Messing about in the Mangroves

NatureFiji/MareqetiViti Learn from a Scientist program allows children to learn about the importance of Fiji's biodiversity particularly the forest and the wetland ecosystems. Picture: ANA MADIGIBULI

NatureFiji/MareqetiViti Learn from a Scientist program allows children to learn about the importance of Fiji's biodiversity particularly the forest and the wetland ecosystems. Picture: ANA MADIGIBULI

WHEN My Suva Picnic Park on the Queen Elizabeth Drive waterfront in Suva first opened with a flourish of coloured lights, a few cynics sniggered and said things such as “Hibiscus on Laucala” and “where’s the merry-go-round”.

Perhaps they were just bitter because Suva’s traditional snogging spot was now a place for families and different sorts of fun.

It’s come a long way since then, with children’s play areas kept in reasonable shape, places to sit down, places to watch things happening, places to walk, and shady spots beneath wonderfully tended trees. I am always touched by the plantings of cultural significance that are protected there, including a beautiful baka of the sort that was so sadly hacked down around Albert Park.

A valuable length of mangrove has been spared and nurtured, as opposed to what has happened to them on the other side of the road.

So when that valuable NatureFiji/MareqetiViti organisation announced a morning to muck around in the mangroves last Saturday we couldn’t be kept away with a stick.

There were the usual monumental preparations for three adults and two small children to leave home for a brief period that involved two large carry bags, hats, no not that hat another hat, changes of children’s clothing for a fortnight and a Spiderman cape and mask. We were obviously going to impress the hell out of the creatures of the littoral.

There were a series of activity stations set up beneath the trees where we would be told all about the creatures we would later see on our nature walk and earn authenticating stamps for completing the related activity.

You have to have an eye for mangrove dwellers, it’s not like spotting a blue starfish on the reef. Most of them conform to the camouflaging mud brown of their environment.

To avoid the problem of running out of brown crayons, the drawings of mangrove creatures that we were encouraged to colour in could be done with any colour crayons we liked.

That was nice, but led to a certain amount of tension. Turns out the five-year-old is a colouring in perfectionist no matter how long it takes, and violently opposed to adult assistance.

First up, however, was a discussion about sponges and how they got their food when they can’t move around; followed by soaking up water with a Spongebob Squarepants implement and squirting it into another bucket. Competitively.

The five-year-old beat her little brother because it involved running and she has legs like a belo bird, long, skinny, knobby kneed and usually mud-streaked.

The belo bird mask on the next table was coloured in with green, yellow and purple, which was apparently how a belo saw itself, even if we saw it in black, white and grey.

On we surged to the (multi-coloured) molluscs and the (beaded) barnacles, side trip to the tap to get all the glue off ourselves, and then to the mudskipper.

The five-year-old’s jaw dropped at the idea of a skipping fish. She did joyful little jumps and twirled an imaginary rope.

Reality was disappointing, so we renamed it a mudhopper to avoid further confusion and moved on to the fiddler crab.

Only the male crabs have big yellow claws on one leg, which was news to me. It’s because you tend not to notice the plain brown little females while the blokes are being bossy, waving their claw around and showing off to attract the girls.

They also use their waving claws to distract intruders while they eat and make kung fu moves with them to fend off rivals.

I wanted to know what happened to the females, did they get skinny and left to the intruders and rivals. The child’s mother glared at me and muttered to shut up, the females sensibly hid in their burrows in the sand.

The claw had to be coloured in with crayon of choice, cut out, taped and fitted over the child’s hand. Cutting out for kindergartners is a skill in the making, but the five-year-old wouldn’t admit defeat. Nothing a bit of taping up couldn’t help.

By this time little brother aka Spiderman had lost interest in colouring in and pulling up grass to throw to the fish, and demanded to do the nature walk.

While we waited for the rest of the walk party to finish their colouring, dad took little bro to see the fiddler crabs on the sand.

His little eyes lit up, he recognised them, they were great fun. He rushed forward and started furiously trying to stamp on them with his yellow rubber Smurf boots, jumping on their holes as they disappeared to what we hoped was safety.

We were appalled. Whatever would NatureFiji/MareqetiViti think about a child of supposedly eco-friendly parents trying to deal doom to an important part of nature’s natural filter system for the ocean.

Dad hustled Spiderman out towards the distant low tide while we shuffled around looking innocent, peeping at mudhoppers, oysters and hermit crabs (which weren’t really in it, but are cute).

Someone came running up to us waving some papers. Uh oh, perhaps we had inadvertently demolished some rare specimen; those people take their invertebrates seriously.

But no, it was just the children’s prize for getting all their activities stamps.

“See, I told you I was good at colouring in,” the five-year-old smirked while her brother, having been shown a lovely, smooth mangrove seed pod, showed us how he could break it into bits.

NatureFiji/MareqetiViti has a lot of work to do.

? The views expressed are the author’s and not of this newspaper.