I realised a day before my mangrove kayak tour with The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman’s Ambassadors of the Environment programme that it fell on World Wetlands Day. Fortuitously then, I was able to observe the occasion by winding among red mangroves and learning about the species that call the wetlands home.
A friend and I met naturalists Ryan DeNoyer and Stephanie Byrne, our tour guides, at the Ambassadors’ quaint Cayman-style cottage on the east side of the Ritz-Carlton’s property.
Steph opened the tour by giving a brief background on the programme: It was the brainchild of environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau, who envisioned it as a way for the public to connect with the underwater world through educational fun. With the goal of public engagement in sustainability in mind, the programme’s activities are not exclusive to hotel guests; anyone is welcome to join one of its experiences, which include the mangrove kayak tour, night snorkelling trips, underwater photography and reef exploration.
We viewed a video introducing us to mangroves and the species we might meet in their network, then jumped into golf carts for a short drive to the dock.
Ryan had already started pointing out interesting facts of nature on our walk up to the kayaks. He said that the ancillary branches coming off mangrove roots act like snorkels, breathing oxygen into the salt-submerged plant.
At the dock, we geared up with flotation vests and paddles before getting into our glass-bottom, two-seater kayaks and drifting easily into the water.
Steph led the group through the waterways toward an overhang, where the branches were parted to enter the mangrove forest. Above us, the trees formed a canopy with sunlight streaming in to glimmer on the water.
As an amateur bird enthusiast, I selfishly let my friend steer while I kept an eye upward, hoping to sight nesting birds. She didn’t have to do much though; in here, the channels are narrow enough to put your paddle down and use the roots to gently push or pull your way forward. We did it with trepidation, but Ryan assured us that this won’t harm the mangroves; they are, after all, strong enough to withstand hurricanes.
We swung around a corner into the North Sound, and Ryan split from the group to search for wildlife. A great blue heron waded in the crystal-clear shallows nearby. As we followed Steph to an area where fledgling mangroves had taken root, the bird took off heading west, showing off its impressive wingspan. Steph explained how mangroves grow, showing us an example of a propagule, or seed. These drop from the parent trees and float on the surface horizontally. When ready, they turn and embed into the sea floor.
As Steph talked, I imagined that this must be an incredible job: to sit quietly in nature for a few hours, appreciate the environment and experience the bright-eyed fascination of guests.
She indicated the spattering of yellow-orange leaves on the trees around us, explaining that in order to stay healthy, red mangroves push all of their excess salt into one sacrificial leaf that dies so the rest of the plant may live.
When Ryan returned, he had a starfish in a bucket of water. He likened them to the movie “Alien” — they have a second jaw that extends out of them when they eat, and are strong enough to crush your hand — if they wanted to.
We moved on slowly. Despite what some may assume when they hear the word “kayak,” this was not a strenuous tour. We moved leisurely and the two children in our group kept up just fine.
Ryan then announced that he’d found something new for us. This time he was holding a specimen jar with a small slug twitching its tentacles at the bottom, the fringes on its back floating back and forth in the water. This was a nudibranch, he explained, passing the jar around so we could have a closer look. These creatures’ unassuming appearance is deceptive; they have quite the defense mechanism — they store the stinging cells of jellyfish or corals they eat as a weapon. Later, after steering around the submerged wreck of a barge, we found a lettuce slug and a moon jelly, clear as a contact lens, its only defense its invisibility. Marine crabs scuttled in the shallows, and Steph pulled up a buoy encrusted with algae and other live organisms that have made it their home.
I would do this tour again, at different times. Earlier in the morning, I might find my roosting birds; later at night, I might look for constellations. As it was, I came away with a wealth of knowledge about species I didn’t know existed before. And, in keeping with the aim of Ambassadors of the Environment programme, I came away with a renewed sense of the need to protect these incredible environments.