Cuba’s “Treasure Island” is a remote jewel that is home to some of the rarest wildlife in the Caribbean. It has been a haven for pirates and an ecological hotspot.
Cuba’s Isla de la Juventud is a mystery. It is a pirate hideout, a former US colony, and a biodiverse hotspot with endangered crocodiles, parrots, sharks, and turtles. The largest offshore island in the Caribbean is a comma-shaped arc of palm and pine trees, citrus gardens, and marble hills that very few tourists ever see. It is located 60 miles south of the mainland.
Real Caribbean pirates once snuck into the island’s coves with boats loaded with nefarious loot. Today, tourists travel to Havana from the port of Batabanó, 56 kilometers to the south, on a three-hour ferry ride that costs $0.50 Cuban Pesos (£0.35) and requires making reservations a month in advance or getting a seat on erratic flights.
People who travel there typically stay at the island’s only hotel and dive off its southern-most tip, Punta Francés. The late Cuban Communist leader Fidel Castro was imprisoned there in 1953 for storming army barracks, which served as the impetus for the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Presidio Modelo is now a creepy museum. In contrast to Havana’s crumbling colonial façade and rowdy rum bars, the island’s sugar-soft beaches, distinctive culture, and historical sites provide a quite different Cuban experience.
When Christopher Columbus made his second crossing of the Atlantic in 1493, he anchored near to the island that would later turn out to be the ideal haven for pirates. As ships loaded with gold, silver, and spices sailed via La Isla on their way from the tip of South America to Havana in the 1850s, Francis Drake, Henry Morgan, and others of their ilk raided the Spanish Crown’s treasure fleet. La Isla was given the names “Treasure Island” and “Island of Pirates” as a result. Even the classic novel Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson is said to have been influenced by it.
Back then, when Columbus’ caravel sailed toward the island in search of wood and water, his crew saw no other people. The sea was “covered” with numerous turtles of “great bigness,” the air was dense with birds, and “immense swarms of butterflies… clouded the air,” according to ship reports.
Columbus would still recognize a large portion of the island’s remote southern third today. This area, which is protected in the 1,455 square km South of the Isle of Youth Protected Area of Managed Resources, is a patchwork of swamps, mangroves, beaches, coral seas, limestone forests, and caves decorated with prehistoric drawings (APRM). Other fragile animals like Antillean manatees, hammerheads, elkhorn coral, and marine turtles take refuge in the sea within the APRM’s marine protected area.
Travelers must first seek permission from Ecotur or a nearby B&B before they can enter the protected region, and they must pass through a checkpoint at the northern boundary so that authorities can keep an eye out for trafficking in wildlife, persons, and drugs. A basic bus jangles three hours south from the island’s capital, Nueva Gerona, through limestone karst-rooted woodland three times every week. Lanier Swamp, a haven for the critically endangered Cuban crocodile, is located within its tangled embrace. Fire, drought, and hunting nearly led to the extinction of the elusive crocodiles in the 20th century. A reintroduction program was started in 1987 after a few specimens were found in 1977.
Our experts haven’t seen Cuban crocodiles in the wild in the last two expeditions, according to Yanet Forneiro Martn-Viaa, senior conservation specialist for Flora y Fauna, which oversees the island’s southern APRM zone. “We know American crocodiles and the introduced spectacled caiman are there, though,” she said.
But Forneiro Martn-Viaa is sure of himself. We’re looking for additional [Cuban crocodiles] and reintroducing them to the marsh, she said. “We are aware of the huge potential for this area to serve as this species’ habitat.”
Guanal Beach on the south coast has gritty sand that is veined with beach morning glory vine. The stabilizing plant’s trails emerged to replace 10 km of casuarina, an invasive Southeast Asian tree with fluffy leaves that Flora y Fauna recycled over a ten-year period by turning the dead trunks into charcoal for export. Long, lean sticks protruded from the scorching sand over more than a kilometer of shore, creating a true “X” for treasure—but not the sparkly kind, but a natural wealth. Paper notes containing the locations of the turtle nests, the dates the eggs were laid, and the anticipated hatching dates were packed into empty water bottles that were placed upside down on the sticks. This year, there are 250 nests of endangered green turtles at Guanal that are being watched upon.
Guanal is one of the most significant nesting locations in Cuba, according to Dr. Julia Azanza Ricardo, a turtle expert and professor at the University of Havana’s Higher Institute of Technologies and Applied Sciences. But climate change poses a threat to their future. There are fewer male turtles being born as a result of rising temperatures since the gender of the turtle is correlated with the temperature of the nest during incubation.
“More than 90% of turtles born in Cuba are female, Azanza said. “In a short time, we expect to reach 100%. When we started monitoring nest temperature 15 years ago, they were 28, 29, 30 degrees. Now it’s 32, 33, 34. It will only take a rise of two degrees to reach 100%. If all males are wiped out, then it’s the end of local populations and then the end of the species.”
Solutions, Azanza explained, include vegetation shading by planting certain species of bushes, moving nests to cooler spots or watering the sand.
The most remote inhabited location in Cuba is the village of Cocodrilo, which is located west of turtle country and 86 kilometers south-west of Nueva Gerona. In the early 20th century, English-speaking Cayman Islanders founded Jacksonville, where 122 families today reside in single-story concrete and timber homes that face the sea. Only in 2001 did 24-hour electricity become available.
Conservationist Reinaldo Borrego Hernández, also known as “Nene,” and his wife Yemmy are in charge of the tourist and conservation initiative Consytur. Nene’s goal is to protect and preserve his home village’s coral reef, wildlife, and natural environment.
“I’ve lived in this natural environment all my life, and my wish to protect it is in my blood,” said Nene.
By staying in Nene’s B&B, Villa Arrecife (one of only three B&Bs in Cocodrilo), visitors help fund conservation work focused on collecting rubbish from beaches and the seabed, capturing lionfish – an invasive species – and serving it to guests, and growing and planting new branches of critically endangered staghorn coral.
Lionfish enter the mangroves, seagrass, and reef and have very few predators, according to Nene, a coastal management master’s degree holder. “Capturing them reduces their populations since they compete with local species for food like small fish and crabs.”
A few kilometers west of Cocodrilo, at Americana Beach, we collected 8–10 kg of plastic bottles, flip-flops, and take-out containers in the morning. Later, we dove 15 meters below the surface in the pure water. Before landing on the seafloor amid a vast stony field of multi-branched staghorn coral, produced by Nene during past few years, we swam over colored fans, moray eels, monochrome spotted drum, yellow French grunt, and iridescent princess parrotfish.
We dug up chunks of thin orange coral from the seafloor that were about the size of fat ballpoint pens. Blackened ends, dead from illness or microalgae, were chopped off by Nene. Before climbing up to a special “tree” structure to attach the shards to its long, limber branches, we wound thread around them.
Each fragment, according to Nene, is asexual and creates a polyp, which creates yet another polyp, and so on. At one year old, the coral initiates sexual reproduction, and its planula drift to the seafloor, starting a new cycle of polyp production. After a year, Nene will put the new-growth coral in a rocky area with few predators and no macroalgae. According to Nene, over fishing has stripped the reef of many of its former fish inhabitants, allowing algae to proliferate and kill the corals.
Staghorn coral provides a haven for young fish, and we aim to enhance the amount of juvenile fish on the reef, according to Nene. The diversity and quantity of fish increase when the reef is restored and protected.
About 1 centimeter of staghorn coral grows each year. Although it takes time, Nene is hopeful that the project he started would endure. “My hope is that more guests will remain so we can employ and compensate the young people in the area. They’ll be motivated to protect the ocean and the coast if they know that “said he. And when I’m gone, they’ll be able to carry on my work.
The no-frills Isle of Youth is largely undeveloped in comparison to other islands dispersed over the Cuban peninsula. The island, according to some locals, is deserted. But since long before anyone was watching, endangered species have sought refuge on this desolate island. Overfishing, invasive species, natural disasters, and climate change all pose a threat to the fragile ecological footprint. However, Cuban scientists and environmentalists are establishing a standard to make sure nature reclaims and thrives in this isolated, inaccessible landscape with assistance from eco-conscious tourists.