Thursday, December 29, 2016

There Is No Such Place As Too Far Away

Map picture


For the last two days, we have had a rather unique opportunity to visit one of the more isolated places in the world which also just happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I am speaking about the world’s second-largest coral atoll, Aldabra.

Aldabra is but a small dot on the world map, but it is hugely important due to the fact that it is largely untouched by human hands. The atoll is 21 miles long and 8 miles wide with most of the landmass consisting of a giant lagoon in the center. There are only three passenger ways into the lagoon, and with the large tidal flows in this part of the world, the influx and outflow of water can be massive. Surrounding the lagoon are five coral islands. A small research station is located on the West Island which is home to approximately 12 people. Obviously there is no airstrip located here, nor is there any regular service for reaching the island. The tour guide that was attached to our small zodiac said that personnel were excitedly awaiting their next supply ship which should have ice cream! When we asked when they expected the ship to arrive? She responded, “October 22!”

Aldabra is located at the very southwest edge of the Seychelles. Admission to the island is tightly regulated, and no one is allowed to visit without special prior permission. Even then no more than 200 individuals may come at one time, and they are confined to very small areas in which they may visit. In reality, we were told that we were the first ship this year, and that during the next season they expected only three ships. So in total, it is estimated that no more than 600 people annually get to see this wonder which has been named as one of the “crown jewels” of the Indian Ocean.

To say that the island is untouched, does not mean that is was unknown in ancient times. It is very obvious that the islands were first discovered by the Arabs around 900 A.D., and over the centuries, the resources of this island were heavily exploited by sailing ships. However, since the island received its protected status, there has been an incredible explosion of the natural flora and fauna along with a return on the large biodiversity of the wildlife that is found here. The islands are home to frigate birds and boobies by the thousands. You cannot walk on the island for long without bumping in to a giant tortoise, and as you cruise through the lagoon, you are surrounded by green turtles, rays and black tip sharks.

I must admit that neither Lisa nor I were able to take advantage of the snorkeling which is really sad. We have seen some of the pictures from other guests and can only marvel at the large diversity of marine life just under the surface. One of our guest who went diving was taking a picture with her underwater camera when a giant grouper was curious enough to approach and explore her camera itself.

I did go ashore for a brief walk and the beauty was absolutely incredible. However, being relatively close to the equator, the combination of heat, humidity, and reflection from the sand meant only a brief visit for me. But late in the afternoon, we were all given a two hour zodiac ride within the lagoon itself. We left the ship and entered the lagoon, slowly cruising across the shallow waters. The water was exceptionally clear, and had it not been for the strong wind sending ripples across the surface, we could have easily viewed the bottom. Our little zodiac startled several rays, and more than a few turtles. The tide was falling, so we constantly had to beware of just how close the bottom was. Once along the interior shore, we slowly moved along the mangrove trees, which were so full of birds that you wondered how they all fit at one time. Finally, just as the sun was setting and the bottom rising, we exited on the other side of the Island and there we found out ship which had moved to meet us. If you will look at my pictures, you will see in a moment what I mean by the profusion of wildlife.

We spent two days at different locations around the atoll, and the local staff was invited on board for several meals. They were a delightful group of mostly highly educated young people who are clearly dedicated to the research they are doing to the preservation of this unique environment. I can scarcely imagine the dedication that it takes to spend one’s life in such isolation-even if it is only for a few years.

I will tell you one quick short story; during the night we were at anchor and everyone was required to help darken the ship, and the exterior lights for the most part were turned off as well. Apparently on a previous visit to this location, they had failed to take that precaution, and thousands of boobies who nest on these islands became confused when they saw the lights and flew towards the ship at night pooping all over the outside decks. Unfortunately when people went outside the next morning, there was a gigantic mass left to clean up, and many birds were found who had been injured by flying towards the ship.

It is very rare that you get an opportunity to go up on deck without the ship being fully lit, so this was one of those rare occasions when we could go and observe the stars in the open ocean. It was a humbling experience that once again reminded me that we are but a small speck in a giant universe. Indeed the more that I travel around our planet I come to appreciate just how small our home really is. Standing there beneath the clear night sky I was reminded of a quote by the renowned Carl Sagan. He once noted that if you could equate one grain of sand to a star in the universe, then it would take all the sand from all the beaches on this planet and still you could not equal all the stars in the universe. He ended by saying “We are but star stuff that has learned to ask the question from whence we’ve come?”

Today we are at sea on our way to Mozambique. I hope to be able to post pictures within the next hour or two, and would encourage you to take a look at the website so that you can follow along.

It is hard to believe that we will be home in one week since time flies so quickly.


Photographs are located at:

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