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Cuba Reefs
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Cuban Isles

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By Peter Benchley Photographs by David Doubilet

Gardens of sponges and exotic fish bloom in the pristine cays of Cuba, the Caribbean’s largest submerged island shelf.

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It was almost like a hallucination. Immediate. A sense of dislocation. Something was awry.

A few seconds earlier, seen from the surface, everything had looked normal. The midday sun shot arrows of light through the dappled water, illuminating a routine reef in an isolated backwater of an exhausted sea. But no sooner had I submerged—my bubbles had had no time to disperse nor the mist to clear from my mask—than I knew I was in the grip of the weird.

Time was out of joint.

I had flopped overboard from a dinghy on a glassy Caribbean sea in the summer of the year 2000 and in an instant, apparently, slipped backward nearly half a century into an underwater realm that had not existed, so far as I knew, since the 1950s.

Residents swarmed over me, welcoming me to the neighborhood, animals in numbers and diversity I hadn’t seen in decades, not since Lyndon Johnson was President and man had yet to set foot on the moon. Groupers of all descriptions and sizes lumbered around me: Nassau groupers, black groupers, even the patriarch of the grouper clan, the gigantic jewfish (aka the goliath grouper), creatures widely assumed to have almost disappeared from the Caribbean long ago—speared, hooked, netted, poisoned by men driven by poverty, hunger, and need.

Schools of yellowtail snappers and blue creole wrasses darted about in a frenzy, then quickly departed, their curiosity sated.

A squadron of glittering silver tarpon passed regally by, implacable eyes showing neither interest nor alarm.

Green moray eels slid partway out of their crevice homes, needle-toothed jaws mimicking menace as, rhythmically, they pumped oxygen-bearing water over their throbbing gills.

In the middle distance reef sharks scanned the coral for signs of wound or weakness, having appraised and dismissed me as worthy of neither fearing nor eating.

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Sights and Sounds
Explore the underwater world off Cuba’s shores as photographer David Doubilet narrates this special.

Cuba Reef
VIDEO Photographer David Doubilet talks about the exotic marine life that thrives on these ancient Caribbean reefs. Click here.

AUDIO (recommended for low-speed connections)
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Nature reveals its remarkable artistry in this month’s desktop wallpaper.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Some fish would either drop to the bottom of the sea or float on the top layer of water if it weren’t for one specific organ located within their body cavity. This important buoyancy organ is called the swim bladder. Most bony fish have one. For those that don’t, swimming can be quite clumsy, and maintaining the same depth is possible only if grace and poise are thrown aside. Take the blenny. Although a bony fish, it lacks a swim bladder and thus has to wriggle to move forward at the same depth. No need to feel sorry for the blenny. Although its stroke looks awkward, the absence of this gas-filled (usually with oxygen) organ certainly doesn’t slow it down.

—P. Davida Kales

Avalon Fishing and Dive Centers
Read about fishing and diving opportunities in Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen) —off the southeast coast—with the same company that author Peter Benchley used to experience a portion of Cuba’s nearly unspoiled underwater world.

Welcome to Cuba!
A good site for fast facts about the country, as well as health information, customs regulations, and passport procedures if you are planning a trip to Cuba.

World Factbook 2001 Online
An all-inclusive source for country facts and figures, including population estimates, history, geography, economic strengths, and much more.


Allen, Thomas B. “Cuba’s Golden Past,” National Geographic (July 2001), 74-91.

Putman, John J. “Cuba--Evolution in the Revolution,” National Geographic (June 1999), 2-35.

Newhouse, Elizabeth. Cuba. National Geographic Books, 1999.

Williams, A. R. “Cuba’s Colonial Treasure,“ National Geographic (October 1999), 88-107.

Williams, A. R. “The Rebirth of Old Havana” National Geographic (June 1999), 36-45.

White, Peter T. “Cuba at a Crossroads” National Geographic (August 1991), 90-121.

Judge, Joseph. “The Many Lives of Old Havana,” National Geographic (August 1989), 278-300.

Grove, Noel. “The Caribbean: Sun, Sea, and Seething,” National Geographic (February 1981), 244-271.

Ward, Fred. “Inside Cuba Today,” National Geographic (January 1977), 32-69.

Grosvenor, Melville Bell. “Cuba—American Sugar Bowl,” National Geographic (January 1947), 1-56.


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