Want to yacht to Cuba? Doing research helps boaters satisfy travel rules

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Under the Sea: A snapshot of marine life taken by yachters on a marine conservation trip to Cuba with the International SeaKeepers Society.

Marine and aviation lawyer Michael T. Moore sits at the conference table of his Coral Gables, Fla., law firm, carefully interpreting a printout of current regulations on U.S. travel to Cuba, issued by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

“If you don’t dig deeply enough, you won’t understand it. Most people stop right after the first paragraph,” he says as he reaches the bottom of the document and underlines a sentence in the humanitarian section authorizing U.S. citizens to go to Cuba for “environmental projects” and “projects involving formal or non-formal educational training.”

Moore’s 30-year career in maritime law and his interest in environmental conservation have made him a leading legal advisor on yacht travel to Cuba. According to him, President Donald Trump’s new Cuba directive won’t affect this type of travel. In fact, as chairman of the board of the International SeaKeepers Society, he can create a legal passage.

Currently headquartered inside Moore’s law firm, the International SeaKeepers Society is a nonprofit dedicated to supporting marine science and conservation by using yachts for maritime research, educational outreach, and the deployment of oceanographic instruments. It was founded in Monaco in 1998 by a half dozen yacht owners who were concerned with the impact of pollution and ecological damage to the waters they sailed. It relocated to Moore’s Coral Gables office in 2009 when he became chairman of the organization.

Smooth Sailing: Lawyer Michael T. Moore (left) and Commodore Jose Miguel Díaz Escrich (right) at the Hemingway Marina in Havana.

Two years ago, when then-President Barack Obama began relaxing travel restrictions on Cuba, Moore and the SeaKeepers team were inundated with calls from American yachters excited by the idea of legally sailing into Cuban waters—under the OFAC permitted categories for humanitarian reasons, as well as professional research and the research activities of private foundations. Like most U.S. travelers, yachters don’t want to be fined or jailed for violating the U.S. embargo, and they also worry about the government confiscating their yachts.

“We started looking at the law and I concluded this was perfect for SeaKeepers. It’s right in our wheelhouse. It’s about water, marine ecology, and marine environmentalism,” says Moore. He consulted with OFAC on a legal framework for yacht travel to Cuba, and concluded that yachters could comply with the guidelines by building an appropriate itinerary and maintaining records of their activities.

At the beginning, the yacht owners offered to collect data for scientists. They still do, but today members also lend their yachts to the researchers themselves. “Ninety percent of the cost of ocean research is the research vessel,” explained SeaKeepers’ president and CEO Richard Snow. As Moore puts it, “The primary mission is to give rides to scientists. We are the Uber of the seas for scientists.”

So, yacht owners, especially those who were philanthropically minded, began boarding scientific researchers and equipment on their vessels. This allowed them to enjoy an ocean cruise and contribute to marine conservation at the same time. And what yachter wouldn’t want that kind of an experience with Cuba?

“(Yachters) will come to us and say, ‘Here’s what we want to do,” and we say, ‘Here’s what you can do that fits into what you want to do, and the good news is what we’re proposing is better than what you wanted to do,’” explains Moore, whose law firm has facilitated some 230 vessel trips to Cuba for everything from sporting events and fishing tournaments to university research projects. Of those, 60 were scientific expeditions conducted with SeaKeepers.

Jewels of the Caribbean: Tropical fish swim along Cuba’s pristine coral reefs. Photo by International SeaKeepers Society. Photo by International SeaKeepers Society.

On the SeaKeepers E3 Cuba Experience itinerary, for example, yachters can dive along Cuba’s pristine coral reefs with U.S. or Cuban scientists, join a tour of Cuba’s historic ports, and dine in Cuba’s up-and-coming restaurants all while complying with the laws of both nations. SeaKeepers also encourages them to use a special research app where they can upload pictures of unique ecological findings, or to carry underwater video cameras to shoot footage for scientists; one yacht owner is photographing a one-mile living reef in the Jardines de la Reina – the Gardens of the Queen – a reef off Cuba’s southern coast. The goal is to create a baseline to monitor the reef system’s health.

SeaKeepers charges about $1,000 for tailoring a legal itinerary according to the timeframe and requests of the client, a drop in the bucket for philanthropists who are likely to donate much more to the organization after an inspiring trip. “Participation in a full-time schedule of OFAC-approved environmental, educational, and ecological activities during the trip is what makes the trip compliant with U.S. Law,” says Moore.

Collin Laverty, founder and president of the Washington-based Cuba Educational Travel, seconds that. “It makes sense if they’re traveling under humanitarian projects. Where this passes the legitimacy test is the purpose of travel,” he says.

For the standard general license, yachters have a maximum of 14 days, including a day of sailing into and a day of sailing out of Cuban waters. Longer trips, which require additional licensing from the Department of Commerce, are also available. On these trips, it would be common for academics and other researchers from around the world to fly down and meet up with the yacht crew and then utilize the yacht to engage in more intensive investigation, oftentimes with their Cuban counterparts.

Even small research contributions help raise awareness about preserving the ecology of the Cuban coastline. American yacht captain Jonathan Kline, for example, piloted his vessel for a SeaKeepers excursion. He started with a trip from Key West across the Gulf Stream, landing at sunrise in Marina Hemingway near Havana. He then carried a biologist to the Bay of Pigs, where in April 1961, Cuban exiles backed by the CIA tried to overthrow the newly formed government of Fidel Castro.

“Our biologist and guests found some interesting snorkeling spots and logged their findings,” he said, noting how they were able to document the lion fish invasion and deploy a drifter that collects scientific data about ocean health.

“Cuba, is a phenomenal opportunity because it hasn’t had any demand on their coral reefs whatsoever. So, their coral reefs are our coral reefs in 1960, which we love,” said Richard Snow. SeaKeepers aims to help keep them that way.

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