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The future looks pretty bleak for coral reefs. Already, more than 70% of reefs worldwide have been exposed to dangerously high temperatures, leading to bleaching and rapidly deteriorating health. By the end of the century, projections show that every single coral reef on our planet will be at risk. The impacts of this destruction will be far reaching; a whopping 25% of all marine life rely on coral systems for food and shelter. If the reefs go, the cascade effect will be felt all across our oceans and coastal areas.

And yet amid these harsh realities there are real glimmers of hope. Coral reefs still thrive in many places, and hidden off the southern coast of Cuba lies one of the best-preserved reefs on the planet: Jardines de la Reina (the Gardens of the Queen). It might offer a key to saving reefs around the world.

Photo: SeaLegacy/Paul Nicklen

In 1996 the Cuban Government created what would become the largest marine protected area in the entire Caribbean. Nearly all commercial fishing is prohibited within the Jardines region (except for the sustainable harvest of spiny lobster) and tourism is tightly restricted, with just a few thousand lucky divers allowed to visit the reef every year. Two decades later, the reef is one of the best preserved on the planet: the 830 square mile marine reserve contains over three times more life than surrounding waters; and most importantly, its coral ecosystem is proving resistant to the bleaching effects brought on by hotter oceans.

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The coral ecosystem is the Gardens of the Queen appears more resilient to the increasing pressures of climate change.
Photo: SeaLegacy/Cristina Mittermeier

Despite Jardines’ pristine state and remarkable resilience, the region has remained a bit of a scientific mystery, as few non-Cuba scientists (and no non-Cuban research vessel) have ever been allowed into the reserve. All of that changed in November of last year, when a team of Cuban and American scientists set off for a month-long voyage aboard the state-of-the-art Alucia research vessel, to conduct the most extensive expedition the region has ever seen. The team, led by Amy Apprill of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Maickel Armenteros Almanza of the University of Havana, explored the reef from top to bottom, with the goal of understanding how this vast ecosystem functions: tiny microorganisms smaller than a human hair, schools of colorful fish darting in the clear water, expansive coral structures and seagrass habitats, and mammoth sharks, crocodiles and goliath groupers.

One of the most striking residents of the Gardens is one you might not expect to find on a coral reef: the American crocodile.
Photo: SeaLegacy/Cristina Mittermeier

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The hope is that after a month at sea, this international team of researchers will begin to understand Jardines’ secrets, and uncover the key ingredients of coral reef resilience and survival into the 21st century.

Experience the full expedition in the video above, and don’t forget to check out SeaLegacy’s campaign to keep coral reefs safe.


VIDEO CREDITS:

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: Nicolás Ibargüen; Ray Dalio

PRODUCER AND WRITER: Lucas Isakowitz

DIRECTOR: Felipe IbargĂĽen

PRODUCER: Lara Coger

FIELD PRODUCER: Rolando Almirante

SENIOR EDITOR: Catalina RincĂłn

EDITOR: Ana PĂ©rez

SCRIPT SUPERVISOR: Adam Raney

DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY: Peter Diaz

UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY: Diego Cuellar; Paul Nicklen; Andy Mann

ADDITIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY: Ocean X Media

CORAL BLEACHING FOOTAGE: The Ocean Agency

COLOR CORRECTION: Esther Rivas; Leo Otero

SOUND DESIGN & SOUND MIX: Alvaro Mei

TRANSLATOR: Carlota Saumell Andreu

SPECIAL THANKS SeaLegacy; The Ocean Agency