Fifteen years had elapsed since we last explored the Gardens of the Queen. In the necklace of keys, mangrove islets, and reefs about 50 miles off Cuba, we had discovered a marine wilderness that astonished us with its vibrant life.
We returned to Cuba anxious about what we would see in the wake of time and climate change in this national park now covering about 850 square miles. On our first dive we descended into a large stand of elkhorn coral, a critically endangered species diminished throughout the Caribbean. We found ourselves in a dense thicket, amazed as we watched grunts and snappers jostle for space among the broad branches, as if in a game of musical chairs. This is exactly what we hoped to see; we were inside a liquid time capsule, transported back to a world of coral draped in fish, what the Caribbean looked like to our eyes decades ago.
Noel López, a dive master who has observed these waters for two decades, guided us to a deeper reef where we encountered four species of grouper, including a goliath the size of a stove. The reef seemed even more crowded with large fish and sharks than on our first visit.