Fish and Shellfish
The warm waters off Cuba’s coast are populated by more than 900 species of fish and crustaceans—from octopus, crabs, turtles, and lobsters the size of house cats to sharks, tuna, and their cousins the billfish, which aerodynamically approach swimming perfection. The sailfish (a type of billfish) has been timed swimming over short distances at 110 kilometers per hour—faster than the cheetah. Unlike other fish, they are also warm-blooded, with temperatures considerably higher than those of the water around them.
The lucky diver may also spot whale sharks (the largest fish in the world) and manta rays up to seven meters across.
Fish to avoid include the fatally toxic and heavily camouflaged stonefish and the beautiful orange-and-white-striped lion fish, whose long spines can inflict a killer sting. The bulbous puffer, which can blow itself up to the size of a baseball, is also poisonous. Jellyfish are common, too, including the lethal Portuguese man-o’-war. And don’t go probing around inside coral, where moray eels make their home—their bite can take your fingers off.
Inland, the waters of Zapata harbor the rare manjuarí, the Cuban “alligator gar” (Atractosteus tristoechus), a living fossil.
Coral reefs—the most complex and variable community of organisms in the world—rim much of Cuba at a distance of usually no more than one kilometer offshore. The reefs are an aquatic version of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. On the sea floor sit the massive brain corals and the delicate, branching sea fans and feathers; nearer the surface are elkhorn corals, frond-like gorgonians spreading their fingers upward toward the light, lacy outcrops of tubipora like delicately woven Spanish mantillas, and soft flowering corals swaying to the rhythms of the ocean currents.
Corals are animals that secrete calcium carbonate. Each individual soft-bodied coral polyp resembles a small sea anemone and is surrounded by an intricately structured calyx of calcium carbonate, an external skeleton that is built upon and multiplied over thousands of generations to form fabulous and massive reef structures. Though stinging cells protect it against some predators, coral is perennially gnawed away by fish, surviving by its ability to repair itself and at the same time provide both habitat and food for other fauna.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition