I am silently floating through a maze of long roots, growing from a sandy seabed. Sunbeams break through the tangled mangrove trees above the surface, lighting this shallow water world – a remote mangrove deep in the Raja Ampat archipelago – the epicentre of marine biodiversity on the planet and a part of the Coral Triangle.
The elegantly arched prop roots are like mystical drapes and the fractured light like three dimensional spider webs. There is something vaguely unsettling about swimming deeper and deeper into the forest with the rising tide, though at the same time I’m captivated by its strange beauty.
Few visitors to Raja Ampat consider mangroves as viable snorkeling sites. But I am transfixed by dragonflies, a myriad juvenile fish hiding in the labyrinth, iridescent shrimps, gobies and invertebrates. I’m alert to any splashes I might hear; who knows what might appear around the next root – there could be bigger predators in here.
Raja Ampat’s mangrove forests are almost as numberless as its coral reefs. Not all of them feature soft corals and invertebrate life – but those catching a lot of nutrient rich current can be simply breathtaking. Compared to a beautiful barrier reef, mangroves might seem dark and dingy – but once your eyes adjust, you will discover their singular majesty. I invite you to join me on a brief tour through one of my favourite mangroves in Northern Raja Ampat.
This particular mangrove stretches for 1.5 square miles and depending on fallen trees, it is possible to spend a leisurely couple of hours riding a gentle current through it. Deep in its heart, you can encounter a wealth of marine life, including some bizarre species that are unique to mangrove ecosystems. Mangroves are relatively extreme environments for life to thrive in - lots of salt, tides and a hot and humid climate. For juvenile fish, they present a perfect nursery. Perhaps surprisingly to many, sharks and rays also find their way into the mangroves to give birth, since their young are more likely to thrive in this protected area.
There area two main species of mangrove – the black and the red one. Each have different ways of dealing with the excess levels of salt in the water. Whilst the red one filters the salt out at root level, the black one gets rid of the surfeit through leaves which gradually turn yellow and eventually fall off, stuffed with salt. Mangroves also provide a natural barrier against land erosion, protecting the islands from waves, storms and flooding.
While continuously checking the surface for any unusual movements and scanning every log in the water for reptilian eyes, we float deeper into the forest until it opens up abruptly into a big lake. I have had some rare but unforgettable encounters in the mangrove forest here - with pregnant reef sharks, eagle & black blotched rays as well as turtles. There is some coral growth around the edges, but the main bed like the surface of the moon. It appears to be totally dead, but millions of little craters on the dark, sandy bottom show that life in fact thrives here. All kinds of worms, crustaceans and benthic fish inhabit this hidden pool.
As we slowly drift towards the exit channel, we swim right through a massive cloud of juvenile anchovies – it is amazing to witness how so many tiny individual organisms can come together to form this gigantic , unified body and find their way through the maze of roots. Their sheer density makes them easy food for predators like baby sharks and all kinds of juvenile fish.
Leaving behind the bright colored soft corals and sponges waving from the prop roots, we head through the coral garden towards the drop off – where two manta rays are doing loop the loops in order to feed. It is all I can do to finally get out of the water. But then Raja Ampat is like that.