The Florida Aquarium has been collaborating with Cuba's National Aquarium since 2015 to help save coral dying throughout Caribbean waters.
Now, the downtown Tampa marine research and tourism center is partnering with a Miami-based non-profit on expanding its rescue work in Cuba — to endangered green turtles.
In a unique approach to the challenge, the aquarium will venture into the travel industry next year by offering educational trips to one of Cuba's most scenic beach areas — excursions that will double as an educational and fund-raising effort to help the turtles.
"Turtles don't see political boundaries," said Margo McKnight, vice president of biological operations at the Florida Aquarium, which has rescued, rehabilitated and released hundreds of sea turtles since its opening in 1995.
"To protect them, we have to protect them everywhere."
The Cuban resort island of Cayo Largo has no full-time human inhabitants.
People who work there are shuttled by boat to the 16-mile long, two-mile wide cay off Cuba's northern shore for shifts at one of its 10 hotels.
But every May through October, the islet — with its white sand and clear water — plays host to crowds of finned, green visitors arriving from the Gulf of Mexico for nesting season.
In a good year, the turtles lay as many as 375,000 eggs in 2,500 nests on the beaches of Cayo Largo, said Fernando Bretos, director of Miami-based Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program, or CubaMAR, the aquarium's partner in the venture.
Overall, Bretos estimates, Cuba averages around 4,000 turtle nests per year.
"Cayo Largo has the highest density of green turtles in Cuba," the aquarium's McKnight said. "It is an important nesting beach for all of the Gulf."
In Florida, harming green sea turtle nests and hatchlings is prohibited. Beach lighting is also a concern on Florida's beaches because it can draw turtles to their deaths on roadways, but steps to reduce lighting have proven effective, Bretos said.
As a result, Florida's green turtle nest population has been growing from a few hundred per year in the early 2000s to over 14,000 this year.
Each nest, Bretos said, contains 100 to 150 eggs.
There are rules in Cuba, too, aimed at preventing poaching. But enforcement is limited.
Efforts to protect and display hatchlings also are outdated, Bretos said. Hatcheries set up on Cayo Largo, for example, are too small for all the young turtles crammed inside them and too hot because they lack temperature controls.
"The turtles there are living in tough conditions," Bretos said.
The Florida Aquarium and CubaMAR will attempt to change this approach by taking eco-travel groups to Cayo Largo for days-long stays to watch and learn about the green turtles in their natural environment.
The travelers will also rent rooms in the island's hotels, eat at the restaurants and visit shops.
When tourism industry leaders realize there is money to made this way, they may take it upon themselves to push for greater protection and better care for the turtles.
Adding to the incentive is the time of the tours — the hot summer months of the nesting season are the slowest for tourism.
Proceeds of the trips will help fund monitoring of the green sea turtles on Cayo Largo through the University of Havana and Cuba's Higher Institute of Technologies and Applied Sciences.
"Heads in beds and science for protection," the aquarium's McKnight quipped. "Everyone wins."
Travelling to Cuba purely for tourist reasons remains illegal for U.S. citizens under federal law, but these trips to the scenic Cayo Largo are pitched as educational — one of the 12 categories of travel allowed to the socialist country.
The idea for the treks to Cayo Largo was hatched during CubaMAR's fifth International Cuban Sea Turtle Workshop earlier this month.
Funded in part by the Florida Aquarium, the workshop was hosted this year on Cayo Largo during nesting season and brought all of Cuba's green turtle experts together there for the first time.
CubaMAR, a non-profit that fosters scientific collaboration between Cuba and the United States, already puts together eco-trips to Cuba's Guanahacabibes National Park.
Director Bretos, also a curator of ecology at Miami's Frost Science Museum, estimates the cost of the Cayo Largo expeditions will be under $3,000 per person, which includes hotel, flight, licenses, tours, and a $300 to $400 donation to the Cuban research institutions.
"This will be a unique experience to see sea turtles nesting while protecting the environment," Bretos said. "Marine resources in Florida depend on what happens south of us."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.