Surrounded by the green and blue waters of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, the Cuban archipelago shelters a multicoloured underwater paradise: its coral reefs.
The whimsical shapes of these underwater ecosystems stretch around more than 95 percent of Cuba's marine platform, for some 2,000 miles. Together with the Bahamas Barrier Reef, Cuba's coral reef is the largest in the western Atlantic.
Cuba's reef systems are made up of tropical coral, or biotic, reefs that are formed by living organisms on the seabed that secrete rocky calcium carbonate skeletons, which are known as stony corals. The reefs are an ideal habitat for many types of marine fauna and act as protective “walls” for coasts that are suffering from the effects of rising sea levels caused by climate change.
To grow, coral reefs need water temperatures ranging between 64°F and 68°F, around 35% salinity, adequate water movement, and shallow, clear waters where sunlight can reach the coral and provide it with energy.
According to studies by Cuban and German experts, Cuba's reefs are among the most developed in the Caribbean, with around 6,000 recorded species. They skirt the entire island, with a longer section on the north side.
Examples can be found in the Canarreos archipelago off Cuba's south-western coast, and in the Jardines de la Reina archipelago, in the east, which are considered the largest in the Caribbean, together with the Bahamas Barrier Reef. Other examples of Cuba's corals can be found off María la Gorda Beach on Cuba's westernmost tip, as well as the Guanahacabibes Peninsula, the south-eastern Gulf of Guacanayabo, and Los Caimanes National Marine Park in central Cuba.
The world-famous Varadero beach, located in the western province of Matanzas, has gained the nickname of “Playa Coral” (Coral Beach) because its spectacular beauty is enhanced by an impressive reef with more than 30 types of coral 20 meters deep.
Two more incredible reefs are located on the north coast of Camagüey province, off Santa Lucía Beach, and on the southern coast of Trinidad province, off Ancón Beach; in the east, a coral hot spot can be found off Guardalavaca Beach in Holguín province.
The small island of Cayo Largo, part of the Canarreos Archipelago, has a beautiful 30 km-long coral strip that acts as an underwater bridge linking the surrounding islands and cays.
Undoubtedly, it is the Isla de la Juventud, the second largest island in the Cuban archipelago, that stands out for the beauty of its coral reefs, which feature tunnels, deep canals, underwater valleys, and unique formations such as the Catedral del Caribe (Caribbean Cathedral), reputedly the tallest column of coral in the world — almost five meters high and 12 meters deep. Several varieties of coral can be seen in this area, including elkhorn, staghorn, and black coral.
Unfortunately, experts believe that these marvelous ecosystems are in danger of disappearing as a result of both natural causes and human activity.
Natural causes include hurricane waves, changes in water temperature and salinity, disease and predation by fish, spiny sea urchins and starfish. Man-made causes include ocean pollution, mangrove swamp destruction, overfishing, excessive sea tourism, climate change, deforestation and others.
Despite all of that, natural and human-related damage to Cuba's marine ecosystems is reported to be less than in other countries of the region, mainly due to a state prevention policy.
Local initiatives such as the 2050-2100 Coastal Dangers and Vulnerability macro-project, the Early Warning Network and the National Environment and Development Program are helping to preserve these ecosystems, which are also protected by Cuba's Constitution and by various international agreements signed by the Cuban State. Safekeeping coral reefs is important not only for Cuba's underwater world, but also for the preservation of an important raw material: calcium, which is extracted from the Porites porites species (Finger Coral). Cuba obtains Coralline from this species and uses it as a bone graft substitute and for other medical applications.
There are three types of coral reefs:
Fringing reef – this type is directly attached to a shore, or borders it with an intervening shallow channel or lagoon.
Barrier reef – a reef separated from a mainland or island shore by a deep channel or lagoon.
Atoll reef – this more or less circular or continuous barrier reef extends all the way around a lagoon without a central island.