What is a mangrove?
A mangrove (or mudflat) is basically a swamp, but don’t worry; there are no creepy creatures of the deep lurking beneath these waters. It’s simply a community of trees and shrubs that grows on an intertidal or protected coastal area. Since they are sheltered from waves and the constant currents of the, sediment from the sea has a chance to settle, creating a marshy environment ideal for vegetation.
Mangrove trees are able to thrive in saline water by a specialised root structure that prevents them from absorbing too much salt, and when they grow, they form a delicate, self sustaining ecosystem: a haven for fish, birds and shellfish. Your feet might get a bit muddy when exploring a mangrove, but it’s good fun to wade around and get back to the basics of nature.
Khor Kalba is one of the world’s oldest mangrove forests, and this marshy area is home to the rare, white-collared kingfisher; a tiny blue-plumed bird with a white collar of feathers around its neck. The thick, gnarled vegetation creates the ideal nesting ground for these shy little flitterers – one of the rarest subspecies in the world. There are less than 50 breeding pairs taking shelter here, though they share their digs with another rare species; the Sykes’ warbler.
The waters around here are a veritable seafood buffet for the hungry flappers as white clawed fiddler crabs and all manner of fish dart around the mangrove roots, while several species of turtle enter at high tide and spend most of the day bobbing around lazily, munching on algae and sea grass.
When the tide is high, there’s no better way to appreciate it (and tone your triceps) than with a canoe trip with Dubai-based Desert Rangers, the only tour company approved to take tourists through this delicate ecosystem. Though they are the most sticky months, the best chance of bird spotting is during the breeding season between May and June.
Khor al Beidah (Umm al Quwain)
These mangroves might be popular among spear-toting tourists on crab hunts, but Umm al Quwain is better known as a twitcher’s paradise, with hundreds of migratory bird species flocking around the extensive mangroves of Khor al Beidah, including one of the world’s largest colonies of socotra cormorants (an almost entirely black bird, with a long neck and beak), which nests during autumn. These shallow tidal lagoons and mudflats are also home to the fairly noisy white and black crab plover bird and Saunders’ little tern.
You can easily hop on one of the boat trips around Khor al Beidah from Umm al Quwain’s Barracuda Beach Resort, the Flamingo Beach Resort or you can hire boats at the Marine Club and Riding Centre. If you venture further out past Al Sinniyah Island (a wildlife sanctuary off limits to humans) you will spot huge colonies of the cormorants, while the waters are teeming with dugongs, sea turtles and fish.
Ras al Khaimah
Swamp lovers can look forward to a grand plan of protected mangroves and turtle nesting sites in four designated nature reserves unveiled in the ‘Ras al Khaimah Master Plan’. Two wetland areas (Dhaya and Mizahmi) are being designed; the fish nurseries having opened already.
Visitors will be able to wander through the three sq km Dhaya mangroves on specially created boardwalks, and appreciate the birdlife and fish that will call this delicate ecosystem home, such as sheri and rabbit fish. Once it’s completed, the Mizahmi reserve will span more than two sq km, encompassing a turtle nesting site and wetlands.
Ras al Khor
One of the most important wetland areas in the country is Ras al Khor, a 6.2 sq km area at the end of Dubai Creek. The Sanctuary is home to approximately 266 species of fauna and 47 species of flora and even if you’re not partial to birdlife, there’s something incredibly amusing about crouching in one of the specially created bird hides to watch nearly 2,000 flamingos prance around the sanctuary.
The sheltered tidal lagoon was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary by Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who has a soft spot for these long-legged beauties, and you can watch them from one of three huts open between 9am to 4pm Saturday to Thursday. It’s free to visit, but you’ll need to download a permit from the website. Ras al Khor also has thousands of other water bird species like the lesser sand plover, Kentish plover and broad-billed sandpiper, so be sure to bring along your binoculars.
The eastern mangroves of Abu Dhabi are ripe for exploring, with scores of fish (queen fish, trivally, sea bream) and hundreds of migrating birds (herons, crab clovers and flamingoes). The best way to appreciate this thriving ecosystem is on an ecokayaking expedition with Abu Dhabi-based Noukhada. The trip sets off into the mangroves from Salam Street, and after only five minutes you will be in the thick of the peaceful vegetation. During the trip, the guides will explain the role of mangroves in the UAE, pointing out birdlife and fish.
Tours cost Dhs100 per hour and Dhs50 for every hour thereafter. There’s also the chance to stay overnight by camping at some of the secluded mangrove islands near Saddiyaat Island.
Noukhada and Desert Rangers both run extensive, low-impact eco-tours around the mangroves.