Aldabra: An enchanted and enchanting lagoon

by   Profile Franco and Sabrina   When 20th September 2021
mushroom-shaped islands of honeycombed pinnacles of limestone are known locally as "champignon", inside the lagoon, Aldabra Atoll, Natural World Heritage Site, Seychelles, Indian Ocean
blacktip reef shark, Carcharhinus melanopterus, Aldabra Atoll, Natural World Heritage Site, Seychelles, Indian Ocean
scuba diver and potato cod grouper, Epinephelus tukula, Aldabra Atoll, Natural World Heritage Site, Seychelles, Indian Ocean
marbled ray, Blotched fantail ray, Taeniura meyeni, Aldabra Atoll, Natural World Heritage Site, Seychelles, Indian Ocean
portrait of giant tortoise, Geochelone gigantea, Aldabra Atoll, Natural World Heritage Site, Seychelles, Indian Ocean
female looking coconut crab on a palm, Birgus latro,  Aldabra Atoll, Natural World Heritage Site, Seychelles, Indian Ocean
mangrove trees seen from underwater inside the lagoon, Aldabra Atoll, Natural World Heritage Site, Seychelles, Indian Ocean
the water inside the lagoon, Aldabra Atoll, Natural World Heritage Site, Seychelles, Indian Ocean

Compared to many millions of people, especially in this difficult time, Franco and I are lucky to live an independent life and to choose when/where/what to do. Some projects take years to realize, some places were inaccessible even before the SARS-2 pandemic.


A few years ago, when I asked Franco “Why don't we go to Aldabra ?” a bright light appeared in his eyes and he immediately answered “YES” (without considering how much it would have cost in terms of time to organize and money ... ). Only a few people have ever been there, and fewer have spent more than two/three hours at this absolutely wild, rough atoll.


Isolated from everything and everyone, far away from the oceanic trade courses, it has rough terrain, a harsh environment and scarce fresh water: enough for suffering only sporadic and brief anthropic interferences. Because of this, a great number of endemic species of flora and fauna have evolved and adapted to the habitat, creating different patterns to their ancestors. It is a rare privilege to walk in to a place where nature has always been and still is the absolute sovereign.


Mares was great in supporting us with the lightest (and sturdiest) equipment possible. The luggage allowance on the domestic flights was really poor, and we could not pack spare parts, however they were unnecessary due to the perfect gear we had for our “once in a lifetime” trip.


The huge internal lagoon –which covers an area of 155 kmq, about 1/3 of the whole raised territory of the Seychelles– provided an awesome and unusual experience. In the warm water facing the research station, snorkelling on a shallow sandy bottom, we were surrounded by harmless specimens of blacktip sharks, totally unbothered by our presence. This was unusual behaviour and a precious experience.


The strangest dive we made at Aldabra was far from fancy: the drift-dive through the Main Channel (Grand Passé). I’m not so sure that “dive” is the best word to define it, even though we wore our scuba equipment.  We went down to 25 metres and stayed underwater for about one hour. It was planned with care by the dive-master, calculating with attention the tide periods and giving
accurate instructions to the skipper driving the zodiac. Normally it is planned during high tide, when water flows from the ocean to the lagoon, so that divers will end their run in a protected area instead of being out in the open ocean. Divers must consider
that during the peak of low tide, the current can reach a speed of 6 knots: like being shot by a gun through the ocean ! The visibility was low due to sand and sediment whirling, but the feeling of being dragged in a river of salted water was unique. When we found the right balance, getting near the middle of the channel to increase the speed or heading to the walls to slow down, we enjoyed a passage together with turtles, giant groupers, Napoleon fish, schools of surgeon fish, all unbothered by our presence. The run ended in the middle of the lagoon and we found the zodiac waiting for us.

Giant Potato cods (Epinephelus tumula) are extra-large here: they live undisturbed, fearless of fishing lines and nets. Hunted elsewhere due to their delicious flesh, at Aldabra they let us approach them and photograph them without fear. Sometimes we saw them motionless at the 'cleaning station', hypnotized by the nice torment of the little cleaner wrasses, busy picking pieces of food and parasites from their branchial membranes or the inner surface of their big mouths.


Aldabra houses the world largest population of giant tortoises (Geochelone dipsochelys gigantea): more than 152,000 specimens graze on the rough soil compared to the about 10,000 specimens in the Galapagos archipelago. However, at dusk, giant turtles leave the stage to hundreds of extra-large coconut crabs (Birgus latro) which climb up on the coconut trees, cut off the green fruits with their massive claws and feed on the smooth flesh. Their claws are so powerful they can lift rocks or vegetation weighing up to 28 kg.


Remembering that journey, Franco and I feel even luckier to have visited in full and to have spent hours on the second greatest raised atoll of the planet, a splendid jewel, a lone, pure emerald that rises from the dark depths of the Indian Ocean. It was (and it still is) forbidden at all visitors to enter the lagoon and to disembark without special authorization given (rarely) by the Seychelles Island Foundation.

Written by
Profile Franco and Sabrina
Date
When 20th September 2021
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COMMENTS
Alex Mustard on Oct 05th 2021
What an amazing adventure. Hopefully one day you'll make it back.

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