Paradise Found at Aldabra Atoll

The Seychelles…its very name conjurs a romantic image; seashells or perhaps swaying palm trees shading powdered sugar sand beaches instantly come to mind. Located in the Indian Ocean the Seychelles island group lies east of the African continent. Blessed with abundant sunshine and beautiful beaches, the islands attract those seeking the sun. Comprised of high granitic islands as well as relatively flat coral atolls, the Seychelles offers many idyllic Edens where holiday makers cavort.

Cote d’Or Beach, Praslin Island.

Desroches Atoll, Seychelles.

Desroches Atoll, Seychelles.

Giving the Seychelles more thought, possibly a memory is jogged as one recalls leafing through an old Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and seeing a notation on the largest seed in the world, the coco de mer. Endemic solely to the Seychelles islands, the coco de mer nut is massive, the largest specimens weighing in at 44 pounds (20 kg). Produced on a female coco de mer tree, the seed sports a suggestive form reminiscent of the female shape. Not to be outdone, the male flower of the male coco de mer also displays a form akin to—-shall I say?—-proud male anatomy. Naturally, this has led to the growth of many myths and legends surrounding this unusual, long-lived botanical specimen. Coco de mer are tall stately palms, males attaining a height of 100 feet (30 m) and female palms growing to c. 80 feet (24m). Thriving in relative isolation from the rest of the world, the unusual coco de mer is only the beginning of the wonders to be found in the Seychelles. It is also home to one of the most unique and remote ecosystems on this planet, Aldabra Atoll.

Friend and divemaster, Thomas Baechtold displaying a curvaceous coco de mer nut, Vallee de Mai, Praslin Island, Seychelles.

Declared a protected UNESCO site, Aldabra Atoll is comprised of four main islands—-Picard, Polymnie, Malabar, and Grande Terre—-that encircle an immense lagoon. Lying 715 miles (1150 kms) southwest of the capital city of Victoria on the island of Mahe and 261 miles (420 kms) north of Madagascar, Aldabara’s remote setting has largely protected its islands from intense pressure from fishing or human habitation. Open solely to researchers plus a small number of visitors via permit, Aldabra supports a largely unspoiled tropical ecosystem with healthy populations of land and sea life as well as pristine coral reefs. Other than for a small cluster of research settlement buildings on Picard Island, development is forbidden. Extremely remote, one must arrive by boat after sailing 24-hours from more far flung islands of the Seychelles island group. Consequently, this natural isolation has engendered unique populations of wildlife.

Dawn at Picard Island, Aldabra Atoll, Seychelles.

Aldabra Atoll is large, approximately 21 miles (33 kms) long and 9 miles (14.5 kms) broad at its mid-section. Arriving on a small expedition ship, one comes ashore on zodiac watercraft to lonely Picard Research Station, populated by a small number of scientists. The setting is idyllic but the atoll’s few human inhabitants heartily welcome the diversion of visiting travelers. Posted to the site for months at a time, it is a break from paradisiacal monotony when guests arrive.

An Aldabra giant tortoise going for a stroll at Picard Research Station, Aldabra Atoll, Seychelles.

Restricted to visiting a small area of the entire atoll, what the visitor encounters nevertheless is jaw-dropping. Entering the lagoon on a zodiac by way of one main channel, another world awaits. One is struck by limestone pinnacles that have been eroded into jagged shapes within the tranquil lagoon, their mushroom-shaped coral heads dotting the surface of the water. Tiny mollusks attached to these coral heads cling to life, dependent upon the daily ebb and flow of tides. Razor-sharp mollusk shells stand ready to shred any boat or flesh unfortunate to come into contact with their sharp edges. For those keen on birds, avian life abounds, with large colonies of red-footed boobies, frigate birds, brown noddies and other seabirds roosting or nesting on mangrove trees. It’s a place that is full of life, the cries and croaks of the seabirds punctuating the stillness.

The best part awaits…snorkeling in crystalline waters. Tides are fierce at Aldabra, each tidal change either emptying or replacing nearly 60% of the entire lagoon’s volume. Taking advantage of the incoming tide through Grande Passe, one of the two main channels leading into the lagoon, drift snorkels are a wonder. Currents are so strong that it is nearly impossible to remain stationary by paddling against the onrushing tide. Swept along by the powerful current, abundant sea turtles, sharks, rays and vast quantities of coral reef fish sail through the water on an aquatic roller coaster ride. Fat, imperious four-foot long potato cod effortlessly cruise about while schools of fish flash brilliantly in the sunlight attempting to make way for these behemoths.

Green and hawksbill turtles are abundant. Attracted to lush undersea grasses, Aldabra Atoll offers refuge to these beleagured dwellers of the deep. With no fishing nets to entangle and drown them, plentiful sea grass for food and no hunting pressure from humans, Aldabra Atoll is a safe haven for sea turtles. Some turtles are enormous, at least 4.5 feet (1.37m) in length. Parrot fish well over two feet in size keep out of the way of barracuda the length of adult human beings. The very size and quantity of these animals is heartening, indicative of the healthy nature of this atoll’s waters. Aldabra’s reefs are thriving. Unlike most of the Seychelles’ islands, there is no run off from development to smother the reefs nor it there pressure from fishing.

Largely due to the practice of taking their fins for use in Asian cooking, shark populations are under siege around the world. At Aldabra, with no human predation sharks are plentiful as well as inquisitive. During one snorkel session, harmless black-tipped reef sharks repeatedly trailed me mere feet from my dive fins. When I wheeled on them quickly, they’d abruptly turn away, reminding me—-forgive my anthropomorphizing—-of guilty teenagers caught in the act of doing something forbidden. Trailing other snorkelers, the sharks were equally curious about these strange creatures in their midst, going so far as to nibble some dive fins. While the majority of sharks were I encountered were harmless black-tipped reef sharks, I noted a few lemon and tiger sharks cruising nearby. We reached a respectful mutual agreement to ignore each other. This magnificent predator is so well-represented that I lost count after seeing 20 sharks, surely indicative of a healthy predator population in balance with Nature.

Black-tipped reef shark, Aldabra Atoll, Seychelles.

Rays thrive in Aldabra’s pristine waters. Encountering a group of 50 eagle rays in 10-25 feet (3-7.6 m) of water, I floated above them as they glided beneath me, their synchronized underwater ballet spiraling, gliding and circling in choreography Balanchine would have envied. Spending well over an hour with the eagle rays, I was struck by the grace of the rays as they cruised underwater, surely one of the most elegant creatures to inhabit Earth’s oceans.

Rivaling the wonder and beauty of Aldabra’s undersea life, what lies on land is compelling as well. Aforementioned sea turtles nest on Aldabra, their tracks from sea to nesting sites ashore gouged into soft yielding beach sand. Immense robber crabs (hermit crabs) roam the sandy soil, skittering about while scavenging the beach and scrubby underbrush for tasty morsels. Too sizable to fit into a shell as a typical hermit crab does, these crabs merit being called the largest hermit crab in the world. The crabs I encountered measured 10-12" (25.4-30.5 cm) in width although they have been documented to reach a staggering 3-feet (91.5 cm) in size, making them a force with which to reckon.

Fresh sea turtle tracks at dawn on Picard Island beach, Aldabra Atoll, Seychelles.

Massive robber crab, Aldabra Atoll, Seychelles.

Picard Island’s topography is comprised of relatively flat coastal dunes with salt-tolerant scrubby brush, casuarina trees and palms rising above soft sandy beaches, in addition to mangrove swamps and grasslands located in the interior of the island. This is the realm of Geochelone gigantea, the giant Seychelles tortoise. Mature male tortoises exhibit mammoth proportions, their average weight being 551 pounds (250kg) with carapaces (shells) measuring up to 4 feet (122cm) in length. Females are slightly smaller, weighing in at an average 330 pounds (150kg) while measuring circa 3 feet (91cm) long.

Giant Aldabra tortoise, Aldabra Atoll, Seychelles.

Giant Aldabra tortoise, Seychelles.

Indigenous to the Seychelles, many different species of giant tortoises once inhabited other islands, the majority of them now extinct in the wild with the remainder under severe pressure from habitat destruction as well as predation by cats, rats, and other introduced predators. In long-gone days of sailing ships, tortoises were hunted by passing sailors for food. Not requiring great amounts of water or food to survive over long periods of time, giant tortoises were perfect sources of fresh meat on interminable ocean voyages. Aldabra tortoises faced extinction before being protected by international agreement. On Aldabra, the good news is that the tortoises are hanging on, an estimated 150,000 documented on the atoll’s four islands. Despite this, the Aldabra giant tortoise is listed by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) as ‘Threatened’ or, in the estimation of other organizations, ‘Endangered.’ Today no predators threaten the tortoises yet their range is restricted to such a small habitat that their continuing existence is considered to hang in the balance. More mundane threats include falling into a limestone pothole and not being able to extricate themselves or simply tumbling over on uneven ground, unable to right themselves.

Most tortoises are timid, retracting their heads into their shells if humans approach. Yet some tortoises that have been living in close proximity to the research station have become very used to human company, offering their soft, wrinkly, leathery necks to be scratched. I found their necks to be cool to the touch despite the intense, humid tropical heat. Friendly tortoises also enjoy fruit that is proffered to them. One had to be cautious around the tortoises for one reason—-highly sensitive to locating water in this dry landscape, tortoise are attracted to moisture on human skin. Able to wring moisture out my shirt in the searing, humid island climate, I was warned to be alert to any tortoise that might nip my legs in search of a quick drink. Capable of crushing a finger with a single bite, this experience was to be avoided at all costs.

Offering fruit to giant Aldabra tortoise.

Petting Biscuit, Aldabra Atoll, Seychelles.

Tortoises’ primary diet consists of ‘tortoise turf,’ grasses that they closely crop from the top down. These plants have developed an interesting evolutionary adaptation that demonstrates yet another fascinating facet of Mother Nature—-contrary to most plants we recognize, these grasses grow seeds toward the bottom of the plants to thwart being eaten by tortoises, thus enhancing the chances of propagating their species.

Biscuit, elder statesman tortoise, Aldabra Atoll, Seychelles.

Copulating giant Aldabra tortoise.

As to their age, no one truly knows the exact longevity a Seychelles Aldabra tortoise can achieve. One old fellow that lingers around the Picard Research Station, Biscuit is estimated to be over one hundred years old. He enjoyed our petting sessions in between his amorous sessions with a younger, less amiable female tortoise. There’s a lot of life in that old boy! Several more tortoise couples copulated in our midst, oblivious to their audience, ensuring the propagation of the next generation. One can hope that this propagation is a metaphor for wondrous Aldabra Atoll.

Sunset at Aldabra Atoll….an interesting, bittersweet postcript to this photo is that the yacht, Le Ponant was hijacked by Somali pirates three weeks after this photo was captured as the ship repositioned from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. No passengers were aboard when the pirates attacked. One week later the crew was released unharmed after payment of ransom. French forces apprehended several of the Somali pirates after they fled the ship with their loot. The pirates are facing prosecution in France.

Paradise Found at Aldabra Atoll

Gina Ruttle  (Whalegeek)

Palos Park, United States

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