Little did I have any inkling when I first set foot on this exotic island what lay in store over the next two decades. I underestimated everything, from this island’s relentless gravitational attraction that would pull me back time after time, even after I had given up hope of succeeding there. Nor did I appreciate what difference I could possibly make, a Jewish kid born in Philadelphia without a drop of Latin blood in his veins and little memory of the Spanish he had struggled with during his undergraduate studies decades earlier. But I would soon discover – and treasure – my newfound Cuban soul. At one point the former president of the Dominican Republic wagged his finger at me after a speech I gave in Santo Domingo, telling me that I speak Spanish with a strong Cuban accent. I took it as a great compliment.
Neither had I anticipated that I would be swept away into a journey though time that I can still barely believe, one that would bring me face-to-face with vibrant, healthy coral reefs even healthier than the spectacular ecosystems I remember from the early seventies in the Florida Keys, reefs that were the inspiration of my career in marine science and conservation, reefs that would soon succumb to a tidal wave of humanity invading Florida’s shorelines. And so would go much of the Caribbean. The coral reefs my colleagues and I had so cherished in the seventies are 80 to 90 percent dead. In the rest of the Caribbean, the figure is roughly 50 percent.
At a time when I had come close to giving up hope for corals in the same way that many conservation groups abandoned the Caribbean as a lost cause, Cuba came to my emotional rescue. Just like the dazzling carpet of schoolmasters, grunts, tang and parrotfish spilling over the mustard walls of Florida’s Looe Key so transfixed me that summer in 1974 as a young teenager, so did my eyes widen and my heart race with joyful disbelief as I slipped below the surface into an underwater paradise as frozen in time as the rest of Cuba, taking me back for a few precious minutes — as long as the tank on my back would reward me with another breath — to those magical days of vibrant reefs and the inspirational thought that learning from Cuba’s “living laboratory” could offer the rest of us a second chance to do things right.
I beheld magnificent stands of healthy elkhorn coral, teeming with colorful grunts, snappers and angelfish. I came face-to-face with Goliath groupers, a critically endangered species, more than triple my weight. I found myself surrounded by dozens of healthy Caribbean reef sharks, silky sharks, tarpon and myriads of other vibrant fish and corals, all the while seeing no evidence of the decay and disease the rest of the Caribbean had suffered over the past half century to protect their coral reef ecosystems.