The jewel in Cuba's conservation crown, the Gardens of the Queen, has been awarded a top gong by a prestigious American NGO.
Los Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen) scuba diving with sharks.
Gardens of the Queen, Jardines de la Reina. Photo: Greg Lecoeur

Los Jardines de la Reina — the Gardens of the Queen — a necklace of remote coral islands surrounded by a marine paradise of sharks, goliath groupers, healthy corals and a small congregation of crocodiles was awarded a Blue Park Gold Award by the Marine Conservation Institute at a virtual gala ceremony on December 9.

“The award is international recognition for our conservation work,” said Yanet Forneiro, senior conservation specialist working for company Flora y Fauna which manages the park off the south coast of the mainland.

“Our success also represents a challenge for the rest of the protected marine areas we manage in Cuba,” Yanet told Startup Cuba.

“This award will also allow us to be competitive in our search for financing and international collaboration to continue our work.”

A crocodile in Los Jardines de la Reina Gardens of the Queen
Gardens of the Queen, Jardines de la Reina. Photo: Greg Lecoeur
Los Jardines de la Reina- Gardens of the Queen is a Blue Park Award winner.
Photo: Noel Lopez Fernandez

The Blue Park Award has been granted to Cuba for this precious Caribbean ocean park, ‘a marine biodiversity hotspot’ because, says the Marine Conservation Institute, it has demonstrated conservation, wildlife, protection and management strategies for years and continues to protect this special ocean area.

The Gardens of the Queen National Park is one of the most spectacular marine parks on the planet…

Valerie Miller, Director of the Cuba Oceans Program
Sharks in Los Jardines de la Reina Gardens of the Queen
Gardens of the Queen, Jardines de la Reina. Photo: Greg Lecoeur

The Jardines de la Reina — named by Christopher Columbus in the summer of 1494 in honor of the Spanish Catholic Queen Isabel — has been protected by Cuban authorities since 1996;  protection was strengthened in 2010 when it became a national park. It is prized for its wealth of sharks — silky, nurse, lemon and Caribbean reef sharks — and its goliath groupers, the weight of a male grizzly bear. But this vast area of 661 pristine cays some 135 km in length is also home to colorful coral reefs, rare coral, mangrove forest, seagrass meadows, coastal lagoons and estuaries and shoals of brightly shaded fish including clown wrasse, butterflyfish, and blue tang.

A number of American crocodiles lurk in the mangrove lagoons including the famous reptilian pin-up Niño who is, fortunately for many, not the least bit camera shy and has surely posed pliantly 100 times for visiting photographers. On tiny circles of virgin blond sand, scattered across the Gardens, Cuba’s large tree rodents, the jutía, roam wild and free.

…extensive colonies of Elkhorn coral, a critically important reef building species that has virtually disappeared in the Florida Keys and much of the Caribbean, flourish in the park. 

In all 283 species of fish call this remote spot –  five hours by boat from the south coast of Ciego de Avila province – home. Commercial fishing, with the exception of lobster, is prohibited within the park’s boundaries allowing multiple fish species to thrive and survive.

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But the Gardens of the Queen is not just a star in the Cuba firmament, it represents an outstanding area in the Caribbean.

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Photo: Noel Lopez Fernandez

“Today, the Gardens of the Queen exhibits some of the best preserved coastal-marine systems in the insular Caribbean thanks to decades of dedicated conservation efforts,” said José L. Gerhartz, senior conservation specialist at the Secretariat of the Caribbean Biological Corridor/UNEP.

And Cuba can lead the way. “The park is a core area of the Biological Corridor in the Caribbean,” says José “and this award is an opportunity to encourage other marine protected areas in the Corridor to emulate Cuba’s success and achieve equal standards in conservation.”

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Also celebrating with Cuba is the US-based Environmental Defense Fund which has been working with Cuban scientists and partners on the island for 21 years.

Elkhorn coral and blue stripped grunts at Blue Park Award recipient Gardens of the Queen, Jardines de la Reina.
Elkhorn coral and blue stripped grunts. Photo: Noel Lopez Fernandez

“The Gardens of the Queen National Park is one of the most spectacular marine parks on the planet,” Valerie Miller, Director of the Cuba Oceans Program, told Startup Cuba.

A crocodile up close in Blue Park Award recipient, Los Jardines de la Reina Gardens of the Queen
Gardens of the Queen, Jardines de la Reina. Photo: Greg Lecoeur

“The park may be best known for its healthy and colorful coral reefs and the diversity and abundance of fish, sharks, sea turtles and other marine life. But in fact, extensive colonies of Elkhorn coral, a critically important reef building species that has virtually disappeared in the Florida Keys and much of the Caribbean, flourish in the park. 

blue park award gold medallion

“As a Blue Park,” said Valerie, “it will be known even more widely as a model for successful conservation, a place of hope for the future of our oceans and everyone that depends on them.”

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Divers in the know about this top diving secret have long made the journey all the way from Havana to Júcaro on the south coast to catch a boat run by Avalon who partners with the Cuban government to provide several liveaboards for diving and angling trips in the area. For those on more of a budget, the floating Tortuga Hotel bobs gently in a quiet lagoon. 

A grouper in Blue Park Award recipient Gardens of the Queen, Jardines de la Reina, Cuba.
A grouper in Gardens of the Queen, Jardines de la Reina, Cuba. Photo: Greg Lecoeur

The week-long experience on the dive boats creates memories for a lifetime. The sharks are abundant and curious; the goliath groupers are, well, enormous. Gentle creatures, they often hover just above the sea bed where divers can eyeball them at a respectful distance. Visibility is mostly excellent, and the colourful healthy coral a rare sight. Spotted eagle ray and southern stingray can be seen and, occasionally, divers are thrilled at the sight of migrating manta rays, whale sharks and sperm whales. 

Tarpons in garden of the queens cuba photo by Noel Lopez Fernandez
Tarpons in Los Jardines de la Reina. Photo: Noel Lopez Fernandez

One Cuban captured by the beauty of the park’s underwater world is award-winning actor Jorge Perugorría who went to the park with a film crew and interviewed key staff and scientists. A screening of his documentary ( Los Jardines de la Reina ) is scheduled for next year.

Los Jardines de la Reina- Gardens of the Queen is a Blue Park Award winner.
Gardens of the Queen, Jardines de la Reina. Photo: Greg Lecoeur

Blue Park Awards have been granted since 2017. Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen joins other remote marine sanctuaries such as the Ilhas Selvagens Marine Protected Area in Madeira, the Sanctuario de Flora y Fauna de Malpelo in Colombia and Australia’s Wilsons Promontory Marine National Park, in an initiative that aims to gather a global network of effective Marine Protected Areas to safeguard at least 30% of the ocean by 2030.  

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Claire Boobbyer is a freelance travel writer who writes travel features for the UK national press as well as international media, mostly about Cuba, Vietnam and Laos. She's also written articles about Central America, South America, and Morocco. As a travel guide she's led tours for Smithsonian Journeys, National Geographic Expeditions, and New York Times Journeys among others. Claire is the author of the newly published Havana Pocket Precincts Guide (Hardie Grant) as well as the last three editions of Frommer's Cuba. She's been visiting Cuba for 20 years and the island is her second home.

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