Eco-adventure around the Abu Dhabi mangroves

Alice Haine and her 6-year-old daughter enjoy an eco tour for children along with a learning seminar organised by Manarat Al Saadiyat.

Fatima Ghazal leads a children's educational workshop after the trip. Sammy Dallal / The National
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It's a blustery Saturday morning and, to the sound of lapping waves, I paddle hard, sending my yellow kayak shooting ahead of the group.

But, with my 6-year-old daughter Tabitha - at the front refusing to paddle - my burst of energy is short-lived. Instead, she shouts constant orders about the direction we need to take and, at one point, enjoys a short nap.

She is quickly forgiven as it allows me to take in the beautiful scenery around us in peace.

We are part of a group of 26 adults and children kayaking around the mangroves of Saadiyat Island, a marine ecosystem alive with birds, mammals and fish. Organised by Manarat Al Saadiyat, the island's arts and cultural centre, the trip's mission is to encourage us to appreciate the natural beauty around us.

The four-hour activity has been designed to tie in with the centre's Eco Future exhibition, an interactive display that offers glimpses of how we might live more sustainably in the future. For children, it is a technological paradise with lots of buttons to press, games to play and concepts to learn about.

"Eco Future explores how we will all survive on a changing planet. It is based on Abu Dhabi's 2030 Vision and is inspired by the future plans and projects of Abu Dhabi," says James Matthews, the education outreach officer at the cultural department for Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA).

"Visitors engage with some of the most important issues facing humans today, including global resources, healthy living, climate change and other options for a sustainable future. They will learn about what we need to survive and will be able to make some choices about the future, considering life in Abu Dhabi in 20 or even 40 years' time."

Which is why the team decided to marry the issues highlighted in the exhibition with the natural environment right on their doorstep for this "inspired by nature" adventure trip.

Because, as well as paddling around Saadiyat Island's mangroves, we also stop on a beach to collect shells, leaves and sponges for an art workshop later on.

"We wanted to teach people that things they take for granted or consider to be garbage can actually be used to make beautiful artwork," says Fatima Ghazal, also an education outreach officer for the TCA, who later leads the workshop.

"And as people pick up things off the beach, they are actually helping to clean the beach."

The group meets at Manarat Al Saadiyat at 11am, before boarding a bus for a 10-minute journey that sees the landscape change from construction sites to barren sandscapes to the greenery of the mangroves.

There, we are handed paddles and life jackets, which are eased over rain jackets and jumpers - essentials against the whipping wind and spitting rain.

Then our guide, Sanje Fernando, explains how the mangroves are a unique marine ecosystem, which help to prevent soil erosion from tides, waves and currents.

We learn mangroves are a good nesting area for herons and egrets, and that we may spot pink flamingos that migrate from South Africa. It is also a breeding ground for fish such as baby barracudas, groupers, hammour and needle fish, and the area is abundant with crabs.

"The needle fish swim close to the water's surface so they might jump into your kayak," adds Fernando, who says there is also the possibility of spotting dolphins.

He asks us to steer clear of the mangrove roots so that we do not damage them with our paddles. But the group appear more concerned about the kayaking itself, particularly as not everyone can swim.

"Everybody has a life jacket so it's safe and the water density is high so you will float, even without a life jacket," he says.

My daughter tugs on my jacket. "I haven't got a paddle," she whispers, before a single-blade paddle, more suited for younger children, is handed to her ahead of the crash course in paddling technique.

"Lean forward to paddle from the core of your body rather than stressing your arms too much, and pull," Fernando explains, watching paddles fly everywhere as the novices practise.

Having kayaked before, I watched in amusement as the differing kayaking abilities were played out on the water.

"It's bumper kayaks," exclaims one father as boats crashed into each other with parents and children struggling alike.

"By the time everyone paddles back they've figured out the paddle technique," says the Canadian Kathleen Russell, owner of Al Mahara Diving Centre, which organises the kayaking trips for Manarat.

"Sometimes people capsize, but it's usually the boisterous boats with two boys who want to fall in."

This is the third of the monthly expeditions that cost Dh130 per adult and Dh100 for children age 6 to 15, with sessions continuing until June.

"It's the season when people want to do something outdoors with their family," adds Russell, whose company also hosts school tours looking at the life cycle of the mangroves.

As families get the hang of the sport, we paddle around the island. My daughter shouts constant instructions from the front of our craft: "go left, mummy" or "you're going the wrong way". She occasionally dips her paddle in the water, using it more as a stopper than as a speed enhancer, and she scolds me whenever she believes we are ahead or behind the group.

At one point a coastguard boat passes, causing much excitement among the novices navigating the waves it leaves in its trail.

Later as we slide our kayaks onto the beach, I hand Tabitha the plastic bag given to us for the collection when we first arrived. Russell gives us clear instructions: we can take any dead leaves, sponges, debris or shells that don't contain any living inhabitants.

"But don't pull the leaves off the mangroves - it's like someone pulling your hair," she adds.

My daughter is in her element. As an art lover and someone who loves to collect shells and pretty things, she gathers leaves and sponges and swaps shells with her new friend Thomas, also 6, who favours bits of discarded rope and half a plastic water bottle.

"We do not want to tell people what to collect because we don't want to influence their choices," workshop leader Ghazal explains later. "You can take whatever you want. At an earlier session, one boy came back with an old metal anchor."

Back on the beach, parents and children are bent over, scanning the ground, when someone shouts: "There's a stray kayak!" One of the kayaks is drifting out and a guide races to retrieve it.

Later, as we paddle back, our plastic bags bursting with treasure, my daughter finally sits quietly at the front of the boat. I scan the landscape in case I see a gazelle or a red fox - sometimes spotted here or farther afield in Abu Dhabi's eastern mangroves.

"People like to get away from the busy, city life and it is peaceful and beautiful here," says Fernando, from Sri Lanka, who has lived in Abu Dhabi for 18 months.

"The mangroves here will become even more beautiful in time as these were only planted by the government 10 years ago to help counter soil erosion, unlike the naturally occurring eastern mangroves."

Back at base, we all clamber onto dry land. "My arms and shoulders hurt," puffs one father while others laugh at their sodden trousers.

But as we board the bus there is a sense of achievement from the morning's exertions. "It's not something I'd do on my own, but it was fun," says the American Seema Khan, who shared a kayak with her sons Arsalaan, age 10, and Armaan, 6.

"It was both fun and tiring. Armaan held his paddle in the water so he stopped us from getting anywhere."

Khan homeschools her children, attending all of Manarat's art workshops as part of her academic programme.

"This was more of a family trip, though, and we'd certainly do it again," she adds.

At Manarat, we are met by the workshop leader Ghazal who guides us through cyanotype - a historic photographic printing process. First discovered by the English scientist and astronomer Sir John Herschel in 1842, it was used to produce blueprints. Later on, some artists used the same process as a form of photography to document plant life.

By placing our shells, leaves and sponges directly onto paper coated in a photosensitive chemical solution and then placing the artwork in the sun, it creates a silhouette of our items.

"The chemical solution reacts to the sun and it creates beautiful prints," explains Ghazal, who says the chemicals are not harmful to children. "Afterwards we wash the paper in water and the prints stay permanent."

However, with spitting rain and little sunlight outside, the process wasn't going to work. Instead we took photographic paper home to finish the experiment there. But that didn't dampen enthusiasm.

"I liked collecting all the stuff," says Thomas, who came on the trip with his Dubai-based Australian father Jason Ruehland.

"But I hurt my arm doing the padding and she 'beated' me," he adds, pointing to Tabitha.

The two debate over who was the better paddler before my daughter proudly declares: "I didn't do any paddling."

Judging by the pain coursing through my shoulders and upper arms, I know she didn't.

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