If you’d prefer to watch the video of this cruise click here
If Expedition Cruising is defined as ‘exploring the unexplored’ this was one trip where I can genuinely say we came as close to that as it is possible to get. Fewer than 1200 people a year get the chance to visit the Aldabra group of islands in the Outer Seychelles. Google it, zoom right in, and you’ll find a few tiny specks of land and an impressive looking atoll far adrift in the Indian Ocean.
This intriguing island group is roughly 700 miles southwest of Mahe, closer in fact to Madagascar than the Seychelles, and it is not easy to get there. You can fly from Mahe to Assumption Island, the only one in the group with a runway, but you will have to charter a private jet and then, to get to the Atoll, you’ll also have to find yourself a boat for the 45 km crossing. An expedition cruise is by far the better option and ideally one that, as mine did, includes time not only on Assumption, but also neighbouring Cosmoledo and, best of all, on the intriguing Aldabra Atoll.
I joined a Noble Caledonia cruise on board MS Serenissima operating an ‘Indian Ocean Island Odyssey’ cruise that began in Mauritius and included 4 days in North East Madagascar as well as 3 full days exploring the Aldabra Island group.
We arrived to Assumption Island ahead of time around midday after cruising overnight from Madagascar. We weighed anchor and everyone was soon out on deck marvelling at the unbelievable turquoise shoreline. So near and yet so far, we would not be allowed ashore until the ship had gone through Seychelles clearance and to do that, we had to wait for the officials who were flying in from Mahe, and they were delayed! The thing about being on an expedition cruise though is that there is never a dull moment. We couldn’t step foot on land but we could snorkel off the zodiacs. Healthy marine life is of course a good indicator of a well balanced ecosystem so from that first underwater introduction we knew only too well that we were in for a treat…
The next day was spent on Cosmoledo. In the morning we explored the aptly named Wizard Island – a pristine and untouched ecosystem. Its real Robinson Crusoe stuff – a long sweep of white sand inhabited only by crabs and seabirds edging a dramatically fluctuating lagoon. A place to just watch and listen and just drink in the remoteness.
Our afternoon excursion was a different story, we headed out in the zodiacs to Ile Sud Ouest and found ourselves in the midst of a bird nesting party. Thousands and thousands of frigatebirds, red footed boobys and elegant white terns filling the skies, swooping around us and nesting in the trees and mangroves. So many birds, seemingly completely at ease with having tourist ‘paparazzi’ in town. As we clicked and cruised around the lagoon getting right up close to the fascinating limestone ‘champignon’ rock formations we also spotted large populations of Hawksbill and Green Turtles swimming around us. Mesmerising and unforgettable.
Day two took us to Aldabra itself. One of the world’s largest raised Atolls, Aldabra is actually an almost perfect ring of islands surrounding a central tidal lagoon. It has the ‘royal’ seal of approval from Sir David Attenborough who described it as ‘one of the wonders of the world’. The isolation of the atoll and its lack of fresh water has deterred humans from settling but giant tortoises thrive here – at last count, somewhere close to 100,000 of them.
When we weighed anchor just outside the Atoll, it was initially hard to see what the fuss is about. These low lying islands don’t give much away from a distance. The highest point averages no more than eight metres and the atoll stretches 35km by 15kms. Only a Google maps satellite image can give you a sense of it…
The lagoon is tidal, so timing is everything as the only way in is on the incoming tide. For us this meant a ‘drift snorkel’ through a relatively narrow channel leading in to the lagoon. Many of us had never attempted a drift snorkel, so it was a plunge into the unknown in all ways as we slipped off the zodiacs in to the bath-temperature turquoise water. The very first thing I saw was a massive shoal of bright yellow fish seemingly showing me the way. Not that I needed to be shown, I barely needed to move a muscle as the tide gently carried me along through this aquatic dreamland. Parrotfish, triggerfish, potato cod, giant trevally, clownfish, too many to remember or even identify – we saw them all and could even hear some chomping away on the coral. It was, by some margin, the best snorkelling I have ever done.
After lunch back on board, it was then finally time to set foot on Aldabra and visit the research station on Picard Island, manned by a small team of volunteers and run by the Seychelles Islands Foundation. Before that could happen though, some of the team came aboard to brief us and to make sure we weren’t about to bring anything on to the atoll that might adversely effect the delicate ecosystem. Shoes had to be meticulously scrubbed, bags vacuumed and their contents inspected by the team before we were given the all clear.
Once ashore we split in to small groups to have a guided walks with the volunteers, say hello to those giant tortoises and learn more about the SIF’s conservation work. For the twitchers among us the prize was to spot the rare Aldabra white throated rail, the only flightless bird to be found on any Indian Ocean island. And then there are the idyllic bays and the moody skies full of frigate birds, masked boobys and turtle doves. It was a surreal and enlightening experience.
But there is trouble in paradise – oil spills are an ongoing threat but also of course these islands and atolls are our barometers of climate change – rising sea levels and global warming are without doubt taking their toll on plant and wildlife. And the most pernicious threat of all can be seen washing up with every tide. Until you see it for yourself its hard to believe that discarded plastic could be such an issue in this remote and idyllic spot but the evidence was clear to see – not just nautical debris like ropes and buoys but flip flops, plastic containers, bottles and one of the worst offenders, disposable plastic lighters.
As Cheryl Sanchez, a senior scientific research co-ordinator on the island explained to me, its not just a question of clearing up the rubbish – try as they might, it just keeps coming – but the practicalities and cost of transporting it all off the islands is prohibitive. Supported by various charities, including the Noble Caledonia Charitable Trust, various clean up projects have already happened but fund raising is on going to find better solutions. Happily, I can report as a direct result of our visit, and the support of some very generous passengers, the money has now been raised for an incinerator to help dispose of some of the rubbish more efficiently. A great example of how carefully managed tourism can have a positive impact. A battle won but the war continues.
Our visit to the atoll came to an end with a sunset zodiac cruise around the lagoon. The water is so clear, it was hard to know which way to look with turtles, rays and huge shoals of fish all around. We weren’t the only ones with eyes on the water, frigatebirds swooped and dived as the golden light of dusk cast its magical spell.
Our final day in the area was spent on one of the most perfect beaches I have ever seen. We were back at Assumption Island. Even though the skies were blue, heavy sea swells prevented us from landing at the spot originally earmarked but such is the flexibility of expedition cruising, the team quickly scouted around the headland until they found an alternative and boy, did we get lucky. They found us the dream beach. Powder white sand, every shade of blue in the sea and shallow calm water so clear, no mask was needed to see the fish at your feet. After a wonderful relaxing time on the beach, swimming and snorkelling, we reluctantly took our leave, privileged to have been there and utterly bewitched by the magic of Aldabra.
Noble Caledonia are one of only a handful of cruise operators permitted to operate in this area Our ship, the MS Serenissima, accommodates a maximum of 95 passengers. She has a fleet of zodiacs and an expedition team of 11 comprised of conservation and marine biologists.
Similar expedition cruises are available from October 2020 operating on Caledonian Sky, one of Noble Caledonia’s trio of Sky flagships. Prices for an 11 night cruise start from £6495pp. These cruises sell out very quickly – it is not uncommon for passengers to book up to two years in advance to secure a particular cabin.
For details, dates and prices click here Caledonian Sky Seychelles Cruises
For more information about Aldabra visit Seychelles Islands Foundation