Student researchers examine what lies beneath Cuba's surface.

Beneath the Surface

By: Mark Tarnacki
coral cuba

A mention of Cuba's Bay of Pigs will conjure up, for most Americans over 40, nerve-rattling Cold War stories remembered or learned and known by heart: a menacing Communist dictator, a botched CIA invasion, a missile crisis that came perilously close to a nuclear war.

They are vivid images for Karen Talentino, vice president for academic affairs at Saint Michael's: "I remembered my father telling me he thought there was going to be a nuclear war," she said. Arriving at the famous site of the 1961 U.S./CIA- backed invasion-gone-bad in late December, "we couldn't take our eyes off it," she says, describing the gut response that she and biology professor Mark Lubkowitz experienced.

But the Saint Michael's students traveling with them on their two-week course in coral reef ecology are generations beyond having the Cuban Missile Crisis as a cultural reference. So, for the accompanying group of 11 students, and Renee Schmauder, an experienced diver and Saint Michael's assessment coordinator, the Bay of Pigs (Playa Giron) was first and foremost the location for six days of scuba diving and coral reef research.

Biology major Nicholas Kyratzis '14 admits that he felt like the younger travelers were at an advantage being able to interact with Cubans person-to-person without the baggage of negative preconceptions. "As young Americans who didn't live during the Cold War, we could go down and show the people of Cuba that were interested in them and their culture and in helping them as much as possible," Kyratzis said.

The group flew to and from Cuba through Montreal for convenience, because flights from Miami would be more expensive and complicated to deal with. "Everything we did was perfectly legal because we are an academic institution and were traveling with a license because of the college's cooperative academic agreement with Burlington College, which already had a license," Talentino said. "The regulations have changed at this point and as long as you travel with an approved travel provider, no license is needed."

All of the students who traveled to Cuba were first part of a fall semester course on coral reef ecology taught by Talentino. An introductory biology or environmental studies course was a prerequisite for the fall ecology class, so all the participating students had a very strong background understanding of coral reefs and how to approach science properly. The course focused on the ecology, behavior and interrelatedness of the tremendous variety of organisms living in association with a coral reef. The two weeks in Cuba were an extension of that fall course, offering an academic experience in biology and environmental studies and the opportunity to do deeply engaging, hands-on science. Students learned methods of field identification and taxonomic classification of reef organisms, and then performed underwater censuses at different beaches in the Bay of Pigs to create a baseline by which to measure the health of the reefs. Scientists in Cuba anticipate that the undeveloped bay will soon see more activity as Cuba opens itself up more to visitors, and the census will help measure the impact of the development, as well as other threats such as pollution and climate change.

Before they headed to the Bay of Pigs, the group first stayed in Havana where they acclimated to the climate and culture and took classes at the University of Havana's Marine Institute. Their chief guide and mentor was Professor Patricia Gonzalez, a marine biologist at the University who is conducting long term research on the health and diversity of the Cuban coral reefs and has research sites throughout the waters of Cuba but had not yet collected data in the Bay of Pigs.

Professor Gonzalez began by offering several lectures and sharing her relevant data with the visiting students before she laid out the methodology to be used on the group's dives. "We went six days in Playa Giron," Talentino said, "where we dove twice a day, visiting four different areas on the extensive coral reefs that surround the country. They measured diversity and numbers of young colonies at each site. "We had groups diving deep (less than 40 feet) and shallow (about 15 feet), using one-meter squares made of polyurethane pipe laid on top of the coral reefs. Within each square, students noted the diversity and quantity of corals, sponges and gorgonians. We recorded the data with video and photography and at each day's end met to discuss their findings," she said.

All the leaders said that Saint Michael's students "became very adept at identifying the wide variety of organisms," and the Cuban scientists were impressed. At the end of the six days, students presented their data to the University of Havana scientists.

Once they returned, the students each wrote a 10- page research paper on some aspect of their findings.

While science was the trip's focus, the cultural learning was intrinsic and unavoidable. That became clear their second day in Cuba when New Year's Eve celebrations kicked in, Kyratzis said. "They invited us into the alley for traditional soup and beers and soon we started to dance and show our excitement for being there. It was an amazing time."

New Year's is "a really big deal" in Cuba said Lubkowitz, since Christmas is not promoted by the state. "It was really the annual holiday party for The University of Havana Marine School where we were staying and they welcomed us with incredible warmth," he said. "Essentially they make "stone soup", buy a pig's head, others bring root vegetables, cook it all day, and everyone was dancing and eating this once-a year soup. There's no way you can plan for that, but it was a highlight of the trip." The party included about 60 Cubans along with the 15 visiting Americans. "They practically pulled us in and shared what they had.

"There are a lot of paradoxes that are difficult to understand," about Cuba, Talentino noted, like laws against taking tourists scuba diving in the Bay of Pigs, "but in fact it was happening all over." Gardens are illegal, and yet "you see them a lot" with fruits and vegetables growing on small plots. "Everybody understands that government representatives known as "Los Oyos" or eyes, are omnipresent to keep an eye on people in any neighborhood." Their host was responsible for letting the local government office know what the visitors were doing at any given time.

The Saint Michael's group saw token arrests or enforcement that felt arbitrary to them, including a dive master who had helped them with air tanks. Talentino found the Cubans to be resilient, figuring out how to survive, now that Soviet subsidies are long gone. "They're optimistic," she said.

Every evening during the group's reflection time, much of the talk was about how different the actual Cuba was from expectations. Lubkowitz explained: "So often you go abroad with an impression of what it would be like and it's not like that. The people were about as generous as you could imagine, despite there being lots of animosity between the U.S. and Cuba as nations," he said. "I was amazed how generous and non-judgmental they were." Talentino said students expected a very militarized society, but they only saw one soldier the entire trip "and I don't think we ever saw a gun." All Cuban men have a two-year military requirement, she explained, but basically it consists of sitting in booths on corners and watching people, giving directions. Women have service requirements too but often easily get out of it.

Despite the challenges presented by the government restrictions, their hosts were well-prepared for helping the group explore coral reefs, she said. "That part of the trip exceeded our expectations. Everyone scuba-dived and did it safely with expert close supervision. We were able to collect research data so students can really understand the challenges of doing research on a coral reef. They understand the methodologies well after working with a well-known ecologist." While the science facilities were "really, really modest," the scientists were top-notch, Lubkowitz said. "I kept telling students, 'notice how these people don't have materials or fast internet, but they know their science and are really good scientists." It was a good lesson for students that "access to equipment does not give you a great mind and that you have to have a great mind to do great work."

Their dive master from the University of Havana was named Ivan, "a very fit man who earlier in his career was the Cuban equivalent of a Navy seal and his job was to be Castro's bodyguard, because Castro loved to spearfish and snorkel," Lubkowitz said. (Castro survived 600 attempts on his life in his long career.) "In those days, Ivan would clear the water for Castro to be sure there were no assassins." Ivan had the Saint Michael's group to dinner at his home with his wife who works at the French Embassy, and they regaled the group with interesting Cuban history stories.

"This is really adventure travel. So much is out of your control, so you have to be hyper-aware and have understanding and control, avoiding social faux pax's as much as possible," said Spencer Mallette '14, who spent the fall semester studying in Zanzibar, where he learned Swahili. Few students spoke Spanish, and many of the hosts spoke English, so communicating was rarely a problem.

Based on the trip's success, "it's fair to say we hope to continue our relationship with Vermont Caribbean Institute and to continue taking student groups to Cuba, perhaps at least one class per year," Talentino said, adding that she would change a few things based on their experience this time, including, having students prepare better in Spanish and cultural background and having everybody pre-certified for scuba-diving.

Lubkowitz already is preparing to bring students back to Cuba next January with political science professor Michael Bosia and anthropology professor Patricia Delaney for a course on food systems. He is eager to return.

"When people think of Cuba they may think of communism and poverty, but from having this experience I am able to educate others about the culture and people and give them insight on the beautiful country it truly is," Kryatsis says.

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