Sea, Sky, and Mangroves
“That fish is walking!” gasps my wide-eyed son Freddie, pointing to a sludgy mud bank within Langkawi’s mangrove forest. He is right. Or rather, he is almost right. For this amphibious mudskipper is, in fact, shimmying with one fin fanned out like a sail on a boat; just one in a menagerie of strange creatures that call Langkawi’s UNESCO Global Geopark home. The 99 islands of the Langkawi archipelago are sandwiched between the Thai island of Phuket to the north and Malaysia’s Penang to the south, with the main island of Pulau Langkawi, at 185 square miles, the only one with significant settlement.
I first visited as a backpacker in 1994, and back then the mangrove forest, trapped between land and sea with leaves that were said to cry salty tears (actually a clever way of filtering the salt from sea water), wasn’t accessible to tourists. My lasting impression was of the island’s abundant birdlife and, in particular, the majesty of the white-bellied sea eagles, which glided on warm thermals above Pantai Kok beach, as they flew to and from their nesting grounds on the tiny offshore islands.
“Lucky,” I remember a fisherman commenting, as he followed our gaze to where one swooped down to snatch a fish from the Andaman Ocean. I realize now that what he meant was that we were lucky to see one, not realizing at the time that these birds of prey were endangered. By the late 90s, numbers had dwindled to just 10 percent of their former population. What an embarrassment for an island that had taken its name from the Malay word for eagle, helang. The Malay government funded a regulated feeding program and within a few years the numbers of breeding pairs had increased, although the continuing practice by tour operators of feeding chicken to the eagles to lure them near to tourist boats is now frowned upon by conservationists. A more environmentally friendly approach is to watch them hunting out at sea — with wingspans of up to 7.2 feet across, there’s nothing more thrilling than seeing these gray-and-white raptors plunge towards their fishy prey with yellow talons outstretched. Then back to the forest canopy they soar, to tear into their haul with a fearsome hooked beak before returning to the nest to feed their young.
UNESCO Global Geopark Status
How near Langkawi came to losing its population of white-bellied sea eagles served as a warning and, in 2007, UNESCO made the wise move of giving the island Global Geopark status, the first accolade of this kind in South East Asia. Conservation work began to preserve the mangrove’s flora and fauna, and its 550-million-year-old limestone karst hills, which rival in age those of Halong Bay in Vietnam and China’s Yangtze River. Exploration of the mangrove channels, with the opportunity to peer into a spider’s web of black mangrove roots, is now one of the island’s biggest attractions. You can go on a wildlife adventure by whisper boat, a traditional long-tail boat with an environmentally friendly and almost silent electric engine.