60 Minutes cameras take you on an underwater adventure off the Cuban coast to one of the world's most pristine and vibrant coral reefs, known as the Gardens of the Queen. Anderson Cooper scuba dives with marine biologist David Guggenheim, dodging giant groupers and sharks, to explore this increasingly rare oasis. Scientists estimate that 25 percent of the world's reefs have died off and much of what's left is at risk.
The following is a script of "The Gardens of the Queen" which aired on Dec. 18, 2011. Anderson Cooper is the correspondent. Andy Court and Anya Bourg, producers.
Coral reefs are often called "the rainforests of the ocean." They're not just biologically diverse and stunningly beautiful, they're a source of food and income for nearly a billion people. They're also in danger. Scientists estimate that 25 percent of the world's reefs have died off and much of what's left is at risk. There is, however, one spot in the Caribbean that marine biologists describe as a kind of "under-water Eden," a coral reef largely untouched by man. It's called the Gardens of the Queen, and getting permission to go there isn't easy. It's located off the coast of Cuba, and as you might have already guessed, there are no direct flights.
Anderson Cooper and his producers go scuba diving at a pristine coral reef in Cuba, where they are surrounded by sharks and see extraordinary sights.
Our first stop was Havana, Cuba's crumbling capitol where music fills the air, old cars seem to run forever and the only ads you see are for the revolution. From there, we drove for six hours through the countryside and then took a boat for six hours more until we got to a stretch of tiny islands, 50 miles off Cuba's southern coast. The islands are little more than patches of mangroves and small spits of sand. The only inhabitants who greeted us: hermit crabs and iguanas. They seemed indifferent to our arrival.
It was Christopher Columbus who named this area the Gardens of the Queen after his Queen Isabella, but the real gardens he probably never even got a glimpse of...to see them, you have to go underwater.
David Guggenheim: This is really the most incredibly well protected and flourishing reef I've ever seen.
We went diving with David Guggenheim, an American marine biologist and a senior fellow at the Ocean Foundation in Washington, D.C.
David: The corals are healthy. The fish are healthy and abundant. There are predators here, large sharks. It's the way these ecosystems really should look.
Anderson Cooper: You're saying this is like a time capsule, almost?
Guggenheim: It's a living time machine. And it's a really incredible opportunity to learn from.
We brought special scuba masks with us so we could talk underwater. Every time we went diving we could see sharks circling our boat before we even went in. David said they wouldn't bother us and we certainly hoped he was right.
The first thing you notice in this underwater Eden is the coral. It's color, it's texture. Coral isn't a rock or a plant. It's colonies of tiny animals that share a common skeleton. This is a large and relatively rare specimen of pillar coral. Those hair-like things are the tentacles of thousands of individual animals that are plucking microscopic plankton from the water. Coral is one of the oldest living animals on the planet. Some of it is said to be 4,000 years old, older than the tallest redwood.
What makes coral reefs so important is that they host an extraordinary variety of fish. Some come here for shelter from predators. Others come here to eat.
Cooper: I've been diving in many places all over the world and I've never seen so many large fish. Like this grouper here. There's about six or seven Caribbean reef sharks like this circling around right now. Scientists will tell you the presence of so many sharks and different species of sharks, is a sign of a very healthy reef.
Guggenheim: When we call coral reefs the rainforests of the ocean, we're talking about the diversity of life that lives on these reefs. The relationships among these animals, the fact that the corals create a home for the fish, that they're little fish that feed big fish, that some of these little shrimp walk inside the mouths of the grouper and clean parasites off of the grouper. It's a very complex web of life.