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Ultimate Seychelles with Aldabra Atoll
Published on Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Sunday, January 15, 2012 - Victoria, Mahé Island, Seychelles: A hot and sultry day greeted everyone as they came aboard the Clipper Odyssey, berthed at the port of Victoria, Seychelles. After finding our way around the ship, unpacking, and settling in we were ready for our first excursion after lunch.
A short drive took us to the lush Victoria Botanical Gardens. Established in 1901, the garden has a wealth of palms, gorgeous trees, shrubs, and creepers. Home to a large group of fruit bats, sometimes known as flying foxes, one youngster was lost and roosting a meter off the ground giving us great views of his russet, furry, pointed nose and leathery black wings with claws for grasping and hanging. Seychelles bulbuls and sunbirds were easily seen among the flowering plants.
In the evening we had a briefing about the ship, donned orange life jackets and learned the safety rules for our temporary floating home. This was followed by an introduction to all the staff.
Monday, January 16 - Moyenne / Isle Seche: We repositioned close to Sainte Anne Marine National Park near the tiny island of Moyenne. Brendan Grimshaw, an eccentric man who has owned the island since 1971, has declared it a private nature reserve. When he turned 70 he wanted a tortoise for each year and he now has close to 100 of them. He has planted many native trees but there are still numerous invasive species on his little island paradise.
We had the option of spending the morning with marine biologist, Jack Grove, who led a small snorkeling group, diving into a small cove with Giovanna Fasanelli and Mike Murphy, or exploring the island. The divers came across numerous reef fish, including a stone fish and a rock-mover wrasse, and several fusiliers, blue-lined snappers, and butterflyfish.
The island explorers found weathered and sculpted granite rocks with fantastic views. Hermit crabs scuttled away from under their feet and everyone was able to get up close to the giant tortoises. All groups met back on the ship for lunch.
In the afternoon, we visited Isle Seche for the second dive of the day. The terrain was large slabs of rock and huge boulders, all teeming with life. Literally thousands of sweepers and cardinal fish intermingled in the rocky crevices. A large moray eel was sighted, while schools of trevally swam in circles around the divers, several over four feet in size.
Some enjoyed a walk around the island before everyone met up for Captain Peter Fielding’s welcome cocktail on the deck, where he introduced the members of his crew, followed by the welcome dinner.
Tuesday, January 17 - Aride and Praslin: The morning dawned bright and sunny with hardly any wind for our exploration of Aride, the seabird citadel of the Indian Ocean. Crouching on the floor of the islands’ small Zodiacs, an exciting ride landed us high upon the beach.
Handsome black and white magpie robins flicked the leaf litter, fearless at our feet looking for juicy worms and other insects, while Seychelles skinks were wall-to-wall along the path. The view from the summit was fantastic as we could see clouds of frigatebirds hanging on the thermals above the island. We had to keep to the paths to avoid stepping into shearwater burrows. White-tailed tropic birds and their fat, speckled chicks were completely unafraid and sat quietly as we approached.
We spent the afternoon on Praslin where we walked through the World Heritage Site of Vallée de Mai National Park, a palm forest home to the incredible coco-de-mer. This palm, part of the Borassidae sub-family has the biggest nut in the plant kingdom. The green, heart-shaped nut can weigh up to 40 pounds! The slight wind encouraged the huge fan-shaped leaves to clatter and crash together making a noise like no other forest. We also managed to see the endemic Seychelles black parrots and bulbuls.
Our next stop was gorgeous Anse Lazio, framed by massive granite boulders and fringed by takamaka trees. The late afternoon gave us time to stroll along the white powdery beach or take a dip in the refreshing waves.
Wednesday, January 18 - Poivre and St. Joseph Atoll: This was a day for the snorkelers and divers as the small island of Poivre sits on the edge of a submarine plateau. The water was beautifully clear and the snorkeling group received colorful views of a variety of healthy corals, as well as interaction with a friendly spadefish.
The divers set off some two miles away, to the outside of the fringing reef. The topography was a very gentle sloping plateau, with plenty of live plate corals and a lemon shark encounter. As the dive progressed, cold currents brought in more fish, and several green turtles were spotted along with schools of yellow-tailed fusiliers.
Those who wanted to explore the island joined Lindsay Chong Seng, Gemma Jessy, and Lyn Mair on a discovery walk. Lesser noddies swooped down onto the freshly mown grass; a lucky few of us found migrating shorebirds feeding along the coral rag beach. The big excitement for the morning was the sighting of a rare vagrant bird to the Seychelles—the Jacobin cuckoo, which was seen gleaning the leaves of the large badamier tree.
In the afternoon Mike Murphy led the divers to the channel between St. Joseph and D’Arros islands. Napoleon wrasses were everywhere, along with several huge humphead parrotfish. The highlight was a large manta ray that swam against the current as we glided along the channel walls. There was certainly no shortage of marine life and good visibility as we reached the outflow from the small channel entrance to St. Joseph lagoon.
The snorkeling group also enjoyed the afternoon with the first of several drift snorkels; we drifted along a healthy reef off the shore of St. Joseph, viewing large schools of yellowback fusiliers, and several of us got to see a manta ray.
Mike Moore took a group to the edge of the reef to peer through the glass bottomed boat; an abundance of lovely hard and soft corals were waving in the tidal surge, surrounded by reef fishes including butterflyfish, cleaner wrasses, powder blue tangs, parrotfish, and heaps of small, colorful fishes.
Thursday, January 19 - Alphonse Island: The Clipper Odyssey arrived on the fringing reef of Alphonse, an area that made for a really nice dive, with gentle drift and good visibility. Everyone enjoyed the wonderful array of marine life, schools of giant trevallys, bluefin trevallys, barracuda, dogtooth tuna and more turtles than one could count! Even an eight-foot nurse shark cruised by to say hello, the best dive so far. In the afternoon the divers caught sight of two sharks, as well as grey reefs, a manta ray, and numerous reef fish.
Before snorkeling, many of us went for a walk on the island where a member of the Islands Conservation Society educated us about the young red-footed booby she had rescued. Jonathan Rossouw and Lyn took a group to watch for birds and were quite successful—not only did they see the expected fairy or white terns, but white-tailed tropicbirds, noddies, and a cloud of frigatebirds could be seen drifting over head. On the ground many ruddy turnstones were grazing on the grass and among them, a sharp-tailed sandpiper, a rare vagrant to the islands. Later, a northern wheatear, a Swinhoe’s snipe, and a yellow-billed kite were spotted soaring over the beach. Gemma and Lindsay regaled us with stories about the plants and the history of the island, as we traipsed through the thick coconut palms.
The snorkelers had excellent views of flying fish and large needle fish on their way to the snorkel platform. Soon a diverse coral community provided lovely sightings of anemonefish, colorful reef fish, plankton feeding fairy basslet, and blue-gold snapper.
After lunch we visited a minute jewel of an island with a topknot of bright green vegetation. Turtle tracks could be seen leading up from the water’s edge and a large pit where the eggs were laid was visible with another set of tracks returning to the ocean. Many of us walked around the entire island, merely a ten-minute walk, while some of us just sat in the water cooling off in the searing afternoon heat. The tide started dropping and we soon bade goodbye to our tiny deserted island.
Friday, January 20 - Wizard Reef / At Sea: After breakfast the snorkeling group set off in Zodiacs to explore Wizard Reef, an unknown and very remote submerged reef in the Indian Ocean. This remote reef had no land above sea level and although there was very little coral (presumably due to the constant powerful wave action) there was quite an assortment of large reef fishes. The largest fish we encountered was the giant potato grouper, and there were also several Picasso triggerfish, barracuda, and huge jack trevally.
Once back on board our lecture series began with Lindsay discussing An Introduction to Seychelles Natural History. Many of his slides showed the amazing diversity of species from gorgeous hardwood trees and beautiful flowers, to miniscule sooglossus frogs and strange caecilians. Joel Simon gave his interesting presentation on The Secret Life of Coral: An Introduction to Coral Physiology, followed by Jack who lectured us on Fishes of the Indian Ocean, Part 1.
Our anticipation steadily grew as we approached the holy grail of Aldabra.
Saturday, January 21 - Aldabra Atoll: We arrived in the pearly pink of early morning. The snorkelers quickly left for the outside of the lagoon near the West Channel. In gin-clear waters myriad species darted around, parrotfishes nibbled the coral below, and heaps of fusiliers hung in the water column. Today was one of the best dives of the trip. The reef was in great condition with healthy corals and thousands of fish schools: groupers, eagle rays, trevallys, jacks, fusiliers, surgeons, and spangled emperor schools, as well as turtles.
But the Aldabra Main Channel held the site every diver was here for, the infamous Aldabra drift dive. Several enormous potato groupers sat against the current and watched us as we zoomed by, and soon we were dodging pillars and outcroppings of rock, over and around, trying not to collide. After 40 minutes the dive ended over corals and as we hung in the water, a large nurse shark came by, circled several times, and went about his way.
As the tide changed the snorkelers went into Du Bois Channel and gently floated in towards the lagoon, hugging the channel wall. Colorful snappers, parrotfish, and wrasses wove around the coral, as well as butterflyfish, orange anemonefish, and powder blue tangs. Noddies were perched on the branches hanging over the lagoon and many were flying overhead.
We regrouped back on our Zodiacs and slowly went through the massive lagoon to Gionnet Channel where we saw great examples of the champignons, the massive mushroom-shaped limestone formations. A variety of mangrove species lined the lagoon and provided side-by-side roosting and nesting areas for the large populations of red-footed boobies and both lesser and greater frigatebirds. White downy chicks of all three species peered at us through the leaves and a few male frigates had extended red gular pouches hanging under their beaks—a sign of late breeders. What a fantastic experience.
Back on board we enjoyed a sumptuous barbeque dinner on the pool deck under the stars.
Sunday, January 22 - Aldabra Atoll: An intrepid group departed the Clipper Odyssey pre-dawn, and, in the dark went by Zodiac with the mission to look for nesting green turtles. The island staff had located two females on shore and our groups saw them in various stages of digging a large nesting pit, laying eggs, and covering them up again before lumbering back to the ocean.
Once everyone was back on board, Captain Peter took us around to the southern side of Grande Terre to look for the wreck of the Glen Lyon, a coaler that went down in 1918. The snorkelers found schools of colorful fish floating among the spines and corroded boilers of the ship, while Oriental sweetlips hid under rusting metal plates and small schools of fish hung among the debris.
The drift snorkel at Passe du Bois was exceptional and for many of us it was probably the most exciting snorkel of our lives. Schools of sweetlips and snapper were everywhere. We drifted through the narrow kaleidoscopic channel as if on a roller coaster; the corals and sea fans are exceptional here and grouper, angelfish, and butterflyfish were prolific. The number of fishes added to our fish list at this site alone will exceed one hundred species.
In the late afternoon everyone went over to the research station. Lindsay led a group on a long walk to the upside-down jellyfish pool. It was a great experience to reach an inland part of the atoll on the rough limestone pathway. Gemma, Jonathan, and Lyn led bird-watching and natural history walks along the beach crest. Endemic birds were seen, including an Aldabra drongo on a nest with a hungry chick. The only flightless bird in the Indian Ocean, the white-throated rail, was easily located with large and small chicks, and noisy souimanga sunbirds flitted all over. The Aldabra fruit bats provided much excitement as we watched a pair, the female clasping her youngster close to her chest with the well-endowed male close by.
After the walks, the Aldabra staff joined us for snacks and drinks on the tortoise-mowed lawn near the beach. The giant Aldabra tortoises were very friendly and some loved having their necks rubbed.
Monday, January 23 - Astove Atoll: First off on this sunny morning were the divers who entered the water at the snorkeling station and descended 80 feet before they drifted south along a beautiful corralled wall. Huge fish greeted them, including dogtooth tuna, turtles, giant trevallys, and bonitos. Several morays were housed among the ledges, and the overhangs were home to thousands of soldier fish. The coral was a healthy mixture of soft and hard and full of life. The dive ended up on the reef and even more turtles were seen, as well as a gray reef shark.
The divemasters decided to dive the famous Astove wall; although a three and a half mile Zodiac trip, they felt it was worth it. It was a superb dive, the absolute best yet of the trip. The wall was around 18 feet from the surface and descended into infinity. Huge caves and overhangs made the dive absolutely fascinating; all the fish we wanted to see were there to greet us, including massive potato groupers and dogtooth tuna.
Our trusty Zodiacs and fearless drivers took us over to an isolated small beach where we found all three species of birds found nowhere else in the Seychelles. The Abbot’s sunbird is restricted to three islands only, while the white-eye and cisticola also occur in Madagascar. The uninhabited island was covered in coconut trees with little natural vegetation.
Tuesday, January 24 - Cruising the Indian Ocean: Today was filled with lectures: Jack continued to enthrall us with images of the fantastic fish we had been seeing, and Lyn enlightened us on the mysteries of mangroves. Joel gave an illuminating lecture on reefs.
In the afternoon a whale was spotted and our ever accommodating captain slowed and turned the ship. This gave us great views of spinner dolphins performing their splashing acrobatics, frigates circling high overhead, and we were able to see a Minke whale fairly well.
Later in the evening, everyone enjoyed drinks and snacks at the Zegrahm and Stanford Expedition Team’s cocktail and canapé party on the pool deck.
Wednesday, January 25 - Cruising the Indian Ocean / Desroches: As we made our way to Desroches, our lecture series continued. Jonathan spoke about the Seychelles seabirds and the difficulties they have rearing their young, while Jack gave an insightful and passionate talk on Biodiversity in the Sea and Why it Matters.
It was a gorgeous, sunny afternoon as we anchored near Bombe Bay Beach on Desroches. Snorkelers found coral off the rocky reef close to the shore with a good diversity of fish in clear and calm conditions. Beachcombers and swimmers went onshore in the heat, while others continued to dive.
Back on board, our captain hosted the farewell cocktail party before a wonderful dinner.
Thursday, January 26 - Cousin and La Digue Islands: Once we were on Cousin Island, the little bird sanctuary, we saw several white terns sitting stoically on their branches, shoulders down and eyes half closed—many of them were sitting on an egg or protecting their young downy chicks. Our guides whistled and curious little Seychelles warblers came to investigate us. We learned how the island staff mark the turtle nests, check the sand temperatures, and monitor them regularly around hatching time. Some of us were lucky enough to see a hawksbill turtle busily digging and preparing her nest. The views from the highest point over to Cousine Island were great and we even found some downy shearwater chicks poking out of their burrows.
After a delicious lunch we sailed over to La Digue, famous for its gorgeous boulder-strewn beaches. A group of energetic cyclists rode over to Grande Anse and walked to a few remote and near deserted stunning beaches. Besides the glorious beaches we went looking for the rare and beautiful Seychelles black paradise-flycatchers, which were seen in several locations. The weather was perfect with bright blue skies and we all enjoyed a Seybrew, the local beer, under the palm-thatched restaurant close to the gorgeous Anse Source d’Argent.
The day ended with a final recap; after dinner Mike Moore gave a presentation of the images of our voyage taken by the staff.
Friday, January 27 - Victoria, Mahé Island / Disembark / USA: We bade farewell to our adventurous Clipper Odyssey, remembering the wonderful things we had seen and the remote islands we visited.