Mangroves may be no match for palm-fringed beaches when it comes to beautiful scenery — but that doesn’t mean these vital woodlands should be overlooked.
Growing along sheltered coastlines in tropical and subtropical countries around the world, the tangled roots and impenetrable depths of mangroves can certainly look a little forbidding. But these curious forests that grow between the land and the sea perform many vital functions that ensure the health and equilibrium of the wider environment.
Mangrove canopies also provide an essential habitat for reptiles, whilst their root systems, which grow up out of the water at the coast, provide an essential refuge for many forms of marine life.
“Eighty to 85% of fish spend their early years in the mangroves, where they are protected by the root systems from larger predators, and where the decaying leaves fall ultimately turns into a rich food source for aquatic life,” explains Martin Keeley, International Education Director for the Mangrove Action Project and resident of Cayman Brac.
As well as being the nurseries of the reef, the tightly tangled root systems of these trees create a highly effective natural storm barrier, reducing the impact of wave damage and preventing coastal erosion.
Beyond that, mangrove roots trap sediment in rainwater run-off, preventing it flowing out into the ocean, where it would otherwise cloud the water and ultimately settle on the reef, starving coral of vital sunlight.
In Grand Cayman, fresh water lenses form around mangrove wetlands, and over time, these forests have created some of the richest agricultural land on the island. Despite their ecological importance, according to Keeley, mangrove forests worldwide may be disappearing faster than inland tropical forests — but without any of the fanfare.
“There has been a tendency to regard mangroves as useless, swampy wastelands and mosquito breeding grounds — and therefore something to be removed or filled in,” he says.
Elsewhere in the world mangroves are cleared to make way for shrimp farms, rice paddies and port developments, he says. Whilst this may not be the case in Cayman, mangroves are nonetheless being lost, mainly as a consequence of development.
“Most of Grand Cayman was mangroves at one point,” Paul Watler, Environmental Programmes Manager for the National Trust agrees. The most noticeable loss has been between George Town and West Bay, which was once largely a mangrove swamp and is now the most densely populated part of the island.
Unfortunately, most of Cayman’s mangroves are not protected. Grand Cayman’s Central Mangrove Wetland covers about 8,500 acres, of which only approximately 1,500 are protected under the Marine Parks Law, and 765 are owned by the National Trust.
Even the limited protection they do enjoy can be ineffective. In Cayman Brac, Watler says, the ponds and surrounding mangroves at West End were previously protected by their designation as Animal Sanctuaries. That status was removed, however, in order to allow for the expansion of the airport and improvements to tourist facilities.
It is a sad irony that, although often dismissed as useless and unattractive, without these “swamps” Cayman would not have the gin-clear sea, diversity of bird and marine life, and the healthy reef systems it is famed for.
HOW TO GET A CLOSER LOOK AT CAYMAN’S MANGROVES
Cayman Sea Elements: These informative and educational kayak tours along natural channels between mangroves depart from Governor’s Harbour. Separate snorkel trips into the mangroves are also available.
Sweet Sport Watersports: See the three types of mangroves that grow in Cayman. Venture out on a stand-up paddleboard tour of some the island’s protected wetlands in Little Sound.
Sister Islands District Administration: Free guided island tours of Cayman Brac are offered by District Administration. Mangrove tours can be requested.
Photographer: Marnie Laing