A Visit to the National Aquarium of Cuba
Acuario Nacional de Cuba
by Howard Norfolk
Original to Aquarticles
Havana (La Habana) is the capital city of Cuba and is the largest
city in the Caribbean. The old part of the city has a beautiful setting, surrounded on
three sides by water.
La Habana, as seen from El Morro Fort.
CLICK ON PHOTOGRAPHS FOR ENLARGEMENTS, THEN
A visitor can spend days exploring the picturesque old squares, castles,
museums and churches that are to be found throughout Havana.
A typical city square; a statue; and the interior of the Capitol
building. (Cuban girls don't all dress like this! These flower sellers are in traditional
costume for the tourists).
There are some modern buildings and monuments that are worth looking at
too, including some commemorating the revolutionary government formed by Fidel Castro
But when you've had your fill of museums, churches, monuments and statues,
what can you do? ...Well, I suppose like Ernest Hemingway (who used to live here), you
could have a few drinks of rum, a good Cuban cigar, and go marlin fishing in the ocean....
But if you are reading this article I would guess you might be just as interested in
visiting the National Aquarium!
The Acuario Nacional is located on the waterfront in a suburb to
the west of the old city, and is about a US$6.00 taxi ride from anywhere in town.
Dolphins grace the entrance of the Acuario Nacional.
Founded in 1960 and run by the Federal Government, its "main field of
focus is research and environmental education," and one of its stated aims is
"to exhibit organisms of the tropical marine flora and fauna, in order to connect
visitors with the main landscapes and ecosystems of the Cuban Archipelago." In other
words it concerns itself mainly with saltwater creatures from the surrounding Caribbean
Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. It does not display freshwater fish.
Admission for tourists is US$5.00, but locals pay considerably less. The
Aquarium is a popular day's outing for the people of Havana. I visited on a Sunday (in
January 2004), when the Aquarium was particularly busy with local families and their
lively children. On weekdays it is not so crowded.
Let's take a tour!
Near the entrance is a semi-circular 'stream' with lots of large
turtles.The island in the middle is guarded by a pelican.
Opposite is a group of enclosures for sea lions and other marine
Entering "El Mondo del Mar al Alcance de Todos" -
"The World of the Sea Available to Everyone."
A picturesque grotto keeps these Atlantic tarpon (Megalops
atlanticus) partly in the shade.
When you're in the Tropics you can keep tropical fish outside! This
pond has three sides of glass, and contains saltwater fish.
An open-ended corridor contains a row of large aquariums, set at an
angle so that they can each be viewed from two sides.
One angle of the display gives general information about its
contents, and the other shows pictures of its fish and invertebrates, together with their
common and scientific names.
Jack fish species, including the horse-eye jack (Caranx latus)
on the right.
The aquariums contain a variety of corals...
...and of course fish, such as this mutton snapper (Lutjanus
analis). On the right is a spiny lobster (Panulirus argus).
The blackbar soldierfish (Myripristis jacobus) is a
Three times each day, loudspeakers ring out all over the Aquarium
announcing "Espectaculo con Delphines!!!" - the
Everyone hurries over to the new amphitheatre with its circus-like
atmosphere, where Latin music plays and an announcer excites the crowd. The dolphins show
off their amazing intelligence and co-ordination.
The dolphins perform many tricks during their half-hour show.
The crowd is large and enthusiastic...
...and the dolphins appear to enjoy showing off.
Should dolphins be kept in captivity?
They are very intelligent and seem to like co-operating with their
trainers, and I believe these ones have an enjoyable life here. Might one similarly ask
"Should dogs be kept 'in captivity'?"
Provided they are kept under humane conditions, I think dolphins such as
these educate the public to have respect for their cousins in the wild, which will
encourage further efforts to stop the real crimes, which are using them as food and
catching and drowning them (accidentally or otherwise) in commercial fishing nets.
(Although I am advised that this does not happen in Cuba).
After the Dolphin Show I strolled through the landscaped grounds
towards the seafront, passing by a couple of old Spanish (or pirate?) anchors on the way.
A lagoon protects the walls of the Aquarium and provides docking for
the Aquarium's small boats. The Dolphin Show used to be held in a large pool near here
until it was damaged by a hurricane in 1998, and the new stadium was built and opened in
2000. (By the way, how would you like to live in one of those apartments in the
From the roof of a building can be seen a small dolphin pool and a
Going down the stairs I spotted the 'workings' of the next group of
tanks. Their waters are open to the sky.
Two fairly large tanks have small viewing windows.
Yes, some people actually do read the signs!
This boy was examining everything very intently. Will he keep fish
at home one day?
...I'm sure he enjoyed looking at this shoal of blue runners (Caranx
crysos) in the next tank.
Next, there is a long row of medium-sized aquariums.
They contain livestock such as Cuba's moray eel (Gymnothorax
moringa), and a French angel fish (Pomacanthus paru).
Drumfish are good looking fish with their high flying dorsal fins.
Several hi-hat drumfish (Equetus acuminatus) are here accompanied by a jack-knife
drumfish (E. lanceolatus) swimming above them.
These are young nurse sharks (Ginglymostoma cirratum),
which the Aquarium had collected a month before. They were just 18" long (50cm.), but
they had already grown quite a lot and will eventually be over 6' (2m.) long.
There is a further row of smaller tanks.
This gold-coloured anemone is Condylactis gigantea, the
The seahorse is the Brazilian seahorse (Hippocampus reidi). The
fish are Eucinostomus sp., and the spiked coral is Diadema antillarum, the
This striped burrfish (Chilomycterus schoepfi) didn't like
me poking my camera in his face! I think he thought that his camouflage hadn't fooled me
and that my round camera lens was another fish's mouth, so he puffed himself up to an
enormous size to show that I couldn't possibly eat him!
A building in the centre of the complex contains some photographic
displays and a large mural. Every year in April, 500 children attend the "Children's
Scientific Journey" and paint murals such as this for the Aquarium.
Going upstairs, I had a fine view looking out to the ocean.
At the top of the stairs was another mural (murals are popular in
Cuba), and a sign leading to the theatre and meeting rooms. The theatre shows mainly
educational films for children.
But I really went upstairs to find the Library!...and met a nice
librarian as well as aquarist Armando Olaechea.
The Library is accessible to the public, and has an adjoining study room
complete with computers for students. In the Library I met one of the Aquarium's
aquarists, marine biologist Armando Olaechea. He showed me the Aquarium's book collection,
which includes titles in both Spanish and English languages. There were Spanish versions
of some of Dr. Axelrod's identification books, and copies of Tropical Fish Hobbyist
magazine, amongst others.
Armando helpfully answered some questions I had about the Aquarium and its
livestock. On the screen of my digital camera I showed him some of the photos I had taken,
and he said that the Aquarium might be interested in using some of them on an educational
CD that they are making. (Since this visit I have kept in touch with Armando, and he later
translated this article into Spanish and linked Aquarticles to some Spanish language
Whilst I was talking to Armando another announcement came over the
loudspeakers - "Espaculos con lobos marinas!!!" The
sea lion ("sea wolf") show!
I arrived a little late and the stadium's seats were all full. But
they let me stand below at the side.
The well-trained sea lions performed lots of tricks.
It was now well past lunch-time and I
was very hungry...
...The snack booth did not have what I wanted, and the open air
cafeteria had long line-ups. The air-conditioned Cafeteria "La Isla"
looked nice, but all the tables were full. (I went back twice just to make sure)...
...So I decided to leave the Aquarium and have lunch somewhere else.
On my way out I passed by the Buro de Informacion to look at the souvenirs they
had. There were very few souvenirs for sale, but I did buy a folder of Cuban stamps with
fish on them, and four sets of notebook/pen/stamps as gifts for some children back
home. Prices were very reasonable: the folder was US$1.00, and the notepads only 45c each.
...I went out of the main gates of the Aquarium and was waiting for
a taxi when I happened to look at this "Programa de Actividades"
notice. At the very bottom I noticed the words "Restaurante Subacuatico - consumo
minimo 8.00 USD adultos - 5.00 USD ninos."
...This looked promising, so I went back into the Aquarium to the
Information Booth and asked about the "Restaurante Subacuatico." Indeed
it was another restaurant, and the lady pointed me to a door behind the dolphin
stadium. In typically Cuban fashion the entrance was completely unmarked, and I had
passed by it twice on my way to the Dolphin Show with no idea that it was a restaurant!
...When I went through the door I was amazed! First there was an entrance
hall, and then a long bar which fronted a large cool dark room set with elegant dining
tables. One wall looked right into the dolphin pool!
I proceeded to have one of the best lunches I have ever had, and in the
best surroundings! Prices were very reasonable. I spoiled myself with garlic shrimp for
US$4.50 (which cost $14.50 in my tourist hotel), a beer for $1.00 ($3.50 in my hotel), ice
cream for $2.00 ($4.00), and a coffee for 50c ($1.50). Even then I only just managed to
spend the "$8 minimo" that the sign suggested! The restaurant was not
crowded (it is expensive for Cubans) and the service was very good. Photographs were
"not allowed," but the staff let me use my camera as long as the flash was
Whenever new diners arrived they first walked up to the window, and
the curious dolphins swam over to look back at them. I took these photos while sitting at
The window is of 12" (30cm) acrylic. It is 40' (13m) long, 10' (3m) high, and weighs
one metric ton.
I went to the window, and this dolphin came to get a close look at
Then he swam back up towards the sunlight...
...And that was the end of my memorable visit to the Aquario Nacional de