Giovanni, the young man in the Stanford cap, has spent two years on Aldabra Atoll. He and eighteen other young researchers are working here, two days by sea from their Seychellois homes on or near Victoria, Seychelles. There is no air strip, heliopad or quicker transportation. Identifying fast flying seabirds comes as easily to these twenty-somethings as California kids able to rattle off their In-N-Out orders by menu number. There’s no fast food here.
There are 150,000 giant tortoises on this the second largest coral atoll in the world. UNESCO designated Aldabra as a World Heritage Site to protect these creatures that weigh up to 770 lbs and other endangered species. Humans shouldn’t handle the tortoises. It’s tempting though, as they are lovable in a prehistoric kind of way. We tried to get a selfie with one who just finished mounting his mate–breeding season is quite a site. The selfie would have required hugging the 40 inch shell. One researcher did get a kiss from her favourite who usually sleeps in the crawl space under the research station.
Also seeking shade under the porch are the giant coconut crabs,the world’s largest invertebrates at 3.5 feet from leg to leg. There were not any that big but these creatures would not be a happy sight to find sitting on the porch. There are also barracudas, black tipped reef sharks, lots of them along with manta rays swimming everywhere.
A nesting green sea turtle covered her eggs as dawn broke on the beach. She needs to cover them quickly as the sun comes up. This endangered turtle’s eggs will need 60 days to hatch and many of the 115 eggs will die. Aldabra has one of the largest of these shrinking turtle populations.
Giovanni guided the Zodiac into the lagoon to view abundant bird life, and the “Champignon” (mushroom-shaped) reef limestone formations visible at low tide. Early settlers tried to make a go of it here, but the lack of fresh water sent them packing. Now the research station collects water
Giovanni shouts out bird species names, barely able to keep up with the swarms. Red-footed boobies with their blue bills nest in mangrove trees and frigates and terns soar overhead next to red and white tailed tropicbirds. There is such a richness of bird life it is hard to believe many of them are rare anywhere but here. Just when it seems there couldn’t be any more species an elegant heron appears or a bright red fody, a non-native the researchers want eradicated to keep the biodiversity intact.
The incoming tide raises the level of the lagoon by 10 feet, and for the lucky few that have permission to visit here, a fun activity is a snorkel drift, riding the tide into the lagoon. Better than a water park, sea turtles, rays, barracuda and other marine life swim along with the snorkelers who asked to go again, carried at 8-9 miles an hour for the 30 minute trip. The process ends when the tide reverses emptying the lagoon, revealing the mushroom rocks and mangrove sprouts.
Visiting here is difficult now, but once was perceived to be too dangerous. During the pirate attacks 1990-2012, there was little interest in Aldabra. With good reason. Pirates attacked and seized a small pleasure yacht. When the owner refused to pay the ransom, pirates released the hostages and sank the boat. Other hostages were held for many months. In a different incident, a group of pirates arrived in a skiff which looked like it couldn’t have made it from Somalia more than 1000 miles away. A storm tossed their boat up on Aldabra’s beach. The researchers arrested them as there are no police or anyone else for that matter on the island. The scientists held them until authorities arrived from Victoria to take them away. The researchers kept their boat, repaired and repainted it blue. They renamed it Frigate for the birds that sail above the lagoon.
Piracy was the reason our planned trip to Aldabra was diverted in 2011. While we enjoyed the time in Madagascar on that trip, visiting this place remained on our list. It was worth the five year wait. With increased maritime security, attacks have been reduced. Giovanni and his pals can return to counting tortoises and rails.