A Mosaic of Life

Peek into the underwater world of mangroves, “womb of the sea.”

By Liz Cunningham ~ Photos By Wes Matweyew and Liz Cunningham

“Just think of it as warm spit,” Wes said. The water was astonishingly warm as we walked shin-deep through a wide expanse of turquoise-green sea filled with low-lying mangroves in the Princess Alexandra Nature Preserve. A few days before, Wes Matweyew, a boardsports instructor at Big Blue Unlimited, had told me he spent evenings there taking photographs. I asked if I could tag along. The first evening I squatted curiously in the shallow water with my camera. Wes stood about three yards away, scanning the water for fish. He spotted a school of minnows. “Headed right your way!” I held still, not a quiver, finger on the shutter button. “Liz?” “Yeah?” “There’s a big barracuda right behind you.” A few moments later, hundreds of fish skipped out of the water in a noisy frenzy, fleeing the barracuda’s pursuit.

Under the mangroves

Juvenile schoolmasters take shelter in the arc-shaped labyrinth of the mangroves.

Mangroves boast a stellar array of statistics as to how important they are to the health of the oceans. Not only do 75% of all tropical commercial fish species spend part of their lives in mangroves, but they are powerful counters to global warming, absorbing more carbon dioxide than the same amount of Amazon rainforest. They trap and stabilize sediment and even protect coastlines from hurricanes and tsunamis. The list goes on, but the evenings I spent in the mangroves made that list tangible and compelling: the density and intricacy and beauty of life in the mangroves spoke for itself.

Wes showed me how he’d position a camera on a small tripod where it might catch some fish passing through the lush shade of the mangrove roots. He wore a pair of polarized glasses and placed his camera with the precision of a fly-fisherman casting a fly in a familiar stream. He’d set the camera rolling and then back off and wait for life in the hidden watery labyrinth to resume its normal pace, post-larval and juvenile fish moving calmly through the safe cloister of small, arc-shaped passageways —schoolmasters and grunts and pufferfish and damselfish and snapper and sergeant majors.

One of the most remarkable sights were the juvenile barracuda hovering in the water. They had yet to adopt the sleekly fierce, toothy jaws of an adult, which biologists characterize as a combination of “scissors and a steak knife.” A young barracuda, no more than several inches long had a slightly wide-eyed and goofy look as it stalked a school of tiny minnows. The world in which they lived alternated from a dozen inches to several yards deep with the tide. Twice a day the fish fought the tide when it pulled out, circling and swimming backwards, doing anything they could to prevent themselves from being swept out to sea. During his hours in mangroves, Wes filmed reef sharks and lemon sharks ambling through the shallow waters and captured stunning aerial views of the mangroves by strapping a GoPro camera to a kiteboard rig.

Nurse shark

An adolescent nurse shark roams through the mangroves.

Sitting quietly in a foot of water, observing the fish for hours helped me to imagine “the world according to fish” —what fish see, rather than just how we view them through our miniscule rectangular viewfinders. In that world the surface of the water reflects everything the fish see. It is in many ways their “sky”—a glassy, dazzling mirror of the terrain they navigate, the knobby, reddish mangrove roots, the sandy bottom covered with sea grass and even the shape and color of the fish themselves. And yet that mirror-like surface is still somewhat translucent, permeable—occasionally an arc of blue sky can be seen or the movement of a bird or even a human being, their kayak paddle entering the water or their feet traipsing along the bottom with camera in hand.

Sometimes the reflections of the fish were so clear in the photos it was almost dizzying. I remember one day opening up a photo on my computer and for a moment I balked, “How did this photograph get upside down?” Then I realized that I had mistaken the reflection for the actual fish. That liquid world carved out its own parameters in the photographs. “Up,” “down,” “solid” and “permeable” were different from what we know in our terrestrial life.

School of checkered pufferfish

A school of checkered pufferfish swim by. Pufferfish are rarely found on reefs; they spend most of their lives in shallow bays and inlets.

For the longest time mangroves meant nothing to me. I thought of them as some kind of empty jungle brush that you didn’t want to go near for fear of being bitten by a crocodile or some ghoulishly huge insect whose bite leaves a welt for weeks. Now I think of them as the armature for an extraordinary mosaic of life, a “womb of the sea” where new life takes shape. If there is a real monster in the mangroves, it’s us: humankind—our innumerable landfills and excessive pollution have destroyed more than 1/5 of the world’s mangroves since 1980 and by doing so dramatically diminished fish populations and destabilized shorelines. But mangroves can be saved; restoration efforts are remarkably effective. On one of my visits to the Turks & Caicos Islands, marine ecologist Marsha Pardee and Eric Salamanca, scientific officer at the Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs, showed me how in the TCI alone, over 1,000 mangrove plants have been planted in damaged areas.

Positive change begins with each of us, in our support for sustainable development, for marine protected areas and restoration efforts. Saving our natural resources takes dedication: it takes time, it costs money, it requires a collective effort on the part of us all. But it’s time we think of the cost of caring for our world as being as crucial as the cost of caring for our children, so that they, and the generations to follow, might have a natural world which flourishes and sustains them. My days spent in the mangroves left me convinced that these miniature “underwater rain forests,” so densely rich with life, must be preserved for their own sake and for the sake of all of us.


“When Barracuda Attack: Swift and Sharp,” Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News, January 25, 2008. http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2008/01/25/barracuda-fish-bite.html

“Mangroves Report Reveals Threats and Opportunities to Global Economy and the Planet.” July 14, 2010, United Nations Environment Programme.

Liz Cunningham is the author of Talking Politics: Choosing the President in the Television Age; her forthcoming book, Ocean Country, explores marine conservation issues in four regions around the globe—the California Pacific Coast, Sulawesi/West Papua, the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Western Mediterranean.

Wes Matweyew is a professional all-terrain athlete and boardsports instructor from Ventura, California who brings over 30 years of experience in the action sports industry to Big Blue Unlimited. Wes says he is not really a photographer, but likes to sit and soak his bum in the mangroves for hours, letting the tides fluctuate while his camera does the same, with luck capturing the occasional fish as it swims by.

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