|The INDIAN OCEAN EXPLORER, registered in Panama, is no luxury yacht. Built originally as a seismic-survey vessel for use in the North Sea, she has a 35m reinforced steel hull suitable for running into ice with, and her superstructure is contained well within the steel decks and entered via watertight steel doors.
Her bridge is protected by a high bulkhead that reminds me of scenes from The Cruel Sea. Her aft deck lies close to the water for convenient launching and retrieving of equipment.
Steel rather than teak lies underfoot, and the spiky profile evokes the impression more of a small warship than a leisure vessel.
Powered by slow-revving marine diesels, she has a vast range. Her inherent seaworthiness makes her ideal for the long journey across the Indian Ocean that lies ahead of us.
Although part of the island-nation of the Seychelles, Aldabra lies nearly 800 miles from Mahé. In fact it is closer to Madagascar. We intend to punctuate our journey there from Mahé by stopping off first to dive in the Admirantes and then at St Pierre, Cosmoledo and Astove; lonely island outposts of which few have heard.
The aft deck of the Indian Ocean Explorer has had a massive hydraulic crane recently fitted to enable Hans Frickes submersible to be lifted on board. After our trip, Fricke has chartered the vessel to head on down to the Comores, in search of coelacanths.
We are all experienced divers. I decide to change everyones name to protect the innocent. David Rowatt, owner and operator of both this vessel and the Seychelles Underwater Centre, has become Captain Nemo. Mercifully none of us are affected by the giant squids during the voyage. Thats thanks to scrupulous cleanliness in the galley, which delivers a constant supply of scrumptious meals. There is an epidemic of over-eating. Thank goodness for Gaviscon.
Some of the other part-owners are on board. Theres Inspector Clouseau, accompanied by his young wife Nymphet, together with Norman Clegg and the cast of Last of the Summer Wine. Paying passenger Wing Commander Blimp (I only fly planes without engines now) has decided to call me Captain Webb, after the intrepid cross-Channel swimmer who performed only after the application of a liberal coating of goose-grease.
Other passengers include Jan-Jaap Van Clog, a myopic Dutch optician who works in Kuwait, and Eva von Braun, an unattached lady from the Berlin gas company who once worked as a dive-guide on a well-known liveaboard out of Cairns.
We have plenty of space. There are eight cabins below deck. Some passengers are jealous of my portholes but I am concerned that the sea repeatedly hits them so hard that one might break. It doesnt happen, but the sea is big.
The vessel heaves as we progress eastwards out of Mahe. The decks are awash. Some passengers are hardly seen during the first couple of days before they develop their sea-legs. They are probably heaving too.
I develop a system for using my shower. I first wash the wall before jamming my back against it and washing myself. Wing Commander Blimp insists that it is better to sit on the lavatory and perform all functions simultaneously.
The vessel is well equipped for diving, with de-nitrogenised nitrox on tap, two RIBs for diver pick-up and a crew that never lets you lift a finger to help with the gear. For us its just a matter of rinsing and reloading cameras between dives.
Our first dives outside the granitic islands of the Seychelles are in the Admirantes, at St Josephs Atoll near Desroches. As we head down the reef, I see three giant eagle rays hovering one above the other just off the sand, wing-spans around 3m across.
I imagine that they will be spooked by the divers, but only Jan-Jaap seems to be going towards them and then, yes, hes been distracted by a school of jacks.
I head off in the opposite direction from the group, upcurrent. As I glide back with it, close to the sandy bottom, two of the rays take flight but one stands its ground and I manage to squeeze off three frames of film before its gone. None of the other divers has seen them. Everyone seems too busy watching life through their underwater video monitors.
rock and roll
Weve left the unique rainforest-clad heights of the classic Seychelles landscape far behind us. Alphonse is another low-lying, palm-clad coral island in the style of the Maldives. It has a dive site well-called the Canyon.
Down at 40m there are masses of gorgonians, shoals of yellow and humphead snapper, colourful soft corals and an obliging family of nurse sharks. The coral on the reef top is long dead but it still teems with fishlife and I enjoy my time with Norman Clegg and a collection of juvenile batfish during a long decompression stop.
A few dives here and its back to the rock and roll of the sea voyage. St Pierre is close to Providence Atoll and midway between the Admirantes and the first atoll in the Aldabra group. The coral in the shallows is still in a sad way following the rising sea temperatures of 1998, although there are signs of recovery here.
We start to get used to being pestered by randy male green turtles while we dive, something that happens at every site from now on. Nymphet looks so fetching in her high-cut wetsuit, Im not surprised they should pay her attention, but why do they like me so much
We meet the first of the giant grouper that later will seem so common to us. The trees are home to flocks of nesting green-backed heron. No solitary bird this.
Cosmoledo Atoll forms a ring of 12 islands around a small lagoon. Its a true atoll. We see masses of dead coral but some that seems positively healthy. The water is colder here at around 24C. We all opt to use the hoods that Captain Nemo offers us, and some change to the thicker wetsuits he has hidden away in the ships dive store.
Between dives, we go ashore. There are turtle tracks and a few blasted trees. The boobies argue over the few nesting sites available to them. Red-tailed tropic birds nest in the undergrowth.
Astove is a 2.5sq m coral island thrust up from the seabed by volcanic action from far below. The water around its sheer walls is extremely deep. Theres a new landscape here because although the coral seems to be thriving, it coexists with masses of green seaweeds.
It seems strange to see red coral trout living among all this greenery. If coral reefs are like gardens, there are now fewer flowers and more undergrowth. I come across a giant grouper, sheltering in a hole among a verdant bank of weed while being groomed by cleanerfish. It holds its station while I take its photograph.
I shoot off several frames before retreating, only to find the great animal following his new friend. He escorts me along the reef while I make more portraits of him. Finally I run out of film so I tickle him under the chin. He seems to like it.
Astove has been the site of numerous shipwrecks. Stories of pirate treasure abound, but if the wrecks are there, they are in very deep water. Lets hope the story of an international oil terminal to be built here is not correct.
We head on towards Aldabra, the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean. It survives intact because it is so remote. It is the worlds largest coral atoll that rises above sea-level, a series of islands forming a necklace around a lagoon so big you could fit Manhattan within it. The islands are a unique mushroom shape, the rocks eroded by the constant movement of water within the lagoon.
Aldabra has a unique eco-system and the UN made it a World Heritage Site after successful protests against the proposed use of the encompassing islands as a British military base in 1964. It is famous for its giant tortoises, of which there are far more than in the Galapagos Islands.
Reference books claim 150,000, though I am told by those who do the counting that the number is more like 90,000 - still a fair few.
Go ashore and they are everywhere. There are nearly as many as there are Malagasy turtle doves. Two thousand breeding green turtles nest here and there are countless hawksbill turtles too. Then there is the white-throated flightless rail. One of the last species of Indian Ocean flightless birds, related to the long-lost dodo, it is the kiwi of Aldabra.
There are huge colonies of frigate birds, the males impressing the females with grotesque inflated throat sacs which they blow up like balloons and which dangle after display like discarded condoms. Millions of brown and red-footed boobies also nest here.
Rangers from the research station accompany us as we cruise the lagoon in our RIB. They want to monitor how many birds we disturb by our presence.
They reckon we put up several hundred more than would normally be circling above, though thats only a tiny percentage increase.
Counting birds cant be a very exciting pastime. Life is made interesting by the hope of some cigarettes and beer turning up on the long-awaited supply boat.
Astove featured sheer walls, but the reefs around Aldabra slope gently. We see the usual groupers, hawksbill and green turtles, shoals of snapper and all the other reef fish we expect. Barracuda come in a choice of sub-species, from giant solitary great barracuda to circling schools of the black-tailed chevron variety.
Jan-Jaap has his video pointed at a tiny bristleworm as great clouds of sharpfin barracuda circle over his head. Norman Clegg, too, is busy photographing a macro subject while at his feet, un-noticed, lies the biggest green turtle I have ever seen, fast asleep.
Not for long. As my flash goes off he opens one bleary eye. I shoot 10 frames, big close-ups. He cant be bothered to move. A perfect subject, spoilt only by the sand that macro-man is accidentally shovelling over him with his fins.
There are lots of Spanish dancer eggs in evidence, looking like rosettes of pink toilet paper caught on the reef. Go out at night here and you will see Spanish dancers up to 60cm long. Yes, a couple of foot of spectacular orange or red pulsating colour.
Eva gets a nickname now - Miss Kowalski. She fries everything she looks at with her great big lamp. She is the only member of our party without a camera and in great demand as a model. She is unimpressed.
During the day, I lend her my equally powerful lamp while hers recharges. She closely inspects a peacock flounder, or is it sole-in-batter
There are also endless sweetlips of all kinds, including the oriental variety in their striped pyjamas. Some are rather large. Their local name is rubber-lips, and one variety wears a rather fetching golden lipstick. There are millions of surgeonfish too.
They all seem to be waiting - perhaps for life in the fast lane to begin...
Visibility around tidal lagoons such as you find at Cosmoledo and Aldabra is never crystal clear. Twice a day the water empties out with the falling tide and then refills, keeping a lot of sand and silt in suspension. The emptying lagoon of Aldabra also washes out all the fish that browse for their food within it. The rubber-lips are bottom-feeders, sifting the sand and silt for small crustaceans.
As the tide turns, the fish congregate at the mouths of the three channels that feed the lagoon - Main, East and Johnny - and wait to get back in. We opt to dive Main.
The RIB drops us in the ocean outside. There is a huge swell and its good to exchange the discomfort of a bouncing RIB for the weightlessness of the deep.
Thousands of fish hover but their relaxed appearance belies a current that is already doing more than one knot. My fellow-divers cling to the rocks, envious of the reef hook which allows me a hands-free approach (later Norman Clegg traces its shape on paper so that he can get one made the same.)
Eva von Braun hangs on to me and I am pleased that my hook and BC are strong enough for both of us. Then, deciding we have waited long enough, we let ourselves go with the flow.
Main Channel is about 30m deep in the middle and several hundred metres wide. Visibility drops to around 10m and I soon lose sight of the others, bowling along with the landscape rolling below me. I try to keep at 22m, but one moment I am at 30m, the next racing to 15m. The currents have an up-and-down aspect to them, it seems.
Giant groupers and potato cod rush to inspect me as I pass, but they are waiting to ambush smaller prey than me. Massive bump-head parrotfish veer out of sight. Every rocky arch I pass seems to be hiding some underwater warrior ready to gobble up the unwary, as in a giant computer game.
Forty minutes into my dive, I begin to wonder where the others are. I have worked out that the closer to the stationary surfaces of the island you travel, the slower you go, so I head out into deeper water to put on a bit of speed for five minutes, then head back again.
Miracle of miracles, I join the main group. Where have you come from is written all over their faces. We cant wait for the next rising tide to do it all again.
The next day we go in again with the inward flow (who knows where you would end up if you did it with the outward flow). I head off on my own again, this time on the left-hand side of the channel.
Everyone else seems to opt for the right.
Its a bit like a Star Wars X-wing ride, and when I surface, the turbulent water of the ocean is far behind and I am in a flat-calm turquoise sea. About half a mile away I make out a small cluster of figures around a safety sausage. I can see another sausage a mile behind me.
I erect my flag, but there is no boat in sight other than the Indian Ocean Explorer, at anchor in the ocean beyond the channel. Still coasting on a fast current, I soon lose sight of that behind the low coral islands.
Remembering that the water flows more quickly where it is deep, I use my flag as a sail to send me out into the middle. The furthest group appear to be swimming towards me but they are not. They are still travelling into the lagoon, but I am travelling faster. I use my flag to vector my course back to them. They are amazed at my new-found sailing skills. Quite frankly, so am I.
flag or sausage
Captain Nemo, part of this group, is suffering a sense-of-humour failure. Where is the pick-up boat I am confident. We are in the confines of a lagoon, and it might include 150sq km of water but there are no tall buildings to obscure us. It is just a question of waiting.
I suggest we go back into deeper water. The only hazard seems to be getting torn on fire coral as we rattle past it. After 30 minutes the RIB turns up. Passengers have been snorkelling outside the channel in the ocean and the boat crew has wisely opted to stay with them. The group that surfaced behind me have already been picked up.
Jan-Jaap reports that my yellow flag is far more visible than the orange safety sausages. Captain Nemo makes a mental note to order a number of yellow flags for future passengers.
Next day we decide to up the voltage somewhat, by diving the East Channel. At 22m to the bottom you can still see both sides - its a narrow gorge, and the water is moving like a torrent.
Eva and I hurtle along together, following the bottom. Norman Clegg and Captain Nemo are just ahead. Shifting banks of sand act like speed bumps but you never know whats on the other side. In quick succession I have a close encounter with a large nurse shark, then a giant grouper, which shoots out to check his make-up in my dome port before ducking back under cover of a rock.
Then we see Captain Nemo, dragged by his SMB, lift his legs to let a bull shark hurtle under them. Everyone goes up too but I am dragged down by the demands of my camera and take a high-speed portrait. We are doing around 10 knots and the bullshark is doing at least the same against the flow - thats a closing speed of 20 knots. My photo is not perfectly sharp, but what would you expect
Seventeen minutes into the dive we are back in shallow water. We surface and see the RIB waiting, a strong wind behind it opposing the flow. Its a rush to get every bit of kit into it as we pass.
We climb in, ecstatic. Captain Nemo tells us that there were two bull sharks, coupled until he almost crashed into them. One came out and the other went into the lagoon in panic.
Lets do it again! cries Eva von Braun. This time I leave my camera in the boat. The current is even faster. We belt through the channel and pass another nurse shark, but its all over in 11 minutes.
Getting back into the boat is slicker this time. We know what to expect and take our sets off before we reach it. Its up and over the tubes while the crew pull in our tanks.
You came too quickly! exclaims Eva to the boatman.
Johnny Channel is the really fast one - probably 15 knots. We motor slowly through it against the flow in the RIB. It twists and turns among the mangroves. No one is rushed to get in the water - in fact we decide that this is one dive too far. If you like to dive with pretty fish in swimming-pool conditions, dont bother to apply!
Apart from the Aldabra channel dives, the diving on the trip is generally easy. Our final dives are at Assumption Island. This has more nice reefs and I was pleased to swim with a large school of milkfish, which were common in Egypts Red Sea years ago before divers scared them away.
The cast of Last of the Summer Wine are thrilled to swim with a manta.
Over the centuries this island has been plundered for its precious guano, ingredients for gunpowder, and its surface is now like that of the moon. But it has an airstrip and a half-built hotel that was probably cover for a Russian radar station that was never completed. There are no other facilities, save the man with the tractor and trailer who gives us a lift from the beach. It is out of range of any Air Seychelles propeller aircraft.
Our odyssey has taken more than two weeks. A chartered Beech 19 of the Outer Island Services Dept flies us back to Mahé in three hours.
|The fast-flowing channels of Aldabra |
|oriental sweetlips, known locally as rubber-lips |
|a shoal of black-tailed chevron barracuda |
|squirrelfish and bigeyes |
|Indian Ocean Explorer from the Aldabra atoll |
|rangers check the frigate bird colony |
|Eva with a giant tortoise |
|Fusiliers with soft corals and gorgonians |
|the biggest green turtle seen |
|the workmanlike Indian Ocean Explorer |
|A giant grouper enjoys the attentions of cleaner wrasse |
|Spanish dancer eggs - the contents can grow to 60cm |
GETTING THERE Fly to Mahé in the Seychelles, then connect by special charter to Assumption to board Indian Ocean Explorer (the most popular way), or join her in Mahe and travel down. Every charter has a different itinerary, over seven, 10 or 14 days. John Bantin travelled at the invitation of the Seychelles Tourism Marketing Authority, Air Seychelles and Seychelles Underwater Centre.
DIVING:Indian Ocean Explorer is operated by Seychelles Underwater Centre, and is featured by several operators, including Aquatours (0870 4423288) in the UK. More information from www.diveseychelles.co.sc
WHEN TO GO: Any time, but October to May is best. The Seychelles are 4 south of the Equator, the Aldabra group 10 south. Normally outside the monsoon zone, the weather is stable, though there are notional dry and wet seasons. A cool breeze always blows on the outer islands.
WATER TEMPERATURE Within the granitic inner islands a 5mm suit suffices. At the outer islands, cold ocean upwellings (24C) make a thicker suit with hood more appropriate.
COSTS A 10-day cruise on Indian Ocean Explorer, including flights from Gatwick, costs from£1879. A 10-day cruise to Aldabra including internal flight costs£2840.
FURTHER INFORMATION Seychelles Tourist Office, 020 7224 1670, www.seychelles.uk.com
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