Picture a boat full of Russians skimming across darkened mangrove-filled waters. Now give them all spears, a full moon overhead and a hunger for crabmeat. We’ve long been fascinated by the crab hunting that goes on in Umm Al Quwain’s swampy lagoons, but none of us could have imagined anything quite as bizarre as the scene we discovered.
Heading out from the Flamingo Beach Resort on the banks of the lagoon, it’s already dark and there are a few stomachs growling on the way. The atmosphere couldn’t feel less like Dubai. Surrounded by murky water, lush mangroves that curl from the banks and the hum of insects, with a few more palm trees this could easily be the backwaters of south India, or an everglade in America’s deep south. Where’s a hick with a banjo when you need one?
As we hang lazily from the side of the boat, an eerie silence suddenly descends as the captain clicks off the engine. There’s just the the creak of the boat, and a few boisterous stories from our fellow crab hunters. Judging by their worryingly adept dummy spear stabs, the Russians – we get the impression – have done this before.
We jump into the chilly water, feeling the spongy bounce of the matted mangroves beneath us and start wading as quietly as we can through the sea. We’re given a waterproof torch, each tethered individually to the boat, and stretched out, side by side, in a line.
Of course, the first 10 minutes are pretty shambolic. With little instruction, we’re stabbing wildly down at the sandy depths and kicking up a lot of sand. Stalking quietly through the water is pointless: if we go slow or try to creep, we look up to find the rest of the group far ahead, our torches being dragged along by the boat as the tide of spear-wielding hunters up front pushes on. Go faster and the water soon becomes thick with sand and the light can’t penetrate it. It’s a touch frustrating.
But suddenly there’s a Slavic growl from up front and one hunter, who is particularly confident with his spear, lifts a crab high from the water and slaps it into the boat. An excited, but hushed call of ‘crabs, crabs’ spreads through the group and we start to notice some movement a few metres away. A black jet lurches past our feet, a hunter has missed a squid, but annoyed it enough to coax an outburst of ink. Right, we’re in good territory and have our spear well poised.
There’s a scurrying just in front of us. We’re ready. Lifting the spear absurdly high we plunge it down, missing the crab by inches and burying the spear into the mangroves. The crab saunters off, fairly nonplussed about our death-bringing descent, but as we struggle to spear ourselves some dinner, the tug of the tethered light pulls us away and we’re left with that hollow one-that-got-away feeling.
Looking up, we see the line of Russians charging through the mangroves and there seems something slightly empty about the whole thing. We’d imagined stalking and scrambling, sneaking up and pulling out one maybe two crabs from the water. But the reality, to us, seems a lot less sporting, as we see this charging line of death meandering its way through the water.
Walking in a line, stabbing out squids and crabs from all angles and hurling them back into the boat, the whole thing seems to be more like a crude, bayonet-only form of trench warfare rather than the humble, back-to-basics catch-your-own-dinner crab grabbing that we had first imagined.
Maybe we’d romanticised it a little, but this line of chattering tourists with flashing torches and a taste for murder seems more like a crime scene than a crab hunt. Sure, the seafood is flying in now and we almost manage to bag a couple ourselves before we’re dragged away at the last moment, but the thought that the sport of this has been lost somewhere in all that thrusting just won’t go away.
Soon we’ve waded our way to arm-height water and it’s time to get back on board. Deflated by our lack of catch, the experience of being out wading through the dense mangroves at this time of night is exhilarating, but the whole crab hunting experience needs a bit of an overhaul.
There’s all the makings of something wholesome, relaxed and fun, but we can’t help but feel it’d be better if we were left to roam free. We’d rather have to work a bit and make the whole thing a little, well, fairer.
We try to articulate these concerns to one of our fellow hunters on the way back to the shore. He raises his eyebrows, as if to say, ‘So, you didn’t catch anything, did you?’
Flamingo Beach Resort run crab hunting sessions every night from 8pm, Dhs170 per person incl. dinner buffet and catch of the day cooked up afterwards. Call 06 765 0000 to book.