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Leave nothing behind except for footprints in the sand

Aldabra – the apple of the eye in the Garden of Eden

Dr. Wolfgang H. Thome, eTN Uganda  Nov 02, 2011

(eTN) - Splendid isolation comes to mind when looking up Aldabra, the world’s second largest coral atoll and part of the Seychelles archipelago. Aldabra is so large in fact that the entire main island of Mahe would comfortably fit inside the atoll, not that anyone would want to try that, of course. Closer to Madagascar or the Comoros, both just over 400 kilometers away, compared to the main Seychellois “inner islands,” which are nearly 1.150 kilometers distant from the atoll, Aldabra gained the coveted status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site on November 19, 1982 and has since then been managed by the Seychelles Island Foundation alongside the “Vallee de Mai,” a second UNESCO World Heritage Site on the island of Praslin.

The name alone has a certain ring to it, and the origin of the word is thought to be found in ancient Arabic, coined in the days when dhows traversed the Indian Ocean with the tradewinds, along the East African coast and to the scattered islands way out in the ocean. Coastlines and islands were visited by traders from Persia, Oman, Yemen, and other sultanates in search of precious stones, gold, ivory, spices, and tropical hard wood, as well as mangrove poles and, of course, slaves, and it is thought that many of those seafarers knew of Aldabra and may have used the island to replenish fresh water, catch some fish, and hunt some of the huge giant sea tortoises and other marine life for food and trophies.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site, “Vallee de Mai” remains Seychelles’ most-visited tourism attraction, and with its growing income, co-finances the research and conservation activities on Aldabra, since few tourist visitors are able to make the trip to Aldabra due to the complex logistics required. The resulting cost of such a trip, exciting as it may, of course, sound, to get there and become one of a very few humans who ever set foot on the atoll in modern times is simply prohibitive for most of us walking under the sun, and maybe even for those who can happily afford the often extravagant luxuries of some of the Seychelles’ world-class resorts.

Unlike the Galapagos Islands, which can be reached by air and sea in well organized and meanwhile often oversubscribed tours and with which Aldabra to a point at least can be compared, the natural attractions of the atoll, including over 100,000 giant sea tortoises, are unique and literally untouched. Only a small crew of researchers resides semi-permanently on the atoll, at times complemented by visiting study groups from leading universities or marine and climate research institutions from around the world. They all follow in the footsteps of such famous explorer names like Charles Darwin and Capt. Jacques Cousteau, the former who visited this part of the Indian Ocean in the 1870s – who knows if it was not his visit to Aldabra which ultimately inspired his theories of evolution – and the latter “more recently” in the mid-fifties of the last century. One other very high-profile visitor was the Princess Royal a few years ago, greatly helping the Seychelles Island Foundation to attract attention to their challenges for funding, as it is always good to have friends in high places.

A couple of hundred intrepid tourists per annum at most have come to Aldabra in recent years, although prior to the global economic and financial crisis, this number had reached the magic 1,000 that year. Those who do come either take a day trip by boat from Assumption, the nearest island with an airfield, or else come with their ocean-going yachts, anchor offshore, visit during the day for guided tours, and then return to sleep on their boats at night. Either way, a visit involves some serious advanced planning and logistics to be put into place, and when that is all done, the weather, too, plays an important role, as the 20-odd-mile journey across the ocean from Assumption can be very rough indeed at certain times of the year.

When the few privileged intrepid adventurers then finally depart again, after exploring the various islands making up the atoll under the strict supervision of their Aldabra-based guide, they are supposed to leave nothing behind on the atoll but their footprints in the sand – this is a standing rule and strictly observed and enforced.

There are few destinations as remote and as difficult to access by visitors than Aldabra, and it explains the pristine marine environment and untouched vegetation on the atoll – the handfuls of visitors every month, at times there are none at all for weeks, create less impact and less damage to the environment. In fact, climate change and rising sea levels presently pose very likely a greater threat to the Aldabra atoll than a couple of hundred more visitors would, and the Seychelles Island Foundation has been very keen to see tourist numbers rise to help pay for the substantial expenses of keeping research crews so far away and supply them by boat from Mahe. It is clear from a detailed conversation with SIF Chief Executive Dr. Frauke Fleischer-Dogley that the Seychelles Island Foundation has a limit of annual visitors in mind to preserve the integrity of Aldabra and protect their research from becoming polluted, but for now, with visitor numbers also driven down by the presence of Somali pirates in the expansive waters between Mahe and the atoll, this seems a long way off before any limit needs announcing and enforcing.

On the downside, has it also been reported that floatsam and debris is now being carried in increasing quantities to the atoll from far away, following the prevailing currents - evidence of just how polluted our oceans have become and that even at the remotest of places, deep in the open waters of the Indian Ocean, rubbish still makes its way to the shores and beaches, posing a significant and growing risk to marine life and serving as a reminder how urgent it is to treat our oceans with respect. Unless, that is, they are to become the world’s largest rubbish disposal site, probably with long-term disastrous consequences for marine life and commercially-harvested fish.

Repeated Aldabra exhibitions in Paris and Victoria have helped SIF’s team to keep the attention of the global conservation and research fraternity at a constant high and helped raise additional funds to continue the often groundbreaking work on a number of ongoing, some say historic, studies underway on Aldabra.

The distant and remote location in fact adds some historical spice to the story, dating back nearly 100 years, when the Imperial German Navy light cruiser Koenigsberg and her supply vessel, the Somali, played cat and mouse with the Royal British Navy along the East African seaboard at the onset of the First World War. In a perfectly executed game of hide and seek in early August 1914, just after war had been declared, Koenigsberg’s Captain Max Loof defied the overwhelming odds when he managed to outrun the British cruisers in pursuit after his stealthy departure from Dar es Salaam and then drove his light cruiser, about 125 meters long and just under 3,100 tons, into the Aldabra lagoon through the Grand Passe, or Main Channel, a coral reef lined passage about 700 meters wide and extending about 2.5 kilometers into the lagoon. Joining them “in there” was his supply vessel, Somali, allowing the Koenigsberg to bunker much-needed coal and other supplies to be able to run back to Tanganyika and commence extended operations along the Eastern African coastline all the way down to Yemen.

According to information made available by Glynn Burridge of the Seychelles Tourism Board, the original rendezvous place for the meeting of the ships was to be the Rufiji Delta in the then German colony of Tanganyika, which, however, had to be abandoned as the British navy had started to move additional ships into the area to hunt for the Koenigsberg and to deny the German troops in Tanganyika, a strategic asset, able to deliver supplies and to even further disrupt and threaten British naval operations from their own colony in Kenya and beyond than that single light cruiser already did during its time.

The British navy must have been somewhere in the vicinity of Aldabra during the visit by the Germans but was unable to spot the well-concealed German navy ships and probably also concluded from their maritime maps and on site assessment that there was no way a ship of that size could sail into the inner atoll. The British did eventually catch up with first the Somali and later the Koenigsberg herself in the war in the Rufiji Delta after suffering some humiliating losses caused by the German warship, but that cat and mouse game went on longer than intended as a result of the bravery of the Koenigsberg and Somali crews, who defied the odds and achieved a naval first, not since repeated, of entering the Aldabra lagoon. In fact, entering the lagoon through any of the four main channels today is no longer permitted for commercial traffic and considering the dangers of ocean swells and rushing waters at tide and ebb any attempted entry would be quite dangerous in any case. The other main passages are the Western Channel, suitable only at calm weather and high tide for small craft, the Passe Houareau or East Channel equally only suited for smaller crafts and the just as difficult to navigate Johnny Channel, although several other smaller inlets exist between the four larger and plenty of smaller islands making up the atoll.

But back to the present day Aldabra, leaving the events of the First World War’s Indian Ocean naval hunts behind us, interesting as it might be for war history buffs.

For conservation conscious Seychelles, which holds the world record of having more than half of its territory protected as terrestrial and marine national parks, as nature, bird, and ocean reserves on public and private land, Aldabra, distant as it may be from the capital Victoria, is surely the prized apple of the eye of their conservation efforts. The Valle de Mai, which undoubtedly is better known for its uniquely shaped coco de mer nuts remains the most-visited tourism attraction on the Seychelles, but it is Aldabra which most reminds one of the original Garden of Eden for marine life and birds and coral island vegetation left literally untouched for hundreds of years and therefore entirely intact. Extensive mangrove forests, tall as no longer seen anywhere else and never really harvested by man in recent memory, provide an ideal environment for the often thousands of giant tortoises and other marine life calling Aldabra their home. Birdlife, too, is significant, both in terms of numbers and in terms of species. Reports from the Aldabra community have talked of finding crabs weighing several kilograms and fish larger than usual, probably a result of the nearly total absence of humans who would otherwise constantly raid marine life and reduce the populations starting from the big guys, which nowhere else are now found in such abundance and with such regularity than in the waters inside the atoll and around Aldabra. The atoll, therefore, provides an insight into what our oceans used to be like in ancient times, and the ongoing research gives us the data to compare the changes over the past decades caused by pollution, rising water levels, and increased water and air temperatures, and what impact to marine life this has caused and is continuing to cause.

The Seychelles Tourism Board has information about the atoll, as has the Seychelles Island Foundation, on their websites, for all those who are keenly interested to “peep in” from the distance via cyberspace, but once the “bug has bitten,” undoubtedly the intent will be to visit in person one day, as it is for sure the case with this correspondent. Aldabra for now remains one of the last frontiers still to be fully explored by humanity, and it can only be hoped that it will be done so with extreme caution and care by conscious researchers and explorers able to appreciate the pristine environment they find, and leave behind only their proverbial foot prints in the sand when they leave, richer by a rare and priceless experience and turned in to advocates for conservation. Seychelles – Truly “Another World.”

Getting there: By air from Mahe International Airport to Assumption Island, STOL capable concrete airfield of 3.963 x 41 ft. with GPS data available through SCAA and SATC, and then 3+ hours by boat each way weather permitting, to be arranged in advance through the Seychelles Island Foundation offices in Victoria, or else by supply boat or private yacht or explorer cruisers, anchoring off shore as there are no sleeping quarters to be had for “ordinary” tourist visitors. Permission/clearance to visit must be pre-arranged through the Seychelles Island Foundation in Victoria and immigration procedures, for those traveling there from abroad, must be followed ahead of landing on Aldabra.

Aldabra – the apple of the eye in the Garden of Eden
Mushroom-shaped coral "island" during low tide on Aldabra / Image via

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