We emerged from the deep blue sea speechless over the gorgeous canyons and gardens of coral and soft sponges, seemingly lasting to infinity. The location was Punta Francés, part of a national marine park just off the southern coast of Cuba’s Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth).

Embarking on a ten-day reconnaissance exploring the southern coast of Cuba, we were reviewing the state of its seas for future educational expeditions focused on sustainability, especially with respect to marine and coastal ecosystems. This spot, like many we were yet to discover, was a reflection of Cuba’s attempt at environmental protection coupled with low development and economic stagnation…the status quo for decades during Fidel Castro’s rule and a partial result of the United States’ commercial and financial embargo.

We were told that weeks before a boat had left this very location packed tight with Cuban refugees attempting an illegal crossing to Mexico…a dangerous passage that, with luck, would lead the people aboard eventually to the U.S. This coastal launching point at Punta Francés is nicknamed “Terminal Two” in jest after the Havana airport terminal that handles charter flights to the United States. As we were told, the escape boat capsized en route, killing everyone on board along with their dreams.

»Click hear to see a slide show from Kristin Hettermann’s recent expedition to Cuba’s undersea wonders

Ironically, our expedition as Americans to get to that very spot had taken months to arrange, with meetings, reviews, approvals, and more interviews. Once in Cuba, we encountered somewhat treacherous traveling conditions ourselves aboard “ready to capsize” local vessels. So how to explain a place where people from one side are fighting to get in, while people from the other side are risking their lives to get out? 

A conundrum for sure, showing that despite the complications, Cuba has a real opportunity to become a world class destination for eco-travelers and a model of sustainability. But how do we get there?

Cuba is said to be one of the “hottest” tourist destinations in the world. Located just 90 miles from Key West, it seems close enough to catch a glimpse of on a clear day. The seduction of the illicit has created a romantic allure for Cuba, an allure that is now stronger than ever. More and more people are yearning to explore the forbidden. The cars, the colors, the characters…yes, they are all here on parade, ready to pose. 

The largest land mass in the Caribbean islands, Cuba is equal approximately to the size of Tennessee, with a population of over 11 million. More than 4,000 islands and cays complement the surrounding sea and bays, and Cuba’s territorial waters extend out 12 nautical miles. Known for its white sand beaches, gorgeous mountains, cigars, rum, dancing and turquoise seas, it has lured Europeans and Canadians for decades. Most visitors spend time in Havana and also within the confines of all-inclusive resorts, owned in full or part by the government.

Traveling with a team of experts from the Environmental Defense Fund, the expedition’s goal was to explore Cuba’s oceans and familiarize ourselves with the culture of the country relative to its natural world. Our partnering scientists and lawyers have been conducting collaborative research in Cuba for almost two decades, working with local marine biologists to expand platforms of knowledge about the natural capital of Cuba. 

As colorful as Cuba is above sea level, it is equally rich in the deep blue. There could be many reasons why the seas of Cuba are still abundant and full of biomass. One explanation is the stunted economy that has led to lower levels of development, pollution and fishing; another is the strong environmental regulation. However, a little-known fact is that Fidel is an avid lover of the ocean and was a scuba diver and spear fisherman.  Because of his passion for the ocean and its creatures, parts of Cuba’s marine system have been protected and these places boast some of the healthiest coral reefs on this side of the globe. Cuba’s low population density (about 102 people per square kilometer) and relative isolation as an island have also helped limit environmental damage. 

In addition to the massive variety of corals and soft sponges, sea grass beds and mangrove forests, the marine life is abundant — including sea turtles, many species of reef fish, sharks, dolphins and manatees. In our explorations alone, during the course of ten dives, we identified more than 130 species of fish.

The improvement in U.S.-Cuba relations has opened exciting opportunities for collaboration on science, stewardship, education and the conservation of an unparalleled shared marine ecosystem. Late in 2015, NOAA, the National Park Service and Cuba’s National Center for Protected Areas, signed a historic agreement to share information ranging from scientific research to education and outreach materials to help the United States and Cuba better understand some of the most ecologically significant ocean resources in both countries. As part of the collaboration, NOAA will also work with Cuban scientists to add new monitoring stations in Cuban coastal waters to improve NOAA’s Coral Health and Monitoring Program. "For decades we have known that ocean currents throughout the wider Caribbean serve as a conveyor belt, moving important marine life between our countries," said Billy Causey, regional director of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries' Southeast Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. “Working together will help us better preserve these natural resources to benefit people in both our countries.”

Every day brings Cuba closer to the possibility of a fully lifted U.S. embargo, which would dramatically affect Cuba’s economic possibilities and thus its wildlife. One of the many mixed blessings would be increased tourism. Those with concern for Cuban wildlife but an understanding of the inevitable promote an ecotourism that focuses on enjoying and even actively supporting nature. Mixed messages from officials make it unclear how Cuba’s tourism industry will proceed, but some conservationists see Cuba’s position as an opportunity to set a constructive example.

“Cuba has a choice to make as far as tourism development goes. It can capitulate to mass development lining every desirable beach locale with mass market hotels, and Havana’s harbor with high rise condos,” says Sven-Olof Lindblad, CEO of expedition travel leader Lindblad Expeditions. “Or it can create its own approach, celebrating its culture, its nature, its unique character. This will certainly be hotly debated, pitting short-term gain against longer term value, both economic and social.”

When you go to Cuba, leave most of your expectations behind, and be prepared for things to not go according to plan. There is a big question mark around whether Cuba’s economic or physical infrastructure is ready for open and expanding tourism, or open and expanding anything for that matter. With the supply chain flirting with turning on, and the country "opening" after decades to expanded American tourism, the question is, how fast and how furious?  

The world is watching with considerable interest and trepidation to see how the inevitable opening of Cuba will manifest itself. There will be conflicts between developers and historic preservationists; industry and conservation; revolutionary classic ideologists and the generations that wish to move forward rather than hold onto the past. The practical and the ideological will have difficulty reconciling differences. 

Cubans have learned to wait. Americans and the rest of the world? The rush to see Cuba is on, as is the desire for business to capitalize on an “emerging market.” The common statement, “get there before it’s too late,” has launched a PR campaign for the country that rivals some of the top efforts in international travel. How Cuba embraces the responsibility and benefits of open global partnership, how the world embraces what Cuba has to offer…that story is yet to be told. One can only hope that in the rush to open Cuba more openly to the world, the natural assets that it is so lucky to have will not be sacrificed in the process.