The Remarkable Reefs of Cuba: Hopeful Stories from the Ocean Doctor

by David E. Guggenheim, Ph.D.

A Book Review, by Kathryn Simecek

“Huge black grouper appeared, beautiful with their deep brown skin, white mottling, and enormous mouths. Like Labradors, they curiously followed us about…I then looked up and beheld the mother of all groupers, the Goliath grouper…Unlike the decimated reefs throughout the Caribbean, this was like a Broadway Show: “Coral Reefs: The Original Cast.” 

Amidst the troves of books being churned out each year onto the real world and online bookshelves of booksellers, a recently released science and nature nonfiction promised tales from the mysterious Cuban reefs. Published in fall of 2022, this book is a fresh delight compared to the existing—and honestly quite dated, literature. 

A truly an engaging and educational read to be fervently enjoyed by both citizen concerned with coral reef conservation as well as human rights and sustainability, Dr. David Guggenheim has the unique ability to inform the reader about historical and political context without reading like a textbook. Instead, he breaks up chapters into flashback- and anecdote-sized bites, with subchapters titled Beware Cinderella and Underwater Orgies, that equip the reader with the scientific background needed to understand the deeper points he makes in each bigger section. With the right amount of detail, whimsy, and factual accuracy, Guggenheim takes his reader on an undersea adventure spanning a hundred years, all the while learning about how local factors can make a reef resilient—or not—to global stressors. 

To say the title is a hair misleading is not quite accurate; rather, the title does not do justice to the comprehensive background history of political, environmental, and social developments spanning nearly 100 years. Brace yourself; as a reader, you will be transported to a myriad of seemingly unconnected places in time and space in each chapter. But as each chapter comes to a close, the individual threads of each didactic anecdote is seamlessly woven into the larger understanding of how the planet’s oceans are linked to human behavior. 

The author tells of the many stressors plaguing hard corals today, from the die-off of algae-eating Diaiema urchins, to the post-algal-bloom New-Jersey sized anoxic dead zone in the Mississippi delta each year from fertilizer runoff, to the invasion of the insatiably hungry lionfish hoovering the reefs clean of hundreds of juvenile fish each day. 

From the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s and subsequent Special Period of poverty and economic hardship in Cuba, to the pungent burning Ohio rivers of the 1950s which led to the development of the Clean Water Act, the reader will be engaged in learning about modern history and politics between the United States and Cuba.  There is a desperate need for collaboration between United States and Cuba especially in the interest of science and global conservation, as the ocean’s inhabitants are not subject to political lines. Fish conceived in Cuba may grow up to be American fish, fished in American waters. 

Guggenheim, an academic from Pennsylvania, would seem an unlikely candidate to be one of the Caribbean’s most dedicated advocates. But through a number of look-backs to his formative years, including summers spent at SeaCamp at Looe Key in Florida, we as the reader see his devotion to the ocean grow from childhood. 

With his many accomplishments and vast experience over the last forty years of his professional career, it would be easy for this author to come off arrogant or out of touch. Rather, he consistently breaths humility into the story, emphasizing the fierce scientists and NGO leaders working to make the dream of collaboration and conservation a reality, saying he just happened to be there. It is an easy and educational read, complete with smartly chosen quotes to begin each chapter and a detailed bibliography. 

“Ninety percent of a parrotfish’s day is spent eating coral reefs—mostly the dead stuff…It is common to see parrotfish swimming about, nonchalantly emitting a contrail of white “sand” from their anus, the end product of coral as it is pulverized passing through their digestive system. That sandy fish poop makes up a substantial part of the sandy halo surrounding reefs and coral heads. A single parrotfish can deposit an impressive 100 to 1000 pounds of the stuff per year. So, fair warning if you find yourself scuba diving and kneeling in the sand near a coral reef. It may well have traveled through the gut—and anus—of a parrotfish to get there. Feel Honored.”

The author has such a remarkable sense of humor, which helps to diffuse the often tense political and financial situations both the author and the reader are faced with. 

With all the political development covered in the 19 chapters, it would be easy to let personal bias sneak into the narrative. However, Guggenheim does a commendable job of not overtly burdening the reader with his own political viewpoints and instead, maintains an open and wonderous attitude towards the jewel of the Caribbean that Cuba has to offer. He doesn’t chafe at third-world inconveniences to travel or blame the communist government for the suffering of the people, but uses those details to highlight the resilient spirit of the Cuban people. He does not argue for or against the US Embargo on trade with Cuba, but rather illustrates the many considerations and consequences for both sides of that legislature. The reader learns about global politics from an unbiased crows nest, all the while being bewitched with illustrious tales of unbelievable underwater ecosystems. 

Buy the book here, direct from the author: