Harbor Branch News

Mission Log: FAU Harbor Branch Leads Exploration of Cuba’s Deep Coral Reefs 

The Cooperative Institute for Ocean Exploration, Research, and Technology (CIOERT), based at FAU Harbor Branch, recently led a collaborative scientific expedition to Cuba, exploring never-before-studied mesophotic coral reefs from 30 m to 150 m. After nearly a year and half of planning, the research cruise, "Cuba's Twilight Zone Reefs and Their Regional Connectivity," circumnavigated Cuba in just one month.

The project is a collaboration of three CIOERT partners (FAU Harbor Branch, the University of Miami Cooperative Institute for Marine & Atmospheric Studies, and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington), and four organizations in Cuba (the Cuba National Center for Protected Areas (CNAP), the University of Havana Center for Marine Studies, the Cuba Institute of Marine Sciences, and the National Aquarium of Cuba).  Funding for the expedition was awarded by NOAA to CIOERT.

Through daily remotely operated vehicle (ROV) dives from the UM Research Vessel F.G. Walton Smith, the cruise focused on discovery and characterization of mesophotic coral reefs all along the Cuban coast by documenting the geomorphology, biological zonation, and diversity of marine biota. Prior to this expedition, there were very little data describing reefs beyond the shallow reef zone (0 m to 40 m). Many of the mission’s ROV dives took place in or directly adjacent to Cuba’s extensive network of marine protected areas (MPAs), providing an opportunity to explore locations for potential creation of new MPAs or expansion of existing boundaries.  Oceanographic data was also collected during the expedition to evaluate carbonate chemistry, patterns of water circulation, and potential connectivity between Cuban reefs and those in the U.S.

Overall, researchers noted that the majority of the mesophotic reefs explored appeared very healthy - nearly pristine – as compared to many shallow reefs found in the U.S. Little evidence of coral disease or coral bleaching was present and signs of current local human impacts were limited to small-scale artisanal fishing. The invasive lionfish, which often number in the hundreds on mesophotic reefs off southwestern Florida, was present in relatively lower abundance at the Cuban study sites.

The 43 ROV dives and 9 snorkel sampling efforts yielded over 500 samples of marine plants and animals, 100 hours of HD video, and more than 20,000 underwater photographs. Data analyses will provide documentation of the density and percent cover of corals, sponges, algae, and fish. The team will also determine the genetic connectivity of corals collected from Cuba with corals from Central America and the U.S. Flower Gardens Bank and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuaries, further supporting the Sister Sanctuaries initiative to improve coral reef management in U.S. and Cuban waters. 

For  Mission Logs, Photos, Videos and more, visit the NOAA Ocean Explorer archives

cuba cruise

[Top Left] The ROV sample collection skid, including the manipulator, is the key to successful specimen sampling during our mission. [Top Right] Group photo of Leg 2 scientic party. [Bottom Left] Dr. Voss and Cuban counterpart Juliett González Méndez are clearly very pleased with two of the samples collected during an ROV dive southeast of Cienfuegos. [Bottom Right] Shallow water coral sampling via snorkeling was conducted at three sites along the northern coast. With patience, determination, and a bit of helpful coaching, ROV pilot Jason White mastered the art of collecting coral biopsies.


Images courtesy of Cuba’s Twilight Zone Reefs and Their Regional Connectivity.