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Kayaking Through the Mangroves of Tortola

Mountains and coastline of Tortola, BVI

This is a travelouge, a personal essay about my experience kayaking through mangrove swamps on the Caribbean island of Tortola. Tortola is the largest island in the British Virgin Islands, which are found to the far north of the Caribbean islands. The island’s capital is Road Town, home to over 9,000 people and is located along the island’s south coast.

I was sat in a colourful minibus with large, permanently-open windows alongside other passengers who were partaking in the same activity.

From Road Town it was a 20 minute drive along Tortola’s southern coastline, meandering to the east. I sat, leaning out the open window, staring in awe at the world which shot past us. The turquoise ocean glittered beyond the line of palms which were passing in a blur. I laid eyes on colourful bungalows with lush, tropical gardens, perched beside the tarred road. The road wound around gentle hills, rising and falling and always keeping the ocean within a few metres. Eventually we arrived at our destination, Paraquita Bay.

Paraquita Bay was one of the largest natural harbours in the British Virgin Islands. It was a lagoon, protected from the vast ocean by a reef and row of mangroves which stretched on into a section of mixed forest and shrubbery, fronted by a sandy beach. In the centre of the protective mangrove barrier was a narrow waterway into the lagoon.

Mangroves are small trees which grow in saline water. They are found in tropical waters and can survive in very harsh conditions. They are classed as some of the world’s best carbon scrubbers due to the fact that they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and keep it in long-term storage. They absorb four times as much carbon dioxide as regular forests. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, mangrove swamps are one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet.

The kayak centre was located just outside the lagoon, in a neighbouring bay, within a small marina. Several buildings with orange roofs lined up by the waterfront including the diving centre which we were visiting, which tailored for kayaking expeditions.

We grabbed our vibrant, two-person kayaks which came in a range of colours and took to the water. My orange, plastic vessel wobbled precariously as I stepped inside, sending violent ripples across the murky, green water. I partnered-up with one other person and in synchrony we sliced our ores through the water, propelling ourselves forward with a splash.

Our journey took us out of the harbour and out into the open water. The waves were slightly larger here, sending our kayak into a rocking motion. We passed the stretch of sandy beach which protected Paraquita Bay from the ocean and, before we knew it, we were kayaking into the bay via the narrow channel.

The water became calm beneath us and soon the great lagoon opened up. As we moved peacefully through the turquoise water, I found myself mesmerised by the surroundings. Lush, green mangrove forests surrounded the bay on all sides, their tall, twisting roots protruding from the waterline like a tangle of limbs. The water beneath our boats was crystal clear. Apart from the gentle murmuring of people, the only sound that accompanied us was the splashing of ores against the water.

The guide took the lead, taking us across the vast gulf towards the heart of the mangrove swamps, and the rest of us spread out behind like a flock of uncoordinated birds. I noticed the water beneath us growing murkier as the sand that lay on the lagoon floor drew closer to the surface. The water was getting shallower.

Two great sailing boats appeared on the near-horizon, perched at awkward angles. Their white skeletons were greying with signs of decay and their sails were absent from their poles. Their hulls were completely exposed and shallow water lapped at their bellies.

“These boats have been here for years,” the guide began. “They were docked here for safety, making use of the lagoon’s natural barrier. But over time the water has become too shallow here. They were not moved in time and now they are trapped forever.”

It felt like a tragic end for such majestic boats. They had been moored up safely in the bay but after the water retreated, their owners were never able to rescue them. So they were forced to rot.

We kayaked past them and I suppressed a shudder. As my gaze journeyed to the mangroves ahead, I noticed yet more casualties. Three sailing boats stood beside a thick tangle of mangroves. One vessel lay uncomfortably on its side, half submerged in water. The bay felt like a sailing boat graveyard.

The edge of the lagoon was in sight. As we glided through the water towards the forest of saline-loving trees, I noticed a small passageway open up which led out of the main lagoon and deeper into the forest. I felt a tingle of excitement.

The guide began to make his way towards the opening, which was just wide enough for a couple of kayaks to venture into side by side. Up close, I was able to take in the unique appearance of the mangroves for the first time. Their tall, tangling roots criss-crossed over the surface of the water. From the roots, the mangrove trees leant at awkward angles, their deep green leaves massing around their narrow branches. The trees were extremely close together and it was impossible to tell whose roots belonged to who. They intertwined over one another to create a carpet of root. I listened to the peaceful chirping of birds who called these forests their home and strained to see if any fish were visible beneath the green surface of the water. Mangroves make perfect breeding grounds for many fish due to the safety that the mangrove roots provide (large predators cannot fit within them) as well as the calm, shallow water.

We continued our journey into the heart of the mangrove swamp. I felt a sense of peace fall over me as I rhythmically moved my ores through the water whilst listening as our guide explained why mangroves were such an important part of Tortola’s ecosystem.

A little further down the narrow channel, a tall pole was poking through the mangrove canopy. Perplexed, I kayaked closer, following the guide’s gaze as he looked through the tangle of branches. Peering into the dense forest, I laid eyes on a lonely sailing boat, deep within the knot of trees. It was clutched on all sides by protruding branches, its white hull suffocating within their grasp. Moored at the edge of the mangrove forest for too long, the forest grew around it, forcing this boat to be imprisoned within the mangroves forever.

Once we’d reached the end of the estuary, we turned around and carved our way through the great lagoon, heading back to the open ocean. It had been an interesting and eye-opening experience learning about such an eerie-looking ecosystem.

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