Watery, Peaceful, Wild: The Call of the Mangroves

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It was a sunny afternoon in February at the height of the high season on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, but my partner, Aaren, and I were far from lounging on a white-sand beach, snorkeling over a coral reef or strolling among the Easter-egg-colored buildings of Willemstad, Curaçao’s capital and a UNESCO World Heritage site — typical activities for travelers to this former Dutch colony.

Instead, on a kayak tour with Serlon St Jago, a guide from the Curaçao Rif Mangrove Park, we were learning about the country’s mangrove restoration, and the vital role mangrove habitats play in coastal resilience, protection for marine and bird species, and fighting the effects of climate change.

No poisonous snakes, alligators or large predators live on Curaçao, Mr. St Jago said, reassuring information as we paddled toward a forbidding wall of mangroves lining Piscadera Bay. Up close, the trees were magnificent and cheerful. Colorful birds roosted on tangled branches and trunks, and small paths under the green and occasionally yellow leaves beckoned us to explore. With our kayaks beached, Mr. St Jago pointed out fiddler crabs and mussels, and described differences of the local mangrove species — the red, white and black — and how they adapted to live and propagate where water meets land.

“There’s so much life here,” he said with infectious enthusiasm.

We were the only tourists on the water, but getting more visitors like us interested in mangroves, perhaps even persuading them to replant some of the vital trees themselves, has been a priority of scientists, activists, park rangers and tourism operators on Curaçao in recent years.

The island isn’t alone in its efforts: Similar mangrove-focused work has started around the world, in places like Indonesia, Australia, Belize and Florida, as fragile destinations balance tourism’s growth with the conservation — and restoration — of the natural resources that captivate visitors.

“Coral reefs get all the attention. But mangroves are probably a lot more important,” said Gabby Ahmadia, a vice president with the oceans program at the World Wildlife Federation who overseas the organization’s mangrove science and restoration programs. “My favorite analogy about mangroves is that they are Swiss Army knives, because they do provide so many different benefits and they can do so many different things.”

Though these forests are one degree of separation from the sights and the activities that traditionally draw visitors to the ocean, changing perceptions might be hard. To protect the environment, mangrove kayak tours can be — as are most snorkel, fishing and bird-watching tours offered in other destinations — limited by number, and visitors must be interested in the first place. With their summer reads and beach toys, family traditions and limited vacation days, most tourists might simply agree with the old saying “Life is better at the beach.”

The twisty branches, trunks and distinctive aboveground roots of mangroves are a stark, complex repudiation of how a child’s drawing portrays a common tree. The roots can arch up, pop up spikelike from the water or form stilts above and under the surface. Adapted to oxygen-poor soil, high salinity and the ebb and flow of an intertidal zone, coastal mangroves thrive where other trees and shrubs would perish. Unless they are yellow, the leaves are green, and some, if you lick them, taste salty.

Mangrove forests can appear impenetrable, muddy, smelly and swampy. For centuries, they have been cleared for firewood, farmland, urban development, aquaculture and, yes, tourism. On Curaçao, mangroves are now found on only 0.012 percent of the island. Globally, more than half of the mangrove forests have been cut down or otherwise destroyed in the past 50 years. Deforestation has slowed — but not stopped — in recent years, and rising sea levels and increased storm activity have done further damage.

But coastal mangroves — there are some 60 species worldwide — are the foundation of life above and below the water. With intricate root systems, they act as nurseries for juvenile fish and other marine life. Mangrove branches and trunks make safe feeding and nesting sites for yellow warblers, tricolored herons and other bird species, reptiles like iguanas, and insects aplenty.

Those strongly anchored roots also protect from flooding, erosion and tidal surges by slowing down seawater and trapping dirt and debris. More crucially, mangrove forests are extraordinary for decreasing the effects of global warming, by absorbing and storing carbon annually at a rate 10 times as great as tropical rainforests. Mangroves, along with other coastal wetlands, “sequester enough carbon each year to offset the burning of over one billion barrels of oil,” according to the Nature Conservancy.

Ryan de Jongh, a 53-year-old Curaçao native, activist and tour guide, is the living embodiment of regenerative tourism. He’s an important reason we encountered a lush, thriving ecosystem in Piscadera Bay, and demonstrates how one person can make a difference.

Mr. de Jongh grew up swimming in the bay and watched the area’s mangroves being cleared for fuel and construction. In 2006, he surreptitiously planted the first mangrove tree — a single seedling can mature in around 15 years and lead to an entire thicket — and now, he said, more than 100,000 trees are growing. He made similarly stealthy plantings at other inlets and bays, making himself a local hero in the process.

Mr. de Jongh, who gives kayak tours himself, now works on widespread government-sanctioned restoration projects.

His aim is to eventually plant 1.3 million trees on the island. “I have to transform literally a desert back to green,” he said.

The interior of Curaçao certainly looks like a desert, with a dry, dusty landscape of cactus and other succulents. Along with its closest island neighbors, Aruba and Bonaire, Curaçao is outside the Caribbean’s hurricane belt and receives minimal rainfall. People on the island drink desalinated seawater.

The trade winds bring cooler temperatures. In the 16th century, they also brought Europeans who enslaved and deported the Indigenous population and turned Curaçao into a slaving port. The colonists also planted oranges, sugar cane and other nonnative species, with varying degrees of success, and developed giant salt pans for export, but it was the construction of an oil refinery in 1918 and growing tourism that finally brought widespread jobs. The refinery shut down in 2019 — nine years after Curaçao voted to become a semiautonomous nation from the Netherlands — an event that only emphasized tourism’s importance for Curaçao’s economy. Last year, the island, only 40 miles long, welcomed 1.3 million visitors.

Aaren and I gladly did our part to support the economy: In Willemstad, that meant eating at Plasa Bieu, the Old Market, where individual vendors cook and sell local cuisine. We fought with each other over the fried wahoo and an arepa di pampuna — pumpkin pancake — but we were warned off the cactus soup. “I live here,” said another diner, “and I don’t even eat that.” We also snapped photos, like so many other visitors, while crossing the floating Queen Emma Bridge, and watched it open and close for marine traffic.

We waited in an hourlong, locals-heavy line at De Visserij Piscadera Seafood restaurant (“slaying and filleting” since 2017), where diners choose and purchase their fish fillets before sitting down; we drank oregano punch for the first time (think mint ice tea, but oregano and oh so refreshingly delicious); and we inhaled grilled shrimp and raw fresh tuna.

Further north, we ate “williburgers” — goat burgers — at Marfa’s GoodHangout in Sint Willibrordus, which overlooks an old salt pan that, sadly, the resident flamingoes absented that day, and delighted upon coming across a coral nursery while scuba diving right off the jam-packed Kokomo Beach.

Coral reefs are crucial to Curaçao’s tourism and fishing industries and valued at more than $445 million annually, according to a 2016 economic assessment published by the nonprofit Waitt Institute. And coral reefs, which support roughly 25 percent of all marine life, are enduring cataclysmic bleaching and disease brought on or compounded by climate change.

In the last 10 years, scientists have better understood the symbiosis between coral reefs and mangroves: They don’t need each other to exist, but proximity brings benefits to both ecosystems.

“Working in this field of conservation, you might come in from one entry point and then you realize everything is connected,” said Ms. Ahmadia of the W.W.F. “We can work on coral reefs, but we should be thinking about sea grass beds and mangroves, because they are all really connected. And then of course, they are connected to the human environment.”

One morning, Aaren and I walked through the 30-acre Curaçao Rif Mangrove Park, a short stroll from the center of Willemstad and a shorter one from the island’s cruise ship terminal. Open since 2022, the park offers guided and audio tours, elevated boardwalks, programs for local schoolchildren and a tiered entrance-fee system (guilders and U.S. dollars accepted) for residents and overseas visitors. Some 17,766 people came in 2023, an increase of 14,687 from 2022.

Manfred van Veghel is the new director of the Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity Foundation, which oversees the mangrove park and five other national parks. Working with the government of Curaçao, local travel operators and activists like Mr. de Jongh, Dr. van Veghel aims to expand park access, construct an elevated bridge and add a visitor center, among other goals. The efforts are part of his desire to transform Curaçao into more of a nature-based tourist destination.

“We had a record last year and they are pushing to get more,” Dr. van Veghel said of Curaçao’s number of annual visitors. Yet, he said, the beaches are getting full. “So we need to get activities other than going to the beach — and the mangrove park is an excellent activity.”

Mark Spalding is a senior marine scientist with the Nature Conservancy and lead scientist of the Mapping Ocean Wealth initiative, an online tool that applies economic value to coastal ecosystems.

Dr. Spalding said a draw of mangrove activities, like boating and hiking, is that “without having to trek through the Amazon for hours and hours, you can get that sense of wilderness and experience, and also the peace and tranquillity very quickly and very easily.”

“It might only be two hours of your entire holiday,” he said, “but it’s the thing you take home with you — the story you tell.”

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