SEYCHELLES - Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson

Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)


by Lawson Wood

THE NAME ALONE CONJURES UP IMAGES OF palm-fringed, white, sandy beaches, crystal clear waters, coral-fringed atolls and brightly coloured tropical fish. Those images become reality when you touch down on Mahé, the main island in the Seychelles archipelago just 4° South of the equator.

The Seychelles archipelago is what remained when Africa split away from India in the Pre-Cambrian period over 650 million years ago. Consisting almost entirely of granite, the main islands have little or no fringing reef for protection. Bird Island is the only true coral island in the northern group. All the other groups are coralline atolls, including the Amirantes, Farquar and, of course, one of the the largest coral atolls in the world, Aldabra.

The Islands’ geographical position has also led to a varied and chequered past. The locals, or Seychellois, are a mixture of Indian, European, Asian and African descendants. The origins are so varied that all classification was abandoned in 1911. This amazing racial mix also accounts for the relaxed, hospitable atmosphere, where even language takes a side step from French, English and Creole, which is the language of the local people, of the market place and of the kitchens.


The islands have been visited over the centuries for victualling by Arab traders and pirates. It was not until 1770, when the first French colonists settled with their African slaves, that man started to make an impression on the islands. The French were succeeded by the British, who made the Seychelles a separate crown colony in 1903. It finally became an autonomous nation in 1977 after a coup by France-Albert René. The Republic of Seychelles is today an independent, non-aligned country with a combination of ethnic affinities that have resulted in a culture that is unmistakably Seychellois.

Nestled in the Indian Ocean, the Seychelles escaped human habitation until the early 18th century. Their oceanic isolation accounted for a vast number of rare species of animals and plants amid lush vegetation. Many endemic birds thrive on several of the isolated islands. This island group is an oasis for marine life with over 900 species of fish recorded. While El Niño had a devastating effect on the inshore coral reefs, the offshore and granite boulder communities have recovered well. Interestingly, the upwelling also brought an increase in fish numbers at shallower reefs and this more than compensated for poorer quality corals.

The subtropical Vallée de Mai on Praslin has been hailed as the original Garden of Eden. The valley is a World Heritage Site and known for its many ancient forest specimens including the coco de mer tree. At up to 22kg (48lb), the coco de mer nut is the biggest seed in the world. Going to Praslin’s sister island La Digue is like stepping back in time. Transport is by bicycle or oxcart. The island is instantly recognizable from advertising campaigns and is home to a population of giant turtles. These photogenic islands have massive granite boulders and palm trees hanging over the edge of the crystal clear blue sea. The islands off Praslin, and in particular South Felicité, all offer diving that includes encounters with sharks, turtles and Bumphead Parrotfish.


This tiny cluster of granite boulders topped by palm trees is located on the exposed tip of Beau Vallon Bay at North Point. Susceptible to strong currents due to the confluence of tidal streams, the site can only be dived at slack water, but this jumble of rocks are bursting with marine life. The exposed surfaces have only small clusters of soft corals and are mainly overrun by rock oysters and mussels. In sheltered sections golden cup corals predominate. Small gorgonias and sea fans can be found in deeper waters. When the tides and weather conditions are right, L’Ilot is particularly popular at night for its large numbers of Spanish Dancer nudibranchs, lobsters and sleeping parrotfish. Between the small island and the mainland the current is usually quite strong, but with care this small cluster of boulders in the centre yields one of the highest densities of life I have seen anywhere. Small Peppered Moray Eels vie for space among thousands of Durban Hinge-beak shrimps, so densely packed that the young often sit on the heads of the adults. L’Ilot is also near the St Anne Marine Park where encounters with Whale Sharks are common.


Zebra flatworms are colourful coral reef foragers only 2¾cm (1 in) long. Grazing on algae, which grows around the rim of hard corals, they move with impunity over stinging coral cells.


The Ennerdale wreck is a former British Royal Navy Fleet Auxiliary motor tanker, owned by the Anglo-Norness Shipping Co. Ltd. Built in Kiel by Lieler Howaldtswerke A.G. in 1963, she was chartered to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) in 1967. The 216m (710ft), 29,189 tonne Ennerdale had a beam of 30m (100ft), a top speed of 29km/h (16 knots) and was loaded with 41,500 tonnes of refined furnace oil and gasoil to supply HM Frigate Andromeda. Interestingly, the ship’s company were awarded the Wilkinson Sword of Peace for rescuing staff of the weather station at Gough Island in severe weather. The Ennerdale’s service with the RFA lasted only three years. She sank on 1 June 1970 on a sandbank after striking an uncharted rock seven miles from Port Victoria (lat 04°29′36″N, long 55°31′22″E), badly holing her starboard side.

The Ennerdale’s 18 British officers and 42 Seychellois seamen all abandoned safely. The wreck, considered a navigation hazard, was demolished and is now lying in three sections in 30m (100ft) of water. Dives tend to be around the stern where the ship is mostly intact, with the wheelhouse and propeller readily accessible. The main part of the superstructure is quite open and undergoing colonization by soft and hard corals, with fire coral in abundance on some of the upper sections. As you descend to the ship, the water column soon becomes crowded with large schools of Longfin Batfish (Platax teira) which will follow you about on the entire dive.

The bows tend to have a congregation of stingrays and small Whitetip Reef Sharks, but these head off into the blue as soon as you approach them. The tangled superstructure is quite interesting and, being quite open, allows for relatively safe exploration. Due to the depth limitations of the wreck, it is better to swim back towards the stern where it is home to numerous moray eels, schools of batfish and Golden-lined Snapper (Lutjanus boutton) vying for attention. The underside of the hull is covered in large mussels and oysters.


The southern, outer wall of Felicité has a deeply scoured granite cliff, with gullies and canyons cut into the steeply sloping wall. With a maximum depth of only 15m (50ft), the site is ideal for extended dives. There is oceanic surge on this exposed headland, so dives are only done in near-perfect conditions. The main attraction of this site is the chance to dive with Grey and Whitetip Reef and Nurse Sharks, as there are always five to eight of these. Unfazed by divers, they hunt in the shallow waters for reef fish and will come quite close. Turtles are also common.



The Admiral’s Islands, as they were formerly known, are a group of 17 coral cays, islets and atolls. The largest island, Desroches, is on the southern side of a huge submerged atoll. All diving is off Desroches, unless you are on the only live-aboard dive boat in the area. Centuries of winds and waves have sculpted the reef crest of Desroches into a series of caves, caverns, overhangs, gullies and canyons. Divers enter these caverns on the reef crest, drop into the main cavern beside schools of batfish, Bengal snapper and sleeping Nurse Sharks, then negotiate the wide entrance and passageway to the outer reef where brilliant red Gorgonian Sea Fans with Longnose Hawkfish can be found. Several species of clownfish and pufferfish are all common in the area and while the outer wall can be somewhat barren, the wave-sculpted gullies are crammed with marine life.


Aldabra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located 1150km (715 miles) southwest of Mahé, the Aldabra group could be the most pristine islands in the Indian Ocean. Apart from seasonal nature wardens on the main atoll, there is now no human habitation. Only private charter yachts, a live-aboard dive boat and passing cruisers ever come this way. One of the best dives is through the main channel on the flooding tide where divers are swept into the main lagoon, passing schools of Eagle Rays, stingrays, groups of sharks and large groupers, all tempted into the channel by passing prey.



Nothing quite prepares you for that massive rush of adrenaline as you slip over the side of a boat into the water and see a monster of the deep, with gigantic shark fins, seemingly rushing straight at you, mouth agape. Reason tells you that this shark is a plankton eater, but your instinctive, primeval reactions tell you that this is most definitely a shark and the scientists could be wrong.

The Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus) is the largest fish in the sea and eats the smallest of creatures, having a diet almost exclusively of plankton, that life-giving soup of the oceans. Very much a shark in shape, but reaching whale-like proportions, the fish has tough skin, gills and a vertical tail, which it moves from side to side for propulsion. As the largest of the shark family it is also the largest fish and the largest cold-blooded animal in the world. By comparison, whales are warm-blooded, air-breathing mammals with skin, hairs and a large horizontal tail, which is moved up and down for propulsion.

My first encounter with a Whale Shark was with one of a large feeding-group that congregates each year in the St Anne Marine National Park off the island of Mahé, east of Victoria, capital of the Seychelles. When approached by snorkellers and divers, the sharks may stop in mid water and ‘stand’ on their tails. Never hold onto any of the fins or try to ride them. They will react as if being attacked from the rear and a 20-ton shark putting on a burst of speed is a formidable creature and can swat you aside like a tiny, irrelevant piece of flotsam.

The Shark Research Institute gave us specific instructions on how to interact with the Whale Sharks without frightening or harming the creatures. When the shark is still or moving slowly in the water, you can swim towards the head, allowing the shark to take a good look at you. If the shark decides to allow you to swim close enough, then you can gently stroke the top of its head. The Whale Shark appears to enjoy this sensation (as if we were giant cleaner fish) and will rise slowly to the surface to allow for greater interaction. The thrill of swimming with the largest fish in the sea is an unforgettable and humbling experience. We soon learned about the speed of the creatures as we tried to keep up with them. We saw the interaction of hundreds of remoras, cobia, juvenile Golden Trevally and thousands of other jacks swarming around the Whale Sharks feeding on the soup of stinging plankton and Ctenophores (thank goodness for full wet suits). We quickly appreciated how insignificant we were compared to these gentle giants who wander the oceans. And then the sharks stopped just long enough to let us catch up with them and allow us the privilege of scratching the tops of their heads.

Back on the boat, breathless with nervous excitement, eyes gleaming, smiles from ear to ear, someone looked at me and said ‘did that really happen?’ I could only smile in return as I rapidly rewound my film to be ready for another experience of a lifetime.


The northeastern part of Peros Banhos Atoll. Most of these islands have been declared nature reserves to protect the breeding grounds of seabirds.


Going ashore in Salomon Atoll. It is a popular anchorage for yachts and there can be up to 20 at a time.