IN THE HOOD

In our new series, we hopped on­board a kayak to ex­plore the forests, waters and wildlife of Abu Dhabi’s East­ern Man­groves.

Friday - - CONTENTS -

In the still­ness of the af­ter­noon, as a gen­tle breeze ca­resses my face, all I hear is the slow lap of the wa­ter as it brushes against the sides of our kayak. Oc­ca­sion­ally you hear the coo­ing of a bird, see a wide-winged heron in flight – if luck per­mits, you can watch it up close as it scoops up fish from the serene waters of the la­goon, the tip of its wings just skim­ming the sur­face of the wa­ter as it glides up­ward in grace­ful mo­tion.

The sky above is clear and blue, and the shal­low waters be­low glim­mer in myr­iad hues of green. As I edge closer, the mag­nif­i­cent sight of thriv­ing man­grove trees come into view, their tan­gled web of gnarled roots stick­ing up from the sand and coated up to sev­eral feet above in a pow­der of fine salt.

A breath of fresh air

It has been only a few min­utes since we left the ur­ban jun­gle be­hind at the prom­e­nade at East­ern Man­groves Ho­tel & Spa by Anan­tara to ven­ture on a kayak into a mag­nif­i­cent stretch of Abu Dhabi’s pro­tected East­ern Man­groves district. The sights and rau­cous sounds­cape of the city have been left far be­hind. Here, the air is fresh and clear, and we are en­veloped in an aura of serene tran­quil­lity.

As we near the densely shrubbed is­land, stretch­ing over 4.5 square kilo­me­tres, we be­gin to gain a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the finer, in­trigu­ing de­tails of the dy­namic ecosys­tem that it har­bours. Guid­ing us on this trip is Vishnu from

Sea Hawk, an ad­ven­ture sports com­pany in Abu Dhabi that of­fers daily kayak­ing trips through the pro­tected area.

Man­groves, or qurms as they are known in Ara­bic, are self-sus­tain­ing and play a cru­cial role in pro­tect­ing the coastal shore­lines from ero­sion, he ex­plains. ‘The pre­dom­i­nant species here is the Grey Man­grove (Avi­cen­nia ma­rina), a species com­monly found in the UAE and across the Gulf coun­tries, as these are well adapted to thrive not only in the hot con­di­tions of the re­gion but also in ar­eas where the salin­ity lev­els are of­ten dou­ble the con­cen­tra­tion of sea wa­ter.’

Point­ing to the plants on higher grounds, he says that ‘halo­phytes are also salt-re­sis­tant and ca­pa­ble of thriv­ing un­der ex­tremely sa­line con­di­tions. To­gether with the Grey Man­groves, they help cre­ate a nat­u­ral habi­tat for a va­ri­ety of birds and is a safe breed­ing ground for marine life in­clud­ing tur­tles and shrimp.’

Breath­ing roots

Rang­ing in height from three to five me­tres – with some grow­ing up to eight me­tres tall – the man­groves are a vi­tal nat­u­ral re­source of the UAE. Grow­ing at the in­ter­sec­tion of the land and the sea, man­grove forests thrive where no other plants would – with their deadly mix of high tem­per­a­tures, salt lev­els and mud flats.

So how do they sur­vive? The an­swer, ex­plains Vishnu, lies in their com­plex root sys­tem that lit­er­ally ‘breathe’ as they stick up out of the fine mud. Ex­cess salt is also ex­creted through their leaves.

Sup­port­ing bio­di­ver­sity

Vishnu leads us on to a nar­row in­let through the pic­turesque water­way where the wa­ter is less than two feet deep. The shal­low, clear waters are teem­ing with life. We see shoals of tiny fish dart un­der the kayak and black crabs scam­per­ing from tiny holes just above the wa­ter­line. The roots har­bour young marine life, he says. This is an im­por­tant nurs­ery ground for fish, crus­taceans, shell-fish, rep­tiles and mam­mals which, in turn, forms a rich source of food for mi­gra­tory and in­dige­nous birds.

Un­der the canopy of the man­grove is­lands are a va­ri­ety of birdlife. Bird lovers can spot great pink flamin­gos, egrets, herons, crab plovers, sand­pipers and cor­morants while lazily me­an­der­ing through the lush green wa­ter chan­nels. Sight­ings of bot­tlenose dol­phins and dugongs are also com­mon.

We halt for a short break on a sand­bank, an ideal spot for a quick swim. Here, hid­den amid a thick fo­liage of shrubs, Vishnu points out the en­trance of a fox den.

As we head back, we no­tice the sky has changed its colours. A beau­ti­ful or­ange glow has taken over. In the dis­tance, the city sky­line beck­ons us and be­fore we know it, our eightk­ilo­me­tre jour­ney to wit­ness an eco­log­i­cal won­der has come to a close.

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