Water as A Natural Bridge, Bonding Across the Straits of Florida
The lessons of a
How shared waterways bridge the divides between Florida and Cuba — for marine life and the scientists united to protect it.
By Anmari Alvarez Aleman
Featured image above: In April 1984, more than 20 years before this Florida manatee was spotted by Anmari Alvarez Aleman in the warm waters off of Cuba, she was photographed in Crystal River with her male calf. In 2007, she became the first Florida manatee ever recorded in Cuba, when Alvarez Aleman sighted her with another calf. Photo courtesy of the Sirenia Project, United States Geological Survey.
More than 10 years have passed since the momentous day I first saw the creature that I hoped to study for the rest of my professional life.
I was still living in my native Cuba then, and had recently started a job at the Center for Marine Research in Havana. A couple of years before, while a student at the University of Havana, I had decided to become a biologist dedicated to the conservation of marine mammals — manatees, whales and dolphins — and work to reverse the threatened future many of them faced.
Yet, I had never seen a manatee.
And now here she was, peacefully resting with her calf in the quiet waters surrounding a power plant east of Havana. What made this first encounter most memorable was what came next: The discovery that this manatee was not from Cuba, but was a visitor from another country.
On that January afternoon in 2007, I witnessed the first-ever reported sighting in Cuba of a Florida manatee, a subspecies of the West Indian manatee. It is the Antillean manatee, another subspecies, that is commonly found in Cuba.
She didn’t have a passport, nor did she need one. Since her first sighting in Florida in 1979, she had been part of the Manatee Individual Photo-Identification System (a computer database of recognizably scarred or marked manatees), and the unique pattern of her body’s scars was proof of her identity.
That manatee was an ambassador who would connect Cuban and U.S. researchers across the wild waters of the Florida Strait. She ignited in me a determination to understand the role
of our waters as a natural bridge between countries, bringing researchers together across geographic and political divides.
Water connects us, transcending differences in language, ideologies, cultures, and beliefs. This manatee reflected that bond. She had lived her life in the Sunshine State, according to Dr. James “Buddy” Powell, executive director of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, where “she was reported frequently in the Crystal River area until 2006,” when she decided to pay a visit to her closest neighbors.
Back in the 1990s, Dr. Powell began working in Cuba at the invitation of Dr. Maria Elena Ibarra Martin, the late zoologist and conservationist who founded the island’s Marine Turtle Conservation Program. The researchers shared a great passion for manatees and linked by concern for the future of the species, created a collaboration that continues today as part of the CMARI’s mission.
I met Dr. Powell while I was still a university student and he became my mentor after I graduated. Manatees brought our paths together, and he has been a guide and inspiration to me ever since.
The natural bond that connects the United States with Cuba extends to scientists, who build fellowship and trust as they work together to reveal the ocean’s truth, while overcoming obstacles.
I’ve experienced some of these challenges in my own work, including difficulties posed by the countries’ political estrangement. But I can affirm that our countries’ alliance in marine science and conservation has transcended such issues — perhaps this is why it has grown so strong.
We’ve learned that manatees aren’t the only marine animals to cross borders. Dr. Robert Hueter, shark biologist at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, has dedicated his life’s work to studying and protecting the world’s sharks. His research has furthered understanding of the connection between sharks from Cuba and the United States.
“There is ample evidence of connectivity between Cuba and the U.S. in shared stocks of sharks, primarily through tagging studies that have demonstrated shark movements between the two countries,” he says.
That connectivity, Dr. Hueter believes, illustrates why countries must work together to protect critical habitats, as they did with the creation of the Cuba National Plan of Action for Sharks (NPOA-Sharks) document, a guide to safeguarding fisheries and preserving healthy populations.
“It is an important achievement for the recovery and conservation of the region’s sharks,” says Dr. Hueter, of the joint effort of the Environmental Defense Fund, Mote Marine Laboratory, University of Havana, and the Ministry of Food in Cuba.
Dolphins are other frequent travellers between the Florida and Cuban coasts.
“Movements from south Florida, through the Bahamas to the north and southeast coast of Cuba have been reported in rehabilitated rough-toothed dolphins, short-finned whale and Risso’s dolphins,” says Dr. Randall Wells, vice president of Marine Mammal Conservation, and director, Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program.
These important observations — which could benefit from further research for better interpretation — show a pattern of connection among countries, and a shared responsibility.
“The main issue with these (dolphin) species, now that we know that there are apparently transboundary stocks, is how can they best be protected,” says Dr. Wells.
The same back-and-forth movement could be challenging the conservation and study of marine turtles.
“We know there is frequent travel of these groups of species between the U.S. and Cuba, and as a result it is very important that our countries join forces to conserve them,” says Anne Meylan, a research associate with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Together with her husband, Dr. Peter Meylan, former professor at Eckerd College, she has studied the regional connectivity of marine turtles, aided by tag recovery and return programs.
Sometimes the threats are intrinsically tied to economic need. The waters off Cuba’s coast are a regular stop for the turtles, offering much-needed foraging habitats and migratory corridors in their regional routes. Yet, sadly, for many it is the last stop.
The problem may lie in the illegal subsistence fishing that remains in some areas, says Fernando Bretos, program officer at the Ocean Foundation, which brings together scientists and policymakers from Mexico, the U.S., and Cuba. “This is to be expected as Cuba is a protein-limited country,” he says.
Bretos believes better coordination of policies and education can help solve the puzzle of resource conservation.
“When scientists cannot share information and create joint projects, it is difficult to understand animal movements and there is less innovation,” says Bretos who has worked with Cuban marine scientists for 21 years.
An environmental disaster years ago made clear to the world the depths — and necessity — of that Cuba-U.S. connection, says Daniel Whittle, a lawyer and senior director of Caribbean initiatives for the Environmental Defense Fund, whose mission of cross-cultural exchange includes those whose livelihoods depend upon sustainable resources and a clean environment.
“Thanks to research about fish connectivity and larvae dispersion conducted by Cuban and American scientists, it was clear that marine ecosystems…are tied together and it’s impossible to manage shared waters without close communication and coordination,” says Whittle.
“The massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 made this connectivity apparent to the world. When the oil was flowing, Cuba was on high alarm because of the threats to its reefs, shorelines, and coastal communities.”
Along with shared threats, the waterways bordering one country may provide solutions to problems besetting another. Take, for example, recreational fishing in Florida, a source of tourist dollars.
Oceanic currents carrying millions of fish larvae from the south offer hope for Florida’s overfished populations and damaged marine ecosystems.
Studies of regional bonefish populations show Belize, Mexico, and southwest Cuba likely provide much of the bonefish larvae to the Florida Keys, which may depend entirely on larvae from elsewhere.
“These patterns of connectivity are extremely important for the recreational flat fishing industry in Florida, where in the Keys, for example, the industry has an annual economic impact of $465 million,” says Dr. Aaron Adams, director of Science and Conservation for Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, who works with the Center for Marine Research and the National Park Cienaga de Zapata in Cuba.
“It is important for Florida to work with Cuba as (Cuba) expands tourism to protect not only the island’s bonefish, but its tarpon and permit populations and spawning locations,” says Dr. Adams.
But for joint work to flourish, there are real obstacles to overcome, including U.S. restrictions on Cuban travel and the use of federal and state funding, and the lack of suitable research vessels on the island.
Those moments of frustration are offset by great reward. I have seen this firsthand and through the experiences of my husband, Dr. Jorge Angulo Valdes, a marine scientist who works in marine conservation as a visiting assistant professor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.
Jorge and I were colleagues at the University of Havana, and for more than 12 years have shared not only a deep love for the ocean and a passion for learning about the ecological connections between the U.S and Cuba, but also a life and a family.
Before leaving Cuba, he was a University of Havana researcher and director of the Center for Marine Research there.
“Collaborating in marine science and conservation issues has been very stressful from time to time, but totally worth it,” he says. “When working for the Center for Marine Research, I had to deal with tons of bureaucracy; working for Eckerd, I see limitations due to government policies and regulations in relation to Cuba.”
Yet on the reward side, he’s helped students from the University of Florida, Florida Institute of Technology and Eckerd College visit Cuba for field courses.
“Having U.S. students visiting Cuba has been a great experience and opportunity,” my husband explains. “They can get a sense of what Cuba and the Cubans are like, strengthen human relations and trust, which ultimately enables effective collaboration.”
And a bonus: When Cuban students take field courses alongside their U.S. counterparts, another door swings wide for cultural exchange and friendship.
Water connects us, transcending differences in language, ideologies, cultures, and beliefs. Manatees traveling freely between Cuba and the United States reflect that.
Finding myself in new waters
Almost 10 years after I encountered the first Florida manatee officially documented in Cuba, I, too, became something of a first — the first Cuban resident in 50 years accepted as a student at the University of Florida. I came to pursue my doctorate in interdisciplinary ecology at the School of Natural Resources and Environment. Inspired by my encounter with the Florida manatee, I wanted to explore answers to the questions that emerged from that interaction.
This new stage represented a period of development and expansion, mentally and spiritually, where I learned more about manatees and how to use science to secure their place in the world.
I was in the middle of my doctoral studies in 2017 when, to my surprise, another Florida manatee showed up in the warm waters of Cuba, demonstrating yet again the ecological bridge across the ocean is stronger than any human force.
Before this, only five cases of Florida manatees had been documented out of the United States, in the Bahamas. Now, in less than a decade, two females with calves from Florida’s west coast were reported in Cuba.
And to my elation and astonishment, the manatee observed in Havana in 2017 was spotted back in the U.S,. in the Halstead Bayou near Ocean Springs, Mississippi, in January 2020.
Cuba, the U.S., and Mexico are key guardians of the Gulf of Mexico, connected by species and oceanic currents. The health of their shared ecosystems and ecological processes is a direct result of the solidity of the human bond. And, of course, healthier and stronger ecosystems translate into better government, economies and human welfare.
As humans, we build walls, reinforce boundaries and often destroy natural links and ecological bridges. But when it comes to the environment, what affects one nation can very well affect all. Our shared waters are a unifying force. Collaboration and co-management of our common pool of limited, fragile resources will be the only way to preserve this natural legacy.
Today, I am part of the amazing research team at Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, which has worked with the Center for Marine Research at the University of Havana for more than 15 years to understand the endangered population of manatees in Cuba. Among their successes: the first satellite-tagged manatee in Cuba, and the first genetic status assessment of this population.
I know what it means to be a scientist in Cuba and now I’m learning what it means to be a scientist in the U.S. A sense of responsibility and deep passion is a common denominator.
I have the rare opportunity to explore how our West Indian manatee is connected across Florida and the Caribbean, as well as to ponder other unanswered questions. And I’m searching for the best way to inspire people in Florida, Cuba and beyond, about nature, the ocean, conservation, and my gentle manatees.
Dr. Anmari Alvarez Aleman has worked with manatees, dolphins and the coastal communities that interact with these species for more than 15 years. She received a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in integrated management of coastal zones from the University of Havana before becoming the first Cuban national in 50 years to be accepted into the University of Florida. Her doctorate from UF is in interdisciplinary ecology with a concentration in wildlife ecology and conservation. Today, she is the Caribbean program director at Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, focusing on research and conservation projects of marine megafauna and their habitats in the Caribbean region. Her current research includes understanding the connection between the Cuban and Florida manatee population.
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