Bonaire 2011- Below the Surface

At first glance, mangrove forests seem like something out of a scary movie. The trees climb out of the water, their roots arching high above the surface like spindly fingers. The dense canopy filters the light and makes eerie shadows over the perfectly still scene. You half expect an algae-covered sea creature to rise out of the muck at any minute.

Who wouldn’t want to go exploring in the mangroves?

They’re intriguing, to say the least. Which is why I was beyond excited to learn that we were going on a kayaking tour of the mangrove forest on the south side of the island. We grabbed our sunblock and snorkels, doused ourselves in an unhealthy amount of bug spray (otherwise, the mosquitos would carry us away) and eased our kayaks into the narrow canal.

We maneuvered our fleet through a series of winding waterways, some so narrow that we couldn’t use our paddles and had to pull ourselves along by grabbing nearby roots. It was a complicated maze in which we could’ve easily gotten lost, but our guide was seasoned and navigated the pathways effortlessly. The rest of us just stuck close behind, certain that any stragglers would be snatched up by the resident swamp creature.

We finally reached a wider channel and gathered around our guide. We eased out of our kayaks, careful not to step on any of the upside-down jellyfish that littered the ground. We put on our snorkel gear, and against our instincts, swam deeper into the mangroves.

Under the surface, we entered a completely different world. Once the sediment cleared that we had kicked up upon our entry, the water was crystal clear and full of life. Immediately, I was face to face with a school of large snapper, who curiously approached and nibbled at my toes. Juvenile reef fish, who journey to the protected mangroves to mature, darted deeper into the roots as I drifted past. Delicate needlefish skimmed along the surface, occasionally glancing back as if to ponder why I was following them. Vibrant sponges in every imaginable color clung to the tangle of mangrove roots like a mosaic against the dark water. As sunlight broke through the canopy above, bits of the sponges were illuminated, creating a truly spectacular light show. And as I drifted further, a huge porcupine fish slowly swam by and lazily swept an eye in my direction before continuing on his way.

I was in awe. And I wasn’t the only one- everyone after the snorkel was talking nonstop about all of the strange and amazing things they had seem. It’s almost impossible to imagine such a dense cluster of gangly trees housing such an amazing assortment of marine life. Mangroves are a forgotten wonder.

The snorkel was definitely an eye opener for me. It really illustrates the age-old saying: don’t judge a book by its cover.