ENCOUNTERS

THIS BI­O­LOG­I­CAL ODDITY LINKS LAND AND SEA

Scuba Diving - - Contents - BY TRAVI S MAR­SHAL L

Meet the man­grove, nurs­ery to the un­der­sea world; what it's like to be bit­ten — yes, bit­ten! — by an al­li­ga­tor; se­cret spots from Nor­way to In­done­sia.

Chances are, if you’re a diver who has vis­ited a trop­i­cal des­ti­na­tion, you’ve been on a dive boat as it mo­tors past a man­grove for­est. These spindly nests of trees have a web of roots that sus­pends them above sea­wa­ter in trop­i­cal in­ter­tidal zones around the world. They are a bi­o­log­i­cal oddity, liv­ing both on land and in the ocean, able to thrive in both sear­ing heat and salty wa­ter that would kill most plants. »

There are about 70 species of mangroves, more than 80 per­cent of them found in the Indo-pa­cific re­gion, while the Amer­i­cas are home to only 12 species of man­grove. It’s be­lieved that mangroves orig­i­nated in South­east Asia. They spread through­out the world’s trop­i­cal re­gions thanks to their seeds, which evolved to travel for months or years on ocean cur­rents un­til they can put down roots on dis­tant shores.

Mangroves are one of the most im­por­tant habi­tats in the trop­ics. You might not re­al­ize it as you fin among col­or­ful corals, but the health of co­ral reefs is di­rectly linked to mangroves. That’s be­cause mangroves serve as nurs­eries for much of the ma­rine life that lives on the reefs. The tan­gle of roots un­der­wa­ter pro­vides safety and shel­ter for ju­ve­nile fish and other crea­tures, which mi­grate to the reefs once they’re large enough to sur­vive in the open.

Mangroves di­rectly im­pact life on land, in­clud­ing hu­man life. Their roots hold onto the ground, not only prevent­ing ero­sion, but also build­ing new land as sed­i­ment gets trapped among the roots. These hardy coastal forests act as a bar­rier pro­tect­ing the land, espe­cially dur­ing ex­treme events like hur­ri­canes and tsunamis.

Mangroves shouldn’t be over­looked as div­ing and snor­kel­ing des­ti­na­tions in their own right. They might not have the viz of a trop­i­cal reef, but swim­ming through these sun-dap­pled forests of roots of­fers op­por­tu­ni­ties to see a des­ti­na­tion in a new light. In Cuba’s Jar­dines de la Reina Ma­rine Park, divers have the op­por­tu­nity to spot Amer­i­can croc­o­diles swim­ming among man­grove is­lands in one of the Caribbean’s largest ma­rine pro­tected ar­eas, while man­a­tees cruise the mangroves of Belize.

But for the most stun­ning man­grove div­ing, look to the Indo-pa­cific. The mangroves in places like In­done­sia’s Raja Am­pat ri­val its reefs in beauty and bio­di­ver­sity, of­fer­ing photo op­por­tu­ni­ties for wide-an­gle and macro pho­tog­ra­phers alike. In Raja Am­pat’s blue­wa­ter mangroves, ju­ve­nile reef fish and sharks roam un­der­wa­ter forests of roots hung with bril­liantly col­ored soft corals. One in­ter­est­ing crea­ture to look out for is the archer fish, which shoots in­sects out of the air with jets of wa­ter.

A diver ex­plores a deep­wa­ter man­grove in a la­goon off Belize’s Sit­tee River.

Red man­grove roots shel­ter small fish at Car­rie Bow Cay, Belize.

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