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Pwotèj la mangwov an nou : protecting the mangroves of Guadeloupe

Published: March 5, 2019

by Marianne 

Bonjour!” I say to my neighbor, Luciana.

Bonsoir!” she replies. It’s only 2:30 in the afternoon. Why was she saying “good evening?” While it surprised me during first few days of my stay in Guadeloupe, I’ve since gotten used to it: if it’s after noon in Guadeloupe, I know to greet folks with bonsoir instead of bonjour.

When I first arrived, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I was constantly comparing Guadeloupe to Reunion, an island in the Indian Ocean where I had spent the previous school year teaching English. So many aspects of this tropical island in the Lesser Antilles reminded me of Reunion, and I missed my previous home terribly. Now, I no longer compare Guadeloupe to Reunion. In fact, my lifestyle in Guadeloupe revolves around much different experiences than my lifestyle in Reunion did. Instead of constantly comparing the two islands, I recognize and appreciate their similarities and differences.

My friends Camila and Alberto 

It turns out that there is a lot to discover about Guadeloupe! The beaches, the seafood, the creole language, the tropical rainforest and the outlying islands… For me, one of the hallmarks of my stay here has been a kayak adventure in the mangrove just a fifteen minute walk from my house in Le Moule. On a weekend in January, my friends and I rented some kayaks and made our way into the mysterious, murky waters of the mangrove situated at the mouth of the Atlantic Ocean.

Kayaking down the length of the mangrove
A touloulou crab (Source: iStock Photo)

Once we passed through the ocean currents and entered the mangrove, paddling the kayaks became fairly easy, and we glided through the water. While the surface of the water was placid, the mangrove trees, or palétuviers, in French, were full of life. In the shallower parts of the mangrove, small crabs with jet black shells, bright red legs, and pale white claws scuttled up and down the spindly roots of the palétuviers. The locals call this kind of crab a touloulou. White herons jabbed their beaks into the water systematically, poking around for a crab for lunch. Occasionally a large fish called a tarpon would suddenly splash at the surface of the water. These tarpons prey on younger fish in brackish water, and since mangroves serve as a nursery for many fish, there are a good deal of tarpons prowling the mangroves.

Compared to the civilization and constant flux of the ocean, the mangrove was tranquil and serene. The water was flat and the palétuviers blocked out much of the noise of the city around it. All that we could hear was the sound of our paddles as they scooped into the water, the sound of birds cawing, and ribbets from the frogs that lived there. As sat there in the serenity of my kayak, I was reminded of canoeing on Turtle River Lake during the summer! The farther back we went into the mangrove, the narrower the waterways became. However, even the narrower paths in the mangrove, I learned later, could be up to three meters deep.

The red palétuviers

Upon returning our kayaks, a guide from the kayak rental office explained to me and my friends that there were three different kinds of palétuviers that grow in Guadeloupe: red, white, and black. The mangrove behind my neighborhood was almost entirely red palétuviers; as the name suggested, the wood was tinted red. White palétuviers also have red-tinted wood, but are called white because when their leaves absorb brackish water, the salt in the water stays on the outside of the leaves as a crystal film. Black palétuviers have dark-colored wood on the inside. What is interesting about the way mangrove trees look is that they have long, spindly roots that stretch out of the water.

During our conversation, the kayak guide emphasized that mangroves are essential to the health of coral reefs in Guadeloupe, as their roots act as a sort of water purifier. With the constant threat of sargasses, or blooms of brown sargassum seaweed, suffocating the coastlines of Guadeloupe, maintaining the health of the island’s mangroves is more important than ever.

Sargassum bloom on the surface of the water

Knowing this, it’s quite terrifying to see the seaweed covering the mouth of the mangroves from time to time. The local government sends boat crews to rake all the seaweed off the surface of the water and onto the shore when it’s that bad. Sargassum, which are technically a kind of plankton, naturally bloom during the winter in the Lesser Antilles and feed off nutrients already in the water. With increased fertilizer runoff from sugar cane fields and other agriculture in Guadeloupe, the masses of sargassum on the shorelines seems exacerbated this year. In large numbers, sargassum are dangerous to the health of both humans and the coastal ecosystems: since they float on top of the water close to shore, they can often suffocate fish and block sunlight to marine grasses. When decomposing, sargassum release ammonia gas that can irritate people’s throats and lungs.

So, how can the people of Guadeloupe combat sargassum blooms? According to the guide at the kayak rental place, there is hope, and mangroves are key. One of the most effective ways for locals to combat algal blooms is to volunteer with the ecological conservation associations that have been replanting mangroves all over the island. Replanting mangroves pays off: the roots from the mangroves filter out excess nutrients from agricultural runoff, and can thus prevent sargassum blooms from invading the shores in such large numbers.

At the end of the kayaking session, my friends and I had learned a lot about our backyard here in Guadeloupe, and our adventure inspired the title of this blog post, “pwotèj la mangwov an nou,” which is Guadeloupean creole for “protect our mangrove!” Whether you live next to a mangrove, a desert, or a coniferous forest, my challenge to my fellow Concordia Language Village folks is to learn more about the ecosystems in their area and participate in local conservation efforts!

 

Marianne has been a counselor and baker for Lac du Bois since 2014 and a counselor at Al Waha since 2017. Originally from North Carolina, she is currently living and working in Guadeloupe. Marianne loves exploring new places, trying new foods, and as of recently, surfing!