Naturalist Rob McCall will be accompanying our Seychelles and Ultimate Seychelles expeditions, which commence in December 2002 aboard Le Ponant. Here, he recounts his first visit to bird-rich Aride Island.
I first became aware of the Seychelles while watching a David Attenborough documentary at the age of eight. Attenborough was cradling an oversize and bizarre-looking coconut, while in the background an azure ocean lapped a white sand shore framed by giant pink boulders. It was a surreal, almost otherworldly scene for a young boy growing up in deepest Hertfordshire, and from that moment, the Seychelles epitomized to me all that was faraway and exotic. At that tender age, I had no inkling that I would spend three months working there - a period that would begin a lifelong love affair with this scattered group of oceanic islands.
Two weeks after finishing my zoology degree at Cambridge, I boarded a flight to the Seychelles. I knew little more than that I would be working as a conservation volunteer on a small island called Aride - home to upwards of a million seabirds and consequently one of the most important wildlife reserves in the Indian Ocean. I knew that I'd be sharing this little paradise with five other volunteers and that living conditions would be basic, to say the least. What I didn't know was that this little island would change my life forever.
On Aride, as nowhere else I had ever visited, birds rule the roost. Our living quarters on Aride were literally borrowed from the birds, and they frequently reclaimed them. I lost count of the number of evenings when I was forced to get out of bed to usher confused Audubon shearwaters from the room. I'll never forget the pungent taste of the drinking water - rainwater that we collected from the guano-encrusted hut roof where seabirds dozed at night. And the sight of pure-white fairy terns fluttering just above my head is indelibly burned into my consciousness.
My stay in the Seychelles was limited to only a few months, but by the time I left I had gained a clear idea of what I should like to research for my Ph.D. In subsequent years, I have visited the Seychelles many times and have been able to visit corners of the archipelago that were far out of reach during my stay on Aride. Places such as Aldabra, an extraordinary raised coral atoll home to more giant tortoises than the Galapagos; Astove, a small island with a reef drop-off that made me feel as though I was flying underwater; and Silhouette Island, whose densely forested slopes remain almost untouched by humankind.
Every visit to the Seychelles is special for me. Like a recurring dream, whenever I land on Aride, I can hardly believe that fate has been good enough to bring me back. Showing Zegrahm travelers around the forests I helped to plant, and introducing them to birds that I knew as chicks, is a very special pleasure that I look forward to sharing with you on our forthcoming expeditions.