Tampa and Cuba, once Cold War enemies, now work together to save the ocean

JOHN PENDYGRAFT   |   Times  Hanzel Caballero (left) and Pedro Chevalier (right) from the National Aquarium of Cuba prepare to dive to help set nets in an underwater nursery of elk horn coral run by The Florida Aquarium in anticipation of a coral spawn in the Florida Keys Sunday, August 21, 2016.
JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times Hanzel Caballero (left) and Pedro Chevalier (right) from the National Aquarium of Cuba prepare to dive to help set nets in an underwater nursery of elk horn coral run by The Florida Aquarium in anticipation of a coral spawn in the Florida Keys Sunday, August 21, 2016.
Published Nov. 7, 2016


Five scientists sit in a fishing boat on Aug. 21, waiting for divers to emerge. They stare at the water, struggling to keep the conversation going.

Two are American. Three are Cuban. None speak the other's language perfectly. All were raised to believe the other's government was the bad guy.

Small talk starts with coral and the magic they hope to witness this night.

Once a year, a few days after an August full moon, all the coral reefs of the Caribbean spawn at the same time, releasing their eggs and sperm into what looks like an explosion of pink snow.

These tiny, life-creating cells float for a distance, then couple to create what could one day become a new coral reef.

At stake this night: a year of research by the Florida Aquarium, which is trying to figure out how best to use the spawn to reproduce these depleting reefs.

At stake as well: a budding relationship between two countries that just half a century ago came close to nuclear war.

After the pageantry of presidential handshakes and international baseball, this is how real people from two very different countries begin a friendship: with Tampa marine biologist Shawn Garner noticing a fish pattern on one of the Cubans' bathing suits.

"Are those Nemo shorts?" he asks, then quickly backtracks. "Just kidding. Besides, one of my favorite movies."

But Pedro Chevalier Monteagudo laughs. His son named his dog Nemo.

The conversation builds. Shawn was too embarrassed to watch a kids movie in a theater, so he's waiting for this year's sequel to Finding Nemo to come out on DVD. Pedro laments that there is no way of knowing when the DVD will be available in Cuba and his kids desperately want to see it.

"Tell you what," Shawn says. "I'll send you one when it's out."

Pedro gives a thumbs-up.

And 20 more minutes of excited cartoon talk ensues.

• • •

The Florida Aquarium made history last year when it announced it was partnering with the National Aquarium of Cuba on coral research.

Since the 1970s, half of the coral cover in Florida and Caribbean waters has died, says a study by the International Coral Reef Initiative. These reefs are a valuable part of the ecosystem because they reduce the strength of waves slamming the shores during storms. And despite covering only 2 percent of the ocean floor, they're home to about 25 percent of all marine life.

Tampa's aquarium is a leading researcher in finding ways to breed the fast-growing staghorn coral. Havana's National Aquarium wants to assist the Florida Aquarium in case reef decline becomes prevalent in Cuba's waters.

Cuba is home to some of the world's last healthy reefs. The reason is unclear.

The prevailing opinion is that coral reefs are declining because construction creates sediment that clouds the water and blocks necessary sunlight, and landscape fertilizers pollute the water and smother reefs. Though most coastlines in nations such as the United States and Mexico are overdeveloped, only Cuba's northwestern coast, where Havana is, has that distinction. And it is the only place in Cuba with declining reefs.

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Still, until Cuba's healthy reefs can be further studied, overdevelopment will remain a theory about decline rather than a definite reason for it.

"This is a problem that will not fix itself, and Cuba is key," said Margo McKnight, vice president of biological resources at the Florida Aquarium.

"It's important that we can work together."

• • •

The divers had said they'd be back in 20 minutes with coral to take back to the lab. Two hours have passed, and Shawn and Pedro remain deep in conversation.

Pedro talks about his wife, how her eyes change from blue to green depending on the lighting. Shawn quips that he scares off women before the topic of kids can be broached.

Both grew up in landlocked areas, Shawn in Indiana and Pedro in Santa Clara, a city in central Cuba.

Shawn says he never realized the beauty that lies underwater until he went snorkeling in Belize following high school graduation. He was so in love, he spent his college years growing coral in small tanks and selling it to pet stores.

When Pedro was a boy, he says, his father took him spear fishing for the first time. What he saw below the water's surface kept him up that night with excitement.

Shawn smiles.

"Look at that," he says. "We're not that different."

By the third hour, the divers emerge, saying strong currents made it hard to swim. Into the boat they load water-filled bins containing coral specimens they collected from an acre-sized, man-made underwater nursery.

The coral will be taken to an onshore lab, where each specimen will be labeled and monitored for spawning.

These biologists will be back in the ocean this night so they can collect the soon-to-be-released sperm and eggs for tests in the lab and later at the Florida Aquarium.

Everyone settles in for the boat ride to the lab. Cuban scientist Hansel Caballero Aragon closes his eyes for a brief nap. Shawn decides he wants to have a little fun at Hansel's expense. He reaches into the coral bin and splashes Hansel with water.

Annoyed and awake, Hansel looks for the culprit.

Together, Shawn and Pedro point to the gulf, blaming it on a wave.

• • •

When the Florida Aquarium first sent a delegation to Cuba in 2014, it was just a fact-finding mission. But once the group learned that the Havana aquarium also researched coral, collaboration seemed right.

"They do a wonderful job of monitoring their reefs and understanding what a healthy reef should look like," said Florida Aquarium's McKnight. "That was a major piece missing from our work."

Over the next few months, officials from the two aquariums traded emails. With each one, the excitement grew.

"It started as a conversation about how we can help each other while remaining separate," McKnight said. "It became a question of how we can work together as one unit."

The partnership was announced in August 2015. That November, the Florida Aquarium sent a second delegation to Cuba to hammer out details.

It was during that trip that the Cuban trio of marine biologists met their Tampa counterparts and took them diving in the Bay of Pigs.

That was first time the Florida Aquarium's director of dive operations, Casey Coy, saw one of Cuba's healthy reefs.

"It is what Florida looked like 100 years ago," he said. "I have been all over the Caribbean, but I had never seen anything like that before. It felt like I was somewhere on the remote side of the planet."

His fondest memory from that trip, though: talking Guns N' Roses with Hansel.

"I couldn't believe this guy from Cuba would like my favorite band," he said. "We talked for hours about our favorite songs."

At a concert last summer, he recorded songs on his phone for Hansel.

During a 2016 trip, Florida Aquarium board member Mike Echevarria gave the National Aquarium a GoPro camera he used to record a dive in the Gardens of the Queen, considered the crown jewel of Cuba's healthy coral reefs. The Havana facility has since used that one video camera to monitor the migration of fish in three bodies of water.

"It's amazing, isn't it?" Echevarria said. "What I consider a toy, they can make useful on such a large scale. Imagine what they could do if they had access to everything we had."

That's one of the goals of this partnership. The Florida Aquarium is building eight coral greenhouses in Apollo Beach and has access to an underwater coral nursery.

Over the next three years, the Tampa aquarium hopes to help the Cuban one construct its own coral greenhouse and underwater nursery.

• • •

It's just after sunset on the Gulf of Mexico, and there's not a wave in sight. Yet nine anchored boats are rocking like there's a storm as 52 scientists sway to the tune of Barry White's Let's Get It On.

They've changed the lyrics, which they yell out of key. "Let's get some spawn, oh baby …"

The scientists from Cuba and Tampa are joined by colleagues from eight other institutions, including foundations, universities and zoos. Some are supporting the Tampa aquarium's work. Others have their own research to conduct.

Everyone is confident this is the night the coral will spawn.

Casey, the Florida Aquarium's head of dive operations, predicts it will happen at 10:42 p.m.

But by 11:15, it is apparent this is not the night.

"It will happen tomorrow," Casey murmurs.

That isn't a given.

Perhaps the coral expended too much energy surviving a storm. Perhaps the water temperature is not right. If so, the spawning could happen at any time following a full moon over the next few months.

The Florida Aquarium cannot afford to monitor the nursery every day until it does. Casey knows that if the coral does not spawn tomorrow, research could stall for a year.

He's getting ready to go when he hears someone calling to him from another boat. It's Cuban scientist Alexis Fernandez Osoria, still in high-enough spirits to whistle the tune to Let's Get It On.

"Good night, Casey, my friend," he says, and searches for more words in English. "No worry. Tomorrow. Be happy. I am happy. Thank you."

With a chuckle, Casey — who knows only a few words of Spanish — replies, "Si. Hasta luego, mi amigo."

• • •

Because of the way coral looks, people think it's made up of plants or rocks.

Most corals are actually colonial animals made up of individual polyps that live and work together to support the entire colony. As corals grow, they remove calcium from the water and lay it down in the form of a skeleton that over time builds coral reefs.

And like all animals, coral reproduces sexually. Staghorn coral is a hermaphrodite. When spawning, it releases a pink gamete bundle that contains sperm and eggs.

The tiny bundles are the size of snowflakes, and — amid a flurry of fish looking for a snack — they float from the coral like dandelion seeds in the wind and rise to the surface, where they separate into sperm and eggs.

Coral cannot self-fertilize, and natural reefs are now so spread out due to declining numbers that sperm and eggs often die before reaching a companion.

So for the past five years, the Florida Aquarium has sought to perfect bringing sperm and eggs from different genotypes together for sexual reproduction in a controlled environment.

The Key Largo underwater coral nursery is stocked with different genotypes.

The scientists will collect spawn, take it to the lab, and mix and match the genotypes. Then they'll release thousands of the baby coral back into nature.

To improve the fertilization process this year, the aquarium has prepared a series of experiments to be conducted immediately after collecting the spawn.

It has had success growing one coral in a controlled setting so far. That coral is now 2 years old and residing in a greenhouse on the second floor of the downtown Tampa aquarium. Why that one has survived while others have not is a mystery.

One day, the scientists will concentrate on finding methods to ensure coral's healthy growth in the greenhouse.

But first, the aquarium needs the coral to spawn.

• • •

On the night of Aug. 22, the Florida Aquarium's Lauren DeLuca, manager of boat operations, sits cross-legged on the cabin roof of a small docked boat and wonders aloud if other forces are preventing the coral from spawning.

Wearing black on a boat is thought to be bad luck, she says, as is bringing bananas or women onboard.

She is willing to ban the first two. But not the third. "I'm not going home," she says.

She captains one of the boats to coral alley again.

So does Florida Aquarium's Mike Echevarria, who has gotten to know the Cubans well since he gave them his GoPro. "Why are we such good friends?" he says, laughing. "We're all bad judges of character."

On the boat ride, he and the Cubans joke about who is the strongest swimmer and threaten to leave one of the group alone underwater in the dark. On a few occasions when Cuban marine biologist Alexis is mid sentence speaking in Spanish, Mike teases, "It's English-only time."

The boats are again rocking as they anchor, but this time, waves are the cause. Barry White is again crooning, but only a few sing along. Too much is at stake.

The Florida Aquarium sends a diver underwater to check on the coral.

All eyes are on the surface when he emerges.


"He says we got some fatties ready to pop," Casey yells to the team. "We get wet at 10:15."

The party starts.

The Cubans, who have never collected coral spawn, are supposed to just watch the Florida Aquarium representatives this year. They're disappointed but understand their Tampa peers need to focus on work and not teaching.

But then, they hear a yell from a boat cloaked in darkness.

"Cubans, can you help me?"

It's Patti Gross, a member of the Coral Restoration Foundation's board of directors. She is collecting coral spawn for genetic testing at Penn State University and needs some extra hands.

"Si," yells Alexis, hopping up and down with excitement.

Around 10:45 p.m., the coral spawns.

From the boat, by the light of a flashlight, the spawn-covered water looks like a pink oil slick.

Down below, the divers work to collect the sperm and eggs.

To do so, the scientists cover each coral with a bag made of nylon mesh that has a small collection jar attached to the top. The spawn floats up into the jar over the course of 20 to 30 minutes, and when filled, the jar is capped and detached from the bag. It is then brought to the boat for transport and rushed to the lab, where fertilization takes place and the trials are conducted.

The Cubans perform the new task perfectly.

Dozens of American scientists do the same.

The abyss of the gulf is quiet as they all work together, like those colonial coral polyps, to save the world's oceans.

Editor's note: Photo captions have been corrected to reflect the depicted coral type as staghorn. Previous captions incorrectly described the type of coral as elkhorn.