The Seychelles Mar 08—24, 2009
Posted by Victor Emanuel
The word "magical" is often overused, but no other word more aptly describes our marvelous journey to the Seychelles Islands, some of the most beautiful islands in the world. Le Ponant, one of the world's loveliest ships, was our home for almost two weeks as we cruised through silken Indian Ocean seas to almost all of the major islands of the archipelago.
Following our embarkation on Mahé, and the next day-and-a-half at sea (during which we enjoyed three fascinating lectures), we made our first landing on Alphonse, a coralline island covered with coconut palms. We were greeted by hundreds of Greater and Lesser frigatebirds flying over us in an enormous kettle. A walk to the end of the airstrip produced three species of birds considered vagrants to the Seychelles: two Black-winged Pratincoles, several Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, and a Lesser Kestrel. We also enjoyed our first snorkeling trip and saw many colorful tropical fish and a gorgeous coral reef.
The next four days were spent at Astove and Picard islands, the latter being one of the islands of the Aldabra Atoll. Each of our days on these islands was filled with sightings of rare birds (many of them endemics) and superb snorkeling. It was very special to land on Aldabra, the most distant, least visited, and most pristine of the Seychelles Islands. With little difficulty, we found (Madagascar) Sacred Ibis, Comoro Blue Pigeon, Madagascar Kestrel, and Pied Crow. A walk through the scrub yielded the White-throated (Aldabra) Rail, Madagascar Coucal, Aldabra Drongo, Madagascar Bulbul, and Souimanga Sunbird, all birds not found in the central Seychelles.
One of our leaders, Ross Wanless, had been the lead scientist in the successful reintroduction of the Aldabra Rail from Malabar Island to Picard Island, where the rail had been wiped out by introduced non-native predators. We had many encounters with these curious little birds. On one occasion, one of the sub-adult rails walked up to within two feet of one of our participants! While we saw our first Aldabra tortoises on Astove, on Picard we found them everywhere. Nowhere else in the world can a person see so many of these huge reptiles!
As remarkable as our experiences on these remote islands were, our experiences in the water were even more amazing. Almost every day we had two opportunities to snorkel, and each session resulted in sightings of brilliantly-colored tropical fish, fascinating corals, and giant clams. Most memorable was our drift snorkel between Picard and Grande Terre islands, where we floated with the outgoing current, and gazed down onto a myriad of fish of all colors and sizes, as well as over 20 green sea turtles swimming from the lagoon to the sea. The combination of special landbirds and world-class snorkeling was incredible, and offered powerful insight into the allure of Aldabra.
Our next stop was the Cosmoledo Atoll, nesting islands for Red-footed, Masked, and a few Brown boobies. The number of boobies far exceeded the numbers we typically encounter in the Galapagos Islands, and we were able to observe the Red-footed Boobies and their chicks at close range.
Another day at sea gave us the opportunity to hear more lectures and to enjoy the beauty of the sea. Red-footed Boobies were our constant companions as they flew alongside our ship, swooping down to pluck flying fish out of the air. Most were white morph adults, but numbers of tan-colored juveniles were in evidence as well.
An added stop at Poivre Island produced more Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, migrant shorebirds, and an Amur Falcon, the most unexpected bird of the trip.
Besides birding, the chance to be at sea in such a remote, yet undeniably beautiful location contributed to the spell we were under. Some days were completely cloudless, while at night the star-gazing was fantastic. On other days we encountered huge, billowing cumulus clouds that were stained a beautiful pink at sunrise and glowed a flaming orange at sunset. On two occasions, we saw the famous green flash at sunset, including one on St. Patrick's Day!
We spent the last part of our trip back in the central, or Granitic Islands, where we made landings on Cousin, Silhouette, Praslin, La Digue, Aride, and Curieuse. Each of these islands afforded us a different set of experiences: fabulous seabird colonies on Cousin and Aride; endemic birds on La Digue (Seychelles Paradise-Flycatcher and Seychelles Swiftlet), Praslin (Seychelles Black Parrot), and Aride (Seychelles Brush-Warbler and Seychelles Magpie-Robin); and spectacular wave-sculpted blocks of granite on La Digue.
Our experiences in the Seychelles were unforgettable. And while the birding and other natural history were superb, much of the credit for this trip's success is attributable to a wonderful group of passengers whose enthusiasm never diminished, a lovely vessel, and an outstanding captain and crew.