Once in a while, islanders should trade the sand and sun loungers of Seven Mile Beach for a voyage along silent waterways, which offer refuge for an array of island wildlife.
You’d never guess that just a few hundred feet away, people are sipping tea in The Ritz-Carlton or teeing off on the resort’s golf course. Here, in the mangroves of North Sound, the only noise is that of our paddles parting the glass-like water, and the occasional rustle of some creature – most likely an iguana – in the foliage. The wooden jetty shrinks out of sight behind us, as our group of nine kayakers heads into the narrow waterways that carve between the mangrove islands, thick with emerald leaves and tentacle-like branches.
A pre-tour video screening at the headquarters of Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment (an eco-adventure program that The Ritz-Carlton has partnered with to help guests engage with the ecosystems and cultures surrounding its hotels) has given us some idea of the wildlife to look out for from our two-man glass-bottomed kayaks: everything from seahorses and stingrays to sponges and shrimps.
Thanks to the clarity and shallowness of the saline water, we’ve only gone a few meters when the most ubiquitous of mangrove creatures becomes visible. What appear to be dozens of saucer-sized snowflakes scattered across the seabed are, in fact, Cassiopeia jellyfish. They’re also known as “upside-down” jellyfish because they spend most of their time flat on the sediment, feeding on the blue algae that lives inside them. According to our guides Carol and Beverly, these jellies give off a sting so mild that it is possible to touch them and not feel a thing.
We nose our kayaks into a tiny creek, so narrow that instead of paddling, we must grasp the surrounding branches and push ourselves along. These shaded tunnels are the ideal place to pause and hear about how the mangroves grow. When mature, the seed pods drop off and float away to take root in sediment elsewhere.
On cue, something resembling a long, dried-out runner bean drops from one of the trees onto my head. I can forgive it for the headache, though, when Carol explains just how vital mangroves are for the island’s wellbeing. These ecosystems act as a natural buffer against hurricanes, shielding us from the worst impact while also providing a place for wildlife to shelter.
Year-round, they are used as a nursery site for juvenile fish, away from ocean predators. From the birds nesting in their branches to molluscs among the dense root systems, all manner of creatures calls the mangroves home.
They have some rather smart adaptations, too. To survive in water 100 times more saline than most other plants could tolerate, mangroves have highly permeable leaves that act as an ultra-filtration system. Some varieties have pencil-like aerial roots that allow them to “snorkel.”
Coastal development is one of the biggest threats to mangroves worldwide – designated mangrove buffer zones, National Trust land and some Animal Sanctuaries are protected in Cayman law, however.
Paddling onwards, out to the open waters of Cayman’s northern shore, the first “big game” we spy is a bright yellow cowfish, named for the long “horns” protruding from its boxy head. A young barracuda darts past, like the flash of a silver blade, while a heron poses statue-still on one leg. Next, a large red shape catches my eye. It turns out to be an enormous starfish – perhaps a foot across – happily residing in its watery home.
Carol and Beverly give us a closer look at a few other delicate creatures by gently placing them in plastic tubs of water for a minute or two. There is a sea slug, a frilly white specimen far more appealing than its land-lubbing relatives, followed by one of the Cassiopeia jellyfish. It is slimy and soft to the touch, but not at all painful, just as our guides promised. Back in the water, it moves in a hypnotic sort of waltz, pulsing through the water, trailing fluttering, petticoat-like tentacles.
Absorbed in this ethereal underwater world, it’s easy to lose track of time and two hours seem to disappear faster than that barracuda. Our route back passes over a sunken barge that nature is steadily claiming as its own, colonized by crustaceans, corals and anemones, while green iguanas bask in the midday heat on a nearby bank.
Yes, sunbathers and shipwrecks await in the mangroves, after all – only of a very different kind to those you’ll find along Seven Mile Beach.
The Mangrove Kayak Adventure is an Ambassadors of the Environment experience offered by The Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman. For more information, call 943-9000.