archive – Indian Ocean
ALPHONSE DOES IT RIGHT
It’s not the cheapest place to visit but it’s certainly up there in the desirability stakes – CATH BATES travels to Alphonse in the Indian Ocean, where ultra eco-sensitivity is a given
IN NOVEMBER, THE TIME OF the calm north-east trade winds, I visited one of the outer islands of the Seychelles. Alphonse covers just 800 hectares and lies 250 miles from the capital Mahe. It’s a triangular coral atoll that extends west towards the African coast, and because of its remote position, its marine wildlife is prolific.
The flight takes under an hour, and we landed on the concealed airstrip and were soon sipping from a coconut. Our welcome briefing was made all the more interesting as we watched a beautiful grey heron sunning its wings by the pool.
Alphonse has been associated for some years with a catch-and-release game- and fly-fishing scheme, and the island’s new management is also keen to promote its dive-sites. Working with the Island Conservation Society (ICS), it imposes strict codes of conduct to preserve fish stocks, with no fishing allowed at the dive-sites. Dive-centre managers Sam and Lucy filled us in on what we could expect to see during our four days on the island.
I expected there to be fewer bleached corals at remote Alphonse than in other parts of the Indian Ocean, but also fewer of those red and purple fluffy soft corals that are so prolific in the Red Sea.
I was anticipating diverse marine life, because Alphonse is south of the Amirantes Bank, which separates it from 1000m of deep water. I had heard tell of dogtooth and yellowfin tuna, sailfish, wahoo and dorado on the drop-offs, in addition to scalloped hammerhead sharks, silvertips, mantas and whales too.
I HAVE BEEN INVOLVED in many conservation projects during my years as a diving instructor, and was intrigued by the attention to detail at the Alphonse dive-centre.
As part of the children’s activities on the island, giant murals of marine creatures have been created from found plastic waste (waste that might wash up on the beach, not island waste).
Drinks mats were made from old fishing-line; lampshades from broken buoys; wall art from twisted boat props and the main bar was decorated with pelagic fish sculpted from driftwood.
The dive-centre takes no more than six divers a week. Its managers get in the water regularly and there is a divemaster, boat skipper and DM intern. ICS staff also enter the water regularly to monitor coral health and record sightings.
Our cameras were collected in the morning by one of the island’s golf buggies, and we followed it on our eco-friendly bicycles. Five minutes of palm-lined track later and we were boarding the speedboat Zanbren to reach our first dive-site, one of 30 all said to be accessible within a half-hour’s drive.
Abyss is on the north-eastern side of the atoll. Descending the wall in 30° water, I could see ahead of me for at least 30m (at least, I could have seen that far had you taken the copious numbers of seafans out the way).
With no current, it was a pleasure to snap away at the gorgonians and black corals against their bluer-than-blue background. If it hadn’t been for the 25m depth, I could have stayed there all day.
In shallower water we were treated to large schools of big-eye barracuda and blue-lined snapper. Surgeonfish and Moorish idols also passed by in abundance.
DIVE TWO PROVIDED PLENTY OF opportunities for spotting bigger pelagics. The plateau of Eagle Nest allowed us to shallow up and glide over the hard-coral garden.
Swooping in for a curious look were numerous eagle rays, a marble ray and green and hawksbill turtles with gorgeously clean, psychedelic shells.
Schooling tuna, giant trevally (which the team affectionately called GTs) and yellow-dot emperorfish all put in appearances, though without posing for too long. A friendly orbicular batfish followed us for the full 55 minutes, opening and closing its pursed lips as if making conversation.
After a spot of lunch, we went out again with manager Sam just 15 minutes from shore to Arcade, a U-shaped site with a combination of wall and sloping-bottom topography.
As I descended, a startled 2.5m sicklefin lemon shark advanced past me like the apple to my pound sign on a fruit-machine reel.
The dive-site name started to make a lot more sense as blue-lined snapper, yellow goatfish, bohar snapper, a school of 200-plus bigeye trevally, Napoleon wrasse and giant sweetlips all jostled for space on the reef, as if playing a game of Tetris.
What struck me after the first day’s diving was the inconsiderate shyness of Alphonse’s schooling fish and turtles. Being unaccustomed to divers definitely has an impact on their behaviour and consequently of the number of pictures I was able to get of their faces.
The southbound end of a northbound fish was a common theme on this trip!
Day two began before breakfast at Pinnacles. I would recommend an early-morning dive on Alphonse for one reason – the light. Sun-rays penetrated the water like laser-beams, and on an island where the weather is pretty much guaranteed to do the same thing, this mixed things up a bit under water.
Humpback snapper and bigeye barracuda were still exhibiting early-morning jerky hunting behaviour. Hotel GM Gordon joined us on this dive, and
I giggled at his simile of Oriental sweetlips resembling New York taxis.
The second and third dives of the day were unlike anything we had experienced so far. West Side Wall had an abundance of overhangs teeming with glassfish and much softer seafans.
Arina (named after ICS staff member Ari) boasted the biggest porites corals I have seen in this part of the world.
This reef was in the lagoon of the Alphonse atoll, and Lucy explained that the coral-heads would be thousands of years old. With plenty of plankton washing through the channel, the ginormous porites were well-fed and looked incredibly healthy.
MANY SCHOOLS OF pelagic fish sheltered here alongside the Seychelles clownfish and fusiliers, but as with most sandy lagoons, the vis can change at any time.
Soon the eastern current brought oily thermoclines and cool temperatures that put paid to any more photographs.
After lunch, Pep and Ari from the ICS took us onto Bijoutier, an uninhabited desert island just a little further south of Alphonse. The offshore driftwood doubled up as perches for herons and the sand crawled with plovers, searching for tasty crabs being washed in on the tide.
We could hear nesting shearwaters, and Pep even showed us one guarding an egg. What saddened me was the pre-prepared rubbish bag they pulled out from under a bush to collect that day’s plastic invasion. Flip-flops, bottles, food-wrappers and polystyrene had been brought in on the trade winds from India, Madagascar and Thailand (among other places).
I was impressed that the team anticipated the trash, but it brought home to me that even the most remote beauty spots aren’t immune to the environmental damage we do to our world.
OUR THIRD DAY’S diving showed us that the secluded dive-sites of Alphonse also shelter an abundance of macro-life. After sustaining a broken focusing ring the previous day, I was more than pleased to switch lenses and get my critter eye roving.
Napoleon was a drift-dive, but with plenty of large rocky bommies to shelter behind, the current was no problem.
The top of the reef peaked at 16m, and was a little further out to sea from the atoll walls.
A Midas coral blenny played hide-and-seek with my lens port, and a long-nose hawkfish flipped from one side of the seafan to the other. Even the macro-life was shy! Thankfully a wire-coral shrimp stayed still long enough to have its portrait taken, unlike the frantic goby that shared its skinny perch.
During our descent onto Galawa there was a chorus of groans. We all had to double-take from the 60mm camera-lenses we sported to the 2m bull shark that passed us not once, not twice but three times with its remora passengers. Sod’s (or Poseidon’s) Law, but the remainder of the dive made up for it.
The eye of a white leaf-fish glistened in the midday light next to an anemone hosting a Clark’s anemonefish and spotted porcelain crabs. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t in the waters of South-east Asia!
A relaxing lunch and a lens change later, we boarded the skiff that took us out to a slightly different vessel (a fishing-boat) for the afternoon experience.
I wasn’t sure how I would feel about snorkelling with sailfish, as I didn’t want to be a goner like a doner!
However, after being informed by Head of Fishing Devan that these glorious creatures like to slice their prey rather than spear it, I felt a few per cent better.
THIS SAILFISH EXPEREINCE is new to Alphonse. I’ve never been sure how I feel about baiting to encourage pelagics to show themselves just for our viewing pleasure. After seeing the mere sliver of bonito that was to be used to entice the sailfish up to the surface, however, I was appeased.
Travelling on the outside of the atoll, we donned mask, fins and snorkels as two hookless lures were trolled behind the boat in deep water.
We watched a low-flying juvenile frigate bird eagerly anticipating a surfacing for some time and then – bam!
A sailfish torpedo knocked it with its bill.
A third baited lure was then cast out behind the boat, which was subsequently put into neutral. Once the sailfish had tasted the bonito it chased the lure excitedly as it was reeled towards the boat. At this point, we jumped in.
Sailfish move super-fast through the water, and the whole experience was quite disorientating. There were three of these beauties in total, and the lure was cast over and over again to keep the fish excited. Their colourful sails were raised as they shot upwards, jostling for prime position. Alphonse describes this as “an experience which allows you to witness a truly wild animal in its own environment”, but expect to be climbing the ladder after five minutes, when the clever fish realise that they’ve been fooled and move away.
It didn’t feel seedy, or as if we had interfered with nature in any way.
Unfortunately I didn’t get the money shot, but it was certainly worth doing. Your adrenaline is pumping as you wait for the sailfish to appear, and you’re in safe hands with an experienced fly-fisherman and skipper.
Sam the dive-centre manager was in the water with us, shouting safety instructions and also spotting for us.
A few days earlier he had been lucky enough also to have had silvertips present during the experience.
My dive-buddies and I were still talking about this adventure way into the evening, as we enjoyed Sundowners on the beach beside a man-made bar well-stocked with gin and fresh-fish samosas!
Our final day began with a cycle tour with Sam, who had begun his life on the atoll with the ICS. His knowledge of the history and biodiversity of Alphonse is immense.
This is a great way to fill a morning for non-diving or non-angling partners, as an alternative to the spa or lounging by the pool. Kayaking and stand-up paddle-boarding is also available, along with nature walks and dolphin-viewing.
Alphonse was first charted in 1592 but didn’t come into its own until the turn of the 20th century, when it was used as a coconut plantation. Our tour involved a visit to the cemetery where island managers and also a slave were buried.
Sam took us to the garden in which half of what is consumed on the island is grown, feeding up to 140 people. In fact much of the organic vegetation is also shipped out to sister-islands Desroches and Silhouette. We saw papaya trees, aubergine plants, various fresh herbs, chilis, tomatoes, squash, figs and cabbages among other food being tended by dedicated gardeners who number only three.
SAM SHOWED US THE burrows of the wedge-tailed shearwaters in a protected breeding area. Only a single egg is laid per season and, being at sea level, these are at huge risk from rats and cats.
Bird-watching is best between August and May, when migrant species have flown back from high Arctic breeding grounds. At sunset you may be lucky enough to see the thousands of red-footed boobys return to roost.
We also marvelled at the huge palm spiders, and tried to avoid cycling through their webs!
The giant Aldabran tortoises were my tour highlight. I had seen a couple of small females around the island but they are quite shy and tended to hiss and scurry off if I got near them.
Sam introduced us to a 45-year-old male who was partial to a bit of a neck tickle.
The Indian Ocean islands once had seven species of giant tortoise – now, thanks to man’s wanton greed, there is only one.
Along with the Galapagos tortoise, Charles Darwin secured its protection in the 19th century, and it had been introduced to Alphonse because of the island’s environmental sustainability.
Of the 100,000 Aldabran tortoises in the Seychelles, Alphonse has 56, and they are micro-chipped. Two hatchlings were found during my visit, and I was lucky enough to see them. They are kept in a locked nursery until they are large enough to be micro-chipped to avoid theft, because they can still fetch up to $10,000 on the black market.
These tortoises can live up to 170 years, with males growing to 1.5m long and weighing 260kg!
Sam took us out on the boat one last time, for a barbecue lunch on the sand-flats of St Francois.
Under the big blue sky and looking out over the big blue expanse of water, I felt small – yet incredibly privileged to have experienced a trip like this.
It occurred to me that luxury isn’t about sleeping in a four-poster bed and enjoying six-course meals and Jacuzzis. It’s about being able to reach the far-flung corners of the world that few people get to see.
And that’s what you get with the diving at Alphonse: you have the feeling of expanse and exclusivity, of being the only divers on these pristine reefs.
As we slowly motored through the channel back into the Alphonse atoll, a large reef manta ray lifted its right wing as if waving us goodbye. That’s my kind of luxury.
|WHAT IS THE ISLAND CONSERVATION SOCIETY?
“The Society promotes the conservation and restoration of island eco-systems, sustainable development of islands, and awareness of their vulnerability and vital importance to the planet’s biodiversity.” (ICS Mission statement)
Registered in the Seychelles in 2001, the ICS has established centres on the outer islands of Alphonse, Desroches and Silhouette, and manages the Aride Island Nature Reserve. Conservation officers Pep and Ari implement the conservation management plan for Alphonse, Bijoutier and St François atolls.
Since 2007 the team have (among other studies) implemented a coral-reef monitoring programme; started building a manta ID database; and protected wedge-tailed shearwater colonies by trapping rats and cats.
They tag turtles and raise awareness about threats they face, organise beach clean-ups and have introduced Aldabran giant tortoises to Alphonse.
The ICS ensures that human development and eco-tourism on Alphonse is sustainable and low-impact. For example, lights outside bungalows are red, so that turtle hatchlings don’t take a wrong turn when heading out to sea.
Amounts of fish caught for consumption are recorded, and certain fly-fishing areas put out of bounds regularly to conserve stocks, even though the policy is catch-and-release. Even water bottles in the mini-bar are of reusable glass.
The ICS raises funds for its conservation projects but on Alphonse diving guests also donate US $70 a week and anglers $175.
Appeared in DIVER March 2018