Did you know there is a marine eco-system to explore right on our very doorstep? Well, the folks at Al Mahara Dive Centre are educating and enlightening little eco warriors with tours around the mangroves, just an hour away in Abu Dhabi. This area is home to 75 per cent of the total mangrove forest area of the UAE, and you can explore it by kayak too.
So just what are mangroves anyway? According to the experts at Al Mahara, mangroves are trees or shrubs that grow in muddy, coastal, tropical areas which have low oxygenated soil. The slow moving tides allow sediment to accumulate and the trees are characterised by densely tangled prop roots that make them appear to be standing on stilts above the water.
‘I think only very few of the residents in Abu Dhabi and Dubai are aware of the mangroves, simply because of their busy city life, but with the help of our kayak tours and enthusiastic staff we are making more and more people aware,’ explains Al Mahara’s kayaking expert Sanje Godrich. ‘Children love the mangroves because they are a magical and unique marine eco system that also help in the prevention of soil erosion. They love to have fun paddling on the water and seeing the mangroves up close and what they offer. The kids also find the actual root systems and wildlife living within the mangroves fascinating, things they don’t normally get to encounter in everyday life.’
These handy natural barriers provide a rich habitat and safe breeding ground for a wide range of species. ‘They’re home to great pink flamingos, herons in black, grey and white, terns, egrets, crab plowers, Egyptian geese, red foxes, bottlenose dolphins, dugongs, baby barracudas, schools of needle fish, groupers, mangrove snappers and so many more,’ lists Sanje. ‘My personal favourites are the pink flamingos and the bottle nose dolphins, up close they are very beautiful and exotic.’
The mangroves of the UAE cover thousands of hectares of shoreline, forming an integral part of our coastal ecosystem. They also play an important part in reducing carbon emissions. And in these 4 x 4 dominated gas-guzzling Emirates, it’s good to know something is working on our behalves to somewhat even out the impact of climate change.
Making people aware of this essential ecosystem, Al Mahara tour guides regularly set off with willing voyagers eager to explore the Eastern Mangrove Lagoon National Park, and are on hand to explain the importance of these precious and picturesque waterways. All are trained in emergency first response to put nervous paddlers at ease, but previous kayaking experience is not required as full instruction is given before adventurers are let loose in the boats. Then it’s a slow, peaceful meander along the coastline with the chance to spot a variety of wild life en route. ‘How much we do on a tour really depends on the group’s speed and stamina, so we are flexible,’ says Sanje. ‘Depending on which you choose, you can paddle up to 8km. There are 2,700 hectares of mangroves in Abu Dhabi so we get to explore only a small area.’
The tours operate all year round but are a bit more comfortable once the temperature has dropped, so this time of year is preferable to the sweltering summer months. Tour times are dependant on tides, wind and temperature but are available morning, noon and afternoon. Sunset trips can also be arranged, so there are plenty of chances to catch a kayak and go discovering. Low tides mean more opportunities to spot the local birds, fish and crabs that frequent the area, but access deep into the mangroves is better during high tides. The tour guides always check the weather conditions before they set off to ensure it is a pleasant experience for all involved – and not one which will bring on a bout of seasickness. But they can’t stop the wind blowing so either the way out or the way back will be an easier journey.
It’s not just a popular trip for school kids to enjoy, as the company offers adult tours, parties and corporate team building excursions, too. Ladies-only days can also be arranged, with all tours lasting 90 minutes and offering the chance to get out of the city to spot some serious wild life, while working on those bingo wings too. All the company requires is 48 hours’ notice, a minimum of four people, and willingness for participants to get wet.
There are facilities available back at base for showering and changing afterwards, meaning adventurers won’t have to go home with wet bottoms (never fun, especially if you have a long drive home afterwards). Paddlers are urged to take a change of clothes, a towel, some water and to slather on the sunscreen before they set off. Luckily, waterproof bags are provided for gadgets to stay dry, as there are plenty of photo opportunities along the way, as well as plenty of splashing from thrashing oars.
Voyagers must leave the areas as they found them, as litter from plastic bags is especially harmful to the mangroves. ‘When there is excessive litter on the mangroves it not only harms the wildlife, but can even reduce the fresh inflow of water which is a must for the mangroves to survive,’ says Sonje.
Dhs150 (adults) Dhs100 (kids aged 6 to10). Al Mahara Diving Centre, Muroor, near main taxi/bus station, Abu Dhabi, www.divemahara.com (02 643 7377).