Home News Watery, quiet and wild: the call of the mangroves

Watery, quiet and wild: the call of the mangroves

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It was a sunny afternoon in February, at the height of the peak season on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, but my partner Aaren and I weren’t lounging on white sand beaches, snorkeling on coral reefs or spending Easter time Island stroll. – Egg-colored buildings in Willemstad, the capital of Curaçao UNESCO World Heritage — a typical activity for travelers to this former Dutch colony.

Instead, go on a kayaking tour with Serlon St Jago, guided by Curacao Rif Mangrove ParkDuring this time, we learned about the country’s mangrove recovery and the important role mangrove habitats play in coastal resilience, protecting marine and bird species, and combating the impacts of climate change.

There are no venomous snakes, crocodiles or large predators in Curaçao, Mr. Sanjago said, which reassured us as we paddled toward the intimidating walls of mangroves along Piscadera Bay. Looking closer, the trees are majestic and cheerful. Colorful birds perch on the tangled branches and trunks, and paths beneath green and occasionally yellow leaves beckon us to explore. As our kayak ran aground, Mr. Sanjago pointed out fiddler crabs and mussels and described the differences in local mangrove species— red, white, black — and how they adapted to living and breeding where water meets land.

“There’s a lot of life here,” he enthuses.

We were the only tourists on the water, but getting more tourists like us interested in the mangroves, and even convincing them to replant some of the important trees themselves, has been a challenge for Curacao scientists, activists, park rangers and tour operators This has been a top priority for the author in recent years.

The island is not alone in this effort: similar mangrove-focused efforts are already underway around the world, e.g. Indonesia, Australia, Belize and Floridaas vulnerable destinations balance the growth of tourism with the protection and restoration of the natural resources that attract tourists.

“Coral reefs get all the attention. But mangroves are probably more important,” said Gabi AhmadiyaVice President of Marine Programs at the World Wildlife Federation, responsible for the organization’s mangrove science and restoration projects. “My favorite metaphor about mangroves is that they are a Swiss Army knife because they really provide a lot of different benefits and can do a lot of different things.”

Although these forests are somewhat isolated from the attractions and activities that traditionally draw visitors to the ocean, changing perceptions can be difficult. To protect the environment, mangrove kayaking tours (like most snorkeling, fishing and birding tours offered in other destinations) may be subject to quantity restrictions and must first be of interest. With summer reading and beach toys, family traditions and limited vacations, most visitors probably just agree with the old saying “life is better at the beach.”

The mangrove’s sinuous branches, trunks, and distinctive above-ground roots are a stark and complex nod to the trees commonly seen in children’s drawings. The roots can arch, pop out of the water like spikes, or form stilts above and below the water’s surface. Coastal mangroves have adapted to the oxygen-poor soil, high salinity and ebb and flow of the intertidal zone, thriving where other trees and shrubs die. The leaves are green unless they are yellow, and some leaves, if you lick them, taste salty.

Mangroves look impenetrable, muddy, fetid and swampy. Over centuries they have been cleared for firewood, farmland, urban development, aquaculture and, of course, tourism.In Curacao, mangroves are now found Only 0.012% of the island. within the globe, more than half of mangroves have been logged or otherwise destroyed in the past 50 years. The rate of deforestation has slowed in recent years but has not stopped, with rising sea levels and increased storm activity causing further damage.

But coastal mangroves – some 60 species worldwide – are the foundation of life above and below water. They have complex root systems and are breeding grounds for young fish and other marine life.The branches and trunks of mangroves provide them with safe places to eat and nest. Oriole, tricolor heron as well as other birds, reptiles such as iguanas, and numerous insects.

These firmly anchored roots also slow seawater flow and trap dirt and debris, preventing flooding, erosion and tidal surges.What’s more, mangroves absorb and store carbon every year, playing an extraordinary role in reducing the effects of global warming. at 10 times the speed As great as a tropical rainforest. Mangroves and other coastal wetlands “sequester enough carbon to offset the burning of more than 1 billion barrels of oil each year.” According to The Nature Conservancy.

Ryan de Jongh is a 53-year-old Curacao native, activist and tour guide who is the living embodiment of regenerative tourism. He is a big reason why we encounter the lush, thriving ecosystem at Piscadera Bay and shows how one person can make a difference.

Mr. de Jong grew up swimming in the bay and witnessed the area’s mangroves being cleared for fuel and construction. In 2006, he secretly planted his first mangrove tree – it takes about 15 years for a sapling to mature and grow into a full bush – and he said there are now more than 100,000 mangrove trees growing. He carried out similar clandestine plantings in other bays and bays, making himself a local hero.

Mr. de Jong gives Kayak your own tournow working on an extensive government-sanctioned restoration project.

His goal is to eventually plant 1.3 million trees on the island. “I have to turn the desert back to green,” he said.

Curacao’s interior certainly looks like a desert, with dry, dusty cacti and other succulents. Curacao, like its nearest island neighbors Aruba and Bonaire, lies outside the Caribbean hurricane belt and receives very little rainfall. People on the island drink desalinated seawater.

Trade winds bring cooler temperatures. In the 16th century, they also brought Europeans, who enslaved and expelled the indigenous population, turning Curaçao into a slave port. The colonists also grew oranges, sugar cane, and other exotic species with varying degrees of success, and developed giant salt pans for export, but it was the construction of an oil refinery in 1918 and the advent of tourism that ultimately led to widespread employment opportunities. develop. The refinery closed in 2019, nine years after Curaçao voted in a referendum to become the semi-autonomous nation of the Netherlands, an event that highlighted the importance of tourism to Curaçao’s economy.Last year, the island, which is only 40 miles long, welcomed 1.3 million visitors.

Alan and I are delighted to do our part to support the economy: in Willemstad, that means prasabiu, the old market where individual traders cook and sell local delicacies. We fought with each other over the fried wahoo and arepa di pampuna (pumpkin pancakes), but we were warned not to drink the cactus soup. “I live here,” said another diner, “I don’t even eat that.” Like many other tourists, we took photos while crossing the float queen emma bridgeand watched it open and close in marine traffic.

We queued for an hour locally De Visserij Piscadera Seafood Restaurant (called “Slaughter and Slice” since 2017), diners select and purchase their fillets before sitting down; we had our first ever Oregano Punch (think mint iced tea, but oregano oh so refreshing and delicious ); We inhaled grilled shrimp and raw tuna.

Further north, we had “williburgers”—goat burgers— Great place in Marfa Located in Sint Willibrordus overlooking an ancient salt pan, the local flamingos were unfortunately not present that day and were delighted while scuba diving near the crowded Kokomo beach Encountered a coral nursery.

Coral reefs are vital to Curaçao’s tourism and fishing industries, worth more than $445 million annually, according to a 2016 report economic assessment Published by the nonprofit Witt Institute.Coral reefs support approximately 25% of marine life and are durable Catastrophic albinism and disease Caused or exacerbated by climate change.

Over the past decade, scientists have better understood the symbiotic relationship between coral reefs and mangroves: They don’t need each other, but proximity brings benefit to both ecosystems.

“Working in this area of ​​conservation, you might come in from one entry point and then you realize everything is interconnected,” said WWF’s Ms. Ahmadiya. “We can work on coral reefs , but we should think about seagrass beds and mangroves because they are really connected, and of course they are connected to the human environment.”

One morning, Ellen and I walked through this 30-acre property Curacao Rif mangrove park, just a short walk from Willemstad city center and even shorter from the island’s cruise ship terminal.Open starting in 2022, the park offers guided and audio tours, an elevated boardwalk, programs for local schoolchildren, and Graded admission fee system (Dutch guilders and US dollars accepted) Available to residents and overseas visitors. About 17,766 people came in 2023, an increase of 14,687 people from 2022.

Manfred van Weegl is the new director of the Caribbean Biodiversity Research and Management Foundation, which supervise Mangrove Park and five other national parks. In partnership with the Government of Curaçao, local tour operator Activists such as Mr de Jongh and Dr van Veghel work to expand access to the park, build a viaduct And add destinations like the Visitor Center. These efforts are part of his desire to transform Curacao into a more nature-based tourist destination.

“We had a record last year and they are working hard to get more,” Dr. van Weegl said of Curaçao’s annual visitor numbers. However, he said, the beach was full. “So we need other activities besides going to the beach and Mangrove Park is a great activity.”

Mark Spalding is a senior marine scientist and chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy Mapping Ocean Wealth Planan online tool that applies economic value to coastal ecosystems.

Dr. Spalding said one of the appeals of mangrove activities such as boating and hiking is that “you can quickly, very quickly get a sense of wilderness and experience and peace and tranquility without having to trek across the Amazon for hours.” “. easily. “

“It might only be two hours of your entire vacation,” he said, “but that’s what you take home — the stories you tell.”

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