IT’S 4.38AM, AND I CAN no longer sleep. Not so much from the 10-timezone shift I’d just made as from the blanket of polar air coming from the air-con in my chalet on an Indian Ocean beachfront.
Fully awake, I step outside into the still, tropical air and walk 20 steps to the beach. The lagoon is smooth; fairweather clouds seem to float on the water, perfect reflections lit by a full moon. It’s low tide.
One hundred metres from my porch steps, the ocean has no energy to breach the exposed reef break; a hushed lapping is the only evidence of a quiescent yet restless ocean moving beyond the lagoon.
My mind starts racing. “The wall begins at 18m, just beyond the reef – out there.” Hinton had pointed, to nowhere in particular, as we drank beers on the beach in the Tiki bar the evening before. “Then it drops to 2700m – at least, that’s what the nautical charts show.”
Hinton is the diving instructor at Alphonse Island in the Seychelles Islands archipelago. He had told me a lot about the diving I could hope to experience over the next week, but for now all I can think about is “the wall”.

I’M THE FIRST DIVER to visit Alphonse Island as a customer in more than a decade. Until late 2014, a year after new owners acquired the island resort and invested heavily in a new dive-centre, the only people with diving access had been Island Conservation Society (ICS) employees conducting reef surveys and the few locals working at the Lodge.
For the Seychelles and divers alike, the 2014 re-opening of Alphonse to diving was significant.
This is because not all diving in the Seychelles is equal. Five separate island groups comprise the nation, spread broadly between the Maldives, mainland Africa and Madagascar.
The islands fit into two geological types, coralline and granitic – a distinction important for divers.
Unlike atolls, the granite islands of the Mahe group are ocean oddities with Afro-continental origins. However, the towering rock mountains rising sharply from aquamarine shallows to the clouds don’t necessarily translate to spectacular underwater vistas.
Day trips to local reefs are offered by local diving outfits (after all, Mahe rests just below the Equator) but the shallow shelf on which the island group perches doesn’t offer geological formations such as the vertical walls that true atolls like Alphonse present to divers.
Alphonse and its sister-atolls St Francois and Bijoutier, collectively known as Alphonse, typify the classic atoll, with a low-lying island and shallow lagoon ringed by coral reef rising, often vertically, to the surface from extreme depths.
Alphonse is part of a larger group called the Amirantes that lies south-west of Mahe, one of the Seychelles’ four coralline groups but the only one besides Mahe to offer diving.
The other three have no infrastructure, liveaboards or, in some cases, access. That makes the Amirantes and Alphonse in particular special.
Confusing? Perhaps a bit, but the bottom line is that diving can be found only in Mahe, which offers shallower, rock-based reefs, and Alphonse, which provides the many virtues of atoll-based diving from oceanic visibility and walls to placid lagoons and big animals.
As Alphonse has been commercially unavailable since 2002 (and then only briefly), this was my opportunity for some real frontier diving.
Also, my photography bucket-list includes capturing an image of every species of anemonefish, and one species is endemic only to the Seychelles.
I met our team at the dive-centre at 11 – Sam from ICS, Hinton and his divemaster, Danah. With the exception of my camera gear, dive equipment had already been loaded onto the 9m twin-engined catamaran.
“We have a proper tide to dive both Napoleon and the Boiler beginning at 1pm,” said Hinton with his South African inflection. “Napoleon is a point location reef with several bommies and rock piles at 18m outside the outer reef wall east of Bijoutier, so we want a slack tide for the dive.
“We’ll follow up with a drift-dive at the Boiler,” he added. “The current will pick up considerably after our surface interval, but the wall off Boiler is continuous along the entire north-western side of Alphonse, so this will be an easy, fun drift-dive.”
The boat-ride took 10 minutes. GPS co-ordinates plotted during exploratory diving some time before 2002 provided no clue to what we might find below, but the location’s moniker portended a possible appearance from a giant wrasse or two.

ON THE COUNT OF THREE we rolled in. A quick gear check and we purged BCs and dived to the reef below. I had descended no more than 3m before the largest school of blue-striped snapper I’d ever seen caught my attention, swirling around a bommie another 15m below me.
Yes! I fist-pumped with my free hand and settled into a vortex of fish. The visibility was excellent and the current slack – the pros had nailed the tides and the spot.
The parade of blue-striped snapper seemed endless and was interrupted only by an intersecting train of humpback snappers trailing a caboose-load of yellowfin goatfish. I clicked away, oblivious to the two immense shapes tailing me at my 6 o’clock.
Well, almost oblivious. The pair of large Napoleon wrasse, well over a metre long, were content to eyeball my intentions a short distance behind me – until, that is, I made eye contact.
The gig was up, and they skulked away almost to the maximum range of lateral visibility.
I decided that their shyness was a good thing. These animals got large because they were both wary and smart.
No worries, I was sure we’d be back later in the week, and I’d have the advance knowledge of their presence.
At my request, later in the week we again dived Napoleon, but on a mid-tide bore where the current quickly turned the site into a technical dive.
Trying to shoot wide-angle at a point location under current proved fruitless but the dive was cool regardless. The two mondo Napoleons, staying much closer on this dive, seemed amused at my gesticulations as I attempted to hold position and shoot images without damaging the reef.

AFTER SNACKS, a reasonable surface interval and a short boat-ride, it was time for a wall-dive at the Boiler, named for the single feature remaining visible at low tide after the French frigate Dot collided with the reef in 1873.
If the visibility was excellent at Napoleon, it was spectacular along the north-western side of Alphonse atoll. Azure gave way to cobalt blue within the length of the catamaran.
“We’ll hit the wall first,” Hinton briefed us. “Stay within your no-deco limits, then work your way up. Above 18m the reef slopes upward at about 45° towards the crown. You’ll find a few ledges along the transition point. Some seafans grow on the wall; hard corals dominate the transition point upward.”
Hinton excels at understatement. His definition of “some seafans” was like saying there are “a few trees” in the Black Forest.
Indeed, “forest” is appropriate in describing the quantity of seafans we encountered, with “redwoods” assigning a mass value to each “tree”.
From 18m to 40m I dived the forest, finding more and larger animals the deeper I went. Alas, the biophysics of gas saturation at depth applied to my soft tissues, and a warning from my computer pulled me from the brink as the sirens whispered: “Go deeper.”
One encounter leads to another, and at 14m Sam flagged me away from an emperor angelfish to show me his rare find; a pair of Seychelles anemonefish, the ones indigenous to the archipelago, hosted by a metre-wide Merten’s anemone. One hell of an auspicious start to the week, don’t you think?

AT DINNER THAT EVENING the local fly-fishing guides were talking up the manta rays sited off the eastern side of Francois’s reef on the out-going tide. “There were at least a dozen, one trailing after another,” one reported.
Consulting with Hinton and Danah, we agreed to stick with the diving plan for the next day based on the later tides, and figured that the mantas would still be there towards the end of the week when the correct out-going tide could be found early in the day.
Early the following afternoon, the tides were right for a pair of dives – another wall-dive at Arcade followed by a shallow reef dive at Eagle’s Nest, so named for eagle rays always hanging out around a modest break in the reef crown so that they could move into the lagoon under all but the lowest of tides.
If snapper ruled the reef at Napoleon, waves of bluefin trevally and several varieties of fusilier dominated the upper water column at Arcade.
I wanted to hit the deep wall first but without missing out on a possible photo-op, and the fast-moving schooling fish resulted in my losing focus in both senses.
Preset small apertures with slow, rear-sync flash shutter speeds in manual mode for shooting up angles in the seafans gave way to mostly smeared images of trevally. Mental note: what appears sharp on the camera screen ain’t necessarily so.
Fortunately, I prised my attention away from the schools long enough to work with Danah on a few decent silhouette shots among the fans.
If Arcade is a prime wall site with current, Eagle’s Nest is a novice diver’s delight. Sitting on a shallow plateau off the current paralleling the reef, Arcade runs from 4-9m deep and showcases dozens of different hard-coral species with 95% bottom coverage.
It’s also a perfect spot for a shooter looking to bag images of colourful butterflyfish and angelfish with a normal or macro set-up. I added three new species of butterflyfish to my image collection on that dive alone.

COLOURFUL REEF-FISH are cool, but big pelagics are cooler. It was time to up the game and try a new site not yet dived, as far as we knew, by anyone.
Consulting the charts, we selected the northernmost point of the outer reef at Alphonse, where current pushing from the south-west collides with one pushing from the south-east.
“I’ve caught quite a few sailies [South African for sailfish], doggies [dogtooth tuna] and wahoo where the current converges off that point,” said one of the fishing guides after dinner, pointing to a spot as we pored over the nautical chart. “I’ve seen some nice sharks there as well.”
We raced to the location, identified only as “Probe 2014” on the ICS diving map, the next morning. We had arrived early to avoid the full force of the tide, and could see only small standing waves on a smooth sea.
The plan was to drop in shallow and work our way down the reef-face with the current, mindful of the offshore pull, levelling off at 25m where a small wall would block the current.
The reef-face was dome-like to around 18m, then dropped vertically to well over 30m, the undercut wall providing shelter from the current.
I was drawn to a pair of deepwater butterflyfish I’d seen only in books and manoeuvred to get a shot. I looked around after a few clicks of the shutter to see Sam signalling: “Shark.”
I swivelled left to catch a glimpse of a big bull shark cruising by 6m away with a large giant trevally riding shotgun on his back. The appearance was fleeting and I missed the shot.
No worries, back to the butterflyfish – and another strategic miss, this time of a pair of dogtooth tuna. I did manage a single shot but only as evidence that I saw the fish.
At least as we worked our way back up the wall I found a sleeping tawny nurse shark under a small ledge, a giant silver sweetlips at a cleaning station and another pair of Seychelles anemonefish.
We finished the day at Abyss and Hotel, similar dives to Arcade and Eagle’s Nest under “chamber of commerce” conditions: great visibility, modest current and a smooth ocean.

OVER THE NEXT SEVERAL DAYS we settled into paying routine visits to the house reef inside Alphonse Lagoon, doing more exploratory dives on the opposite side of Bijoutier and even revisiting the Boiler and Napoleon.
But as the week wore on the weather deteriorated and a tropical depression settled over the Amirantes. It didn’t keep us out of the water, as there is always a leeside to dive, but it did scatter any mantas stacking up off St François.
Maybe, just maybe, we had dived locations off Alphonse that had never been visited by a human before. A very pleasant thought.

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE There are no direct flights to the Seychelles but several airlines departing from Heathrow can get you there in 13 hours. The domestic flight from Mahe to Alphonse leaves only at mid-day on Saturdays and has a 15kg limit on checked-in baggage.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION Alphonse Island Dive Centre is part of a single resort with beach bungalows and villas, www.alphonse-resort.com
WHEN TO GO The Alphonse diving season is October-May.
CURRENCY Seychelles rupee.
HEALTH Silhouette Island, a 75-minute flight from Alphonse, has the nearest chamber.
PRICES Return flights to Mahe cost around £700, from Mahe to Alphonse US $1370. A beach bungalow all-inclusive (two sharing) for a week costs US $3920. A 10-dive package is $1000 and marine park fees are $10 per day.
VISITOR INFORMATION www.seychelles.travel