His name is Eduardo Alonso Ramos, but everyone calls him “Alonso.” He and Lachi, also a colleague from the University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research (Centro de Investigaciones Marinas, CIM) were supposed to join me for a final meeting at Havana’s Marina Hemingway yesterday in final preparations for our expedition, which they were planning to be part of.
They never arrived. That’s not unusual here in Cuba. Transportation is often a nightmare. Perhaps his motorcycle broke down. Perhaps he couldn’t get gas. Who knows? I wasn’t worried. Though it was a bit unusual that they never called, even last night.
This morning I learned the tragic truth, and it’s still sinking in. Alonso was filling a SCUBA tank at CIM yesterday afternoon when it exploded, killing him instantly. He was only 41. He leaves a wife, 36, who is pregnant. They buried him this morning.
Like so many of us, Alonso absolutely loved the sea. It was his life. When we met last week his eyes were wide with excitement about getting out on the water with us, and he took delight in the thought of making four exhausting dives per day swimming special 3D video equipment above the reef with Lachi. He was a sailor, a divemaster, an expert technician. Alonso’s long hair, tanned skin and fit physique evidenced the fact that he spent every moment he could around the water. He was a great asset to CIM and someone everyone knows over at Marina Hemingway. Word of his death had already spread through the marina this morning when I left our boat.
I found my friend, Roly, this morning aboard a boat he is captaining which was docked behind Club Nautico. (You probably saw Roly in, “Cuba: The Accidental Eden” as he captained our boat for the film crew.) As he relayed details of the accident I could see the tears welling up in his eyes. He told me he’s been a close friend of Alonso for many many years. They were not just friends, but shared a deep love of the sea.
I went to CIM this morning to pay my respects to my colleagues. It was clear everyone there had been crying, and seeing me, they cried some more. CIM is a small institute that’s always felt more like a family than the arm of a university. Yesterday they cruelly lost a beloved member of the family. Lachi entered the office I was in. We embraced. He left without saying a word. He didn’t have to.
Representatives from the Ministry of Interior and police were already there, examining the accident scene. There was no time to grieve.
What’s especially painful is that this accident was preventable. Like the 60-year-old old Edsels and Buicks on the road, the Cubans work to squeeze every drop of life out of every precious piece of equipment they have, even if it puts their own lives at risk. The SCUBA tank Alonso had tried to fill was old…too old. When I recently introduced a screening of, Cuba: The Accidental Eden at Smithsonian, I spoke about our colleagues at CIM:
Our colleagues, many of whom are at CIM, the only institution in Cuba where marine scientists are trained and granted degrees, are incredibly intelligent, gifted and hard-working. But because of Cuba’s economic situation, along with their regular studies they have to learn to be supermen and women to get science done.
For more than a decade, we’ve been working to help our colleagues here to do science, and we’ve always been amazed at how much they have been able to do with so little. But in our hearts we’ve always wished we could do more. The accident that took Alonso’s life is a stark reminder that we have to help our friends and colleagues here more now than ever. We have to do more.
I left the small amount of cash I had left for Alonso’s wife and a bit for CIM to help with the damage to their building. I wish I could have left more. Obviously a major need for CIM is new SCUBA gear and safety equipment. Please help us help the next generation of young Cuban scientists by contributing to The Ocean Foundation’s Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Fund. To make your gift in memory of Alonso, please enter, “Eduardo Alonso Ramos” in the part of the form labeled, “In Memory Of.” Thank you.
The Ocean Foundation is dedicating its Cuba Expedition 2011 to the memory of Alonso. We know he’ll be with us out there on the water he loved so much.