Three Cuban men strolling the Florida Aquarium on Monday blended in with hundreds of others visiting the downtown attraction.
They gawked at the 300-pound grouper. They waited in line to pet a giant python. And they giggled at the octopus that can be coaxed out of hiding with a portable DVD player broadcasting the movie Happy Feet pressed against the tank.
Still, quietly, Pedro Chevalier Monteagde, Alexis Fernandez Osoria and Hanzel Caballero stood out from the other tourists.
Their visit was historic, meant to further a coral reef restoration research partnership between Tampa's Florida Aquarium and the National Aquarium in Havana, where they work as marine biologists.
The three visitors didn't make any public statements Monday, reluctant to do so before the arrival later this month of their aquarium's leader, but their hosts expressed enthusiasm.
"We are different countries," said Mike Terrell, the Florida Aquarium husbandry director who led the delegation around the facility Monday. "But we share the same ocean."
Tampa's aquarium made history in August 2015 when it partnered with Cuba's National Aquarium on coral reef restoration research. Theirs was the first official long-term collaboration between marine centers from the two countries.
Florida Aquarium representatives have been to Havana on a few occasions. Monday marked the first visit to the Tampa facility by Cuban counterparts.
Over the next two weeks, the Cuban scientists will get a full rundown of how the Florida Aquarium is operated and how research is conducted there.
This will include a trip to Key Largo to watch the spawning of coral and to learn how the Tampa team collects the sperm and eggs and transports them to a greenhouse for reproduction.
During the tour Monday, the Cubans rattled off a myriad of questions to tour guide Terrell, such as: What type of filtration systems do the tanks used? What species on display are native to the area? Which exhibits do children enjoy most?
The Cubans were most excited to see the Florida Aquarium's staghorn coral farm that is related to their collaboration.
Studies have shown that since 1970, half of the coral reefs in Caribbean waters have died, which includes the southern end of the Gulf of Mexico.
But Cuba's coral reefs remain in a near-pristine state.
Working together, the National Aquarium and Florida Aquarium hope to repopulate the Caribbean so it one day mirrors what is found in Cuban waters.
Contact Paul Guzzo at email@example.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.