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.