Monday, June 6, 2011

Where the Wetlands Meet the Sea

Bandar-e Anzali sprawls along the southern shore of the Caspian Sea, at the western end of Gilan Province. Once a holiday spot for Persian royalty, the city today is Iran’s largest Caspian seaport, with a thriving caviar-packing economy. It also draws thousands of tourist every year, who come to explore the watery channels of Mordab Anzali, a lagoon and wildlife preserve that splits the city in two.

The 18,000-acre wetlands provide a habitat for some of Iran’s most diverse flora and fauna. The area is home to 78 species of birds, including pelicans, geese, and falcons. Plants such as water lilies, bladderwort, and papyrus sedge thrive here, while alders and willows grow along the river levees. Jungle cats, wolves, and wild boar also roam the marshes around the lagoon.

Mordab Anzali has been closed to commercial fishing for decades, although sports fishing and poaching are common today. Caspian white fish, bream, and mud fish live in the lagoon’s fresh and brackish waters, as do “Caspian salmon,” which the locals call azad. Like its orange-fleshed cousins half a world away, the azad spawns in mountains lakes high in the Talesh range before swimming downstream to the salt waters of the Caspian Sea. Toward the end of its life this fish battles its way back up one of the many streams that feed the lagoon, and the cycle begins all over again.

I visited Mordab Anzali with my husband on a sunny day in October, after a leisurely morning’s drive along the Caspian coast, past rice paddies and tea plantations, the cobalt blue of the sea always on our right. On reaching the seaport, we headed straight for the pier, intent on hiring a guide and a boat to take us through the lagoon.

We found both in front of a squat white building with a rusty tin roof and bright cartoon characters painted on the walls. Six men sat at a wooden table, and they quickly made room for us as we settled in for the obligatory round of negotiations that precedes any business transaction in Iran. Out came a tray of tea and a dish of syrupy dates in lieu of the usual sugar cubes, and I geared up for a lengthy wait.

I never did figure out which of the men actually worked at the boat rental shop and which were simply hanging around for the company, political discussions, and card games. The negotiations took the better part of an hour, and everyone expressed a heartfelt opinion as to the fairness of the price under consideration.

Eventually, the matter got settled, and we headed into the lagoon in a wooden motor boat, painted yellow and red on the outer hull, with a bright blue interior. Our guide introduced himself as Mike, a name he’d likely anglicized for my benefit from something with far more local color, such as Mehdi, Massoud, or Mansoor.

As we entered the labyrinth of channels that snaked through the reeds, I noted with some relief the signposts poking out of the water at strategic intersections. Mike likely knew his way around, yet it was all too easy to imagine getting hopelessly lost in this vast expanse of waterways, islands, and floating plants.

Out in the middle of the lagoon, Mike cut the engine and we coasted for a while as the stillness of the wilderness filled my senses. The water reflected the perfect blue of the sky—at least until late afternoon storm clouds rolled in and turned everything a murky gray—and brown reeds stood out against the deep green vegetation growing in a thicket at their base. The only sounds were the wind rustling the leaves of the trees standing on higher ground, the gentle lapping of waves against the boat, and the occasional cry of a bird circling overhead in search of a juicy fish below the lagoon’s shimmering surface.

Mordab Anzali may be a beautiful and peaceful nature reserve, but it also has its problems. Environmental pollution from the region’s heavy industry is threatening the wildlife, and the Caspian’s rising sea level has upset the balance between fresh and salt water, where the wetlands meet the sea. But environmentalists, both Iranian and foreign, are working hard to save the lagoon. Let’s hope they succeed and preserve this special corner of the natural world for generations to come.


  1. I can see why the royals loved it, though I wonder what they would make of the cartoon graffiti! Great setting for a story too...

  2. Heidi, I have been on the other side of the Caspian Sea – and not once! I’m curious – were there any sightings of sea lions on the Persian side? On the Russian side we did see them periodically, never in groups, always solo – and absolutely no one knows how they get there and where they come from.