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Classic Seychelles with the Comoros & Zanzibar
Published on Thursday, March 15, 2012
Thursday, January 26, 2012 - Mahé, Seychelles: We converged on the small island of Mahé in the Seychelles, where brunch awaited us at our hotel, the lovely Le Meridien Barbarons. Our first day was spent at leisure, lounging around the pool, snorkeling around the rocks in a small cove, and catching up on our new time zone.
Friday, January 27 - Mahé, Seychelles / Embark Clipper Odyssey: In the morning, we sipped coffee while endemic Seychelles flying foxes flew overhead. Some of us joined naturalist Rich Pagen for an early morning walk along a boardwalk through the mangroves, where crabs and mudskippers dominated this flooded saltwater forest. Following breakfast, we boarded buses for a ride across the island, past tea plantations, and through part of Morne Seychelles National Park. We arrived at the Botanical Gardens for our first look at the famous coco-de-mer, an endemic palm which boasts the largest seed in the world, as well as numerous other plants and trees. A roost of flying foxes was just overhead in one of the trees, while an enclosure with Aldabra giant tortoises gave us close looks at this specialty of the region.
After some free time to shop and stroll through Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles, we boarded a catamaran for Sainte Anne Marine National Park. The scenery was striking, and many of us broke out our snorkel gear for a look at what lay beneath the surface. A sting ray, a pipefish and a lionfish were a couple of the highlights. A Creole lunch dominated by curry and Seybrew, a local beer, was served, and we told stories of our respective mornings. We then took a Zodiac ride to Moyenne Island,
where we landed to meet the island’s owner, the delightfully eccentric 86-year-old Brendan Grimshaw. There, we were greeted by giant tortoises as well as the owner’s three dogs and had time to explore the island.
In the late afternoon everyone arrived on the pier from Sainte Anne and walked over to the Clipper Odyssey. Welcoming drinks and snacks were waiting for us on board and we soon found our way around the ship. After a mandatory safety drill, we had introductions to life aboard our ship, the expedition staff, and a Zodiac briefing.
Saturday, January 28 - Aride and Curieuse: It was a perfect sunny day. Local Aride boatmen transported us to the shore and we landed high and dry upon the beach. White fairy terns flew over the beach, performing their ritualistic dual synchronized flight. The long walkers headed off with Lindsay Chong Seng and Rich, aiming for the summit, while the rest of the party went at a leisurely pace with Peter Harrison and Gemma Jessy.
The walks took us through shaded paths lined with pisonia trees, where the fairy terns perched on the bare branches. Seychelles warblers darted among the lush undergrowth, and Wright’s and Seychelles skinks were wall-to-wall along the paths. Peter soon found shearwater burrows and we had close views of downy chicks. Handsome black and white magpie robins seemed to be everywhere.
After lunch we visited the island of Curieuse. Lindsay and Lyn Mair led the historic walk which started with a visit to the doctor’s house, now a museum. There were displays describing the early discovery of the island and the coco-de-mer palm, the leper colony, and the Scottish connection.
Gemma took the alternative walk over the hill, passing spectacular dark granite rocks with a viewpoint overlooking the turtle holding ponds, no longer in use. Walking through the mangroves to Baie la Raie, Gemma told us about the five species of mangroves and the life around a mangrove forest. Huge mud crabs scuttled into burrows as we approached and several birds were observed, including whimbrels, turnstones, blue pigeons, and sunbirds. Eventually we reached the flat grassy coastal area with many giant Aldabra tortoises mowing the lawn.
The snorkeling group came across a coral bommie out over the sand completely surrounded by tiny two-inch long cardinal fish. Mike Murphy took the divers on their first dive on the end of a small cove sheltered from the wind and wave action. There were large granitic pinnacles and a few horizontal slabs literally covered in reef fish. We spotted several lionfish, moray eels, and a huge humphead wrasse, weighing at least 150 pounds.
Once back on board, we dressed in our best and sipped welcome cocktails on the Pool Deck where Captain Alan McCarty welcomed us all and introduced us to some of his crew, followed by the excellent welcome dinner.
Sunday, January 29 - La Digue and Praslin: In gorgeous sunshine we started the morning on La Digue, famous for its beautiful boulder strewn beaches. A group of energetic cyclists rode over to Grande Anse and walked to a few remote and almost deserted stunning beaches. Some of us cycled and some went in ‘le truck,’ looking for the rare and beautiful Seychelles black paradise-flycatchers, which were seen in several locations. Three males were having a dispute around a newly constructed nest giving us a great chance to observe them. Continuing into L’Union Estate we stopped in a vanilla plantation and heard about the labor intensive process to produce the fragrant orchid pods. The weather was perfect and we enjoyed a fresh lemon drink under the palm-thatched restaurant, close to the gorgeous Anse Source d’Argent. The beaches, framed by massive chunks of pre-Cambrian rock, were most photogenic and inviting.
During lunch, the Clipper Odyssey gently motored over to Praslin, the second largest island in the Seychelles. The Vallée de Mai and the coco-de-mer are synonymous with the Seychelles and we walked through this iconic palm forest enjoying the primordial atmosphere, almost expecting a dinosaur to peer at us through the gigantic fronds. A light breeze made the leaves clatter and clack making a noise like no other forest. Huge, white, endemic slugs were grazing on the flowers of the male catkin and a large bronze-eyed gecko was also feasting on the flowers. We saw the thin husk of the female nut removed to expose the erotically-shaped seed, the biggest in the plant kingdom.
A drive around the island took us to the famous Anse Lazio where we nibbled apples and chocolate brownies and sipped icy drinks. It was almost high tide and the waves were coming in close to the shady takamaka trees lining the beach.
The first recap of the voyage was held in the lounge and Peter let us know how lucky we were to see the very rare birds on Aride.
Monday, January 30 - Poivre and St. Joseph Atoll, Amirante Islands: It was an easy amble around the tiny remote island of Poivre, an abandoned coconut plantation. We could see the ruins of the plantation owner’s old house with plants growing out of the tumbled down walls. Ruddy turnstones and whimbrels were pottering about on the grass and on the sandy beaches, and a common house sparrow was cheerfully chirping all over the place.
The divers were off for their first dive since leaving Curieuse and they were eager to get into the water. It was a great introduction into the marine diversity of the remarkable atolls, islands, and motus. The gently sloping seabed was a haven for marine life, leopard eels, scorpionfish, and emperor angelfish. Several green turtles were spotted and schools of yellow-tailed fusiliers kept the divers’ interest throughout the dive. The snorkelers went on the outside of the reef and saw a good variety of reef fishes.
After our lecture series began with Ronald Prinn presenting Climate Change: What Has Happened and Why?, we enjoyed an afternoon of water sports. Mike Murphy took the divers for their first drift dive and it was fascinating—white spotted and moray eels, both green and hawksbill turtles, huge sweetlips, and to complete the dive, a 10-foot manta came drifting by. The divers did not know which way to turn, the manta on their left or five turtles on their right, two of which were mating without a care in the world for our presence. Snorkelers had a great time as they also went along the wall covered in a diversity of corals. Reef fishes were abundant—sergeant majors, powder blue tangs, Madras snappers, huge Napoleon wrasses, several black-tipped reef sharks, and many hawksbill turtles, all in good visibility.
Tuesday, January 31 - Cruising the Indian Ocean: A great day to catch up, as we sailed in the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean. The lecture series continued with a wonderful presentation from Peter where he discussed the Facts and Figures of Feathered Friends, followed by Lindsay’s presentation, Introduction to the Seychelles Natural History.
A call went out in the early afternoon for flying fish; several species were flying out from the bow of the ship and some of us joined Rich on the bridge to check them out. Larry Bowman then discussed Visualizing and Collecting the Indian Ocean through Maps and Prints, followed by Rich’s lecture on Productivity on the Coral Reef: How Interspecies Relationships Have Built an Empire. Before his lecture was completed, our expedition leader Mike Moore interrupted with an announcement that a whale was on the starboard side of our ship. Blinds went up and we all looked out for the great sea creature; soon enough, a ‘blow’ was seen in the distance. Another whale was spotted close to the ship and the lounge quickly emptied as we all rushed to get cameras and binoculars. The whale, a Minke, came up and ‘blew’ several times fairly close to the ship, giving us great views.
Wednesday, February 1 - Providence Island: Today we set off for Providence Island, another abandoned coconut plantation. Zodiacs took us ashore and we ambled along the beautiful, soft sandy beach. Graceful swift terns and rare crab plovers flew overhead and many turtle pits lined the upper reaches of the beach crest with coconut crab and hermit crab tracks all around.
After lunch, we repositioned to the south where snorkel platforms were set up. The sea was choppy, but some large fishes were seen cruising the depths. Hawksbill turtles, humphead wrasses, groupers, and some anemonefish were the highlights.
The divers set off to the outside of the fringing reef, not knowing what to expect. WOW!!!! What an incredible dive this turned out to be; the flat, limestone ledge was not only undercut, but caves with access holes were dotted along and housing some of the biggest moray eels ever to be seen. A huge spotted moray was one of the highlights of the dive, but massive potato groupers, giant trevallys, and barracuda were all part of the excitement. An enormous school of rainbow runners came by to say hello, making this an exceptional dive without a doubt.
Thursday, February 2 - Cosmoledo Atoll / Astove Atoll: In perfect, calm and sunny conditions we set foot on the tiny island of Pagoda on the southern end of the Cosmoledo atoll. The lagoon stretched into the horizon with only slight bumps for islands in the distance, almost the memory of an atoll. As it is a cat- and rat-free island, the sea birds have flourished and we wandered slowly among the colonies of red-footed boobies nesting in the low bushes, large masked boobies and red-tailed tropicbirds nesting on the ground, and frigatebirds soaring overhead. A masked booby chick hatched right in front of our eyes—the tiny, scrawny, featherless chick looked so fragile lying in the hot sun in that harsh environment.
The ground under our feet seethed with mobile hermit crabs, while small noisy Madagascar cisticolas flitted between the low bushes. The photographers were ecstatic; some walked around the entire island and marveled at the variety of species. It was an extraordinary experience to be so close to the birds.
Another wild card dive site for the divers turned out to be very enjoyable. Good healthy corals and lots of fish, giant trevallys, triggers, and the old faithful potato groupers.
Soon we made our way to Astove, the most southerly point in the Seychelles at 10°S. The small atoll is uninhabited but the ruins of a once productive copra plantation were in evidence. The birders set off with Peter and Gemma, who immediately found Abbot’s sunbird, endemic to the island, as well as the Madagascar cisticola and Madagascar white-eye. Our timing was perfect and we managed to get off the atoll before the tide was too low. The rest of the afternoon we spent snorkeling along the famous drop-off wall of coral with a huge variety of fish and some impressive purple-lipped giant clams.
Mike took the divers to a wall he had dove many times, where 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 soldierfish. The corals, both soft and hard, were very healthy and full of life. The dive ended up on the reef top where even more turtles were seen.
Friday, February 3 - Aldabra Atoll: Our first snorkel of the day started a little way from the entrance to Passe du Bois. In calm, clear waters we gazed down upon the gorgeous coral garden teeming with colorful reef fishes and turtles. Anemonefishes guarded their territories, and a pair of brilliantly colored blue and black palette surgeonfish glided between the coral growths and giant clams. Drifting in with a gentle tide we came across huge potato groupers, cleaner wrasses, emperor angelfish, and the beautiful yellow angelfish with bright blue pouting lips. A hawksbill turtle was resting and yellow and black Oriental sweetlips added even more color. The added highlight was the sound of the birdsong when we took our ears out of the water—sunbirds and fodies were singing in the vegetation on the edge of the channel.
Mike Murphy took the divers around to Anse Var while the visibility was excellent. It was another fantastic dive, complete with a white-tip shark, an 8-foot sleeping nurse shark, turtles, and schools of blue-striped snappers.
Our hotel staff put on a splendid lunch; we sat on the tortoise-mown lawn under the shade of coconut palms, all while soaking up the view of the vibrant shades of blue in the lagoon. After lunch we explored the settlement on Picard Island. Peter and Gemma led some of us under the palms with Madagascar bulbuls and Souimanga sunbirds in abundance. The bird of the day was undoubtedly the flightless Aldabra rail; now plentiful on Picard they were running around close to the staff houses completely unafraid.
The hearty walkers went off with Lindsay, Larry, and Lyn to explore the interior of the island. The goal of the hike was the rather murky-looking tidal pond with jellyfish that pulse around the bottom. On the plateau, almost devoid of vegetation, remains of fresh water pools attracted a Madagascar sacred ibis with baby blue eyes, dimorphic egrets, and a Comoro blue pigeon.
The afternoon ended at La Gigi on the edge of Passe Femme, the northernmost entrance to the lagoon on the West Channel, where a small coral cairn supports a monument. Here we waded in the cool water, and some of us snorkeled and found a great variety of small fish in the shallow water.
In the evening our wonderful hotel staff set up a romantic a la carte dinner under the stars on the pool deck on a perfectly balmy night.
Saturday, February 4 - Aldabra: The most intrepid travelers left the ship at 3:30am in the light of the setting moon to join the researchers looking for nesting turtles. Soon, a huge green turtle came ashore at the high tide, excavated her pit, and made an egg chamber. We had to be very careful not to disturb her with flash photography. A second turtle was found just beginning to dig her nesting pit; we had a little look and then left her in peace. Gigantic coconut crabs were out in force as they foraged on the paths. We returned to the ship for a quick snack and a short nap before breakfast.
The day started for everyone with a gentle drift snorkel out of the Main Channel. The visibility was good with beautiful corals and heaps of reef fish. After repositioning to Passe Gionnet, we also saw huge snappers and a variety of butterflyfish. Mike Murphy took the divers for a wall dive two miles away from the main channel of the motu of Malabar. Led by Jude, the head ranger, they descended directly onto the wall. Great corals and reef fish including a curious reef shark, turtles, and a beautiful spotted moray eel were the highlights of the dive. In the afternoon, they were dodging canyons and rock pinnacles before they saw healthy corals, fish, turtles, gray reef sharks, and morays. It was unanimous—this was truly a unique experience and rated amongst the world’s greatest dives.
The glass-bottom boat took the non-snorkelers for a glimpse into the underwater world in lovely calm conditions where eagle rays and jacks were fabulous. The added bonus was seeing a sunbird’s nest hanging near the water.
In the afternoon, for our Aldabra farewell, we all cruised via Zodiacs through Passe Gionnet to see the nesting colonies of thousands of frigatebirds. Many were roosting in the bushes with red-footed boobies nearby. It was a spectacle to see clouds of these almost prehistoric looking dark birds overhead, outlined against the white clouds. Turtles raced by, sharks cruised close to us, and rays lay on the sandy bottom while the colors of the lagoon and the sky were an endless palette of blues. As the ride came to an end we recognized Passe du Bois, our first drift-snorkel spot with outlandish looking champignon rocks. A fitting finale before heading back to the Clipper Odyssey.
Sunday, February 5 - Mayotte, Comoros Islands: White puffy clouds, tiny islands, and a flat calm welcomed us to Mayotte. A short Zodiac shuttle took us onto the pier garlanded with exotic flowers. Dancers and drummers greeted us and we joined in the dancing. As we walked to the rustic eco-museum, two Madagascar sparrowhawks flew into the tall trees giving us good views of their spotted chests. The displays in the museum showcased the methods of production of both vanilla and ylang ylang.
A group of dancers and singers was waiting for us at the gate of the Botanical Garden, dressed in attractive white salouva, or wraps, they danced and clapped their sticks in welcome. We sipped local fresh fruit drinks, nibbled on fruit snacks, and wandered around the gardens admiring the many different plants.
Those on the nature walk enjoyed sightings of brown lemurs jumping through the trees and a bulky endemic Comoro olive pigeon was spotted. We eventually reached the old Governor’s House with strategic views over to the port and Petite Terre, the smaller port island. Snorkeling took place in near perfect conditions along an endless reef full of fantastic, colorful corals.
Some enjoyed a glass-bottom boat tour, which produced an astounding array of coral all on top of each other. Giant clams and heaps of anemonefish were the highlights among the very best corals. The divers enjoyed a tranquil dive on the wall of the main channel entering the harbor, with good corals and reef fish, including lionfish, crayfish, nudibranchs, and another moray eel.
Monday, February 6 - Moroni, Grande Comore: Early in the morning, we sailed along the large island towards Moroni. The famous volcanic Mount Karthala was standing proudly in full view though it was already shrouded in heavy clouds. We enjoyed an exploration of a small part of the island, including the blackened ruins of a Sultan’s palace which looked out onto the sea with an impressive cliff nearby. Dark volcanic rocks and cinder beaches made a picturesque contrast to the deep blue and turquoise sea. Visiting an overgrown looking forest, we found out how nutmeg grows, sniffed cinnamon bark and clove leaves, and learned about cassava.
The highlight was the drive through the crowded market streets with wares hanging from umbrellas bumping into our bus, women selling vegetables, pots and pans, synthetic fabrics mixed with colorful cotton wraps and shoes of every description. As we walked through another market, we followed our trusty guides weaving between the packed stalls selling everything. It was a loud, noisy, smelly wonderful riot of color playing on all our senses.
A short visit to the Moroni Museum gave us a chance to see the ‘fossil fish’, the strange coelacanth.
In the afternoon, dark clouds encouraged most of us to stay on board but a hardy bunch took off in Zodiacs for a beach and snorkeling afternoon. It poured with rain on the way to the Itsandra Resort, but did not deter these hardy travelers. We had the entire white sandy beach to ourselves, complete with lounging chairs, umbrellas, and a charming beach staff. The snorkelers enjoyed the black volcanic rock face and others walked up to the hotel and found a radiated tortoise, native to Madagascar, hiding among the shrubbery. Among the colorful galawas, or outrigger dugouts on the beach, we found a canary yellow glass-bottomed canoe.
Tuesday, February 7 - Cruising the Indian Ocean: This was a catch-up day: reading or writing in our journals, with lectures and talks to keep us informed and entertained. Peter told us wonderful stories about the trials and tribulations of being a tropical seabird, and Larry shared his vast knowledge as he talked about some of the intricacies of history and politics of this part of the Indian Ocean. Lyn told the story of the first scientific discovery of the fossil fish, the coelacanth.
Wednesday, February 8 - Pemba Island, Tanzania: It was a gray but sultry day as we slowly sailed into the small town of Mkoani where the Clipper Odyssey came alongside. Dhows and small fishing boats were in the calm silvery water and a mixed flock of sooty and white-eyed gulls sat on a low concrete pier. The market at Chaka Chaka was great for photographers, and we enjoyed watching the small banana and plantain auction. At the old blackened fort, the curator gave an animated explanation of its history.
It was a long drive past many small villages to the Kidiki Forest where we learned that this community development benefits both the local villagers and the fruit bats that are now protected. We plodded through furrows of cassava blowing in the breeze and had wonderful sightings of very large Pemba flying foxes hanging upside down enfolded in their leathery black wings.
Another drive took us to the Ngezi Forest right on the northern tip of the island. It was a good way to see the lush, fertile countryside with rice paddies interspersed with the tallest ever coconut palms, mangos, breadfruit trees, and sugar cane. Thick lianas coiled through the forest and we learned about the endemic Pemba palm that slightly resembles a bamboo.
In the afternoon we visited the tiny island of Misali. The Bandeira cave, a fissure in the coral limestone, is known to the locals for being a place to ask the spirits or ghost for favors and offerings were placed on a low ledge. The endemic Pemba sunbird had us guessing as a female was seen on many occasions, but the brilliant iridescent male only showed up briefly. Another tiny endemic bird, the Pemba white-eye, was difficult to see among the thick vegetation. Snorkelers and divers went out to the nearby reef.
Thursday, February 9 - Zanzibar, Tanzania: Energetic hikers and birdwatchers set off early this morning to drive to the last remaining natural forest on Zanzibar, Jozani Natural Forest Reserve. The stars of the morning were the red colobus monkeys with their long arms, furry heads and funny noses.
After a lavish barbeque lunch was held on deck, a group of us embarked on a guided walk through the famous World Heritage Site of Stone Town where our guides told of the turbulent history of trading in elephant ivory, gold, and slaves. Picturesque narrow alleys, heavily carved doors and women in colorful shawls made the photographers click away.
We repositioned once more and joined Captain Alan for his poolside farewell cocktail party where he thanked many members of his crew. Afterwards we dined in splendor during the farewell dinner.
Friday, February 10 - Dar es Salaam / Disembark: It was homeward bound for some of us while others still had an African Safari to look forward to. We bade farewell to our adventurous Clipper Odyssey and the friends we made.