Drifting (Aldabra)

Published in Odyssey, Winter 2007/2008

“Time and Tide wait for no man!” commented a passenger, looking at the life-jacketed crowd gathered in the lounge, snorkel bags in hand. “Not even for the Johnsons” responded his wife, nodding towards the habitually late couple who were now at the front of the zodiac queue. There had been a tangible air of expectation ever since Pete had explained that visitors to Aldabra were at the mercy of the tides: two hours each side of high tide, and that’s it for the day. The world’s largest raised atoll is more lagoon than land, 17 miles from west to east, surrounded by walls of coral cut by four channels. The incoming tide would carry the zodiacs into this secret world through Main Channel, and the outgoing tide would return us to the ship. This evening, said Pete, we would stay in the zodiacs while we explored the lagoon, and tomorrow, soon after dawn, we’d land at the settlement.

How many of us have been inside a coral atoll? I hadn’t, and had only a hazy idea of what to expect. All preconceptions were anyway erased by the drama of our arrival. The sea was choppy and the zodiacs bucked and slapped at the waves before whooshing through the gap between coral islands. We hung on to the ropes, drenched and grinning with the exhilaration of the ride, and burst into another world. It was like a painting by Salvador Dali. The lagoon was glassy smooth, and green as mint icecream as far as the horizon where it merged with the blue of the sky. And plonked in the water were islets of coral, their bases eroded into stalks. These are aptly known as champignons and each wore an unruly hat of vegetation.

We were heading towards some mangroves. The first impression was of a row of fruit trees: scattered red blobs stood out against the dark green foliage. Then I realised that we were looking at hundreds of frigate birds in full courtship display, their scarlet throat pouches inflated to catch the attention of passing females. Robin cut the zodiac engine and we drifted silently, binoculars to our eyes. Now we could see that the frigate birds were not alone. Handsome black-and-white birds with absurdly red feet were perching on the branches or tending their fluffy white chicks. These were red-footed boobies. Frigate birds wheeled overhead on the lookout for a booby with a crop full of fish. We watched the aerial tussles as the frigate birds harassed the boobies, tugging at their tail feathers until they regurgitated their catch. As the slimy prize fell to the sea the thieves swooped down to grab it and carry it back to their own young. It looked so easy, with the boobies designed for plunge-diving and flying in a straight line, while the frigate birds, with their long angular wings and deeply forked tails, were masters of the air. “Now I understand how they got their name!” someone commented, looking at the boobies placidly sharing their crowded home with their arch-enemy.

Time for some snorkelling. But with a difference, for this was drift snorkelling. The zodiacs were positioned at the head of the channel, and the swimmers just lay face down on the sea and let the tide do the work. It was like watching a movie starring an improbable cast of marine creatures: parrot fish, Moorish idols, groupers, a turtle, some spotted eagle rays and even a black-tipped reef shark. All this and multi-coloured, multi-shaped coral.

The sun was low in the sky when we returned to the ship, jabbering excitedly about what we’d seen. And we still had the anticipation of tomorrow’s dawn landing at the settlement which houses the warden and research assistants.

For once there were no complaints about the early start. Yesterday had been all about water and birds, today was tortoise day. Again the incoming tide swept the zodiacs through the channel and brought us to one of the most pristine places on earth. Aldabra is paradise saved; Eden before the apple; Planet Earth before man started to despoil it. These islands of sand and scrubby bushes are not beautiful nor are they bountiful. That’s what has saved Aldabra. With no reliable fresh water, conditions have been too harsh for agriculture so there was no interruption in evolution’s leisurely creation of unique life forms. Of the 273 species of flowering plants and ferns here, 22% are endemic. There are birds that are found no where else in the world, and of course the atoll’s most famous resident, the giant tortoise – around 100,000 of them.

It sounded like the sawing of wood. Not too surprising in a self-sufficient settlement so I took little notice. Then my companion nudged me: “You have seen what’s going on, haven’t you?” One giant Aldabra tortoise had clambered aboard a much smaller female and was banging away with an expression as close to ecstasy as you can get on a tortoise, emitting a rhythmic roar. His conspicuous enjoyment was not matched by the female whose attempts to walk away were thwarted by his weight. Another smaller male was doing much better; his paramour was perfectly still, obligingly letting him have his wicked way. Pity that she was a boulder. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the insemination success rate with giant tortoises is very low.

Meanwhile the settlement pet, Biscuit, was standing on tip-toes having his wrinkly neck stroked by a succession of passengers. His eyes were half closed and his beaky mouth set in fixed smile. Life seems pretty good on Aldabra if you’re a giant tortoise. If you manage to keep out of the sun, that is. Later we saw the bleached white shells of tortoises that had cooked to death in the midday heat, having failed to find shade under the bushes.

“Hey, just look at this crab!” The coconut crab is indeed eye-poppingly wonderful: the biggest crab I’ve seen, except perhaps at the fishmonger, with a round, purple body and enormous orange claws. And instead of sitting around on the seabed waiting to be caught and cooked, it was climbing a tree! We learned later that this is an evolved form of hermit crab and indeed the young still protect their soft bodies with a borrowed shell. Its alternative name, robber crab, tells us why it was climbing that tree and the use for its massive claws. Its main diet is coconuts.

It was while I was admiring the crab that I sensed, rather than saw, a movement near my feet. A small bird with oversized toes was tugging at my shoelace with its long beak. “Wow!” whispered Don, our most enthusiastic twitcher. “It can’t be… it is?” Yes, it was. This was one of the rarest birds in the world, a megatick for any birder: the Aldabra flightless rail. As it poked around our feet you could understand why its larger flightless relatives on the other Indian Ocean islands had become extinct. Its instinct for self-preservation seemed exceptionally low.

A sandy path led to La Gigi on the edge of West Channel and the plaque reminding us that Aldabra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, given ‘to humanity by the people of Seychelles’. This is the place to ponder how close we came to destroying Aldabra. In the 1960s, in the height of the Cold War, Britain decided that this was the perfect place to establish an Anglo-American airforce base. The mangrove forests with their thousands of boobies and frigate birds would have been replaced by runways, and the sound of birds by the roar of aircraft. Conservationists were outraged and, thank God, this time they won the battle. Aldabra is a symbol of what can be achieved by people who care.

© Hilary Bradt

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