By Shawn Heinrichs, Safina Center Fellow
I remember as a young child, driving down with my family to Florida to snorkel the reefs of the Florida Keys coral cay archipelago. We would start at Key Biscayne just below Miami, and work our way down through Key Largo and a dozen other keys, ending our journey in Key West, the southern most point in the continental United States.
Spending countless-hours each day exploring in the sea, even as a child I was struck by vibrant colors and intricate structures of what seemed like endless stands of healthy coral reefs, and also by the sheer volume and diversity of fish species that made their homes in these reefs. I remember swimming alongside huge southern stingrays as they cruised across the shallow sea grass beds, dodging countless conches and starfish scattered on the ocean floor. I remember swimming out over the reef walls to intercept eagle rays and reef sharks patrolling in the blue, only to come face-to-face with massive barracudas glaring at me with their intimidating jaws full of razor-sharp teeth! And I remember fish, lots of fish of all kinds, including huge groupers, massive schools of grunts, pork fish, parrot fish, surgeon fish and enormous tarpon, flashing their silvery scales as they turned and drifted into the abyss. It was a magical place and a special time that fueled my childhood passion for the oceans.
As the years passed, we periodically made pilgrimages back to the Florida Keys, but things were changing. The once-vibrant reefs turned grey, algae took hold, and the reef structures collapsed. The clear blue waters became muddied, and silt further choked the corals. The large groupers, sharks and rays disappeared, and the massive schools of fish dwindled into a shadow of their former numbers. And as the reefs died, so did my childhood joy while exploring them. We eventually stopped visiting the keys. Sadly, this tragic story has played out again and again across the entire Caribbean, with the latest estimates placing the coral reef loss across Caribbean at greater than 80% over the past few decades (Catlin Scientific Survey). After decades of severe reef degradation and intensive overfishing, for most us who experienced these once thriving reefs, the memories have faded, and for the younger generations there is no prior reference at all. And as happens all too often, the baseline has shifted, and the current depleted and overfished condition of Caribbean reefs has become the new norm.
If we aspire to restore the health of Caribbean reefs and rebuild the fish populations, we cannot look to the current condition of most of its reefs as a reasonable reference point. Instead we must consider what these reefs looked like before they were so degraded, choked in algae, and stripped of all large predators and most commercially-valuable fish species. We must remind our communities of what a healthy and thriving Caribbean reef system actually looks like, and inspire them through imagery and storytelling, that such reefs exist even today within Caribbean. It was with this objective in mind that I made my first journey to Cuba.
The Gardens of the Queen (‘Jardines de la Reina’ in Spanish) is possibly one of the last relatively intact reef habitats in all the Caribbean. Whereas most of the reefs in the region have been severely overfished and/or destroyed, this area hosts and astonishing abundance and diversity of corals and marine life. Spanning 840 square miles of islands, reefs and mangroves, this remote archipelago located 60 miles to south of the main island of Cuba, has been a strictly protected marine reserve since 1996. And the results of this bold conservation effort are staggering. Large, mature and healthy Caribbean reef sharks freely approach and swim amongst divers on most dives, while massive Goliath groupers emerge from beneath overhangs and Nassau groupers, black groupers, and tiger groupers fearlessly rise from the reef to greet divers. Endangered hawksbill turtles curiously approach, and tarpon can be found hiding under most overhangs. Stingrays and eagle rays drift across the sandy bottoms and massive schools of grunts and pork fish stream over the healthy reefs, like flowing rivers of gold. In the mangroves and sea grasses, American crocodiles lie motionless, with only their eyes breaking the calm surface. And finally, as you surface from the dives, groups of Silky sharks, whose population has been depleted by over 90% throughout the Caribbean, freely approach and investigate divers, including some of the largest and most robust female Silky sharks I have ever encountered.
For years I have had the ambition to create a picture of what the Caribbean looked like before we so severely depleted it. Our modern society is trapped by a “shifting-baseline,” where most people forget how abundant and thriving the oceans once were, and allow the current diminished state to become the new baseline. Three to four decades ago, the Florida Keys and much of the Caribbean had thriving reef systems akin to that of the Gardens of the Queen, but today only a shadow remains of this once-flourishing sea. My hope is that by presenting what a truly healthy marine ecosystem should look like, I can help inspire people to raise the bar higher and take more aggressive steps to conserve what is left, and even more importantly, choose to make significant course-corrections to help the reef systems of the Caribbean one day recover.
Shawn Heinrichs is a Safina Center Fellow, advisor to Vulcan Philanthropy, and founder of Blue Sphere Foundation