The Seychelles archipelago was reckoned by Arab sailors in ancient times to be the fabled Garden of Eden, and AL HORNSBY reckons the reality can more than live up to its hyperbolic reputation
It’s dawn. The rising sun is starting to illuminate our view to the horizon following our night-flight from Europe. As far as we can see, there is only the deep cobalt of the Indian Ocean merging with a paler sky, with puffy white clouds scattered here and there.
Finally, small islands begin to appear, and they grow to become a collection of lush, green mountains wreathed in cloud, each fringed by pure white sand and surrounded by water of the brightest turquoise.
It’s easy to see why the Seychelles archipelago is regarded as one of the most beautiful places on Earth; Arab sailors once considered it the Garden of Eden. The inner islands are chiefly pink and grey granite, covered in a rich proliferation of tropical vegetation, with scattered waterfalls and streams splashing down to sunlit beaches.
Off to the south-west, the islands’ nature changes, and a string of scarcely inhabited coral atolls meander for 620 nautical miles to Aldabra Lagoon, in the oceanic wilderness toward Africa.
Colonies of birds are found seemingly everywhere – boobies, terns, tropic-birds and frigate birds – by the millions during the migratory seasons. And on a number of the islands giant tortoises can be found, more than 150,000 in all.
Having spent a couple of months of intensive diving and exploring Seychelles over the years, the islands remain one of my favourite destinations. Besides being lovely, the place has a simple “easiness” to it – it is tropical but pleasantly not-too-hot; the French Creole cooking and extravagant varieties of fresh fruit and seafood make every day’s dining remarkable; and accommodation runs from simple charm to exquisite luxury, whether on land or travelling by liveaboard.
The underwater world
The diving here, centred around the inner islands, is equally special. The geology provides a dramatic underwater environment unlike any I’ve seen elsewhere. The same granite spires and columns that form the islands have their roots in the sea, and the diving is predominantly among a complex landscape of granite boulders, walls and spires that rise up toward the surface from deeper water, forming caverns and overhangs.
These are covered with sponges, wire and hard corals, and soft corals emerge from protected crevices, all fed by warm, clear, nutrient-rich waters.
Beyond all else, however, is the concentration and variety of marine-life. The bottom is home to an immense assortment of macro-critters such as shrimps, crabs, nudibranchs and live shells – shell aficionados can find and photograph many of these, including uncommon varieties such as Conus aulicus, ammiralus and episcopus, and the lovely Murex palmarosae.
Massive schools of fish swirl about, and interesting species such as Napoleon wrasse, spadefish and pompano, eagle rays, large marbled rays and a number of varieties of shark are frequent. And, if that wasn’t enough, there are many resident mantas, and some 500 individually identified whale sharks spend the autumn months feeding in the islands’ waters.
Seychelles’ capital, and the resort hub for travellers, is Mahe. The largest of the islands, covering 155sq km of lush, mountainous terrain and sandy beaches dotted with huge granite boulders, it is also the centre for Seychelles diving. Around its northern end, my favourite dives are:
Wreck of the Ennerdale: This 100m Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker sank in 1970, and the wreck sits on a 30m sandy bottom, its superstructure looking dramatic. A great swarm of fish life greets divers, and we found the bridge swirling with glassy sweeper and batfish. Several groups of eagle rays made repeated passes, and we came across a large Queensland grouper, one of several resident to the wreck.
Shark Bank: Large, granite rocks and pinnacles jut up from a 35m bottom, creating a beautiful dive averaging 20m deep. The stone is covered by orange cup corals and there are many small, purple soft corals. We photographed schools of spadefish, fusiliers, blue-striped snapper, mobula rays and large marbled sting rays.
Conception Island: This small island sits just off Mahe’s north-western shore. On a flat sand and coralline bottom at 25m, encrusted granite boulders lie scattered about, with lots of large fish. In our dives we saw schools of bigeye jack and great barracuda, whitetip and grey reef sharks, and several species of rays. At one point, we were surprised by a group of bumphead parrotfish, which noisily swept in and past us.
Along the south-western coast of Mahe are further excellent dive-sites:
Elephant Rock: An offshore site with a maximum depth of 20m, Elephant Rock centres around a large pinnacle sprinkled with low hard and soft corals. It has lots of fish, and resident eagle rays. You’ll find a number of nurse sharks, and loads of bottom-dwellers such as shells, octopuses, scorpionfish and lionfish.
Alice in Wonderland: This is a coral plateau but with depths varying from 12-20m. It has stands of staghorn and table corals, and many reef tropicals swim in and out of them. As at many Seychelles dive-sites, there are large anemones and several species of anemonefish, including false clowns, orange-fins and skunks.
Throughout the islands, but chiefly around Mahe, divers can enjoy the world-class speciality of Seychelles – snorkelling with whale sharks. From August through to the end of October, hundreds of them migrate in to feed in the rich waters.
The Marine Conservation Society’s Seychelles’ Whale Shark Programme monitors the sharks, tracking the groups from the air during the season while research boats go out for snorkelling encounters. Visitors’ fees help to fund the programme, and while these interactions cannot be guaranteed, the success rate is remarkably high, at times involving aggregations of 20-30 sharks.
Praslin & La Digue
The next main diving area is around the islands of Praslin and La Digue, which lie north of Mahe. Praslin is Seychelles’ second-largest island, known for exquisite beaches, rare birds and virgin forest. La Digue, just to the east of Praslin, is the top of a submerged mountain surrounded by white-sand beaches dramatically interspersed with huge grey and pink granite boulders. My favourite dives here are:
Marianne Island: This site, consisting of pinnacle rocks and giant granite needles that rise from 23m of depth, is often considered the best shark dive in inner Seychelles. With many resident whitetips, nurse and grey reef sharks, things really heat up from September-November, when the latter’s mating season occurs. Breeding females arrive in large numbers to be pursued around the pinnacles and grottos by males – breath-taking stuff when you’re in their midst.
Ave Maria Rock: This very popular dive lies mid-channel between Praslin and La Digue. Large boulders extend into the water, forming walls, swim-throughs and grottos that we found practically filled with glassy sweepers and silversides, marauding bluefin trevallies and coral grouper slashing through their midst, actively feeding. Along the bottom lurk large Napoleon wrasse, and we saw several very calm green turtles.
More than 120 nautical miles to the south, Des Roches is a tiny, palm-covered coral island, only 6km long, well-known as both a romantic hideaway and an exciting dive destination. Its deserted white-sand beaches, with their many wading birds, stretch away to the limits of vision. My favourite dives there are along its wall:
Tunnel: Through a large opening in the reef top at 14m deep the passageway extends vertically downwards. Schools of blue-stripe and midnight snapper and oriental sweetlips practically fill the entrance. At 25m, the tunnel opens out onto the wall-face. Leopard sharks are often seen along the drop.
Canyons: In an area where a portion of the reef-face has toppled away, a vertical cavern and a series of deep canyons have formed down to 38m. Black coral bushes and cup corals grow along the cavern face and, on my last dive there, a huge school of resident bigeye jack, a moving silver wall, enveloped us. Mantas and eagle rays also regularly move through this area, and large bull helmet shells lie about on the sandy bottom.
Back to nature
Along with the diving, however, any trip to Seychelles should include time to visit some of the many nature reserves, which are home to a wide variety of plants, birds and reptiles.
Especially interesting is the small island of Aride, a world-renowned bird sanctuary located just north of Praslin. Hikes along its jungled trails provide close viewing of nesting fairy, noddy, roseate and sooty terns, along with the huge frigate-birds that feed and roost around the island.
There can never be space to adequately describe such a varied destination, where the culture, natural resources, beauty and diving could each easily support their own narrative. And considered one of the ocean’s crown jewels, far-flung Aldabra Lagoon is a protected ecological paradise that is remarkably untouched, its lagoon and coral reefs crowded with marine species, its beaches and islets home to hordes of birds and giant tortoises.
Aldabra and associated islands such as Assumption, Cosmoledo and Astove have been closed to tourism for many years, but are now back within reach of several liveaboards. As one of the lucky few to have dived this area – as part of a three-week National Geographic expedition in the early 1990s – I can say that its hyperbolic reputation is if anything modest compared to the startling reality.
In so many ways the Seychelles archipelago ranks as a world wonder, worthy of anyone’s “must go” list.
Photographs by Al Hornsby