Celebrating Cuba’s Scientists and Students Dedicated to the Ocean

Ocean Doctor's Ximena Escovar-Fadul (right) presents CIM Director, Patricia Gonzalez with a framed photo of CIM's research vessel, Felipe Poey to commemorate CIM's 45th anniversary

Ocean Doctor’s Ximena Escovar-Fadul (right) presents CIM Director, Patricia Gonzalez (left) with a framed photo of CIM’s research vessel, Felipe Poey to commemorate CIM’s 45th anniversary

For a Cuban who wants to become a marine biologist, there is only one choice: The University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research (Centro de Investigaciones Marinas, CIM) is the only Cuban institution where marine biologists are accredited. Ocean Doctor’s collaboration with CIM began nearly 15 years ago and continues with bold new projects today. Ocean Doctor’s Project Scientist, Ximena Escovar-Fadul, participated in CIM’s 45th anniversary celebration held in Havana on March 9, 2015.

During its 45-year history, CIM has contributed to major advances in marine science, produced hundreds of capable marine scientists and has developed collaborative projects with institutions from around the world, including the U.S. CIM was also destroyed by a storm and rebuilt, something unimaginably difficult to accomplish in Cuba.

At an event in the University of Havana’s magnificent Aula Magna, Ximena presented the following speech from Ocean Doctor founder Dr. David E. Guggenheim:

Please accept my sincere apologies for not being able to be with you in person for this event. I assure you that I am there in spirit and extend my warmest wishes to all of you.

Fifteen years ago I arrived in Cuba on my first visit to this beautiful island. Last week I returned from my 83rd visit. It is not the beautiful corals, fish, sea turtles, birds and other remarkable natural wonders that have drawn me time and time again to this place. It is the people.

I arrived at the Center for Marine Research (Centro de Investigaciones Marinas, CIM) in September 2000 and was greeted with such sincere warmth and friendliness that it felt more like I was meeting long-lost family members than academic colleagues.

My first meeting was with Dra. María Elena Ibarra and Dra. Anna María Suarez. My Spanish was so awful that we conversed in fragments of Spanish, English and Russian. But we understood enough. We understood that we all shared a deep commitment to studying and protecting the sea and that this was something that would transcend the formidable politics that would threaten to thwart our efforts in the years to come.

CIM's former director, Dr. María Elena Ibarra

CIM’s former director, Dr. María Elena Ibarra (Photo: D. Guggenheim)

I had the pleasure of knowing and working with [former CIM director] Dra. María Elena Ibarra. She defined selfless dedication, never accepting any favoritism or special privilege. She traveled on the same uncomfortable bus with her students to Guanahacabibes and slept in the same room at the weather station.

She also taught me the meaning of the word, “persistence.” With few resources and enormous logistical challenges, she and her loyal team work tirelessly to make sure that the quality of research and education at CIM never wavered. And throughout the eight years when relations between Cuba and the U.S. seemed to make our work together impossible, Dra. never once suggested we stop trying — and we didn’t.

She always called me “doctor” and I called her “doctora.” But while our form of address was formal, we also developed a friendship and I felt privileged to experience her wonderful sense of humor as we grew closer. Once, on a long bus ride returning to Havana from a conference, I announced that my organization would be buying lunch for everyone but that we were not permitted to purchase alcohol. Dra. Ibarra immediately stood up and loudly demanded, speaking English: “Doctor! I want RUM!”

It was marine scientists who quietly and steadfastly built strong relationships between our countries while diplomats and politicians fell short.

I am proud beyond words of what we have accomplished together over the years, such as a 10-year series of expeditions to complete the first comprehensive study of Cuba’s Gulf of Mexico waters, Proyecto Costa Noroccidental (Project of the Northwestern Coast).

Thanks in large part to collaboration between CIM and its U.S. partners, marine science has been recognized by both the U.S. and Cuba as one of the best examples of collaboration between our countries. It was marine scientists who quietly and steadfastly built strong relationships between our countries while diplomats and politicians fell short.

CIM's 45th AnniversaryTogether we have shared our common love of the ocean, of research and learning. And from our work together have come wonderful friendships, which I treasure deeply. I am filled with admiration for my colleagues at CIM, who continue to work tirelessly and against enormous challenges to conduct their important work.

The rewards are not financial. But the rewards are great, indeed. CIM has advanced science in countless ways over the past 45 years. And as we look ahead to the next chapter of our work, Ximena and I look forward with great anticipation to working with you to better understanding the health and resiliency of Cuba’s extraordinarily healthy coral reefs. This research could help guide the restoration of coral reefs throughout the Caribbean where half the corals have been lost since 1970.

But of all the things for which I feel proud, I still recall the day a decade or so ago when a CIM student I did not know approached me at the Palacio de Convenciones during the MarCuba conference. He shook my hand and thanked me for our support of the expeditions that allowed him to do his Master’s research.

CIM director, Patricia Gonzalez

CIM’s director, Patricia Gonzalez. Left: As a graduate student in 2004; Center: After defending her dissertation in 2009; Right: As director of CIM in 2014

I am proud to have played a small part in helping to train the next generation of Cuba’s marine scientists. You may recognize CIM director, Dra. Patricia Gonzalez in this photo I took of her while we were on an expedition in 2004 and she was a graduate student. I always show Patri’s photo in my presentations to American audiences.

Here is the photo Patri sent me when she successfully defended her doctoral dissertation.

And here is Patri just a few days after becoming CIM’s newest director.

Eleven years ago we were diving together and collecting samples. Today we are colleagues and friends, still working together, trying to advance science and inspire and educate a new generation of scientists. Like Dr. Jorge Angulo before her, CIM is very lucky to have someone as dedicated and passionate as Patri as its leader and I am honored to call her friend.

CIM's research vessel, Felipe Poey, anchored at sunset in Cuba's Gardens of the Queen (Photo: D. Guggenheim)

CIM’s research vessel, Felipe Poey, anchored at sunset in Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen (Photo: D. Guggenheim)

Less than two weeks ago, on February 26th, I saw the Felipe Poey in Jardines de la Reina, preparing for another expedition. As the sun began to set, I took this photo.

We had the photo printed and framed and I am pleased to have Ximena present it to you on this important occasion.

The inscription reads:

Para el CIM en su 45 Anniversario en el espiritu de la ciencia, el descubrimiento, el aprendizaje y la colaboración – Ocean Doctor, 9 de Marzo del 2015 (For CIM on its 45th Anniversary in the spirit of science, discovery, learning and collaboration – Ocean Doctor, March 9, 2015)

On behalf of Ximena, Mary, Erika, Maribel and the rest of the Ocean Doctor team, please accept our congratulations on 45 years of accomplishments and our gratitude for your friendship, your hard work and your undying curiosity for the oceans that connect us all.

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