Aldabra Atoll

Ultimate Seychelles with Aldabra Atoll

Log by Pepper Trail | Main photographer Rich Pagen|May 14, 2020|Field Report

Saturday, February 15, 2020
Zanzibar, Tanzania
Today was the day of arrival for most of us—and for everyone our day to gather as a group. We settled into our two hotels, the Serena and the Park Hyatt, next to each other on the lovely beachfront of Zanzibar’s Stonetown.  In the evening we had our welcome dinner and orientation to the next day’s activities by Expedition Leader Brad Climpson and Cruise Director Lisa Wurzrainer, and then most of us quickly retreated to our beds to employ various jet-lag strategies and get ready for the adventures ahead.

Sunday, February 16
Zanzibar / Embark Le Bougainville
Is there any more exotic place name in all the world? Today we explored this island, rich in history both colorful and very dark indeed. After a delicious breakfast and the usual hustle and bustle of getting luggage organized for transfer to the ship later in the day, we set off for the Jordani National Park and its famous red colobus monkeys. We began with a stroll through the reserve’s mahogany forest, where we had great views of Zanzibar’s more common and widespread monkey, the Syke’s blue monkey. These lively and adaptable primates were feeding on fruits along the trail, leaping back and forth over our heads. We then walked a few hundred yards to an area of dense scrub where a troop of red colobus were leading their very leisurely lives. Occasionally one would reach out to munch on leaves, but mostly they relaxed—and digested—allowing us to approach within a few feet and get great photographs of their expressive faces and beautifully patterned red, white, and black pelage. Our final excursion of Jordani was a stroll through the reserve’s mangrove forest on a boardwalk.

After returning to Stonetown for lunch at the Serena, we set out on our city tour. From the beautifully breezy veranda of the Sultan’s Palace, we were treated to a view of our ship, Le Bougainville, in port. After an obligatory stop at the birthplace of Freddie Mercury, who for most of us is Zanzibar’s most famous native son, we continued by bus and on foot through the twisting streets and alleyways of Stonetown, admiring the famous wooden doors and the picturesque spice shops. The final stop on our tour was the Slave Market Museum, whose devastatingly powerful exhibits documented Zanzibar’s long history as a center for the East African slave trade. Descending into the cramped dungeons where slaves where kept before being sold was an experience that none of us will forget.

 After departing the museum, we arrived at the port and came aboard the beautiful Le Bougainville. The remainder of the day was spent in the whirlwind of orientation, unpacking, lifeboat safety drill, and staff introductions, before our sunset sail-away from Zanzibar and the beginnings of our Seychelles adventures.

Monday, February 17
At Sea
Today was our first sea day, a day of leisure, as we cooled off after the fierce heat of Zanzibar, oriented ourselves to Le Bougainville, began to sample its fantastic food, and enjoyed the first two installments in the lecture program. The first lecture was Sultans, Slaves, and Spices: The Last 500 Years of Zanzibar’s History by Stephen Fisher, which gave us a panoramic view of Zanzibar’s discovery and development under Arab and European influence. Following the lecture, the expedition staff prepared us for the remainder of our voyage by presenting Zodiac and snorkel briefings, and distributed the fins and masks for the snorkeling adventures that will begin with our arrival at Assumption tomorrow.

In the afternoon, Rich Pagen continued our preparation for snorkeling and diving with his presentation Productivity of the Coral Reef: How Interspecies Relationships Have Built an Empire. Among all the facts that he shared about coral reefs and the amazing array of organisms that thrive there, Rich made particularly sure that everyone learned the essential term ZOOXANTHELLAE—the algae that live symbiotically with coral polyps and provide essential nutrients though their photosynthesis.

After Rich’s lecture, the many passengers who came out on deck were treated to the sight of red-footed boobies soaring back and forth in front of a brilliant rainbow ahead of the ship, and an amazing orange-hued sunset astern. This natural spectacle concluded just in time for us to go inside and make ourselves splendid for the Captain’s welcome reception and dinner.

Tuesday, February 18
Assumption Atoll, Seychelles
As dawn broke, Le Bougainville approached Assumption Atoll, our first destination in the Seychelles. Soon, the scout boats were in the water, and the staff located a landing site that offered wonderful opportunities to snorkel from the beach, as well beachcombing and natural history walks. The mellow beach snorkel was the perfect introduction to snorkeling for the first-timers, and a chance for the rest of us to reacquaint ourselves with our gear. A great mix of sand flats, seagrass beds, and coral heads provided plenty of variety. Meanwhile, our Seychelles expert Gemma Jessy and ornithologist Pepper Trail led walkers along the shore, pointing out the native plants and the ubiquitous Souimanga sunbirds, whose lively nectar-feeding, curved beaks, and iridescent male plumage recalled the unrelated but ecologically similar hummingbirds of the Neotropics.

After lunch aboard, we set out the day’s second snorkel, this time from Zodiacs moored in deeper water. Conditions were perfect, with crystal-clear water allowing fantastic viewing of the healthy reef and abundant fish. A special highlight for many were excellent views of octopus, whose shape-shifting and color changes put on an amazing show. Among all the colorful fish, Rich declared the powder-blue tang to be the “fish of the day” in honor of its beauty and abundance on the Assumption reef.

Meanwhile, the divers had two great dives. The morning’s check-out dive was mellow, but featured schools of paddle-tailed and blue-tailed snappers. In the afternoon, divemasters Mike Murphy (Murf) and Marcel Attencourt took the divers to a much steeper drop-off, where highlights included a gray reef shark, huge schools of blue-striped fusiliers, and a huge scorpionfish—one of the largest Murf had ever seen.

In the evening, our first recap of the voyage began with a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” to Gemma Jessy—and she promptly returned the favor by singing for us the lyrical “Aldabra Song,” celebrating the beauty of the remote and pristine atoll where we will spend the next two days.

Wednesday, February 19
Aldabra Atoll
Without exaggeration, it is safe to say that the first day of our visit to Aldabra will live as a treasured memory for all of us for the rest of our lives.

The day began with our briefing on Aldabra and the research and conservation efforts of the Seychelles Island Foundation by research station staff. There was a strong emphasis on the biosecurity measures that we will follow to prevent the accidental introduction of non-native plants, insects, and other organisms on our landing tomorrow. Today, however, we were going to be exploring the extraordinary marine environment of the atoll and its lagoon. First, we needed to wait for the turning of the tide, so that we could carry out a drift snorkel along the Grand Passe channel into the lagoon. Once the conditions were right, we jumped into the water in groups and were carried along the reef wall on a powerful but relatively leisurely current. After this drift of several hundred meters, we were picked up by Zodiac. Many of us did the drift two or even three times, and it was a hard job to convince the last enraptured snorkelers to leave the water and return to the ship. The consensus was, “Best snorkel ever!”

The most extraordinary aspect of the strictly protected Aldabra Lagoon is the presence of so many large fish, some approaching a meter in length. There were hulking giant sweetlips and potato groupers, schools of paddle-tailed snappers and bluefin trevally, colorful emperor and royal angelfish, not to mention—for the lucky ones—sightings of hawksbill sea turtles and gray reef sharks, all swarming on a wall of coral descending out of sight into sapphire depths. 

Meanwhile, the divers saw all this and more on a wild drift dive through Grand Passe, covering almost one-and-a-half miles along the bottom of the mid-channel. 

After a belated lunch, we headed out for a Zodiac cruise through the mangrove channels bordering Grand Passe. We got wonderful close views of the red-footed boobies and frigatebirds (both great and lesser) that nest in the mangroves, as well as some of the special landbirds of Aldabra, including the bright red Aldabra fody, the Comoros blue-pigeon, and the Aldabra drongo. As if that wasn’t enough wildlife, we had fly-overs by Aldabra flying foxes, and swim-unders by a group of three eagle rays. All in all, a day none of us will ever forget!

Thursday, February 20
Aldabra Atoll
Our second day at Aldabra was as memorable as the first, with a landing on Picard Island and a chance to walk among the famous Aldabra giant tortoises, the last survivors of their kind in the Indian Ocean. First, however, we enjoyed a wonderful morning snorkel excursion in the Anse Pas area off the western edge of Picard Island. Rivers of paddle-tailed snappers flowed through the area, passing around “cleaning stations” where huge giant sweetlips were groomed by cleaner wrasses. Many snorkelers were lucky to see green sea turtles and a large nurse shark resting on the bottom.

Meanwhile, the divers had another fantastic day, with schools of spotted eagle rays, tawny nurse sharks in a feeding frenzy and many huge inquisitive potato groupers.

After lunch, each of us went through our biosecurity inspection and set off in our Zodiacs. Hawksbill sea turtles, marbled stingrays, and black-tipped reef sharks cruised the turquoise waters of the Aldabra Lagoon, while abundant frigatebirds, boobies, tropicbirds, egrets, and Madagascar turtle doves kept the birders reaching for their binoculars. The cruise ended at the beach of the Aldabra Research Station, and we set foot at last on this unique and magical atoll. The staff of the Seychelles Island Foundation led groups of us on three different hikes along the shore and into the interior of the island, where everyone had a chance to see plenty of giant tortoises going about their ponderous business. Other highlights included wonderful views of such special birds at the bright red Aldabra fody, the Seychelles kestrel, and the Aldabra white-necked rail. We also marveled at the massive coconut crabs, the largest—and one of the rarest—terrestrial arthropods in the world. An impromptu beach bar set up by Le Bougainville’s hotel staff gave us all an opportunity to toast this unforgettable visit to Aldabra.

Friday, February 21
Cosmoledo Atoll
This morning we continued our voyage through the Aldabra Archipelago with a visit to Cosmoledo Atoll. As we enjoyed breakfast, clouds of red-footed and masked boobies soared over the ship. The expedition staff set off to find a good snorkel site, and soon we were in the crystal-clear water. Almost everyone had wonderful views of green sea turtles, and there were also sightings of stingrays and moray eels, as well as a great variety of colorful reef fish.

The divers dove on a magnificent gentle sloping reef, adorned with 100% coverage of soft corals and a huge variety of marine species, including dogtooth tuna, moray eels, and lobsters.

 In the afternoon, we enjoyed a Zodiac cruise in the Cosmoledo lagoon, with abundant green sea turtles zooming away from our approach with amazing speed, and a variety of shorebirds on the shore, including crab-plovers, ruddy turnstones, and sanderlings. We landed on a lovely white sand beach on Wizard Island, and most everyone immediately jumped into the beautifully warm water. Gemma and Pepper led the birders along the shore, where they had excellent views of the Madagascar cisticola, while Rich and Brad led a more ambitious hike over the low ridge of the island to the other side, where they discovered a fresh sea turtle nest.

Back on board, there was barely time to change into dry clothes before Pepper’s lecture There Are No Moa: Evolution and Extinction on Islands, which provided great context for the natural history and conservation challenges of oceanic islands in general and the Seychelles in particular. A rollicking recap session was highlighted by Rich’s encouragement of three plucky volunteers to re-enact the locomotion of coconut crabs, and Murf and John Yersin’s hilarious “politically correct” re-imagining of the Battle of Trafalgar (spoiler alert: no lives were endangered by either activity!).

Saturday, February 22
Astove Atoll
The scouting party located a superb site for our morning snorkel, with an expanse of reef shallows ending at a dramatic drop-off. The upper reef yielded fantastic close-up views of many species of colorful butterflyfish, as well as wrasses, puffers, and many giant clams embedded in the coral. At the drop-off, clouds of brilliant orange anthias hung over the sapphire depths that was shot through with shafts of sunlight. Below were massive groupers and sweetlips, along with green sea turtles passing along the reef wall. Truly a phenomenal morning!

For the divers, the wall at Astove lived up to its world-famous reputation, with an abundance of fish weaving in and out of its caverns and overhangs, including two beautiful silvertip sharks, bumphead parrotfish, emperor wrasse, and huge potato groupers.

In the afternoon, Le Bougainville repositioned to provide us with easy access for our beach landing on Astove. The ship’s hotel staff outdid themselves, setting up gazebos for shade and—to everyone’s delight—constructing a floating bar anchored just offshore. Soon a throng was gathered in the shallows, enjoyed mango rum punch or champagne as they soaked in the warm tropical sea. A few hardy passengers were able to tear themselves away for a nature walk led by Gemma and Pepper in the shade of the island’s coconut palms. The highlight was the numerous giant tortoises that were grazing in the grassy “pasture” beneath the palms. These were relocated from Aldabra to repopulate Astove with the tortoises that were eliminated from the island in the 19th century—and they seem to be doing very well indeed.

Sunday, February 23
At Sea
Today was a relaxing yet full day at sea, well-earned after the non-stop activity of the previous five days. After time for a bit of a sleep-in and a leisurely breakfast, we gathered for the first lecture of the day, Stephen’s Settling the Seychelles: A Necessarily Brief History of the Seychelles, which condensed the 260 years of human settlement on the archipelago into an entertaining 45 minutes. Shirley Campbell followed with her pre-lunch talk The Making of a Creole, providing crucial insights into this multi-faceted topic, so essential for understanding the Seychelles and other post-colonial societies with a dark history of slavery.

The afternoon was “at leisure” (translation—nap time) until 4 o’clock tea time, when the expedition team gathered in the lounge to answer questions on upcoming Zegrahm voyages and land adventures. Madalena Patacho topped off the afternoon with her presentation It’s a Fishy World, illuminating the evolution and adaptations of the diverse array of creatures that we lump under the term “fish.”

 The day’s activities ended on a high note with a favorite Zegrahm tradition, “Liar’s Club.”  Spurred on by emcee Rich, designated liars Little John, Shirley, Pepper, and Murf took turns delivering definitions of VERY obscure but real terms (spekk finger anyone?). One definition was true (judiciously embellished), while the other three were… well, lies—and it was up to the audience to sift fact from fiction. The ensuing hilarity was ample justification for any damage that our expert naturalists’ credibility may have suffered.

Monday, February 24
Alphonse Atoll
This morning found us in the Amirante Island group, with Le Bougainville holding position off Alphonse Atoll. The first order of business for the expedition team was to send a Zodiac ashore to pick up Chris Jessy, who is a conservation officer on Alphonse Island—and the son of our Seychelles expert Gemma. He gave Brad and Murf great information on the best snorkeling, diving, and landing sites. The snorkeling site was inside the lagoon, which was ideal given the rather choppy sea conditions outside the reef.

The tides dictated a late-morning start for snorkeling, giving us time for a morning lecture by Pepper: Fighting Crime with Feathers: The Casebook of a Forensic Ornithologist. This introduced us to Pepper’s fascinating “day job” with the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife Forensic Laboratory, and to wider issues with the illegal international wildlife trade.

The snorkeling was worth waiting for, as the low tide and the calm conditions inside the lagoon allowed us to hang just above the reef and observe its inhabitants at close range. Highlights included abundant colorful giant clams, numerous pipefish (like stretched-out sea horses, to which they are related), puffers, and an array of butterflyfish. A special treat was the opportunity to swim over to the sandbar marking the interior edge of the reef flat, and to have a stroll on this lovely “beach,” exposed only at low tide.

The diving at Alphonse was superb: a gentle slope down to 60 feet and then a sheer drop-off to infinity. Particularly unforgettable was the beautiful forest of gorgonian fans, and moray eels in every hole and crevice.

After lunch, we headed for the actual shore of Alphonse, where Le Bougainville staff set up their ever-popular beach bar. Many of us had a relaxing swim in the 90° (yes, 90°) water, while others set out for a nature walk led by Pepper, Gemma, and her son Chris. Nature highlights included a visit to the area with the nest burrows of wedge-tailed shearwaters,  a walk through the old coconut plantation with some towering Casuarina trees, and glimpses of the tiny and hyperactive common waxbill birds that have been introduced to Alphonse. With the rising tide, the nature walkers waded part of the way along the shore to return to the landing, adding to their reputation as stalwart adventurers.

Tuesday, February 25
Poivre / D’Arros
The morning’s activities commenced with Rich’s entertaining lecture Drama Like Your Favorite Soap Opera: Competition, Adaptation, and Deception on the Reef. After a short break to get ourselves organized, we boarded the Zodiacs and headed out for our exploration of Poivre. This small island was packed full of interesting history and natural history. Like many of the coralline Seychelles, Poivre was once a coconut plantation, devoted to the production of copra and coconut oil. The remains of the buildings from that era are now impressive ruins, some with young trees sprouting from their walls. And speaking of trees, the island was rich with interesting botany, including breadfruit, papaya, Casuarina, and lantern tree (Hernandia). Gemma and Shirley provided great interpretation as we strolled through the island settlement.

Meanwhile, there were plenty of birds to keep the birders happy. We visited near low tide, and the beach and reef flat were full of herons and shorebirds, including crab-plovers, common greenshank, and sanderlings. The well-mowed lawns of the settlement were the site of busy foraging by flocks of ruddy turnstones and curlew sandpipers, while the trees had bright red fodies and nesting white terns.

After lunch, Le Bougainville repositioned to offshore of the small island of D’Arros. The island is now a strictly protected nature reserve, and landings are not allowed. No problem—our scouting team located a fantastic snorkel site. The water was rather deep, but clear, and we able to hang above the reef, swaying in the rhythmic swell, and observing schools of snappers, pairs of butterflyfish of several species, several large and inquisitive spadefish, and many other fish. A few lucky snorkelers even spotted sea turtles and two gray reef sharks.

Our destination for tomorrow’s activities was the nearby island of Desroches, and Le Bougainville reached our anchorage there by 9PM. This is noteworthy because it allowed great after-dinner viewing in Le Bougainville’s underwater Blue Eye lounge.  We took turns at the great glowing windows, marveling at the schools of squid, the jellyfish, the tiny juvenile fish of many kinds, and even some close encounters with flying fish swimming by.

Wednesday, February 26
Desroches Island
Today was our last day among the atolls and reefs of the “coralline Seychelles,” and in true Zegrahm fashion, we packed in a variety of activities. Shirley led off the day with her lecture Out of Africa: From the Cradle of Mankind to the Colonization of the World, which summarized the very latest discoveries in our ever-changing understanding of human evolution—some announced as recently as a few weeks ago! 

We then loaded into Zodiacs and made a landing on Deroches’ beautiful Bombay Beach. Many of us headed straight into the azure water, while others walked along the island’s sandy “road” with Gemma and the naturalists to reach the Tortoise Sanctuary of the Island Conservation Society.  There we followed the sanctuary’s excellent “Native Plant Path,” highlighting the native trees and shrubs that the ICS is nurturing, with information on the biology of the giant tortoises that were re-established on the island in the 1980s. A special highlight was the “tortoise nursery,” where ICS head ranger Jean-Claude allowed us to carefully hold palm-sized three-month old tortoises, which will be cared for by the sanctuary until they are allowed to freely roam the island at about 10 years old.

After lunch and time for a siesta, Le Bougainville repositioned to the northwest side of the island, where we enjoyed a last beach afternoon (complete with beach bar) with swimming, and a last snorkel from platforms offshore. The snorkel was outstanding, with a variety of large fish, including a huge trumpetfish. A few of us made the mile trek to the headquarters of the Island Conservation Society, where there is a variety of information about the natural history of the Seychelles and an interesting display of turtle and marine mammal skeletons—including a beaked whale skeleton of a new species, that had been scientifically described by our own Merel Dalebout.

Desroches was the number one dive for the team, in fact almost everyone said it was the best dive of their lives. A huge plateau down to 60 feet, and then a wall with overhangs and huge granitic slabs. There were literally thousands of bigeye jacks and paddletail snapper pouring off the plateau like a living waterfall.

Then, it was everyone back to the ship in time to prepare for the Captain’s farewell cocktail party and gala dinner.

Thursday, February 27
Praslin Island / La Digue Island
This morning we arrived at last in the granitic Seychelles, the fragments of Gondwana that include all the permanently inhabited islands of the archipelago. A short Zodiac ride took us to our first dry landing of the trip, on the beautiful island of Praslin. Praslin is home to Vallee de Mai National Park, the sanctuary for the coco de mer palm, the plant with the heaviest seed in the world, as well as to the Seychelles black parrot. We divided into groups of “long walkers,” “short walkers,” and “birders,” though in the end it seemed that most of us covered similar routes. The coco de mer palm forest is incredible, with huge fronds forming a dense canopy, and the protuberant male flowers and the massive and voluptuous female fruits formed an unforgettable spectacle. We could hear the black parrots calling overhead, and most of us managed to catch glimpses through the canopy.

After lunch aboard Le Bougainville, we repositioned to the nearby island of La Digue. The “easy riders” climbed on bikes and set off on a mellow roll through town and along the shore, with a stop at the small but scenic tortoise sanctuary, with massive granite boulders making a pleasing complement to the tortoises’ domed gray shells. At the Veuve Nature Reserve, they had good views of the endemic Seychelles paradise-flycatcher, with its spectacular long tail feathers. Meanwhile, the “survival of the fittest” bikers, led by Murf and Little John, experienced some bike chain issues, but fortunately our staff member Stephen used his prior experience as a bike mechanic to save the day. They visited the Veuve Reserve and the beach at Grande Anse before rendezvousing with the other groups at world-famous Anse Source d’Argent beach. The largest contingent rode in “les trucks” along the same route as the easy riders. The Anse Source d’Argent beach lived up to its reputation, with massive granite boulders, fluted with erosion channels, rising from powdery sand and enlivened by vivid green vegetation.

Friday, February 28
Mahe / Disembark
Ah, the bittersweet last day! Before we headed to the airport for our various flights homeward—or settled into hotels for some post-cruise R&R—we all enjoyed a varied tour of Mahe, the Seychelles’ capital and largest island. The day began with a visit to the lovely botanical garden, which featured coco de mer palms, beautiful tropical flowers, an enclosure of friendly tortoises, and a roost of flying foxes. Then on to a city tour of Victoria, with a memorable stop at the central market, redolent of spices—and fish. A drive around the island produced breathtaking views of the towering granite cliffs that rise above the turquoise ocean. After a wonderful lunch at a seaside hotel, we visited the Mahe “craft village” and restored creole house. Then those of us with a late flight headed off to the Avanti Resort to relax, swim, and while away the hours until we began our long journeys home. Farewell, Seychelles—we will never forget you!

 

 

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