Floating through heaven in a mangrove forest / Cristina Mittermeier

Cristina Mittermeier

Below the surface of a mangrove lagoon, it’s heaven on Earth. You’ll find an abundance of marine life that depends on this salty and unique ecosystem.

Image © Cristina Mittermeier

Cristina Mittermeier

Image © Cristina Mittermeier

A shadow zips through the water by my left shoulder.

I barely catch a glimpse of a silver fin as it darts into the densely woven tapestry of mangroves that surround me. I have been chasing a school of tiny, silvery-blue fish as they dart through the roots of these extraordinary aquatic trees—coming into the light one moment, hiding in the shade the next. I remember where I am and poke my head out of the water, snorkel still in my mouth. 

I cannot see Andy anywhere.

Photographer Andy Mann and I are spending the afternoon on this bright summer day drifting through a mangrove forest in the Jardines de la Reina—the “Gardens of the Queen”—a group of islands located 60 miles to the south of the main island of Cuba. Wrapping around the coastline like a verdant green thread, this ecosystem is brimming with a mystery and beauty that we are hoping to capture on film.

Mangroves, like these in Cuba’s Jardines de la Reina, are aquatic trees that straddle the salty boundary between land and sea · Cristina Mittermeier

A sudden tingle of fear causes my chest to tighten. I realize I have not seen Andy in the last hour. Have I drifted too far away?

I gingerly stand up on my fins, water almost up to my shoulders, and scan the surface. 

Nothing. For a moment, there are just the ripples of gentle waves traveling across the gaps between the mangrove trees. Suddenly, I see spray in the distance, and a hood and snorkel rise out of the water. 

Andy. 

He is so far away that he does not hear me call the first time. I shout his name again, louder, and this time he stands on the shallow seabed, water dripping down his black wetsuit as he looks for me. 

“Mitty, come see this!” 

Andy is my mangrove partner. We have gone on countless dives together, but it was not until a couple of years ago that Andy and I discovered our shared fascination with these aquatic trees that straddle the salty boundary between land and sea, and provide a safe haven for such a rich diversity of marine life. Since then, the decision for us to team up on these dives has always been easy.

While most photographers cringe at mangroves’ commonly held reputation as murky, mosquito-ridden swamps, for us this is, in Andy’s words, “Heaven on Earth.”
From the tops of the trees to the sandy bottom below the water, a rich diversity of plants and animals inhabit mangrove lagoons · Cristina Mittermeier

Earlier in the day, we had arrived with all of our gear on a small boat—just in time for the tidal exchange at the mouth of the estuary. As the tide changes direction and rushes in, the mangrove forest is flooded with brackish seawater. Creatures big and small line up by the delta, waiting for potential prey to be brought in by the powerful ocean currents. 

Peering over the edge of the boat, Andy thinks he spots a smalltooth sawfish in the clouds of sand on the ocean floor. I have never seen a live sawfish before. The most endangered of all species of sharks and rays, sawfish have long, thin, and extended noses that look like the serrated blade of a saw. Knowing how difficult they are to photograph, and that any story we might be able to tell about their little-known lives could help support their protection, we cannot wait to get into the water. We put on our gear and lean back, tipping off the deck into the water.

Swimming side by side, but at a distance, we let the current carry us, eyes peeled for big sharks or crocodiles that might be lurking nearby, and in search of prey. Now that we are in the water, the sawfish is nowhere to be seen, but the estuary opens up into a vast esplanade bordered by a tight maze of mangrove trees. Under the surface, great expanses of seagrass punctuate the sandy white bottom, swaying gently with the current.

“Swimming side by side, but at a distance, we let the current carry us, eyes peeled for big sharks or crocodiles that might be lurking nearby, and in search of prey.” · Cristina Mittermeier

Somewhere between the mangroves and the seagrass, I spot a group of eagle rays and carefully approach them. They flap their graceful, dotted fins and with one stroke disappear from view. Later, my teammates would show me drone footage of the way the eagle rays actually swam right next to us—just a few feet further than our visibility range. The eagle rays, Andy, and I were silent companions the whole time, gliding in and out of the mangroves, riding the rush of the incoming tide.

In my pursuit of the eagle rays, I put my arms out, and it feels like I am flying.

To slow myself down, I decide to swim closer to the roots of the trees that border the banks of the estuary. It is then that I spot a silvery baby barracuda. The small, ray-finned fish studies me from a safe distance, but the second I move, it darts back into the shadows, seeking shelter among the tangled roots. I try to float closer to get a better look, but I struggle with the big underwater housing for my camera and the attachments that dangle from it. The arms that hold the lighting strobes stick out in both directions, making it look and feel like a giant metal spider.

In this tight space, I must not touch anything—not the wildlife, not the branches, not the sea bottom. Especially not the sea bottom, as the moment a fin or a finger so much as grazes the sediment lying there, a cloud of velvety silt will envelop me and my gear, and the opportunity to photograph anything in this magnificent mangrove forest will be gone.

A warm, gentle current carries me deeper and deeper into a winding labyrinth of branches and roots. I reach a small meadow of seagrass and float face down, searching, always searching, trying to glimpse the shimmer of orange that could give away a lazy queen conch snail grazing amongst the rippling green stems. I kick my fins lightly, and quickly pick up speed, riding the incoming current like a water slide. I scour the sandy bottom for the exposed wing of a stingray, knowing that the pull of the current might have laid bare its careful camouflage. 

I am moving too fast. Even if I wanted to stop, that is no longer an option. Swimming against the current would be harder still—there is nothing even a strong swimmer can do against a four-knot current. I keep my eyes open, scanning in all directions as I continue my quest for the glinting scales of another baby barracuda or the green, velvety skin of a young lemon shark. Somewhere in this magical underwater forest, a tiny clutch of fish eggs might have hatched with the last full moon. Mangrove roots provide a sheltered nursery for many species of fish that live on coral reefs, and I am lured in by the idea of seeing miniature versions of larger creatures.

A young lemon shark takes shelter in the mangrove roots · Andy Mann

We sink later into the day. If I had been sitting on land, I would have sensed the slight drop in temperature, but underwater, the long rays of sun warm my back with their last breath. Suspended in a dream-like state, I forget I am even in the water, losing all concept of wet or dry.

I see that Andy and I have found each other again. The slick tip of his fin catches the light as he freedives down in a deeper pool nearby. I swim toward him just as he is coming up for air.

“You’re not going to believe it,” he says. “There is a massive school of sardines hiding in this pool.”

Thousands of tiny sardines swim in unison in the calm waters of a mangrove pool · Cristina Mittermeier
Sardines hide themselves in a mangrove forest, to avoid predators out in the open sea · Cristina Mittermeier
Rustling sardines maneuver in and out of the twisted roots of mangroves · Cristina Mittermeier

When we dip our faces back into the water, I hear them before I see them: the rustling of 10,000 tiny fish, swimming in unison in the calmer waters of the pool that Andy has found. A vital part of the food chain, they have hidden themselves in this forest, to avoid predators out in the open sea. When I finally see them, they are coming straight at us, moving as a single organism, maneuvering in and out of the twisted roots of the mangroves that arch around us all.

Andy has his big film camera today. I take care to stay out of his frame. When he comes up for air again, he is even more excited to tell me that he has found a baby goliath grouper. 

“He’s hiding under the roots, ambushing the sardines. Come see.” 

We dive down together, and he shows me the spot where a sizable fish—at least 50 lbs in weight—is resting at the bottom of the pool. The grouper snaps its jaws at the sardines as they swim by, and catches one. We watch her eat. As large as the fish seems, it is only a baby. Adult groupers reach enormous sizes, up to 8 feet in length and weighing up to 800 lbs, but the first phase of their lives is spent in the mangrove nursery—this baby is safe and sheltered. “A minnow of its own kind,” in Andy’s words.

This sizeable grouper is at least 50 lbs in weight, but it’s only a baby. Adult groupers reach enormous sizes of up to 8 feet in length and weigh up to 800 lbs · Cristina Mittermeier

Twilight draws closer as Andy and I drift apart once more. Long shadows creep along the basin of the forest as the dying sun drops behind the canopy overhead. I have been trying to follow a large mangrove crab that is moving too fast for me to catch up. Not paying attention to where I am going, I bump into something that is also floating in the current. It feels soft against the top of my head. Is it a manatee, or maybe even a crocodile? I scramble to see what it is, only to realize that Andy and I have found each other again. He floats belly up, soaking in the last rays of the sun. There is a big smile on his face. He seems tired, but happy—as am I. 

We glide, weightless, toward the mouth of the estuary, returning to the ocean the way we came.

As the current carries us back to civilization, I muse on the wealth of creatures that find food and shelter in this unique habitat, in turn supporting coastal fisheries. I reflect too on the vital role mangroves play in buffering communities from the impact of tropical storms and in taking carbon out of the air, helping us address the effects of climate change. Filled with fresh determination, I think of the work ahead.

Mangroves are one of the most at-risk ecosystems on the planet. We’ve lost half of all mangroves in the past 50 years. If we don’t take action to address this, the remaining mangroves could be gone this century. These extraordinary aquatic trees are necessary for our shared future. We must work to protect them and support those who depend on them.

Hours have passed, but we find our small boat just around the corner and realize we have not traveled that far after all. Enchanted by arching roots and flickering silver fins, it is easy to lose track of space and time when you are soaring through the heart of a mangrove forest.

Time flies when you are in the company of these humble sardines, sparkling like silver beads · Cristina Mittermeier
Contributors
Cristina Mittermeier
Co-founder, SeaLegacy & Only One
Andy Mann
Photographer & filmmaker
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