The Seychelles archipelago in the Indian Ocean would have to rate as one of the world’s most exotic diving destinations. But what makes an exotic diving location? Is it the intensity or diversity of marine life, or is it a mix of marine life, scenery and culture? Whatever it is, Seychelles seems to fit the bill: 115 islands, the only mid-oceanic granite islands on the globe; prolific Indian Ocean fish and corals; giant groupers and potato cods; green turtles and humpback whales aplenty. Then there are the giant land tortoises of Aldabra Atoll – the only place on the globe, other than the Galapagos Islands, where you can see giant land tortoises living in the wild.
Located some 1500km east of Africa, there Seychelles has a cultural side as well. The easy-going Seychellois are largely descended from African slaves, either from the French colonies or those freed by the British Navy. Other Seychellois come from Mauritius, India, China and France.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg (an ill-fitting metaphor, considering you won’t see ice anywhere near this Indian Ocean paradise, other than, perhaps, in your cocktail glass). It’s no wonder that Seychelles is booming with honeymoon couples. Seychelles is exactly what the tourist brochures depict: seductive snow-white beaches, Coco-de-mer palms at the Vallee De Mai, turquoise seas and spicy Creole food.
AMIRANTES AND ALDABRA
Mahé is the main inner island, followed by Praslin, Silhouette and La Digue, which has the famous beach-side granite formations. Surrounding these islands is a sprinkling of tropical islands named Felicite, Aride, Frigate, Denis, Bird and North.
The distant islands are divided into two groups: the Amirantes, 24 islands surrounding a central group including Saint Joseph, African Banks, Poivre and Alphonse, and the Aldabra Archipelago, which has 22 islands, the main ones being Providence, Farquhar, Cosmoledo Atoll and Aldabra Atoll.
Aldabra Atoll is one of the largest coral atolls on the globe and is a World Heritage Area – largely to protect its remaining population of giant land tortoises and breeding colonies of frigate birds. The Aldabra lagoon is so vast that if you look at the sky directly over the lagoon, it appears green in colour – reflecting the green hues of Aldabra’s lagoon.
With some extraordinary luck, I happened upon a 12-day diving safari on the Indian Ocean Explorer–the only diving/fishing live aboard running trips to the Aldabra Archipelago. Once booked, I got myself onto a flight to Singapore, then onto Mahé (the main island of the Seychelles group) – in total a 14-hour flight from Sydney.
After cooling off snorkelling in the Saint Anne Marine Park, around the islands of Cerf, Moyenne, Round and St Anne Islands near Mahé, we were soon boarding the Indian Ocean Explorer, and waving goodbye to the Port Victoria tuna fleet.
PIRATES ON THE PROWL
It was with a little trepidation that we left port, as the whole tuna fleet was anchored off Victoria, due to threats from Somali pirates. The pirates had just taken a tuna boat and a few days later seized a ship filled with Russian tanks and arms.
Historically, pirates found the islands of Seychelles to be perfect hideouts after being chased from the West Indies by European meno-war. They began haunting Indian Ocean waters north of Madagascar, and by 1685, Seychelles became an infamous hub of pirate activity.
After a 30-year reign of terror, the pirates became the focus of the English and French governments, who deployed warships to the area, bent on the elimination of the pirate threat. The operation was quite successful, and by 1718, the Indian Ocean pirates were no more.
But evidently, the piracy which was rife in the 1600s and 1700s has reappeared in a modern high-tech form. Today’s pirates use high-powered speedboats and rocket launchers, and they demand multi-million-dollar booty. Luckily for us, it seems that the piracy was taking place in the same region looted by the pirates of old, off the Somali coast, north of Mauritius.
Our group of global divers consisted of two Austrians, two Swiss, one German, one American, and a flamboyant Italian named Fabio. Fabio kept us entertained with tales of the spear-fishing he did as a younger man.
Fabio told us a fascinating story about a spear fishing trip he once took off Mauritius. A spotter plane would go up and report on patches of flotsam and jetsom on the ocean. Then they would head out in a speedboat, spearing groupers, dolphin fish, kingfish and tuna – anything lurking beneath the floating debris, which usually included parts of boats and seaweed.
He told another story about how he reluctantly became a shark conservationist. While on a spear-fishing trip in the Red Sea, Fabio and a whole club of fishermen wanted to spear an oceanic white tip shark (something we would cringe at today). The captain granted permission, with one proviso: the fishermen had to eat the whole shark. They agreed, and had to eat nothing but shark for the next four days. He said it tasted awful, and they never speared a shark again.
Back to the Seychelles, we completed dives at Desroches and Alphonse, working our way through the Amirantes Group, then moving on to the Aldabra Group. Our dives at Desroches – except for some sharks in the shallows, were a bit ordinary due to low visibility, but the dives at Alphonse – like the Abyss, Eagles Nest and North Wall, were spectacular.
A typical dive would see us exploring sea fan gardens at 30-40m, with lots of fish life – trevally, groupers, cods, fusiliers, snappers and sweetlips. What I found remarkably refreshing was that the sea fans were undamaged.
One thing was for sure: the fish life and visibility was getting bigger and better as we were getting closer to Aldabra Atoll, and our dives at Astove and Cosmoledo Atoll were awesome. There were huge groupers, giant trevally, barracuda, green turtles and, to our surprise, humpback whales at almost every dive site. We didn’t see them underwater, but often saw them on top and heard them singing below. There were pods of spinner dolphins, too.
Other than the pack of 30 juvenile black-tip reef sharks at Aldabra, one small silvertip, and two hammerheads, we saw few sharks on our dives.
Tragically, most of the sharks in the Seychelles, have been slaughtered by shark-finning boats. The story’s the same in Indonesia and many other parts of the world. There was a Hong Kong shark fin buyer visiting Senegal in West Africa – also now shark-finned out – who was asked by a journalist: “What will you do when there are no sharks left here?” To that he replied: “We just go somewhere else.” They’ve been quite successful, and if current trends are anything to go by, it’s very likely that many of the world’s shark species will soon be extinct.
The Aldabra Group of islands consists of Aldabra, Assumption, Cosmoledo and Astove. Aldabra Atoll is the jewel in the crown, offering the opportunity to get close to the giant land tortoises. The trick is to go ashore early morning or late in the afternoon, as the tortoises are active at this time. At dawn, we found them feeding on grasses and leaves on low bushes. At one time, Wild goats were a big problem on Aldabra, as they were eating all the low-growing vegetation and starving all the giant tortoises. Fortunately, the goats have been removed from the island.
Aldabra Atoll is full of surprises, a fact which we confirmed repeatedly when we went snorkelling on low tide in one of the reef passes. The channel was alive with green turtles and big fish.
We relished a raging drift dive through one of the passes. The current was so strong that when I grabbed a rock on the bottom, the current nearly ripped my facemask off. It was an adrenaline-pumping dive, one that we wanted to do again and again. On the way in, we spotted bump-head parrotfish, turtles and many reef fish.
As we snorkelled in the reef passes, we saw schools of parrotfish, surgeonfish and potato cod sheltering in the lee of the small undercut coral isles that punctuate the atoll. Snorkelling the reef passes gave me a great sense of the dynamics of the atoll.
Inside the reef passes, at Passehoareau Pass and Qiannet Pass, you can view nesting frigate bird colonies. The most amazing thing is, while you’re watching the birds, you can see spotty potato cod and gaudy parrotfish beneath your rubber boat.
We spent four days diving at Aldabra Atoll. The thing that impressed me most was the sheer quantity and quality of fish, including huge groupers and potato cod. The turtles were remarkably friendly and even swam up to us – as if it were feeding time. It just goes to show how trusting marine animals are in places where they are protected.
Showing that there might still be hope for sharks in the Seychelles, a pack of juvenile black-tip reef sharks surprised us at Aldabra Atoll. Standing in knee-high water, surrounded by 30 black-tip reef sharks, I prayed they weren’t ankle biters.
As our liveaboard trip came to an end and we boarded our light aircraft to fly out of Assumption, I felt we had dived some of the best sites in Seychelles. But there was so much more to do, like the 20 grey reef sharks of Marianne Island (the best dive in the inner isles), the sea caves of Desroches Drop and the whale sharks of Ilot and Conception Island.
The more I think about these exotic isles, the more I want to return. Maybe I’ll see you there when the whale sharks arrive …
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
The best time to dive Aldabra is in February/March, as the south-east monsoons start in mid-April. The best time for whale sharks around Mahé is in July/August – but November, December and January are also recommended.
HOW TO GET THERE
Fly with Air Seychelles from Singapore, South Africa, Mauritius, Rome, Paris or London. www.airseychelles.com. Qatar Airways and Emirates also fly to Dubai and Doha – from there you can connect to Mahé.
The Seychelles are free of tropical diseases, including malaria and yellow fever – but check with your GP before you go.
The local currency is Seychelles rupees, but foreign currency laws say visitors must pay in international currency such as the Euro or by creditcard.