View of Mahe

Seychelles & Madagascar with Aldabra Atoll Field Report

Shirley Campbell|January 2, 2019|Field Report

Monday, October 22, 2018
Mahe Island, Seychelles

All fellow travelers arrived safely after seemingly convoluted journeys into the tropical Seychelles, the humidity like a gentle kiss after the dry conditions endured on aircraft. We were met at the airport and transferred to our accommodation at the Eden Bleu Hotel, located on reclaimed land offshore of the main island. Some of us joined one of the excursions on offer, while others simply enjoyed an afternoon at leisure. In the evening we came together for cocktails and dinner before retiring.

Tuesday, October 23 
Mahe Island / Embark Silver Discoverer

An early luggage-pull and breakfast heralded our various departures for tours to explore the island. From reclaimed land we crossed over to the granitic island of Mahe, clothed in lush tropical forest greens. Driving through the small capital of Victoria, various points of interest were identified before the buses began to climb the winding roads to Mission Lodge perched high above the coastal strip.  Established in 1876 for the children of ex-slaves, the institution is now being consumed by the forest it once conquered. There were stunning views of the capital below and the inner islands in St. Anne Marine Park. Continuing along the road we drove over La Misere Mountain Pass, where magnificent views were captured intermittently through occasional gaps in the forest.

We visited the Seychelles National Botanical Garden where we had our first encounter with the famed coco de mer palms. There were many magnificent endemic and exotic plants and trees to marvel at while the occasional fruit bat flew overhead. The gardens are home to a resident colony of fruit bats, and an enclosure containing giant land tortoises provided a first encounter with these descendants of ancient reptiles. The birders were off on their own excursion to Morne Seychellois National Park looking for the endemic species and they enjoyed successful sightings of the Seychelles white-eye and kestrel.

Just before lunch, the rest of the group boarded catamarans for a delicious Seychellois lunch as the vessels made their way to St. Anne Marine Park. Once anchored we were able to snorkel amongst several coral bommies. Of particular note were lots of feather-duster worms, their feeding appendages reaching into the water column for food. Inquisitive spade fish checked us out while black-saddled toby flashed their warning black, white, and yellow colors at any would-be predators. Those wishing to explore Moyenne Island embarked Zodiacs and walked along the beach and into the tropical forest. As the afternoon waned, we embarked the Silver Discoverer, unpacked and settled into life on the ship.

Wednesday, October 24
Praslin Island / La Digue Island

This morning we woke to a steady rain that looked set for the day. However, in true expedition style, we prepared for the conditions and ventured out on Zodiacs to our landing on Praslin Island.

Three options for this morning’s exploration of Valle de Mai Nature Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site, provided opportunities to satisfy everyone’s inclination. ‘Fast Walkers’ were first to disembark and head for the reserve, intending to focus on a good leg stretch rather than a detailed interpretation of what the park offered. However, guides being guides, interpretations could not be ignored and those who hoped for physical challenges were at one point overtaken by the birding group! The ‘Nature Gawkers’ were the last to be disembarked in the rain and once ashore set off to the reserve for a slower guided tour.

The Valle de Mai Nature Reserve is home to the unique coco de mer palms. These ancient plants are endemic to Praslin Island and are keenly managed by the local authorities so as to maintain their health and ensure that the genetic material is contained on the island. The palms boast the largest palm leaf in the plant kingdom! Walking under the canopy of these magnificent palms was truly memorable, the giant leaves keeping us dry and the ginormous fruit capturing our imaginations. Most of us were able to see the endemic Seychelles black parrot before a scenic ride to Anse Lazio beach for a mango refreshment and delicious slices of coconut.

Returning to the ship for lunch, we repositioned to La Digue island. Happily, as we dined the clouds lifted and the rain stopped. The more adventurous of us collected local bikes and headed over the mountain ridge of La Digue Island. The tour guaranteed lots of ups and downs. Birders boarded their own vehicles, called Le Camion by the locals, and set out in search of the endemic birds of the island while others likewise had a tour of the island on Le Camions. Yet another group of intrepid bikers took the more leisurely route along the township’s busy streets to ride along the flat shoreline.

We all visited the Veuve Reserve to walk through the forest of tall takamaka trees. Searching the branches for the endangered Seychelles paradise flycatcher, most of us were able to see the male with his distinctive long tail feathers and eye beautifully outlined in white. We proceeded to a coconut plantation that once produced coconuts for processing into copra. Once baked, coconut flesh was pressed to extract oil for industrial use. With the refining of soybean oils towards the end of the last century the market for copra fell and copra plantations around the world ceased to be commercially viable. This one likewise became disused, although today there has been an increased interest in the oil for medicinal and cosmetic use. The famed Anse Source d’Argent was our final destination. A beautiful beach set amongst a small representation of the 17 types of granite on the island. The setting afforded a unique backdrop to our afternoon’s exploration of the shallow waters off the white sandy beaches. Back on board the Silver Discoverer, showered and dressed we joined Captain Dariusz Grzelak for welcome drinks and dinner.

Thursday, October 25
Poivre Atoll

A beautiful, sunny day welcomed us as we made our way to Poivre Atoll, one of the 70 southern coralline islands of the Seychelles. Today there are six residents responsible for looking after the island, managing a few pigs, and collecting fallen coconuts to send north for processing. Poivre Island was once managed as a copra plantation by a German expat for the British colonial government somewhere between the late 19th century into the late 20th century. For approximately 100 years the plantation produced coconuts that were processed into copra before being shipped north for processing into industrial-use oils.

There were many shore birds keeping us looking into the sky and trees; crab plovers, whimbrels, and gray herons searched the reef for a meal while brown and lesser noddies, white terns and white-tailed tropicbirds flew overhead or perched in the casuarina trees.

We had the opportunity to explore the historic remains of the island before transferring to our snorkel site.

This was a good opportunity to check out our snorkeling skills—those who were able to duck dive under the murky surface were rewarded with wonderful clarity, though the water was quite cold. There was a school of small glass fish sticking close together as a means of protection from larger predators. Parrotfish nibbled coral while powder-blue surgeonfish darted into crevices in search of their favorite titbits.

Divers went for their check-out dive to a beautiful section of the reef. They too experienced limited visibility down to approximately 20 feet. The dive gave everyone a chance to adjust their weights and get comfortable with their gear while enjoying a huge diversity of fish, hard and soft corals. 

Back on board the kitchen delighted our taste buds with an Asian cookout and sweet treats accompanied by afternoon teas and coffees. Later, Rob Dunbar gave his first presentation The Indian Ocean: The Craziest Ocean on the Planet.

Friday, October 26
At Sea

The seas remained challenging throughout the night and promised to keep us taking great care while moving around the vessel. Some brave souls joined Shirley Campbell on deck 7 for Yin Yoga only to be forced to retreat to the lounge after rain interrupted meditation. Rich Pagen began the day’s lecture series with his presentation, Productivity on the Coral Reef: How Interspecies Relationships Have Built an Empire. Jack Grove followed with his presentation, Fishes – Part 1.

During the day Brent Stephenson and Machiel Valkenburg were out on deck pointing out the seabirds flying around the ship. Wedge-tail shearwaters, red-footed booby, frigates, and sooty terns on occasion flew with the ship.

After lunch the ship’s sommelier, Ishmael, gave a presentation, Mixology. Brent was our final lecturer of the day with his presentation, Seabirds of the Tropical Indian Ocean.

Saturday, October 27
Assumption Island /Aldabra Atoll

After a rough day at sea, the rocking of the ship eased considerably in the early morning. Relieved, we welcomed the gentle rocking of the ship as we sailed towards Aldabra. Mid-morning we picked up a group of Aldabra’s Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF) rangers so that we could begin the biosecurity measures necessary for disembarkation. These measures ensure nothing invasive is inadvertently brought on shore. Meanwhile the ship sailed to Assumption Island to disembark a fellow traveler needing medical care.

After lunch Annette Kühlem gave her presentation, Common Origins & Diverse Adaptations: The Australasian Expansion Across Half the Globe. In the afternoon we arrived at the Ranger Station located on Picard Island, Aldabra. Many chose to drift snorkel the Passe Dubois where they drifted with water swiftly flowing out of the lagoon together with white and black-tip sharks, green turtles, a variety of tangs, Moorish idols, potato cod, parrotfish, and a large stingray. Divers blew bubbles off North Picard, discovering a plethora of bommies teaming with life. With a little current and good visibility, the divers’ first underwater experience of Aldabra was very successful.

Others chose to look for endemic birds including the Aldabra fody, Aldabra white-throated rail, and the Aldabra drongo. A longer, historical walk took people into the island with our ranger guides providing interesting commentary on the human connection to Aldabra and the creation of the station. All had meaningful encounters with the Aldabra giant tortoise while enjoying sunset cocktails on the beach.

Sunday, October 28
Aldabra Atoll

The ship relocated to one of the four navigable channels into the lagoon where we enjoyed Zodiac cruises into the world’s largest lesser frigatebird colony. Several people chose to experience one of the world’s best drift snorkels out the Grande Passe where they joined groupers, trevally, and parrotfish. Divers were likewise enticed by the strong current running out of the lagoon through Grande Passe. The dive started off quite fast and then, halfway through the channel the current subsided and changed direction. Huge potato cod, giant trevally, and numerous schools of fish accompanied them through the channel.

Bird enthusiasts were simply happy to enjoy an extended Zodiac cruise and spend more time with lesser and greater frigatebirds. There were several fluffy chicks peering from the nests resting within the branches of red mangroves. Several male frigatebirds had inflated their bright red gular sacs. Red-footed boobies were also nesting in and amongst the frigatebirds. Their young were older, almost fully fledged. Elegant white terns were also in abundance as where both red-tailed and white-tailed tropicbirds.

The mornings activities complete, the ship repositioned to the other end of Picard Island where snorkel platforms were set up for an afternoon of water sports. Powder-blue surgeonfish were in abundance and several species of parrotfish and wrasse were busy with their varied tasks on the reef. We saw white and black-tip reef sharks, a school of grazing surgeonfish, the Picasso triggerfish, and orange-spined unicornfish. Divers went under following a gently sloping reef with lots of interesting bommies.

A late afternoon Zodiac cruise was offered, providing a large pod of spinner dolphins a thrilling diversion in the wake of the speeding Zodiacs. We entered a channel into the lagoon were healthy sea grass attracted green turtles. Around the ship, a mother humpback whale and her calf entertained those who remained on board.

Monday, October 29
Assumption Island

Waking to a beautiful morning, we found ourselves anchored just off Assumption Island. We had the opportunity to snorkel off the beach to anchored Zodiacs or simply slip into the cool water from the Zodiacs. The water was clear with great visibility looking over several large coral bommies. Schools of bluestripe snapper clung to the reef. Divers followed a beautiful wall partly encircling the island where they saw an array of lovely fish and corals. The water was the clearest of the entire trip!

Although the island once supported a small copra plantation, it became more profitable to excavate the guano on the island. Many of the graves in the cemetery are associated with this history. In 2018, the Seychelles government together with India decided to build a joint military facility on the island in response to the developing China-India difficulties. While we could see evidence of the growing military facility our interests lay elsewhere. On shore birders found the Madagascar white-eye, sunbirds, and white terns. Snorkelers could explore between the beach and the nearby snorkel platforms, or guest could spend time walking along the beach or visit the old cemetery.

After lunch, the Silver Discoverer set its bow towards Madagascar and we sailed on smooth seas for the rest of the day. In the afternoon Ishmael, the ship’s sommelier, demonstrated more ways to mix spirits and wines until it was time for afternoon tea. Shirley Campbell presented her lecture, Creating Ancestors: Connecting Past and Present Malagasy.

Tuesday, October 30
Diego Suarez, Madagascar

This morning we sailed into the beautiful Diego Suarez Bay edged by rising mountain formations signaling the Tsaratanana Massif that lies just to the south. ‘Diego,’ as the locals refer to it, is the fifth largest city in Madagascar. It was named after two Portuguese admirals, Diego Diaz and Fernando Suarez, who arrived in 1506 and proceeded to conquer the local Antankarana people, many of whom were sold into slavery. Today the town is a bustling center for surrounding villagers who come to sell their produce and purchase material items. 

Once alongside we boarded four-wheel drive vehicles and commenced our journey into the hinterland passing Malagasy at work pulling heavy loads to some purpose, selling vegetables to others, zebu and human drawn carts carrying goods to market, and villages of people beginning their daily chores. Our destination was the nearly 46,000-acres of Montagne D’Ambre National Park, a splendid example of montane rainforest, ranging in altitude from 2,700 to 4,800 feet. The name comes not from deposits of precious amber, but from the amber-colored resin that oozes from rotra trees. The resin is used medicinally by the local people.

Stopping occasionally along the way to see a variety of chameleons, our vehicles managed to climb the deeply rutted dirt road to our drop-off points. Our options were for a long walk, a medium walk, or a leisurely stroll around the picnic area. Birders made their own way into the forest to find their target birds while most of us saw the beautiful little pygmy kingfisher, Madagascar malachite, Amber Mountain rock thrush, and pitta-like brown-roller. Everyone saw a troop of Sanford’s brown lemurs while some spotted a few crowned lemurs. We saw the tiny Brookesi minima sp, while Amber Mountain, blue-nosed, and elephant-ear chameleons showed off their diversity of color. Meanwhile, the little leaf-tailed gecko proved incredibly difficult to distinguish from its mottled perch. We finished with the Cascade Sacree (Sacred Waterfall) before returning down the mountain. Along the way we stopped for delicious local food at a street restaurant, Rarivato. The delicious mangos were a special treat! Interestingly, while we gravitated towards the mangos, our local guides and drivers preferred the uneaten apples we had brought with us; to them an exotic fruit rarely encountered! 

Upon our return, some people chose to stay in town and take in the sights of Diego, visiting the Chameleon Military Base, disused since the end of WWII. A favorite was the 3-Horse Brewery and a local bar where we enjoyed drinks and dancing. We also visited the British cemetery before returning to the ship. Back onboard, we cleaned up for recap and dinner.

Wednesday, October 31
At Sea

A relaxing day at sea offered many distractions. Rob presented his lecture, Madagascar, African Megadroughts, and Tibet: Connections You Never Knew. This was followed by an early-morning wine tasting in the Dining Room with Ishmael. Annette gave her presentation later in the morning, Newcomers on a Pristine Island? Archaeological Evidence for Human Impact on Madagascar.

Lunch gave us time to reflect on what we had learned. Throughout the afternoon we had numerous sightings of humpback whales. Arguably the most dramatic encounter was with a mother and her calf who spent a long time displaying. They breached several times, the young calf seeming to imitate its mother as she breached over and over again. They also enjoyed pectoral slapping, waving, lobtailing, and rolling.

Rob and Robyn then gave an informal demonstration and discussion on how to read the geology of Madagascar using large geological maps. The afternoon’s education at sea ended with Rich’s presentation, Sex on and off the Beach: Reproduction and Raising Young in the Aquatic Realm

Following dinner, we had a special dessert in the Lounge where many relaxed on the dance floor, jiving to Jorge’s musical selections.

Thursday, November 1
Nosy Mangabe / Maroantsetra

A gorgeous morning greeted us as we woke anchored off Nosy Mangabe, a little over a mile offshore from the busy market town of Maroantsetra. Covered in dense tropical forest, the island has a history of trading ships and piracy. Today it is a protected nature reserve affording an array of walking trails. The landing site had a troop of black-and-white ruffed lemurs jumping from branch to branch, tree to tree. Difficult to photograph in the dense canopy, we enjoyed glimpses of these little strepsirrhine primates as they fed on the fruit of various trees. Again, we broke into groups of fast walkers, leisurely nature walkers, and low-key strollers and spent several hours exploring the paths. Birders found the Madagascar paradise flycatcher and the Madagascar malachite kingfisher. We also enjoyed encounters with skinks, and the green-backed mantella, related to the poison dart frog found in South America. A panther chameleon entertained us at the landing while a leaf-tail gecko was difficult to see as it sat, head down, camouflaged on a tree trunk.

Back on board for lunch, the ship repositioned to Maroantsetra. We had a long Zodiac ride into the estuary where we saw purple and squacco herons as well as a number of other wading birds. As we cruised towards the market town we observed people going about daily life and saw boats of all sizes and shapes. Once ashore we were greeted by a group of jubilantly singing women wearing hats and colorful dresses. Afterwards we made our way in groups through the streets marveling at the array of sights that greeted us. We visited a man who had an array of tomato frogs for us to admire before turning down the main market road. A huge variety of venders sold their specialties, busy supplying those people living more remotely in the hinterland.

We watched the sunset as we made our way back to the ship, Zodiacs battling an onshore wind which encouraged huge swells to splash over the bows of the Zodiacs. No one escaped getting wet!

Friday, November 2
Masoala National Park

It was early in the morning when we disembarked for Masoala National Park. We explored the various paths from different directions up into primary rainforest. The paths were narrower than at Nosy Mangabe and our feet carefully sought safe footing amongst the damp leaf litter, roots, and rocks. The smells of the rainforest were a rich bouquet of leaf compost, damp wood, and warm earth. We found many beautiful examples of buttress roots supporting the tall Canarium trees. Within the canopy above, birds enticed with their calls, but darted out of sight and into the tangle of branches and creepers. Some of us spotted the blue coua and helmet vanga, while still others were lucky enough to find the short-legged ground roller.

We saw many small animals hiding in the leaf litter or making their way across rocks and leaves to whatever destination they had in mind; millipedes, frogs, praying mantis, and butterflies. Red-ruffed lemur and white-faced lemur troops rested and played within the foliage of the higher trees, delighting us with their agility and vocalizations.

We then made a delightful visit to Ambodiforaha village where we walked past small homes before assembling for a performance, again by colorfully dressed women wearing hats. They performed welcome dances, a circumcision dance, and farewell dances. When they weren’t dancing, they were amongst the many other villagers selling various handicrafts; sarongs, spices, vanilla, baskets, and small carvings.

Back on board, we set sail for Reunion Island while Jack delivered his presentation, Biodiversity in the Sea, and Why it Matters.

Saturday, November 3
At Sea

Sacha Guggenheimer took those willing to join her for yoga on Deck 7 this morning. Others chose a later morning and enjoyed an extended breakfast. Tom Hiney began our ‘University of the Sea’ with his presentation, Conservation Success Stories of the Western Indian Ocean. Between lectures, Captain Darlusz welcomed visitors to the navigation bridge and Executive Chef Christian gave a cooking demonstration. Rob finished the day with his presentation, Ocean Acidification and Sea Level Rise.

Sunday, November 4
Réunion Island

This morning we docked at La Possession, Réunion Island—a French Department in the Indian Ocean. An uninhabited island until the French settled in 1649, the island’s remote location may have had a series of earlier visitors including Arab traders, Austronesian speakers from Madagascar, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch. Twenty-five years after settlement, the dodo and tortoise became extinct. The French grew coffee and harvested teak to send back to France. Later they introduced sugarcane. Slave labor was drawn from Madagascar, contributing to the current admixture in the population.

Birders headed out first with their box lunches in search of a few remaining endemic birds; the Réunion cuckooshrike, Réunion bulbul, Réunion stonechat, and the Réunion gray and olive white-eyes.

Another group headed to what is claimed to be the most active volcano in the world, the 500,000-year-old Piton de la Fournaise. Réunion Island is the newest of a chain of islands extending south from the Lakshadweep Islands to the north. Our guides explained the history of Réunion Island as we drove the winding road. Our first stop was Nez le Boeuf, providing a breathtaking view down the valley, once deeply carved by molten lava pouring from the volcano’s crater. From here we continued climbing to 7,500 feet above sea level and a spectacular lookout over what resembled a lunar landscape, Plaine des Sables. Continuing on to Pas de Bellecombe, we looked out over the old crater of the volcano. Returning the same way, we headed for Plaine des Cafres for lunch at the Auberge de Volcano for some serious Creole cuisine! Fully nourished we continued our tour of the island, now heading to the wetter east coast where we turned north towards a vanilla plantation at St. Andre. Here we had the opportunity to learn just how difficult it is to produce good quality vanilla. Once harvested, each pod is individually handled a total of 22 times before finally being packaged and exported to the French market. Réunion vanilla is of a very high quality and much sought after in the European market. We were revived in the humid climate by a delicious drink combining rum, coconut milk, and vanilla. 

A third group took a clockwise circumnavigation of the island. The first stop was the Church Notre Dame des Laves which narrowly escaped a 2007 flow of lava. The drive took us south where we crossed several lava flows that had occurred since 2001. Another short stop was made at Puis Arabe Jardin Volcanic for more spectacular views of the headlands. Lunch was at La Marmite du Pêcheur, a Creole restaurant in Cap Méchant. After lunch we continued our journey, stopping at the Jardin des Parfumes et des Spices for a thoroughly enjoyable wander through the lovely gardens.

Monday, November 5
Mauritius Island

Like Réunion, Mauritius was also an uninhabited island until the Dutch arrived in 1598 from South Africa. They brought with them sugarcane from their colony in Java and slaves from South Africa to work in the cane fields. They also brought monkeys and rats, both of which helped the Dutch exterminate the dodo. In 1638 the Dutch returned looking for ebony, proceeding to reduce ebony forests to next to nothing while dining on tortoise meat and extracting oils from their flesh to export back to Holland. Tortoises also became extinct as a result of voracious Dutch appetites!

In 1715 the French arrived and claimed the island, ‘Isle de France’ bringing slaves from Madagascar to work in the sugarcane fields. In 1810 the British took Mauritius in the Treaty of Zanzibar following the war between France and England. In 1992 the British left and the Republic of Mauritius was born.

Birders headed out early in search of birds in the Black Rivers Gorges National Park with a biologist from the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation. The rest of us began our tour at the Mauritius Glass Gallery where recycled glass is reincarnated into exquisite pieces for sale. From here we set out through the diverse landscape, created by 22 extinct volcanoes, to the rim of one of these, Trou-aux-cerfs, where we had sweeping views of the island. We continued on to Grand-Bassin, where a cup of Ganges water has been poured into the lake to make it a sacred pilgrimage for Maruitian Hindus, which comprise fifty percent of the population. We visited two gigantic statues of both Durga and Shiva before exploring the temple dedicated to Shiva.  

The road climbed up the slopes of yet another extinct volcano with magnificent views of the flatlands below. Our lunch at Varanguesur Morne provided a delicious taste of Creole cuisine and spectacular views of the Indian Ocean.

While some of us headed for the airport and homeward journeys, others visited the Chamarel Waterfall and the seven-colored earths of Chamarel, believed to have resulted from the weathering of volcanic material. The soft mounds of colored earth looked like delicious scoops of multi-flavored ice cream. We continued down the mountain’s winding road to visit the Rhumerie de Chamarel for a tour of the rum distillery and some tasting of Mauritian rum! Our final stop was the Sainte Aubin Estate for refreshments before again separating, some of us heading for the airport while those on later flights went to the Shandrani Resort for a buffet dinner and showers before heading to the airport.

Mauritius was our final destination on a magnificent journey through the south Indian Ocean. We said our goodbyes in waves of separations and departures and made our various journeys onwards, hoping to meet again on another exploration.

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