x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Teen Life: The beauty and beasts of nature

Living in Dubai, you think nature means palm trees set within a jungle of towering buildings. Venture out and you meet jaw-dropping landscapes

Teenagers like to think of themselves as daring and fearless, able to identify with plucky pioneers and bold explorers. Breaking the rules and a love of adventure is associated with brazen youth; the armchair and cappuccino life is for the dull, grown-up world. Most teenagers in Dubai, however, want their creature comforts and can get a good night's rest only in a springy bed under a fluffy duvet, with Mr Bubbles the teddy bear standing sentry.

We were on a biology field trip to Umm Al Qaiwain and Dibba with the goal of studying the wildlife there using various ecological techniques and intimidating equations to evaluate the biodiversity of the area. We certainly had fun - even school lessons seem attractive when you are immersed, fully clothed, in seawater, mud and assorted forms of sludge and are rained upon - in the UAE.

Living in Dubai can leave you under the impression that nature means some palm trees set within a concrete jungle of towering buildings and glitzy lights. Venture out and you meet jaw-droppingly magnificent landscapes. There are beaches, forbidding deserts and dramatic wadis, of course, but also mountains, mangrove marshes and rocky shores teeming with life.

Out in the mangroves, we laid out belt transects - a fancy way of counting how many plants live in one point of the area compared with another. The rocky shores yielded all sorts of things you could hold and giggle at, a kind of a marine petting zoo: cute, brittle stars and sea cucumbers that shot out jets of water at your face as you picked them up. Given teenagers' love for anything repulsive, we listened agog as our tour coordinator explained how the cucumbers regurgitate their entire gut and half-digested food at you if you annoy them too much - and then regrow their entire digestive system. Crabs are friendly and funny when they are animated, named Sebastian and are leading an orchestra of fish in The Little Mermaid. In real life, they are capable of causing a stampede of screaming teenagers when they present their clicking, faintly menacing pincers.

I was feeling pretty pleased with myself for bringing waterproof boots - surveying fellow ecologists' squelching, muddy trainers with a certain smugness. It would have been a wonderful state of existence if it had lasted, because gallons of water still managed to seep in from the top - so much for putting faith in footwear companies' marketing. While everyone else's trainers dried, my waterproof ones didn't. As their packaging had virtuously told me: there was no way water could enter (oh?) or exit (regrettably true).

After spending an agonising hour with a borrowed hairdryer, I marched to the beaches to tackle our next assignment: collecting snails and measuring the lengths of the holes in their shells - just the sort of education I enjoy. This field trip proved what I have always suspected: there is a reason cavemen evolved from frolicking through forests and eating bugs to creating four-wheel drives and the internet. Nevertheless, I wouldn't mind more excursions that put us in touch with the UAE's diverse wildlife and immense natural beauty.


The writer is a 17-year-old student in Dubai