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Seychelles Outer Islands

At Sea: March 2015
Country: Seychelles

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The Place

Situated just north of Madagascar, the Seychelles archipelago is made up of 115 islands in the western Indian Ocean. Its Outer Islands, in particular, are home to miniature worlds that contain untouched habitats teeming with wildlife.

Aldabra, possibly the archipelago’s most famous island, is one of the world’s largest coral atolls and has been a World Heritage site since 1982. Minimally impacted by human activity, it serves as a refuge for hundreds of endemic species and subspecies and is home to the largest population of giant tortoises in the world; more than 150,000 roam a 155-square-kilometer area.

<p>Map of the Seychelles</p>

Map by NGS Staff

The Mission

Departing from Mahé, Seychelles’ most populated island, the Pristine Seas team sailed 965 kilometers to the remote Outer Islands, stopping at Assumption, Cosmoledo, Astove, and Aldabra. Conducting rigorous surveys of the fish and coral species during 200 hours of scientific surveys at 39 locations, they were able to calculate the areas’ fish biomass (or total weight) and analyze their biodiversity.

At Assumption, they followed in the footsteps of Jacques Cousteau and National Geographic writer and photographer Luis Marden—whose legendary dives were featured in the pages of National Geographic magazine in 1956—and had similar experiences with curious groupers. On Cosmoledo, expedition conservationist Mike Fay conducted an overland transect and explored some of the most intact mangroves on Earth, which serve as a nursery habitat for many fish species.

But it was at the “Galápagos of the Indian Ocean”—Aldabra—that the underwater team found what they’d been looking for: sharks. These top predators are the ultimate sign of a healthy marine ecosystem. And they weren’t alone. Parrotfish in schools of hundreds, huge humphead wrasses, rockfish, turtles, groupers, clownfish, triggerfish, and fusiliers flew along with the sharks on a tide coursing from the open sea to the Aldabra lagoon. As expedition leader Paul Rose said, “ … to experience that life-giving pulse at Aldabra together as the Pristine Seas team was remarkable, joyous, and incredibly moving—in all senses of the word!”

With the exception of a previous study at Aldabra Atoll, no comprehensive marine resource assessment had been conducted at these distant locations prior to this expedition. Given their low human populations and limited fishing pressure, remote islands like the Aldabra and Cosmoledo groups offer ideal opportunities for understanding the resilience of reef ecosystems as they face increasing global threats.

The government of Seychelles, the Island Conservation Society, the Seychelles Island Foundation, and the Waitt Foundation were partners on the expedition.

Aldabra is very physically and emotionally wild, and it really is the crown jewel in the Seychellois oceans.

Paul Rose
Expedition Leader

The Result

In 2015, the government of Seychelles entered into a debt-for-nature swap with the commitment to protect 30 percent of their waters (and 15 percent in no-take marine reserves). To this end, with the support of Oceans 5, The Nature Conservancy facilitated a marine spatial planning process. After the 2015 expedition, the Pristine Seas team’s findings suggested the creation of large, no-take areas around the outer atolls—a proposal that was supported by the government. In February of this year, the government of Seychelles announced the creation of two marine protected areas, the first of which is a no-take marine reserve that covers 74,400 square kilometers around the remote Aldabra Group in the country’s outer islands.

The Highlights

After Paul discovers mating tortoises, a very slow foot chase ensues. The shelled pursuit continues in Aldabra, when a hawksbill turtle follows him on a dive. Teenage blacktip reef sharks go in for the nibble during a film shoot. A grouper poses for a souvenir photo.

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