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Most of my friends know I’m not an early riser, but the invitation to get up close and personal with Abu Dhabi’s local residents was an offer I couldn’t resist.

Rolling sand dunes cover more than 85 per cent of the emirate, but today my sunrise expedition is not into the desert. Today there are no thoroughbreds, camels or desert foxes. No journey into the shifting sands of the Rub Al Khali – the Empty Quarter. I am about to discover that Abu Dhabi is not just comprised of the grainy stuff.

Abu Dhabi boasts a beautiful coastline with a rich eco-system, home to a wide variety of species ranging from humpback dolphins, to hawksbill turtles to the Arabian Gulf dugong, whilst a hidden network of mangrove forests and shifting sandbanks provide a safe haven for hundreds of bird species including egrets, heron, white collared kingfisher and flamingo.

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More than 70 per cent of the total mangrove forest area in the UAE is found in Abu Dhabi. Spanning thousands of hectares of land along the shoreline, the forest provides a buffer for the erosion caused by waves and ocean currents and helps remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, the forest has a survival story of its own as mangroves can only grow in temperatures below 35 degrees celsius, yet the mercury can soar to well over 40 degrees during the summer months in the UAE. The hardy mangrove is the Katniss Everdeen of the forest world.

My interest piqued, I joined Captain Tony’s Mangrove Eco tour hosted by The Hyatt Saadiyat Island’s resident marine biologist Arabella Willing to discover more about the 340 miles of forest lining Abu Dhabi’s coast.

Operating twice weekly from Yas Marina, the tour is popular with both tourists and residents keen to learn more about the region. I was greeted by Arabella and Captain Mohammad with a warm handshake as I stepped onto the boat in the morning light. All became silent as we glided gently through the waters, Yas Island disappearing from view. Within minutes, Arabella handed me a pair of binoculars and motioned towards

a sandbank where I glimpsed flamingos, their subtle pink feathers clear in the morning light. I glanced behind me. Who would have thought that less than a nautical mile from Yas Island, where just days before I had partied during the F1 Grand Prix to the sounds of Farrell Williams and The Who, would be a flock of flamingos strutting their stuff?

As we slipped through the ocean towards the crumbling sandbanks we caught fleeting glimpses of a Western Reef Heron in flight and the occasional flying fish.

But we were in search of dolphins. At least three species of dolphins have been reported in the region’s coastal waters – the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin, the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin and the rare, finless porpoise. We were hoping to spot a school of these gentle cetaceans. We scanned the waters in anticipation. Whilst we searched, Arabella told us more about the architecture of the mangroves and tested our bird knowledge, before we disembarked at Dolphin Bay. The island is home to a deserted fisherman’s hut and a sandy shoreline. We sipped water and tickled the crabs who had come to investigate the visitors to their island.

After a stroll around the island, all too soon it was time to head back to the marina. Sadly we didn’t manage to spot any dolphins but we had certainly seen a different side to the UAE. Perhaps early starts are not so bad after all….