The Magic of Mangroves

A trip through an amazing and valuable eco-treasure.

By Kelly Currington ~ Photos By Agile LeVin, VisitTCI.com

My eyes are immediately drawn to the network of red and brown “fingers” reaching upward out of the water as my board glides through the shallow crystal-clear water of the mangrove forest. As we slowly move along, we listen to our guide, Chris, talk to us about all the creatures and plants that live here. Every so often we stop, sit quietly and watch the tiny fish darting in and out of the roots. We see sponges growing on the hard substrate of the plants, tiny snails attached to almost every stem, and algae plants everywhere. We gain knowledge of the vital roles each of these play in this magical place.

I am fascinated as our guide explains what a mangrove forest is and how it functions. We listen intently as he talks about these special plants that grow in coastal saline or “brackish” water. These plants are salt-tolerant (halophytes) and adapted for life in relatively harsh coastal conditions.

The mangroves we see above water are supported by prop roots underwater. They slow water circulation and trap sediment—building land on islands and helping to protect the coast from storm erosion.

The way mangrove forests work is an amazing feat of nature. One of the first things we learn is why their roots rise up out of the water. Mangrove roots are pneumatophores, specialized to facilitate aeration. For at least part of the day, these aerial, or breathing, roots, are exposed to the air. This is crucial, as the mud or sediment in the mangrove forest is oxygen-poor, unstable and incapable of supporting the underground root system. Nature adapted by creating roots that reach up and out for the oxygen mangroves need to survive.

Another amazing and noticeable magic trick of Mother Nature is the way she sacrifices one leaf to protect the “soul” of the plant. The sacrificial leaf is where the plant filters out salt from the roots. The leaf turns yellow or brown, and when it has reached its maximum salinity, it falls off and a new leaf takes over. The leaf that falls off will decompose and feed smaller creatures, therefore continuing the circle of life.

Mangrove forests are one of the most important ecosystems on the earth, and there is something incredibly spiritual and magical about gliding through them. Their dense root systems trap sediments flowing off the land, which helps stabilize the coastlines and helps prevent erosion caused by storms and big waves, as well as keeping the sediment from flowing out onto the reef and smothering the corals and seagrass.

Besides being a protective barrier for the islands, the mangroves have many other contributing benefits to a healthy eco-system. One of those benefits is that the mangrove forest serves as a nursery and safe haven for many species. Juvenile reef and lemon sharks stay in the safety of the mangroves for about two years, where they are safe from predators in the shallow water and dense root system. The juvenile sharks (pups) use this time to grow and practice hunting little fish, learning the skills they will need to survive out on the reef. Juvenile sea turtles not only use this safe haven to grow and hide from predators—there is a rich source of vegetation for them in the mangroves, increasing their survival odds.

This isolated red mangrove bush is located in Stakes Bank near South Caicos, and serves one of the few frigatebird rookeries remaining in the Turks & Caicos.

While we move through the forest, the sound of birds chirping and leaves rustling is a calm and peaceful sound. The gentle movement of the water flowing under us is mesmerizing, washes away outside thoughts and brings you to a mental place of clarity. You can almost feel the intellectual connection between the plants and creatures here. It’s very difficult to explain in words—it’s something you have to experience. It allows you to connect with nature in a very raw way, and to connect to your own inner peace without the clutter and white noise of everyday life. It is an opportunity to unplug manmade sounds and hear nature’s voice.

The water rises and falls up to three feet here in these mangroves of Providenciales, and as it changes, so does the activity level. When the tide is high and the channel is at its deepest, we see sea turtles swimming in the middle and watch juvenile reef and lemon sharks swimming out in the open and circling our boards, chasing little fish. These pups are about two feet in length and can move astonishingly fast. When the tide starts to recede, the creatures use this as a sign to return to the shade of the roots until the next rise, as the tropical sun is extreme and harsh on the shallow, unshaded water.

The mangroves appear to have an intelligence all their own. The plants never grow in the channel, yet keep the perimeter thick and lush, as if the plants somehow speak to one another to know the water must flow in and out to keep the delicate ecosystem intact.

It is no secret that one of the most adverse and destructive effects of climate change today is coral bleaching. It is happening in all the world’s oceans and is predicted to worsen as more carbon is absorbed by the sea. Here’s something that may not be so well known: Mangrove plants have the capability to clean the air we breathe by absorbing and storing carbon dioxide up to ten times more than a comparably sized terrestrial forest. This is crucial in the continuous battle against climate change and these special forests are key in saving the oceans. With coral reefs being the foundation of marine life, the very real possibility of their death is disastrous for the planet. The reduction of carbon in the water means the reduction of coral bleaching. This is vital!

Another way mangrove forests could be key in saving the reefs is by providing shelter for coral species at risk of extinction from bleaching. Baby corals grow within the mangrove roots, and once mature enough, can be transplanted to the reef, aiding natural growth and reproduction.

The Northwest Point Pond Nature Reserve is a remote inland pond system on Providenciales, and is home to the most impressive red mangrove forests on the island. The interior pond of this nature reserve is tidal, with underwater cave systems.

What I learned from my adventure in this forest is how crucial mangroves are, not only for keeping coastlines safe from storms and surge, but in their role in protecting so many species of life that rely on them for safety and nourishment. I also learned how important it is to educate people on these amazing ecosystems and their role in the “big picture” of all life. Mangroves must be protected—once they are gone, they cannot simply be replanted. Because they actually hold the coastline in place and give it its shape, once gone the land will erode, giving way to tide and current, which will change the coastline permanently.

As my time in the magical forest of mangroves came to an end, I left feeling privileged to have experienced it and to have heard the message in its voice. I will visit this amazing ecosystem again, not only to continue learning all I can about life here, but also to allow myself to unplug again and soak up the peace that one can only experience in the quiet of nature.

At the end of the day, Kite Provo delivered far and above my expectations on this adventure. I was filled with so much educational information, generating just as many questions for my next jaunt in the mangroves. Please remember that when visiting this special place to respect the creatures and plants, and to keep your feet off the bottom. Try to minimize the impact of your presence there and, as always, take only pictures and memories as your souvenirs. Protect . . . Conserve . . . Preserve.

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