ORONO, Maine — University of Maine oceanographer Bob Steneck snorkeled on a remote coral reef and sailed a tall ship off Cuba with University of Southern Maine students enrolled in a Winter Term course.
Those activities were part of an innovative, team-taught, 20-day course — Navigating Change in Cuba: Sustainable Maritime Environments and Tourism Development — with lead instructor Tracy Michaud Stutzman of the USM Department of Tourism and Hospitality and Jeffrey Boutwell, a Cuba tourism expert.
Students were tasked with developing a tourism strategy that included sustainable initiatives regarding nation's pristine coral reefs and hospitality training needs for Cubans. They interviewed residents and learned about the island nation's history, politics and culture. They also studied marine conservation and visited local attractions.
“Overall, this was a life experience for everyone,” says Steneck, a professor in the UMaine School of Marine Sciences.
“This is the beginning of an ambitious experiential academic program in Cuba. Although the island country is less than 100 miles from the U.S., it is a completely different world. All of the students embraced the pioneering aspect of this program and brought incredible enthusiasm to the program.”
Stutzman says faculty and students appreciated the opportunities to talk with Cubans and visit a nation that, until diplomatic relations were recently restored, had been closed off from Americans for more than 50 years.
It was fascinating, she says, to experience the beauty of Cuba, the generosity of the people and the excitement of fledgling entrepreneurs.
“To be in that place at this time was unique,” says Stutzman, who has a doctorate in anthropology/archaeology and chairs the USM Department of Tourism and Hospitality.
It will be interesting, she says, to see how tourism is developed, sustained and monitored in Cuba. Cuban journalist Carlos Manuel Álvarez wrote in The New York Times that, until recently, the nation resembled a 1950s theme park.
The 131-foot-tall schooner Harvey Gamage was home base, as well as a classroom and research vessel for students and staff from Dec. 27, 2016 to Jan. 15, 2017.
Four students were enrolled in the six-credit tourism class and 14 nursing majors joined the excursion to learn about Cuba's health care system.
The schooner — ported in Cienfuegos harbor on Cuba's southern coast during the course — was built in 1973 at Gamage Shipyard in South Bristol, Maine about a decade after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Steneck shared with students how coral reef ecosystems — which teem with fish, algae and coral — grow. And he discussed the importance of coral reefs in terms of providing food, protecting shorelines and supporting tourism jobs.
And, when the group sailed the Harvey Gamage to the reef to snorkel, Steneck says getting there was half the fun.
“The winds were strong, which creates a problem for snorkeling but they were just what we needed to sail the 250-ton Harvey Gamage to the famed Gardens of the Queen (one of the world's best preserved marine areas),” he says.
“It is one of the most remote reefs in the Caribbean. This is, in part, due to strict controls and limits on boats and motors in Cuba, so there has been virtually no fishing in this region.”
Steneck, who's based at the Darling Marine Center in Walpole, says all hands were on deck to help sail the Harvey Gamage. That included hoisting sails, steering and anchoring the ship.
“When you finally get to your study site, you feel as though you really earned it,” he says.
While the strong winds were great for sailing, they also stirred up sediment so snorkelers could only see fish that were close to them. Nevertheless, Steneck says they did see some unusual corals and species of sea urchins not common throughout coral reefs of the Caribbean.
Steneck also introduced students to ecological challenges in the Caribbean, including hotel development and the decline of Mexico's reefs along the Yucatan coast. Class discussions included how Cuba's coral reefs and ecotourists could be a blessing or a curse for the region depending on how they're managed.
Back on land, students toured Havana, a sugar plantation, a botanical garden and a museum and interviewed health care providers and community stakeholders at University of Cienfuegos.
Feb. 1, they submitted their final tourism development reports and journal reflections.
Stutzman says Steneck's tropical marine expertise provided USM students — who will one day be leaders and decision-makers in the tourism industry — with a valuable science-based perspective.
“We can't all be experts in everything but to have access to a variety of experts across the [University of Maine] System is valuable,” she says.