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Cuba’s Twilight Zone Reefs Expedition photo
This is one photo from the low-light depths off Cuba.

Low-light coral reefs mapped off Cuba

By the  Florida Atlantic University news staff

After nearly two years of planning, a team of scientists from the United States and Cuba has explored never-before-studied coral reefs deep in the ocean’s twilight.

The study took place in a month-long circumnavigation of the entire coast of Cuba, which spans about 1,500 miles (2,729 kilometers). Except for a few places along the coast, prior to this expedition, there were virtually no data or charts indicating what was beyond the shallow reef zone. At every dive site, the scientists discovered reefs, which they documented from depths of 150 meters up to 30 meters. They are called mesophotic, meaning middle and light.

Forty-three dives use a remotely operated underwater vehicle. There also were snorkeling excursions. The result is almost 20,000 underwater photographs, a collection of more than 500 marine plants and animals and 100 hours of high definition video.

In addition to documenting these middle-dwelling reefs for the first time, discoveries included numerous new species of sponges and range extensions or depth records for several species of corals, gorgonians, sponges, algae and fish. The researchers documented 123 species of fish, including numerous grouper and snapper on the reefs. The invasive lionfish, which often number in the hundreds on such reefs off southwestern Florida, was present in relatively lower abundance at the study sites in Cuba. Some sites had coral abundances, rivaling the highest known coral densities in the Caribbean.

Lionfish feed on smaller creatures that eat algae. The absence of the algae eaters can cause coral to become smothered.

“This expedition would not have been so successful without the hard work and collaboration of all the scientists from Cuba and the United States who participated in the cruise,” said John K. Reed. He is chief scientist and research professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. “We were thrilled to discover that overall, the majority of the mesophotic reefs that we explored are very healthy and nearly pristine compared to many reefs found in the U.S. We saw little evidence of coral disease or coral bleaching, and evidence of human impact was limited to some lost long lines at some of the sites. Our biggest concern, however, is that we saw few large grouper.”

Surveyors used the University of Miami’s research vessel F.G. Walton Smith as a platform for daily dives with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Sanctuaries Foundation’s Mohawk remotely operated underwater vehicle. Scientists from the U.S. and Cuba specializing in corals, sponges, algae and fish logged thousands of dive notes, underwater photos and video, documenting the geomorphology, biological zones and diversity of marine organisms. 

Many of the mission’s dives took place in or directly adjacent to Cuba’s extensive network of marine protected areas, providing an opportunity to explore locations for potential creation of new protected sites or expansion of existing boundaries. Oceanographic data and water samples also were collected daily to evaluate seawater chemistry, patterns of water circulation and potential connectivity between Cuban reefs and those in the U.S.

Approximately 22 percent of the Cuban shelf is designated as protected areas, and many of the dives on this expedition were within these locations. During this expedition, the scientists identified at least four sites they believe should receive protected status. Some of these sites had dense cover of corals or populations of grouper and snapper, which may indicate spawning.

-Aug. 17, 2017

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