appears to be pregnant.

  19. Dmitry Burstein
    March 6, 2014, 12:54 pm

    Los Jardines de la Reina is indeed a dream of a diving destination. I’ve been there a year ago, and brought back some terrific pictures from both above and under the water:

  20. RH
    March 6, 2014, 12:42 pm

    eggs attached to its underside.

  21. Brian Grimshaw
    March 6, 2014, 12:27 pm

    Fantastic, how could this perfection ever have happened by accident?

  22. lollie
    ccw school
    March 6, 2014, 8:21 am

    wow i love crocs and there so big did you know an nile croc can be 6 meters long!

  23. Dominic
    Indian Ocean
    March 6, 2014, 3:06 am

    What is that on the back of the shrimp?

    is it a sea slug?