Listen: Ocean Doctor on Science Friday: Conserving Cuba’s Coral Reefs

Ira Flatow, host of PRI's "Science Friday" and Ocean Doctor president, Dr. David E. Guggenheim, at the CUNY studios in New York

Ira Flatow (left), host of PRI’s “Science Friday” and Ocean Doctor president, Dr. David E. Guggenheim (right), at the CUNY studios in New York (Photo: Courtesy of PRI’s Science Friday)

Ocean Doctor president, David E. Guggenheim joined Science Friday host, Ira Flatow, to discuss Cuba’s coral reefs, their future, and how they may serve as a “living laboratory” to help us restore coral reefs in the Caribbean, where half of the coral reefs have been lost since 1970 according to a 2014 study.

Listen to the recording and visit Science Friday for more information.

Common Questions About the New Cuba Regulations

Today new regulations went into effect governing the travel of U.S. citizens to Cuba. We’re still poring over the regulations, which are extensive, and we’ll have more for you in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, here are the answers to four common questions:

I’m planning to travel with Ocean Doctor. Is our trip still on?
Yes! Keep packing!

Do the new regulations legalize all U.S. travel to Cuba?
No. Travel is still restricted to 12 categories and must conform with U.S. government restrictions. Touristic travel to Cuba remains illegal. Our groups will continue to travel under the category of people-to-people educational travel which maintains the same requirements, including that “each traveler has a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.”

So the embargo is still in effect?
Yes. It will require an act of Congress to lift the long-standing economic embargo. Until then it won’t be possible to legally travel as a tourist to Cuba.

Do the new regulations affect what we can bring home from Cuba?
Yes. You can now bring back up to $100 worth of Cuban alcohol and/or tobacco. Yes, that means you can bring back Cuban cigars. Unfortunately, they’re quite expensive, so $100 won’t let you bring back very many.

Can we now use our credit cards in Cuba?
This will eventually be the case, but it will take some time for banking relationships and new procedures to evolve. In addition, credit cards of any kind are not accepted at many business establishments in Cuba. Therefore, we still recommend that U.S. travelers bring cash.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Witnessing History in Havana: 12/17/2014

Video: Havana - Announcements December 17, 2014

My 2-minute video account of the dramatic events of December 17, 2014 while I was in Havana, Cuba. CLICK THUMBNAIL TO VIEW VIDEO or click here

The Cuban taxi driver informed  me that the world was about to change. Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama were going to deliver a major announcement at noon. He shook my hand in congratulations.

I stood stunned as the taxi pulled away. We had heard these rumors before, and with little Internet access, the rumor mill in Havana is especially rich. But this time, things seemed different.

At 11:25am we heard an announcement that Alan Gross, who had been imprisoned in Cuba for 5 years, was safely back in the United States. Something very big was happening.

The day before I had given a talk about U.S.-Cuba collaboration in marine science and conservation at Cuba’s Higher Institute for International Relations during a conference focused on the state of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. It has been gratifying to see that our work over the past 15 years with Cuban and American colleagues, focused on understanding and protecting the marine waters that we share, is considered among the most successful examples of Cuba-U.S. collaboration.

That morning our conference took an unexpected but welcomed turn as we watched the televised speeches together with the Institute’s students and learned that for the first time in more than half a century, Cuba and the U.S. would normalize relations.

Restoring diplomatic relations and removing Cuba from the “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list will open a new chapter in our collaborative work with Cuba, allowing us to accomplish much more. As you can imagine, our already challenging work to save coral reefs is further complicated by layers of regulations and restrictions.

Later, several other Americans and I joined the Cuban students in the streets of Havana, blocking traffic and celebrating the good news. (Watch my 2-minute video account of these events.)

Although the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba remains in place for now (an act of Congress is required to lift it), there is growing concern about the environmental impact that millions of American tourists might have on Cuba’s healthy ecosystems. To this end we are working to help Cuba “future-proof” its strong environmental legacy against future economic pressures.

Happy New Year 2015 Ocean DoctorThree months ago we held Cuba’s first international environmental economics workshop to kick-off a multi-year effort to help Cuba develop the tools and information necessary to assess the economic value of their natural, healthy ecosystems. When inevitably faced with proposals to build hotels and golf courses, Cuban decisionmakers will find that their nation’s ecosystems have a value in the ledger.

This news comes at a time of great urgency for saving our coral reefs. A report issued earlier this year shows a 50 percent decline in coral cover in the Caribbean since 1970. But the remarkable health of Cuba’s coral reefs offers hope and we are working to study this “living laboratory” to unlock the mysteries of what is keeping Cuba’s coral reef ecosystems so healthy and resilient, and gain insights to guide restoration efforts in the Caribbean and beyond.

Now more than ever, your support will make an enormous difference. Please help us build a future with our neighbors in Cuba that recognizes the importance of strong collaboration to protect the treasured ecosystems that we share by making a donation today.

Meanwhile, please accept my warmest wishes for a wonderful holiday season and a happy new year! 



David E. Guggenheim, Ph.D.
Founder & President, Ocean Doctor

Make a donation - Ocean Doctor
Your tax-deductible donation will help support our work in Cuba. Thank you for your generosity.

Why We Won’t Quit the Caribbean

Carysfort Reef 1975 to 2014

A dramatic time series of photos documenting the 95 percent loss of coral cover from Carysfort Reef, Key Largo, Florida since 1975. The photos capture the loss of a once thriving colony of elkhorn coral, Acropora palmata (Photos: Phil Dustan)

You wouldn’t know it from the colorful travel ads, but beneath the Caribbean’s sublime azure surface, the story of is one of utter mayhem.

A major report released earlier this year, the most comprehensive to date, puts it clearly and bluntly: Without swift and meaningful action, “Caribbean coral reefs and their associated resources will virtually disappear within just a few decades…” There has been an average decline of coral cover in the Caribbean of more than 50 percent since 1970.

The reefs I so delighted in as a teenager in the Florida Keys are today heartbreaking and unrecognizable. Live coral is estimated to be less than 20 percent of what it was in the early seventies when I first dove there. 

Statistics like these make it easy for one to abandon hope, and indeed, many have. The report states, “Concerns have mounted to the point that many NGOs [non-governmental organizations, nonprofit conservation organizations and funders] have given up on Caribbean reefs and moved their attentions elsewhere.” But Ocean Doctor hasn’t given up on the Caribbean — we’re in it for the long-haul, dedicated to restoring Caribbean coral reefs to their former glory. And we’ve found a new reason to be optimistic. Read more

OMG I Thought You Were Dead!

Carysfort Reef 1975 to 2014

A dramatic time series of photos documenting the 95 percent loss of coral cover from Carysfort Reef, Key Largo, Florida since 1975. The photos capture the loss of a once thriving colony of elkhorn coral, Acropora palmata (Photos: Phil Dustan)

I shouted with euphoric joy through my regulator, 20 feet underwater. I can only imagine how wide my eyes were. It must have been difficult to discern between an expression of delighted surprise and a textbook example of wide-eyed diver panic. My eyes were transfixed on an old friend with a funny name whom I hadn’t laid eyes on in years. I had heard he was dead – or at least gravely ill. But there in front of me, larger than life, vibrant and embracing the sun, my friend was very much alive and healthy, clearly enjoying the good life in Cuba.

Several years earlier, I joined an expedition to explore a corner of the Gulf of Mexico I had only heard about from colleagues: The magnificent coral reef ecosystem of Veracruz, Mexico. Seated inside the DeepRover submersible with great anticipation for a vibrant reef that lay below me, I was lowered from the deck of a Mexican Navy ship into the warm blue waters below and radioed the ship that I was going to begin my descent.

Read the full post at



What Becomes of Cuba After the Embargo is Lifted?

Goliath Grouper and Photographer

A Critically Endangered Goliath Grouper greets a tourist photographer in Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen National Park. Environmental economics demonstrated that conservation and ecotourism would result in more revenue than commercial fishing. (Photo: David E. Guggenheim)

When a foreigner sets foot in Cuba, it immediately becomes clear that this magical island is profoundly unique and has developed drastically differently than any other country in Latin America and the Caribbean. And for those who venture into its verdant mountains or below its aquamarine waves, a striking revelation awaits:  Just as the fifties-era Chevys and horse-drawn buggies portray an island seemingly frozen in time, so, too, do its exceptionally healthy and vibrant ecosystems illustrate that Cuba may have picked the perfect time in history not to follow the path of its neighbors. Indeed the past half century has seen a tragic and unprecedented decline in Caribbean coastal and marine ecosystems.

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Look Who’s on the Cover of Scuba Diving Magazine!

Ocean Doctor's Cuba Travel Program is the cover story in Scuba Diving Magazine

Ocean Doctor’s Cuba Travel Program is the cover story in Scuba Diving Magazine

That’s our pal, Niño the saltwater crocodile, adorning the cover of the latest Scuba Diving Magazine! We’re proud to say that the cover story feature’s Ocean Doctor’s unique educational travel programs to Cuba and the spectacular Gardens of the Queen. We’re also proud to say that Scuba Diving Magazine readers voted Gardens of the Queen “Best Marine Park,” and with good reason. It’s the Caribbean’s largest fully-protected marine park and its health and wildlife are unmatched in the region.

Want to join us? We have space for individuals and small groups on the following dates.

  • November 19-29, 2014 (Tortuga)
  • December 2014 (exact dates/vessel TBD)
  • April 29 – May 9, 2015 (Avalon II)

Learn more about our Cuba Travel Program and contact us if you’re interested in traveling with us for the luxury learning adventure of a lifetime.

Under a license from the U.S. Treasury Department, our program allows us to take U.S. citizens and residents on these trips legally.


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Save Penguins and Threatened Wildlife at Earth’s Remotest Places


Tristan da Cunha

Tristan da Cunha, the world’s remotest inhabited island, is located in the South Atlantic

On March 16, 2011, a horrific environmental disaster occurred at the most remote inhabited island group in the world, Tristan da Cunha, that threatened the second largest concentration of seabirds in the world.

Marine scientist Dr. David E. Guggenheim, president of  Ocean Doctor, was aboard a ship that received a distress call from a Maltese freighter that had run aground at Nightingale Island. The catastrophic oil spill that ensued was captured on film, and Dr. Guggenheim has turned that footage into a film that explores this tragedy and others like it, as a warning signal and call to action to prevent future tragedies and prepare local managers for any that might occur.

The beloved  Northern Rockhopper penguin has declined 90 percent over the past 50 years and is now an endangered species

The beloved Northern Rockhopper penguin has declined 90 percent over the past 50 years and is now an endangered species

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The Single Word I Taught First Graders in Cuba

Cuban countrysideAt a rural Cuban elementary school nestled in the verdant mountains west of Havana, I approached the front of the class and queued up my best Spanish. The first-graders looked at me with puzzled anticipation — they don’t see many Americans entering their classroom, let alone U.S. visitors who try to get up and teach. But as soon as it was clear we were going to talk about the oceans, its was all smiles and excited participation, as if salt water is the universal language we all share and treasure.

I told the students that our lesson was about a single word: Orgulloso. It means “proud.” I told the students that they should sentirse orgulloso” — feel proud, and then I showed them why. Carrying my laptop around the class, I showed recent videos I had taken in Cuba’s pristine ocean waters of healthy corals, sharks, goliath groupers, tarpon and, to especially loud shrieks of delight, sea turtles.

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VIDEO: What Columbus Might Have Seen

Gardens of the Queen MapI’ve just returned from Cuba and before my wetsuit has finished drying, I am packing my bags again. Before I return to Cuba, I wanted to take this opportunity to share a short video I shot during my recent trip at Cuba’s spectacular Gardens of the Queen National Park (Jardines de la Reina), the country’s first marine park and the largest fully-protected marine reserve in the Caribbean. It may also be the healthiest marine ecosystem in the Caribbean, our closest glimpse at the pristine reefs and islands Columbus saw and named for Spain’s Queen Isabella 500 years ago.

I hope you enjoy the video, but it’s much better in person and I hope to be able to show you personally! Learn more and book your trip!

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