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Florida Aquarium salsa dances and expands coral research in trip to Cuba

Divers from Tampa's Florida Aquarium and Cuba's National Aquarium look over coral fragments in Cuban waters during the Tampa center's visit to the island nation March 21-26. The two aquariums are working together to restore dying reefs. [Courtesy of Florida Aquarium]
Published Apr. 4, 2017

TAMPA — The Florida Aquarium's most recent trip to Cuba marked the eighth time scientists from the Tampa center worked with counterparts from Cuba's National Aquarium in Havana on restoring coral reefs in the Caribbean.

The trip March 21-26 brought both scientific and personal advances for the teams — construction of Cuba's first underwater coral nursery and progress toward communicating with one another in Spanish and English.

The language progress, it turns out, is all above the water. Under the surface, it hasn't really mattered since the day the teams started working together in November 2015.

"You can't talk underwater," said Margo McKnight, vice president of biological operations at the Florida Aquarium. "All divers speak the same language with their bodies. Being underwater is a great language neutralizer."

The new coral nursery is in the Gulf of Mexico off the island nation's westernmost point — the coast of Cuba's Guanahacabibes Peninsula National Park.

The nursery is made up of 20 "coral trees" — structures made primarily of plastic pipe that are 15 feet long and anchored to the sea floor. Fragments collected from healthy coral reefs off the southwest tip of Cuba are hung from the trees. Each tree can hold up to 60 fragments.

When fragments mature in a year or two, they are replanted on depleted natural reefs.

The nurseries provide a benefit Mother Nature does not: The fragments can be separated so they don't compete for light or space, McKnight said.

"They can grow faster and healthier in this way," she said. "And can be better protected from predators."

The setup mimics an underwater nursery in Key Largo built and maintained by the non-profit Coral Restoration Foundation. The Florida Aquarium provided the structures and know-how and taught the entire process to the Cuba aquarium.

Among the most memorable moments of the recent collaboration, McKnight said, were when the Cubans broke out on the boat deck with a salsa dance.

By week's end, she said with a chuckle, the Florida Aquarium team was joining in with their Cuban colleagues.

"They are super fun and hard workers," McKnight said.

More than half the Caribbean's coral reefs, home to more than 4,000 species of fish and countless species of plants, have died since 1970, according to the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network. The Caribbean region includes Florida.

Yet, the only place in Cuba where coral is dying is in the water off Havana, the island's busiest city. The rest of Cuba's reefs remain nearly pristine, likely due to less pollution and development.

By studying Cuba's healthy reefs, the Florida Aquarium hopes to learn ways of bringing back the Sunshine State's coral.

Meantime, the two aquariums will continue to work together on how to reproduce coral in a controlled setting and on designs for a land-based coral greenhouse to be built in Havana in the next two to three years.

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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