Seychelles Eco-seafari

A great way to take in the unique flora and fauna of the Seychelles is from the sea.

A great way to take in the unique flora and fauna of the Seychelles is from the sea.

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Yes, it is confirmed, because I myself have seen it: Noah’s Ark exists – indeed there are several of them. Well, to be a bit more candid, I’m talking about the Seychelles, those totally unique islands in the Indian Ocean, which are actually a collection of “Noah’s Arks” in that each island, with its white sand beaches and huge erosion-sculpted granite boulders developed on its own, isolated from other ecological areas, over time.To fully experience this, a personalized cruise is the perfect choice, and one of the most spectacular ones is the Granitic Island Eco-Seafari and Nature Cruise.

There are actually 155 islands listed in the Constitution of the Republic of Seychelles, but most authorities count them as 115. They include the world’s largest coral atoll, Aldabra, which is one of the archipelago’s two UNESCO World Heritage sites, plus Nature Reserves and National Parks comprising 46% of the total land area of the Seychelles’ total land mass of 455 square kilometres. One need only take a close-up look at the granitic islands to get a taste of the rare and remarkable creatures and environments that exist here. What makes these islands so special is not just the stand-alone nature of the many locations, but the guarded attitude the nation’s people and businesses take towards their home. It is in many ways a model for eco-tourism worldwide now, and walking, snorkelling and sailing through the islands gives one an appropriate sense that you’re going back through time, as you are seeing many creatures and plants that are not encountered elsewhere on the planet.

Combining a stay at one of the fab villas in the Seychelles with a cruise that visits a variety of islands is an incredible combination. Using the comfort of a modern, safe, thoroughly outfitted and comfortable vessel as a base for explorations means you get the most out of visiting many islands, seeing a variety of wonder, then returning to the comfort of your Seychelles Cruises Sailing Yacht every evening. There, you enjoy blissful relaxation in your air-conditioned private cabin, or commune with fellow travellers in the sublime comfort of stylish salons and dining quarters fit for a king and queen.

Cruising natural splendour

We embarked in the late morning after an early lunch while moored just off Mahe Island, at the Inter Island Quay, fully informed by a welcome briefing given by the captain. It was fitting to start our trip on the most populated of the islands, as this is where some of the most spectacular granite mountains tower above, and the eco-safari winds through the Morne Seychellois National Park beginning with a gentle hike up the Trois Freres nature trail to a stunning overlook viewpoint from which the Ste Anne Marine Park and a  large group of islands can be seen. Our walk included seeing the weird jellyfish tree unique to this place; watching the carnivorous Seychelles pitcher plant gobbling up insects, a surreal experience; and, being hypnotically trilled to a mind-bending level by the shrill chirping of millions of nib-sized Sooglosus frogs, reputed to be the tiniest in the world. After a stop at the old ruins of the former colonial boarding school for freed slave children, the Sans Souci Mission, we re-boarded our vessel for an apropos Creole BBQ dinner that went down well with chilled wine. Why do sunsets always go better with wine?

Day two brought us to Praslin, the second largest of the inner islands, where we visited the Vallee de Mai, the other UNESCO World Heritage site in the country. Seeing the endemic black parrot, which only exists on this island, was a treat, but even more heart-stopping was the walk through the unworldly forest paths of forest canopy dense with the all six of the island’s palms and its four endemic screwpine trees. The ghostly feel of the place inspired stories later at dinner; our captain recounted the tale of General Gordon from Khartoum announcing he had found the biblical Garden of Eden here, after discovering the world’s largest seed. He had actually stumbled upon the distorted greenish-brown nut of the famed Coco de Mer Palm, a glorious plant amid many, but only growing here and on nearby Curieuse. Our day four trip to Aride, the northernmost granitic isles that is owned and managed by the Conservation Society, gave proof to good eco-management, as we were surrounded by an overwhelming number of breeding species of seabirds; they are here in greater abundance than any other region island. Magpie robins, sunbirds, red-tailed tropicbirds, terns, noddies and the massive frigate birds, some of which we had spotted from our sailing vessel, almost blotted out the sun, they were so plentiful. With clear skies, we were able to sail north to observe the roosting of thousands of the frigate birds, an amazing sight I will never forget.

Outlying islands

Green-swathed hills hugging enormous fists of granite boulders greeted us on our fifth day of the sail, when we walked along picture-perfect white sand beaches on Dique, a dozy island that includes the community of Union Estate. Here, the cameras clicked and buzzed as we took in the copra mill, shipyard and active vanilla plantation activities. We got to ride in an ox cart, which was better done before our on-board lunch, an exquisite seafood medley with fruits galore, then it was back onto the island for a bicycle ride through the mellow forests along bending roads far from populated. It was exciting getting to see the endangered endemic black Seychelles paradise flycatcher feeding here, the only place it exists, as its plumage makes it one of the country’s most special birds. Our next day’s Sister Islands snorkelling trip was a treat when submerged with stunning sea fish, and were even treated to a “fly-by” of a group of giant rays, seemingly inches from us in the crystal clear water, though they were of course farther away. Good luck also brought a hawksbill turtle visit,  and we got to see it feeding. Lucky users of underwater film cameras were all agog in their goggles, believe me. All was rounded up nicely with a presentation on the never-ending efforts to preserve the one-of-a-kind species that exist here.

Cousin Island, a smaller granitic island, allows a treat of observing the giant tortoise population that has been introduced here by the Nature Seychelles group. Witnessing what we only usually see in movies, sea turtles coming ashore to lay eggs, makes the trip worthwhile in itself. Everyone felt like a proud parent watching this, even the teens who had come along. Many sea turtles nest here under the group’s protection, as do the reserves of endemic birds like the Seychelles fody, magpie robin and shockingly plumed  white-tailed tropic birds. While I have contributed to environmental funds for years, there is nothing like seeing your money and intentions borne out by good custodians, and this is why these trips are gaining popularity, even as many species are dwindling worldwide. Silhouette, the third largest of the overall granitic island group, provides a treat in a visit to the indescribably lovely beach at Anse Lascars. It is largely uninhabited and sees no visitors over its majority, but it does have Mt Daubin, the second highest elevation point in the islands, and it appears rather daunting above the azure seas, where we snorkelled around and under submerged granite formations and dive-throughs. These afternoon activities were perfectly cooling treats after our warmer beach walk earlier and viewing of the Nature Protection Trust of Seychelles’ giant tortoise and terrapin breeding programmes.

The voyage home

That “oh, the trip is winding down” feeling tinged our day nine morning sail back towards Mahe’s wondrouns Baie Ternay cove, where we got to snorkel our hearts out amid teeming schools of marine life and corals that have rebounded from the 1998 El Nino occurrance that destroyed many coral beds worldwide. The sweet after-dinner drinks were a hint of bittersweet feelings of our trip ending the next day, but all was made more fun and friendly by watching some of our shipmates’ videos on the giant screen TV as we drank and talked about the incredible things we had been seeing firsthand, including some of the most cared-for and well-maintained animal and sea life most people had seen in their lives.

Our final day began early with a sumptuous breakfast, after which we left the ship at Bel Ombre and took a short bus ride to Danzil, then trail-hiked at a comfortable pace along the cliffs of time-carved and split granite until we reached almost hidden cove of Anse Major. Truly feeling like I had gone back to the beginning of time on the trip, I took time alone to ponder the fate of our planet, as well as the unique beauty of this special place and our amazing experience, as I gazed at fish looking up at me from the clear waters. Then, with a hoot from my shipmates that lunch awaited us, I turned back with my companions to retrace the trail – much of which lies within the boundary of the Morne Seychelles National Park – for our midday feast lilted by happy smiles and many sighs of joy. Our afternoon sail across peaceful Beau Vallon to the island’s northern tip of rock outcroppings was warming to skin and heart. It made a perfect wind-down for a memorable visit to places most people will never get to see, observing life that is rare, precious and on the run from humanity’s encroachment, but well-harboured here, where eco-tourism is not a trick phrase, but a heartfelt duty and national pride that the Seychelles’ peoples bear with honour.

Lots of Sea to See

The Indian Ocean includes 20 percent of the water on our Earth’s surface, and it is the third largest of the planet’s oceanic divisions. Wrapping one’s head around the volume of the Indian Ocean is harder than naming all of the countries wrapped around this huge body of water, as it is estimated to hold  some 292,131,000 cubic kilometres (70,086,000 cubic miles).

Platform Droppings

Part of what fascinates scientists about the Seychelles’ granitic islands, and what makes the islands so unique, is that they are part of a gigantic shelf of rock called the Mascarene Platform, which is really a “microcontinent” in itself. Most islands or groupings of islands are tips of towering undersea mountains. The Seychelles, non-typically, are pinpoints of land, but not from the furthest depths of the ocean like most islands: the platform they comprise measures about 155,400 sq km (60,000 sq mi) that for the most part only rises one to two miles above the surrounding seafloor.

Whither the Weather?

Temperatures through the various islands of the Seychelles is fairly even, albeit rather humid, since the islands do not have broad land masses to break up weather patterns. Mahe, for example, only has temp variations from 24 to 30 C (75-86 F), and while rain on Victoria, where there are steeper mountain slopes, ranges from 2,900 mm (114 in) annually up to  3,600 mm (142 in), the rain levels are more scant on most of the islands.

Uncovering the Discoverers

Renowned explorer Vasco de Gama, a Portugese Admiral, humbly named the Amirantes island groupings after himself (they translate to “islands of the Admiral”). For a period that must have been even more exciting, pirates plied the seas here and stashed their booty, but French rule put an end to that skullduggery in 1756.

An Island or a Country?

Actually, Seychelles is both and while many island countries suffer from global economic changes, the Seychelles have prospered in great part thanks to their careful use of eco-tourism, conservation techniques that keep their unique fauna a flora alive and protected. Where once copra, vanilla and cinnamon exports were the chief drivers of the islands’ economies, the overall tourism industry has begun to dominate, encouraged by foreign investment in upgraded hotels and services; farming of sweet potatoes, coconuts, vanilla and cinnamon contribute to a lively economy.

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