Near Panama’s Isla Palenque, you can paddle your kayak through the mangrove forests slow enough to gaze into each tree you pass, peeling your eyes for birdlife, peering below the surface to see fish darting around in the submerged roots. The mangrove creates a true Garden of Eden around itself, filled with strange beauty, filled with secrets. These trees embody the traveler you aspire to be: firmly rooted, resourceful, connected, and dedicated to leaving your environment better than you found it.
As far as trees go, very few can compete with the drama of enormous roots swirling in and out of the water and through one another in a twisted thicket. When you first glimpse a mangrove, you’ll likely notice those roots before you see anything else. Roots represent the dominating feature of these impressive coastal trees. They look like something out of a fairy tale.
The coast along the Gulf of Chiriqui features one of the largest expanses of mangrove forest in Central America. Mangroves reflect the overall health of neighboring ecosystems. In order to survive, these trees require plenty of warm, clean water, including a supply of fresh water. The latter may come from a river, a lake, or from rainfall. Mangrove forests often grow up in the mouths of rivers.
Approximately 50 different mangroves species exist worldwide. Panama offers you the chance to see three of these: red mangroves, black mangroves, and white mangroves. Red mangroves are the most prevalent of these in Panama.
Mangroves not only reflect the health of their neighboring ecosystems, but they also promote it. Via highly-specialized adaptations, mangroves affect their ecosystems by purifying the waters in which they grow and sheltering the coastline from erosion.
A high saltwater tolerance helps the mangrove bridge the gap between the brackish waters of the sea and the freshwater rivers and lagoons on land. Mangrove trees possess the ability to excrete excess salt. Thick, spongy leaves and strong root systems enable the mangrove to survive periodic saltwater flooding. These hardy trees suit themselves up to live in tidal areas where many other freshwater plants can’t make it.
Like a magician, a mangrove synthesizes what it needs. Mangrove need freshwater? Mangrove make freshwater! Excreting salt through special glands, filtering salt out with their roots, mangroves turn their water supply from brackish to salt-free whenever the situation calls for it. A waxy covering on a mangrove’s roots helps the tree to prevent the loss of its existing internal freshwater supply. Mangroves depend on strange and often odd-looking root systems for oxygen delivery since they typically station themselves in poorly-aerated soils.
Interlocking mangrove root systems help stabilize shorelines and reduce inland flooding during severe storms. They also counter pollution through the filtration of suspended material and the assimilation of dissolved nutrients. Mangroves create a nutrient supply every time they drop a leaf; as the leaves decompose at the “hands” of feasting microbes, nutrients and essential by-products re-circulate to nourish the entire ecosystem.
These trees provide habitats for numerous species of fish and invertebrates. Mangroves like to nurture little guys until they’re big enough to enter the “real world:” in the case of small fish, this means the coral reef environment. Mangrove forests may look like jungle gyms, but they function more like nurseries, providing shelter and nutrition. Many commercially-valuable fish and shellfish (such as shrimp and crabs) spend at least part of their lifespan in mangrove forests. Other species include snappers, snails, oysters, lobsters, and octopus. Baby versions of these creatures share a playpen among the mangroves, until they mature enough to move out and start eating each other. Up into the boughs, a bevy of water birds, including the brown pelican, great blue heron and white ibis, rely on these trees for nesting.