(1) MY FACE
I can't even imagine the expression on my face when, this past spring, I retrieved the voicemail from 60 MINUTES producer, Anya Bourg, who informed me that they wanted to do a piece about coral reefs. For years many of us have been finding it quite a struggle to build awareness about our oceans, which have long remained a virtually untold story. Only in recent years has the plight of the world's oceans started to get some of the attention it deserves.
Not only did Anya want to tell the important story of the threats to coral reefs, but her vision was to do it by visiting a place that was healthy so viewers could clearly see the contrast between a healthy reef and a degraded reef and therefore understand what we're losing. From the incredible feedback I've received, I know her vision was a resounding success and also provided viewers with inspiring imagery and hope for the future of coral reefs.
(2) THEIR SMILES
One of the things you didn't get to see was the spectacular vessel where Anderson and I were perched for our above-water interview:
The M/Y Sirenuse. Her owner and member of The Ocean Foundation's board, Ann Luskey, bravely dealt with mountains of red tape and maddening logistics and brought the vessel to Cuba to support our research work this summer. Thanks to Ann and the wonderful captain
and crew of the Sirenuse, we were able to bring our collaboration with Cuban scientists to a new level. I'll never be able to thank Ann enough and feel so lucky to know and work with someone like her.
We worked with the 60 MINUTES producers to coordinate our work in Cuba's Gardens of the Queen (Jardines de la Reina) with the visit of Anderson Cooper and the film crew. Unfortunately, the bulk of our colleagues from the University of Havana's Center for Marine Research (Centro de Investigaciones Marinas, CIM) -- our principal Cuban partner for more than a decade -- would arrive and depart a few weeks before the 60 MINUTES team arrived.
CIM is the only institution in Cuba where marine biologists are accredited, and one of the proudest accomplishments of our work is the fact that for more than 11 years our joint research projects with CIM have helped support the Master's and Doctoral theses of dozens of students. In this way we have helped to train the next generation of Cuban marine scientists, who are entering their careers thinking of Americans as friends and colleagues, not enemies. Some of the students we helped are now in positions of leadership at CIM, including its vice director.
As an American, working in Cuba is profoundly difficult, and I must confess that I almost quit out of frustration at least three times. Our Cuban colleagues work so hard with so little. Their absolute passion for their work and the oceans, despite the hardships, is what has brought me back to Cuba 60 times over the years. The conditions they work under are almost unimaginable for a 21st-century scientist almost anywhere else in the world. They have almost no access to Internet, their limited supply of equipment is old and in disrepair, and they lack simple pieces of equipment without which it would seem marine science would be impossible -- like GPS. As one of our Cuban colleagues put it, their research vessel is "made of stone" -- it has a ferrocement hull and is quite old.
On top of everything else, our Cuban colleagues lack adequate funds for fuel and transportation, so many of the students learning to become marine biologists have no way to visit Cuba's incredible marine ecosystems, nor do many of the scientists themselves. In June we provided the funds necessary for a research team from CIM to visit Jardines de la Reina. It's a 6-hour bus ride from Havana and then another 6 hours by boat. But for our Cuban colleagues, Jardines might as well have been on Mars -- the expense of such a journey was far beyond the reach of CIM, its scientists and students.
On the morning of June 13th a vessel approached the stern of the Sirenuse: It was our colleagues from CIM, who came aboard for a half day of meetings to discuss our research. For most of them -- both students and faculty -- this was their first time in Jardines. What I remember the most is their incredible smiles. At last they were at sea, doing what marine scientists are supposed to do -- getting wet, collecting data and observing the ocean's splendor, free of the noise and concrete confines of Havana.
I wish you could have seen our colleagues' smiles, too. And calling them "colleagues" seems a bit formal. They're friends -- great friends -- incredible friends. Cubans and Americans are natural allies just waiting for the chance to be together again.
(3) THE ACCIDENT
During our interview, Anderson Cooper asked me to talk about Alonso. This part of the interview was not aired.
Eduardo Alonso Ramos, whom everyone knew as Alonso, and his fellow CIM technician, Lachi, had been aboard Sirenuse meeting with the captain and me as they were planning to collect data at a number of sites between Havana and Jardines de la Reina. On May 5th, we were supposed to have our final prep meeting aboard ship, but they never arrived. The next morning, I learned why. Alonso was filling a SCUBA tank at CIM when it exploded, killing him instantly. He was only 41. He left a pregnant wife, 36.
Alonso absolutely loved the sea. It was his life. When we met last week his eyes were wide with excitement about getting out on the water with us, and he took delight in the thought of making four exhausting dives per day swimming special 3D video equipment above the reef with Lachi. He was a sailor, a divemaster, an expert technician. Alonso's long hair, tanned skin and fit physique evidenced the fact that he spent every moment he could around the water.
That morning I went to CIM to pay my respects. It was clear everyone there had been crying, and seeing me, they cried some more. CIM is a small institute that's always felt more like a family than the arm of a university. Lachi entered the office I was in. We embraced. He left without saying a word. He didn't have to.
Representatives from the Ministry of Interior and police were already there, examining the accident scene. There was no time to grieve.
Like the 60-year-old old Edsels and Buicks on the road, the Cubans work to squeeze every drop of life out of every precious piece of equipment they have, even if it puts their own lives at risk. The SCUBA tank Alonso had tried to fill -- as a favor to a friend -- was manufactured in 1985 and had never been properly tested for metal fatigue.
I left a small amount of cash for Alonso's wife and a bit for CIM to help with the damage to their building. The Ocean Foundation dedicated its Cuba Expedition 2011 to the memory of Alonso. In spirit he was with us out there on the water he loved so much.
When Sirenuse returned to Havana at the end of the expedition, we offloaded all nine SCUBA tanks and donated them to CIM, which had only two remaining reliable tanks in its supply.