guanahacabibes

Worth The Wait: Sea Turtles and Cuban Art In Many Forms

Arriving to Jose Marti Airport in Havana, the first hint you are somewhere different is the wait to get your bags. The throng of people standing around the two baggage areas, barely able to stand in the three hour wait to get bags checked for a 30 minute flight. The pavlovian response you feel whenever a new bag drops onto the conveyor, only to realize it’s not your bag.

The good news is that Cuba is totally worth the wait.

Once our group, participants in our Cuba Sea Turtle Volunteer Expedition, all got through customs and onto our bus, the real adventure began. Our intrepid group of travelers from across the US remained enthusiastic despite the arduous journey from Miami. One by one, we dropped the group off at their homestays, Cuba’s version of AirBnB, for some downtime before dinner. That dinner was the highlight of the first day, a fabulous multi-course meal at San Cristobal, a well-known paladar (Cuba’s unique family-owned restaurants set in former homes) where President Obama dined on his recent visit. The ornate décor combined with the creative menu, mojitos, rum, and cigars was the perfect introduction to this country.

After dinner, those not drained by the long day headed out to the Fabrica de Arte (the Art Factory), a unique Cuban institution. Few cultures in the America’s are as supportive of the arts and this museum/night club is the perfect example. A former cooking oil factory given to a group of artists, the Fabrica is an extraordinary mix of art forms, from photography and painting exhibits, to live music, a DJ, and a movie theatre (currently playing: Hail, Caesar!). The line outside was around the corner all night, something rarely seen at an art museum in the US.

But good food and the arts were not our primary reason for the visit. Our group was the first international group of sea turtle volunteers to come to Cuba, part of a partnership between SEE Turtles, Cuba Marine Research and Conservation, and INSTEC, a Cuban government agency in charge of the turtle conservation program at Guanahacabibes National Park where our group was headed the next day. Guanahacabibes is one of the country’s most important turtle nesting beaches for green and loggerhead sea turtles.

 
 

We met our bus early the next morning for the long drive to Guanahacabibes after a quick stop to pick up Dr. Julia Azanza, the biologist in charge of the conservation program (and her adorable son Dario). Our group stayed at the Maria La Gorda resort, named for a woman who by some accounts was the adopted mother of a group of pirates that once lived on this remote stretch of coast on the far western point of the island. After dinner the first evening, Dr. Azanza gave a presentation on the research program, which she has directed for more than a decade.

The next day our group headed out with Osmany, a ranger for the park to look for some of the unique avian critters that live here. Osmany is so good at bird calls that it was often difficult to tell where a call was coming from, him or the birds. In a short span of time, we got to see several bee hummingbirds (the world’s smallest bird at just 2 inches tall), the Cuban trogon, the emerald hummingbird, and many other species.

Bee hummingbird

Bee hummingbird

Cuban trogon

Cuban trogon

That evening was our first visit to the nesting beach. We hadn’t been waiting long at the ramshackle shelter that houses the incredibly dedicated student volunteers before a green turtle was spotted nesting near the water. Unfortunately just as the turtle was getting ready to lay its eggs, a storm moved in with heavy winds that forced our group from the beach. By the time it passed, the turtle had returned to the ocean. Over the next three days and nights, our group explored the coral reefs of the park by snorkel and diving during the day, and returning to the nesting beach each night. Some in our group spotted a hawksbill while diving as well.

Green turtle nesting at Guanahacabibes. Photo: Jeff Frontz

Green turtle nesting at Guanahacabibes. Photo: Jeff Frontz

The next two evenings we were treated to green turtles nesting and many in our group had opportunities to participate in the research by helping to measure the turtles, count the eggs, and walk the beach. The conditions that these turtles face on this beach are more challenging than most; between clamoring over exposed coral and dealing with roots and coral in the sand while digging nests, these turtles have to expend more energy than the average turtle nesting on a typical Caribbean beach.

We had originally hoped to have more than 3 turtles nest in four nights on the beach, but after two very high nesting seasons in previous years, the turtles were due for a down year this year. Our final night on the beach was idyllic; no turtles but a nice light breeze and full moon rising over the ocean as we waited.

Returning to Havana, our group dove headfirst into the extraordinary cultural treasures that we sampled the first night at the Art Factory. We were treated to a private concert by Mezcla, a well-known group that combines many styles of music including jazz, rumba, rock, and African rhythms. Many of our group took advantage of a last minute impromptu visit to the famous Cuban ballet for a wonderful performance of “Don Quixote” in the exquisite Gran Teatro and afterwards to see some local music at the famous Zorra y El Cuervo Jazz Club.

Pablo Menendez & Mezcla

Pablo Menendez & Mezcla

Cuban Ballet performance of Don Quixote

Cuban Ballet performance of Don Quixote

The one time we came across turtles that was not a happy occasion was on a visit to a handicraft market. As we walked by one stall, the owner quietly mentioned she had turtleshell for sale (see photo at right). We stopped to document this illegal sale; items made from the shell of hawksbill sea turtles (incorrectly called “tortoiseshell”) are a major reason why this species is considered critically endangered. The good news is that our staff met afterwards with a local organization called “ProTortugas” who is launching a campaign to educate people about turtleshell and encourage people not to buy these items.

Fan made from hawksbill turtle shell for sale in Havana

Fan made from hawksbill turtle shell for sale in Havana

Seeing these items for sale was sad but only serves to remind us why we do these trips and reinforces our need to take people to Cuba to work with sea turtles. By partnering with great organizations like CMRC and INSTEC, we can not only provide important financial support for conservation efforts but also help to educate travelers about wildlife-friendly shopping while there.

Ecotourism is proving to be a significant tool for supporting sea turtle conservation in Cuba, the tours that SEE Turtles and our sponsor Oceanic Society completed this year are providing $10,000 in funds to help protect the nesting turtles through our Billion Baby Turtles program. In 2017, we hope to provide even more support and to recruit other tour operators to spread the word about turtleshell products so we can reduce their demand.

Exploring Cuba's Natural & Cultural Treasures

The large green turtle arrived to the beach as if on cue, just minutes after our group arrived to the main nesting beach in Guanahacabibes National Park, near Cuba’s westernmost point.  We waiting anxiously for her to dig her body pit and start digging it’s nest, which is when we can approach without worry of scaring her off. One of our group volunteered to be the one to count the eggs as they fell, getting a front row seat to the action. The turtle spent more than an hour digging through the coral-filled sand to lay her eggs and then we watched as she made her way slowly back to the water.

 

This Cuba Sea Turtle Adventure was the result of more than 2 years of discussions, negotiations, planning, and marketing, the result of a fledgling partnership between SEE Turtles, the Cuba Marine Research and Conservation project, Altruvistas, and the Center for Marine Investigations. This partnership includes funding for beach patrols at this park through our Billion Baby Turtles program and developing a model for this project to become self-sustaining through educational and volunteer tours.

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It didn’t take long to be introduced to Cuba’s reputation for long lines. A third of our group ended up in the slowest immigration line and were the last ones through to baggage claim. On the bright side, we expected that our bags would be waiting for us when we got through. We were wrong. It was another 3 hours before the last of our bags came out and darkness started to fall as we made our way to dinner. Taking advantage of the dying light, we had dinner at El Torre, a restaurant at the top of one of Havana’s tallest building, giving us a stunning view of the city and Caribbean.

Now free of the lines, we started the next day with a presentation from Dr. Patricia Gonzalez of the University of Havana on the state of Cuba’s coral reefs, which are some of the healthiest in the Caribbean. A walking tour of Old Havana allowed our group to compare the squares and buildings that have been beautifully restored with sections that are awaiting restoration. Few places in the world (especially in the America’s) have such an incredible mix of architecture from more than 5 centuries and every block has an important historical or cultural treasure.

The next morning, we boarded our bus to head to the Viñales Valley, a stunningly beautiful region that is in the heart of tobacco growing country, about 2 hours west of Havana. We stopped at an organic farm with a beautiful view of the valley for one of the largest family-style meals I’ve ever had, with plates coming non-stop for more than a half-hour while an acoustic band sang in the background. That evening, we headed out for a party with a “Committee for the Defense of the Revolution”, a neighborhood organization that acts as a form of local government. After a few words of introduction, the music started and soon our entire group was dancing with our new Cuban friends.

The next morning, we hopped again on our bus headed for Maria La Gorda, the resort near Guanahacabibes National Park. Our exploration of this incredible park started the next day with a bird watching tour; the participants braving hordes of mosquitoes to see some extraordinary birds including the world’s smallest, the bee hummingbird. That afternoon, our group snorkeled the reefs off the beach in front of the resort while a few, including myself, went diving, where we saw a beautiful young hawksbill sea turtle. We then rested up for the main attraction, the visit to the nesting beach where we saw the large green turtle.

The next day our group took a group snorkeling tour to explore the incredible reefs around the area. Guanahacabibes National Park includes some of Cuba’s healthiest reefs as well as nesting beaches and coastal forests. A smaller group went out again to look for nesting turtles and were rewarded with a smaller green turtle that we were able to observe for a short while before heading back to the resort.

On our last full day in Cuba, we drove back to Havana in time to check in at the Hotel Nacional, one of the country’s most famous and historic hotels. We were treated to a private rooftop concert at dusk by Pablo Menendez and Mezcla, one of Cuba’s most popular bands, which was followed by our best meal of the trip, a multi-course feast at La Casa, and then more music at the well-known jazz club Zorro y Cuervo (Fox and the Crow) in downtown Havana.

One final tour of the National Aquarium and souvenir shopping on the last morning wrapped up the trip before heading to the airport. To bookend our marathon wait for our bags the first day, it took our group about 3 hours to get through check-in and security, though thankfully the plane was late and nobody missed it (though there were a few missed connections in Miami). But getting acquainted with Cuba’s charmless airport did not distract from an incredible week of exploring the country’s natural and cultural treasures.  

Guanahacabibes: Cuba’s Little Visited All-Inclusive National Park

by Brad Nahill, SEE Turtles Director

Our group of marine biologists transferred from boat to van in the coastal town of La Coloma for the short ride to Pinar del Rio, the largest city in the province with the same name. The “stuck in time” feeling one gets traveling through Cuba was especially strong here, as we passed actual milkmen delivering their dairy canisters in horse-drawn wagons. Entering the city, the skyline was dominated by a large, stark, gray apartment building that seemed transplanted from Moscow.

We were headed to Guanahacabibes National Park, which covers the far western end of the island, for a workshop on Cuba’s sea turtles. As we waited for our colleagues coming from Havana to meet us, we passed the time with Cuban beers and music in a hotel bar. Once on the bus, we passed through charming towns with every house fronted by columns as well as empty fields waiting for the next tobacco crop to be planted.

Eventually the fields gave way to forests as we entered the park. Large iguanas lined the road as we wound down to the coast. We stopped for pictures at a lighthouse that marks the westernmost point of the island, just 100 miles or so from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The island and the peninsula are intimately linked, by migratory ocean animals like sea turtles, as well as topography, with its limestone rock foundation. The exposed limestone is so rugged that Cubans call it “diente de perro” or dog’s teeth.   

The park is home to one of Cuba’s most important green turtle nesting beaches. This season was the most successful period for nests that our partners with the Center for Marine Research at the University of Havana have ever had, with nearly 900 nests, nearly double their previous high. Our Billion Baby Turtles project supports this work, having provided enough funding to save roughly 65,000 hatchlings over the past two years. This visit was our first opportunity to see the hatchlings that we have helped to save and our partners didn’t disappoint.

Green turtle (credit CMRC)

Green turtle (credit CMRC)

Green hatchling (credit CMRC)

Green hatchling (credit CMRC)

Spreading out among dozens of nests that were nearing maturation, our partners found one ready to go. Dozens of green turtle hatchlings made their way over the sand to the clear blue waters while our group watched in awe. This beach is the most important nesting beach on Cuba’s main island and second most important overall though funding has been hard to come by to adequately monitor the several beaches in the park where turtles nest.

The next day was an intensive course on the sea turtles of Cuba. Researchers from local projects spoke of the history of Cuba turtle conservation (complete with a photo of Fidel and a turtle). International turtle experts (including yours truly) presented on how the country can develop tourism that benefits conservation efforts and local communities while avoiding the negative impacts that the industry has had in many places especially in the Caribbean.

That evening, at the Villa Maria la Gorda, the group bonded over Cuba’s favorite pastimes, music and rum, at the oceanside bar. The hotel’s odd name (translation: Fat Mary’s) comes from Guanahacabibes’ legendary patron who supposedly watched over pirates that formerly inhabited the area. The latest of a string of extraordinary sunsets over the water provided the backdrop to the music and conversation.

Guanahacabibes is known as a world-class diving site but generally is left off the itineraries of people coming to visit this Caribbean island. The water drops off quickly from shore, to over a thousand meters providing a number of dramatic options for experienced divers. The terrestrial part of the park also has its attractions. One day a few of us took a guided tour to the Pearl Cave, an impressive collection of underground halls and rooms carved out by rain.

On our last day at the park, I hopped into the water with Fernando from CMRC for a quick snorkel around the resort’s dock. An incredible amount of fish was sheltering in the dock’s shade as we swam through the crystal clear waters. Guanahacabibes' incredible beaches, spectacular reefs, and extraordinary sunsets make this park an ideal location for a wildlife conservation tour.