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.’
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.
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, shellfish, 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 eight-kilometre journey to witness an ecological wonder has come to a close.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
• Mangrove forests and their rich mud are a carbon-rich habitat, storing up to five times as much carbon dioxide as terrestrial forests.
• Decades of conservation and plantation efforts have doubled the size of mangrove coverage in the UAE, making them the largest — almost 50 per cent – in the Arabian Gulf coast.
• Several tour operators offer single kayak, double kayak, or family kayak services to explore the Eastern Mangrove Lagoon National Park, starting from Dh160 for a two-hour trip. The operators are located on the promenade at Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa by Anantara.
• Previous kayaking experience is not required; safety briefings and instructions on handling the kayaks are given by the guides before you set out.
• Be prepared to get wet. Carry a change of clothes and footwear too. Slather on the sunscreen.
• Waterproof bags are provided for gadgets. Use these or risk damaging your electronic items.
• The small network of channels is accessible only during mid to high tide.