Seychelles - Mahe to Aldabra by Tim Digger
Indian Ocean Explorer (IOE), one of the few boats visiting the Outer Islands of the South-western Seychelles as a live-aboard dive vessel, travels to Aldabra twice a year in March and November, she spends 6 weeks around these islands and then travels back to Mahe to continue her life as a whale watching and diving vessel in the Seychelles Inner Islands. She is now owned by Peter Holland, an enthusiastic diver and meticulous organiser Website. Peter and his wife Maureen run these expeditions from Mahe to Aldabra. The ship leaves Mahe, the main island of the Seychelles to travel down the archipelago 500 miles or so over 12 days, visiting the more remote and uninhabited islands on the way and finally visiting Aldabra home to 150,000 Indian Ocean Giant Tortoise in their only remaining original habitat. Groups fly down to a small airstrip on Assumption an uninhabited ex guano mining island 25 miles from Aldabra.
We flew from Birmingham via CDG Paris on Air Seychelles, a pleasant airline, with a good relatively recent model Boeing. We encountered no charges for excess baggage from any carrier including the local flights in spite of modest overweight for main flights and significant for local. The first 2 days were spent on Praslin in the inner islands at the beginning of our holiday and we dived 2 dives with Plongee aux Seychelles : Octopus Diving Center. This is a typical beach type dive centre offering short trips in hard boats to local reef spots, good boats with shade but no facilities on board. The dive topography in the Inner Islands echoes the above water sights, with large boulders and swimthrus a feature. Visibility is not great generally and hard coral is still suffering from the warming event in 1996 with less recovery than the Maldives. Both dives were shallow, under 20m and a significant surge from the Indian Ocean swells is present on both the sites we dived (Ave Maria and Booby Island). Several species of fish that are uncommon elsewhere are frequently seen in the Seychelles including the beautiful Koran Angelfish. Water temperature 30deg C. We joined IOE in Mahe, on 3rd of November 2005 and after a check dive on L'Illot off Mahe we set sail for Desroches our first island. IOE is an old lady built in Hamburg in 1956 and thus her dive arrangements and cabin space are not of the level associated with custom-built dive boats. Two RIBs are mounted on board and all diving takes place from these. She does have extensive hold space and this is needed for her to operate for prolonged periods far from supplies in the Aldabra area. She caters for up to 12 divers in twin cabins with very good if compact ensuite facilities (they even cope with loo roll!)
After the 15-minute island hopper flight back to Mahe we transferred to the harbour and were met by Peter Holland and IOE crew and transferred to the ship. A rapid unpacking and we were ready for the first check dive at L'Illot an islet off Mahe. After which a good meal and bed. A fairly rough night crossing to Ilse Desroaches followed. This is an open ocean voyage and IOE at 35m long is not a huge vessel, significant ship motion is the norm. I am not a good sailor but by judicious use of hyoscine tabs I avoided seasickness through out the trip, however some nights were more comfortable than others. After 2 dives there the trip went from Desroches to Alphonse and Bijoutier, then a long but calmer 20 hours to St Pierre and a further long leg to Cosmoledo. Astove, Cosmoledo and Aldabra are within a few hours of each other and are usually part of the week's itinerary for those who fly down to Assumption and fly back. We spent several days around Alphonse and Bijoutier where there is excellent diving especially the wall outside a dive centre on Alphonse (a very exclusive resort), the Abyss, and also Napoleon Reef. The weather gradually improved allowing a slightly delayed if calmer crossing to the distant southern islands. The food was excellent including fresh caught fish. Two very good dives around the island of St Pierre with groupers of several species and a Silver tip reef shark, this and Cosmoledo and Astove were the best dives of the trip with ever larger groupers culminating in the sighting of a Giant Grouper (Epinephus Lanceolatus) of about 2 metres and 300Kg in the caves and swimthrus along the top 20 metres of the reef off Astove.
A highlight was a trip ashore on Astove to see the abandoned settlement, left from an abortive attempt to start a coconut plantation in the 70s. After leaving Alphonse all the islands were uninhabited (indeed probably only inhabitable with great effort or technology), with the exception of the International Scientific Research Station on Aldabra. We visited this on the last day and with it the giant tortoise, we were welcomed and shown round by the Science Director, a Belgian. The previous two days we had dived two of Aldabra's channels and snorkelled from the RIBs in the shallows of the 10mile long lagoon. The last dive in the main channel was a fast drift (around 2.5miles in half an hour at 25-30 metres) and we were accompanied by some of the largest examples of pelagic fish I have seen (and even the puffers were huge).
In short this is a great trip, the remoteness of the islands is enhanced by the travelling needed to reach Aldabra the reefs are only dived occasionally and are unfished, the open ocean surrounding many of them leads to very high water clarity. We were disappointed to see only one shark (nurse sharks not included) on the whole trip, have the Taiwanese and Japanese finners really removed all the sharks from the Western Indian Ocean or was this just bad luck? But turtles both green and Hawksbill were common. We flew back to Mahe and our flight home with the Islands Development Corporation the only company doing charters to the airstrip on Assumption (price rises are very uncontrolled by competition). This two and a half hour flight seemed to just emphasise how remote we had really been. I would not like a serious DCI episode out there as return for treatment would be seriously challenging (and expensive). The whole trip is not cheap, given the Seychelles intention to position themselves in the upper part of the tourist market and the remoteness and difficulty of sustaining a suitable ship in the area it will probably never become so, but it was a most remarkable visit to one of the remaining wildernesses on the planet.