Crocodiles and Corals: Face-to-Face With Cuba’s Coral Reef

National Geographic Young Explorers Grantee Erika Bergman is sharing the thrill of diving in a submersible with classrooms and onlookers all over the world. With external and internal cameras mounted on her sub, viewers experience a new vantage point as Erika pilots through the deep coral reefs of Curacao and Honduras. Follow her expedition and post your comments right here on Explorers Journal or tweet your questions at @erika_bergman

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There is a place that renews my hope for the ocean, a safe haven teeming with the quirky, frilly microorganisms we must squint to find, all the way up to the keystone predators which find us. It is a reef archipelago 50 miles south of mainland Cuba called Los Jardines de la Reina, the Gardens of the Queen.

Each journey here reminds me of how absolutely resilient the ocean is. Brimming with sharks, crocodiles, and goliath grouper that outweigh me by 300 pounds, the Gardens of the Queen is a paradise for all of the predators we love to fear and fear to lose. The proof is right here bumping into my camera lens.

How close is too close? In a world where the American Crocodile is an endangered species, the population in the Gardens of the Queen is thriving. Photo by Erika Bergman

Interlaced with the islands, clusters of mangroves are prime habitat for the endangered American Crocodile. Heavy tidal currents wash through these channels carrying nutrients which work their way up the food chain and sustain these prehistoric hunters.

Over several trips to these islands and into the mangrove lagoons, I’d felt I’d found a kindred spirit with one particular crocodile named El Niño. Our boat captain affectionately nicknamed me La Niña, as if I were his sister. I swam with him often, staying out until the sun had almost set and the fading light called us home.

With his jaws agape, he drew close and gave me a few exploratory nudges with his pearly whites. This behavior was not an act of aggression but a form of curiosity. It was important to stay in front of him though, to ensure that any contact he made was with my camera. If I turned away, he might examine my arm or foot with his open mouth, and I intended to avoid the stress of that scenario…

A short distance from the mangroves, the sea floor drops off into deep coral canyons.

This nudibranch is tough to spot, it is surprisingly well camouflaged on a reef which is as vibrantly colorful as this elegant invertebrate.
This colorful creature is a lettuce leaf sea slug. They are surprisingly well camouflaged on a reef which is as vibrant as its own fluorescent frills. Photo by Erika Bergman

Diving through the canyons is like roaming around an ocean which time has long forgotten. The reef is covered in vibrant corals and home to some of nature’s more extravagant life forms.

There is something fishy about this Banded Shrimp. Spot it and you'll get a gold star and a twitter shout out from me!
There is something fishy about this Banded Coral Shrimp. Spot it and you’ll get a gold star and a twitter shout out from me! Photo by Erika Bergman

It hasn’t always been this way though. Twenty years ago this reef was traumatized by overfishing like many reefs worldwide. A concerted effort led to the formation of this 850-square-mile marine park which constitutes a whopping 4% of Cuba’s coastline. This protection led to a hearty recovery and now naturally bleached coral rapidly repopulates itself, the ratio of corals to algae is balanced, and there are half a dozen sharks nearby in any direction you turn. Just don’t turn around too quickly–you may bump your head on a fin.

On February 28th, Erika Bergman participated in a National Geographic Google+ Hangout, along with ocean explorers Enric Sala and Tierney Thys. Watch the Hangout and hear what they had to say.

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As a submarine pilot and National Geographic Explorer Erika Bergman is a passionate storyteller. She studied chemical oceanography at the University of Washington while working as a diesel engineer aboard the tall ship S/V Lady Washington and a steam ship engineer aboard the S/S Virginia V. Since then she has worked as a submersible pilot for exploration, research and filmmaking. Erika is an editor of OpenExplorer.com, a site dedicated to supporting and curating a new era of connected, citizen exploration. She is also the Founder of GEECs - Global Engineering & Exploration Counselors; providing a network of thrilling engineering camps to girls around the world. Photo - Heather Perry.