Crab Hunting in Umm Al Quwain
Archaeological evidence shows that crabs have been consumed in the UAE for as long as 3,000 years, and the coast of Umm Al Quwain has been an ideal hunting ground for much of that time.
As the sun set over the mangroves in the remote northern emirate of Umm Al Quwain, the revving of a motorboat’s engine tore through the calm of the early evening. A group of 10 people gathered on a wellworn dock in matching bright-orange life vests, and one by one they made their way onto a swaying vessel in animated anticipation of the expedition ahead.
Archaeological evidence shows that crabs have been consumed in the UAE for as long as 3,000 years, and the coast of Umm Al Quwain has undoubtedly been an ideal hunting ground for much of that time. The jutting-out shoreline that is the northernmost point of the emirate’s coast lies in close proximity to Mallah Island. The two land masses create a shallow corridor, the edges of which are carpeted in a bounty of gray mangroves and the aquatic and avian life they support.
Umm Al Quwain boasts the country’s second-largest concentration of gray mangrove forest, the highest being in Abu Dhabi. These salt-tolerant trees, known as qurm in Arabic, grow 3 to 5 meters in height and are known as carbon sinks on account of their vast carbon dioxide storage and filtration capacities. Mangrove wood has been used for centuries in the region for home and dhow building, owing to its durability and resistance to rot and termites. This vegetation, which prevents coastline erosion, is currently protected under a conservation and rehabilitation program in seven key sites in the country.
One of the best-known crustacean species found in this unique environment is the blue swimmer crab, hunted for its sweet meat. Crabbing tours leave every evening at sunset, drawing groups of experienced enthusiasts and curious first-time visitors alike. The methods are simple and ages old, and the evening’s catch is served up for dinner afterward.
The boat slowed to a puttering crawl as it approached the shallow waters of its destination. The captain turned on a handheld floodlight, which he scanned the surface with, revealing a still, statuelike crane perched on one leg. The shadowy thicket of the half-submerged branches appeared macabre in the sudden beam and corresponding dancing shadows, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, a school of silver fish rained out of the water, a shimmering cascade, leaping one after the other, into the light.
When the experienced eye of the captain deemed a certain stretch promising, the engine was cut. Silence and night sky. Three-pronged spears resembling small tridents were distributed among the group, and one by one, the hunters hopped off of the boat and into the uncertainty over the edge. The initial shock of the cold water was surpassed quickly by the unsettling reality of standing, somewhere off the coast of Umm Al Quwain, waist deep in the dark, supposedly bountifully populated, mangroves.
Several large waterproof floodlights tethered to the boat were dropped overboard with loud splashes, creating green orbs beneath the surface of the now-stirred-up sandy waters. With bated breath, the group trudged forward, eyes straining. Weighed down by different types of clothing not intended for submersion, silhouetted spears raised against the squid-ink sky, a neon glow illuminating faces from below, the party brought to mind a science-fiction scene from some postapocalyptic saga.
The hunters jabbed at the water repeatedly, their eyes playing tricks, their excitement slowly ebbing to the possibility that there would be no crab for dinner tonight after all. The group tried three locations, the boat slowly cruising from one spot to another in search of a place where the desired 10-legged prey might be hiding. The first call of success could be heard as a spear lifted high up overhead in victory a small, fast-moving gray creature pierced through the end of it. The group had been delivered to a bountiful lagoon, and unified spirits and much enthusiasm soon filled the onboard plastic bucket intended to collect that evening’s dinner to its brim.
Crab-hunting tours leave every evening after sunset from the Flamingo Beach Resort in Umm Al Quwain.