San Blas Archipelago, Panama

Snorkeling in Cuba & Panama: A Q&A with Marine Biologist, Jack Grove

Guest Contributor|September 1, 2017|Blog Post

Snorkeling and scuba diving rank among the world’s most popular travel activities, particularly in tropical regions such as Central America and the Caribbean. But as mass tourism increases and global warming impacts our oceans, it’s becoming harder to find healthy coral reef systems to explore.

That’s what makes snorkeling in Cuba and Panama so remarkable: Because these countries were off the beaten path for decades, their marine life remains relatively pristine compared to more popular travel destinations. Zegrahm’s Canal to Cuba expedition offers ocean-lovers a rare chance to explore eastern Pacific and Caribbean marine life in one 16-day journey. Guests travel from Isla Coiba and the Pearl Islands archipelago through the Panama Canal, make stops in Costa Rica and Colombia’s Isla de Providencia, and finish by visiting five ports in Cuba.

We took this opportunity to speak with Zegrahm cofounder Jack Grove, a world-renowned marine biologist and conservation advocate, about what makes the Canal to Cuba trip so special. Here he talks about his lifelong love of the sea, the differences between the Pacific and Caribbean sides, and the things visitors can see when snorkeling in Cuba and Panama.


When did you first fall in love with the sea, and what was it that fascinated you about it? 

Although I was raised in a landlocked countryside in southern Pennsylvania, my father and his brothers were all fishermen. We always spent our summers in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. I had my first aquarium when I was nine, and became fascinated with fish and their biology.


You've been leading ocean-focused expeditions for over two decades now. What do you enjoy most about sharing your love of the sea with travelers?

My first job as a naturalist guide and divemaster was in Grand Cayman, fresh out of high school. Since that time, I have sailed back and forth across the Atlantic on small, privately-owned sailboats. 

I lived on a ship in the Galápagos for seven years, compiling the reference material for the first comprehensive volume on The Fishes of the Galápagos Islands. That book took 20 years to complete, and was published by Stanford University Press in 1997. I’m currently working on a revised edition. Recently I coauthored a chapter on the Galápagos for a major publication entitled Atlas of Global Fisheries.

My hope is that by sharing my personal experiences and academic expertise in marine science, I might contribute to a greater understanding of the fragility of the world’s oceans. My lectures while traveling with Zegrahm Expeditions focus on marine conservation, biodiversity, climate change, and coral reef ecology.


Zegrahm’s Canal to Cuba expedition is unique in that it gives travelers a chance to explore the Pacific and the Caribbean in the same trip. Can you talk about the differences between these two bodies of water? 

First of all, let’s look at the big picture: Two to three million years ago, the western Atlantic was connected to the eastern Pacific in the region now known as Panama. This means that the marine life became genetically isolated some 2 million years ago. Few people who transit the Panama Canal are aware of this fascinating differentiation between the lifeforms on either side of the canal.

As a biologist, it’s exciting to share with people how this evolutionary process took place. Having spent more than 20 years in the Galápagos doing research, I’ve become intimately familiar with the Pacific’s marine life, especially the ichthyofauna (or fish life). Now my home is in the Florida Keys, so I’ve spent more time becoming familiar with the marine life of the Western tropical Atlantic.

Travelers who join us on our expedition through the canal, from Panama to Cuba, will experience the great diversity of life between the two oceans. One of the lectures I’ll present during that expedition is entitled Oceans Divided, which covers the geology and oceanography of the region.


Panama's Coiba National Park was the first place I learned to scuba dive. Can you talk about what makes Coiba such a special place for snorkeling and diving? 

The islands off the southern coast of Panama, including Coiba and the Pearl Islands archipelago, have been protected by their mother country for many decades. Consequently, their marine life is abundant and a high percentage of the lifeforms found there are endemic to the eastern tropical Pacific.

The diversity of species is somewhat greater on the west side of Panama than it is on the east, in the San Blas Archipelago. Keen observers will find subtle differences in the types of corals and fish that they will encounter there. 


The expedition stops at two islands I've never heard of, Colombia's Isla de Providencia and Cuba's Isla de la Juventud. What makes those two islands worth seeing?

One of the wonderful things about this particular expedition is the fact that it includes some hidden Caribbean gems. Providencia offers travelers a unique opportunity to experience a side of Colombia that’s utterly unlike anywhere else in that nation. Although tourism is rapidly increasing in Cuba, few visitors get to experience the large island on the south, which is known as the Isle of Youth. 


Cuba was closed off to Americans for so long, not much is known about its marine environment. What can you tell us about snorkeling in Cuba?

Because of the socio-cultural isolation of the island, Cuba’s marine environments have been unintentionally preserved. In addition, the Cuban government has done a great deal to conserve its marine resources.

So when snorkeling in Cuba, you see that the coral and seagrass beds are healthier than anywhere else in the Caribbean. Many of the species found here are found only in the western tropical Atlantic. Therefore, this marine habitat is a global treasure!


You were one of 57 scientists invited by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to a 2002 conference to discuss strategies for the preservation of marine biodiversity. Can you explain why marine conservation is becoming increasingly important, particularly in the Caribbean?

The minimal coastal development in Cuba has allowed near-shore environments to prosper. The mangroves and coral reef communities remain in exceptionally good health.

Commercial development throughout the rest of the Caribbean region has had such a negative impact on marine habitats, but Cuba remains the gem in the natural history of the Western Atlantic.

When I participated in the IUCN conference in 2002, it was already apparent that increasing tourism was likely to have a detrimental impact on the environmental status of Cuba. Fortunately, efforts are being made by the Cuban government and foreign NGOs to preserve the natural wonders of the island for future generations. 


Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 24 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.

Related Blog Posts

  • Isla Coiba, Panama

    Endemic Birds of Cuba [Infographic]

    September 20, 2017 | Infographics

    According to a story in USA Today, some 85 million Americans enjoy watching and/or photographing birds, ranking it 15th on the list of the most popular activities. A 2011 survey by the US Fish and Wildlife Service found that around 18 million people each year take trips exclusively for birdwatching, with many participating in competitions to spot as many species as possible.

    Read More

    Raja Ampat, Indonesia
    Blog Post

    25 Fascinating Facts About Coral Reefs Around the World

    September 15, 2017 | Blog Post

    If you’ve spent any time snorkeling or scuba diving in places like Australia, the Galápagos Islands, or

    Read More

    Who was Ferdinand Magellan?
    Blog Post

    Patagonia Glaciers: An Icy Wonderland at the Edge of the Americas

    September 14, 2017 | Blog Post

    Glaciers account for some of the most jaw-dropping scenery on the planet. There are glaciers on every continent on Earth; but the most impressive are usually found in polar and high alpine regions, where cooler temperatures allow them to grow to colossal sizes. The Patagonia glaciers are among the most iconic scenes of life in southern Argentina and Chile.

    Read More

  • Easter Island
    Blog Post

    Birth of Easter Island's Birdman Cult

    September 6, 2017 | Blog Post

    In 2013, new digital imaging technology allowed scientists from the University of Southampton to more closely study the Hoa Hakana­nai'a statue in London’s British Museum.

    Read More

    Local Boy, Essequibo River, Guyana
    Blog Post

    Carib Indians and Other Indigenous Communities of Guyana

    September 5, 2017 | Blog Post

    They settled in Guyana upward of 3,000 years ago, producing masterful carvings, ceramics, and reed basketwork. They were known as fierce warriors, aggressively protecting their territory in northern South America, as well as the island region that now bears their name, the Caribbean.

    Read More

    Island Sky
    Blog Post

    The World's Best Small-Ship Cruises

    August 24, 2017 | Blog Post

    The cruise industry tends to favor a “bigger is better” approach, with behemoth 5,000 to 6,000-guest ships becoming the new norm.

    Read More

  • Isla Coiba, Panama
    Blog Post

    Endemic Birds of Cuba & Panama: A Birdwatcher's Checklist

    August 21, 2017 | Blog Post

    According to a story in USA Today, some 85 million Americans enjoy watching and/or photographing birds, ranking it 15th on the list of the most popular activities.

    Read More

    Georgetown, Guyana
    Blog Post

    Guyana - From Colonial Roots to Caribbean Republic

    August 18, 2017 | Blog Post

    If the third time’s a charm, then Christopher Columbus’s third voyage to the “New World” definitely delivered one of the Caribbean’s most captivating discoveries: Guyana. Columbus spotted Guyana’s coast during his 1498 journey, although Spanish conquistador Alonso de Ojeda would be the first European to set foot in the country a year later.

    Read More

    San Blas Archipelago, Panama
    Blog Post

    The Best Caribbean Islands for Seeking Seclusion

    August 15, 2017 | Blog Post

    Mass tourism can be a major buzzkill. Many Caribbean destinations have been tainted by overdevelopment, with major cruise lines unleashing thousands of travelers swarming their bustling colonial cities. But the best Caribbean islands offer visitors a chance to get away from the crowds and savor the peaceful tranquility of unspoiled nature.

    Read More

  • Jaguar
    Blog Post

    Guyana's Jaguar, Nature Unleashed

    August 10, 2017 | Blog Post

    It has been clocked at astonishing speeds, particularly on long straightaways. A hugely successful racing model, its compact, sturdy frame is a marvel of efficiency that puts the competition to shame.

    Read More

    Antarctic Sunset
    Blog Post

    The Best Places for Stargazing Around the World

    July 25, 2017 | Blog Post

    On August 21, the moon will pass in front of the sun and the sky will turn completely dark in the middle of the day. Total solar eclipses like this occur approximately once every 18 months, but they’re usually only visible from less than half a percent of the Earth’s surface. This will be the first total solar eclipse visible in the United States since 1979.

    Read More

    Canal to Cuba with Panama, Costa Rica & Colombia
    Blog Post

    Hear it From the Experts - Our Field Staff Love Central America

    July 21, 2017 | Blog Post

    We’ve been traveling to Central America—including Panama, Costa Rica, and Cuba—for nearly two decades; in that time, we’ve honed an incredible itinerary, filled with stunning sights both above and below the waterline.

    Read More