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updated 10/25/2010 6:17:17 PM ET 2010-10-25T22:17:17

It’s been five decades since the United States cut off ties to communist Cuba, ultimately limiting communication, trade, and travel to some research and humanitarian assistance. Ironically, that isolation helped to protect the island’s pristine ocean ecosystem, making it an ideal place for scientists to study marine restoration and conservation.

Under exemptions to the 1962 U.S. embargo against Cuba, David Guggenheim, a Senior Fellow at Washington, D.C.’s Ocean Foundation, has made more than 50 trips there since 2000. He says Florida’s reefs once mirrored Cuba’s, but were damaged by decades of sediment and fertilizer from large-scale construction and farming.

“If Columbus were a scuba diver, he’d still recognize this beautiful place … . it’s the way an ecosystem should look,” Guggenheim said.

Don't forget to tune in this Sunday, Oct. 17, to "LIFE: Creatures of the Deep" at 8 p.m. ET/PT on the Discovery Channel.

The island’s tourism was scarce between the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main economic backer. To save itself from financial ruin, Cuba built it up, luring Europeans hungry for tropical vacations. Still, that industry is small compared to what it would be if American tourists could visit.

These unique circumstances allow scientists from across the globe a chance to explore more cohesive international marine policies and practices, and nowhere is that more evident than in the Gulf of Mexico.

For example, Mexican and U.S. scientists are examining how Cuban corals could be transplanted to their diminished coasts. Those reefs offer vital habitat to fish and sea turtles roaming freely through Gulf waters.

The Obama administration has increased U.S. visas to Cuban researchers, but scientists on both shores say the embargo still hinders the extent of collaboration.

“Half the effort is figuring out licensing and (political) sensitivities,” said Frank Muller-Karger, an oceangrapher at University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science in Tampa.

U.S. law won’t allow American researchers to bring in high-tech equipment because the U.S. government contends it could be used for terrorism. American scientists can hire local Cubans for purposes of their visit, but not for ongoing investigations.

Current efforts underscore the potential for scientific advancement, especially in light of the historic Gulf oil spill.

Last month, about 60 Cuban, Mexican, and American scientists gathered for the fourth annual Trinational Initiative at the MOTE Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla. The conference, organized by Guggenheim, helps all three countries streamline Gulf conservation efforts. At this one, participants pooled their data to develop a five-to-10-year plan.

“The value of this network is that we’re able to mobilize quickly,” noted Guggenheim.

Indeed, after the Gulf oil spill, he and his colleagues bridged communications among the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Coast Guard, NOAA and the Cuban government. That may come in handy when Cuba begins offshore oil exploration next year.

Consuelo Aguilar, a lead researcher at University of Havana’s Center for Marine Investigations, and a longtime collaborator of Guggenheim, is one of 17 Cuban scientists who received a visa for the Trinational Initiative conference.

She says U.S. collaboration is vital for Cubans struggling to reap the benefits of their free university studies.

“We Cubans are well-educated, but we don’t always have the resources we need to carry out full investigations. For example, we haven’t completed an exhaustive study on sharks since the 1960s. Our American colleagues have. That’s important because these sharks are top predators that control the order of marine life, and they’re in decline.”

Thanks to Guggenheim’s work with Cubans like Aguilar, some 20 marine biology masters and doctoral students in Havana have field projects.

In addition to offering an optimal marine study environment, Aguilar affirms her people can show American researchers how to persevere in tough economic times.

“Our best resource is humans. We’re creative and able to get things done with practically no tools,” she said, adding that her marine center often teaches school children about ecology so that they will be prepared to protect it.

Congress has recently considered a full removal of the U.S. travel ban, but the embargo probably won’t be lifted anytime soon. According to the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, that is only possible if Cuba holds democratic elections, releases all political prisoners, and both Castro brothers leave office.

For all these scientists, that embargo poses a real conservation conundrum.

“I think the embargo is a misguided policy. It’s archaic, cruel to the Cuban people, and limiting to U.S. citizens,” Guggenheim said.

“At the same time, I fear that when the embargo is removed and the floodgates opened, Cuba won’t be ready to accommodate so many tourists. I’d be lying if I said that part of me isn’t comforted by the fact that each day the embargo continues we’ve got a little more time to prepare.”

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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