Not long ago, a small group of us had the rare opportunity to live out such a dream. Aboard the 120-foot-long dive boat Fantasea II, chartered by David Doubilet of National Geographic, we explored and dived an area spread out over 650 miles of the western Indian Ocean. In perhaps the first large-scale diving expedition in this area since Cousteau’s famous voyage in the mid-1950s, we visited the exotic places he chronicled in his book, The Living Sea.
Our group was international, with underwater photographers, filmmakers, writers and crew from Australia, Brazil, England, Greece, France, Israel, New Zealand and the United States. We had joined together to explore a virtually untouched region of the tropical ocean.
Our trip began in Mahe, Seychelles, and, in a 650-mile run (outbound) over 21 days, we visited the coral atolls of Alphonse, Bijoutier, Cosmoledo, Astove, Assumption and Aldabra. Besides diving virgin, untouched reefs that often had more concentrated marine life than we had ever seen before, we explored pristine islands that bore no mark of human presence and that were the homes of birds, turtles and other creatures that often showed no concern at our intrusion.
This, then, is a collection of excerpts from my journal of the remarkable journey we’ll always remember as Expedition: Indian Ocean.
Day 1—Approaching the Seychelles
Sunrise over the Indian Ocean; it’s a quickly brightening dawn. The sea stretches away, a pale, medium blue, in all directions. Strings of puffy, white clouds lie strewn about like scattered cotton balls. Ahead, a string of lush, green islands comes into view; each surrounded by bright turquoise water; each fringed with brilliant, white sand; each a small jewel awaiting us on the morning.
Day 2—Open Ocean
Yesterday was interesting. We moved onto the boat with a huge mass of equipment. By rough count, we have some 29 housed cameras, 15 Nikonos Vs, seven Nikonos RSs, four housed video systems, 70 strobes and various movie lights, which virtually cover Fantasea’s rear deck.
Having set sail earlier in the day, we are heading southwesterly on a 24-hour run to Alphonse and Bijoutier. After two days of diving, we’ll continue the heading for another 40 hours to lonely Cosmoledo Atoll. After a few days, we’ll run southeast several hours to Astove. Next, it will be an overnight, northwesterly, to mysterious Aldabra Lagoon. While there, we’ll visit Assumption, just a few hours away.
Aldabra is expected to be the highlight. Consisting of 12 fringing islands around a huge lagoon, it is a World Heritage Site, occupied only by the technicians, workers and visiting scientists of its small research station. Its bird life is incredibly rich, and it is one of the two places in the world (the other being the Galapagos Islands) where land tortoises exist in the wild (some 150,000 of them, compared to the Galapagos’ 400).
The day closes with a lovely sunset—a pale, orange-yellow sky slowly deepens to indigo; a thin sliver of moon, flanked by Venus at its brightest, emerges as the light fades. At the bow, we salute the rolling sea before us—it is obvious that a unique adventure awaits.
Day 4—Bijoutier Island
Several of us are transported by Zodiac to this postcard-perfect sand islet, its interior thick with Coconut Palms. We walk in across the shallow reef-flat through a foot of water. The biosystem is pristine and unusual. There is a heavy, deep-green sea grass covering everything, but small corals grow underneath and in-between. Large, spotted Tiger Cowries, by the hundreds, lie about, nestled in the grass.
My stroll across the island takes only 10 minutes. There are terns and plovers in large numbers, and at one end of the island a huge clam bed, exposed by the receding tide. As I walk, I find many species of shells littering the sand at water’s edge.
We have arrived at Cosmoledo. It is a large lagoon surrounded by thin, duned islands. There is vegetation, but few trees, mainly low, rough scrub. Hundreds of miles from anywhere, this is truly a desolate place.
We dive just north of Monarch Pass. John, Robin and I move down the reef and see Potato Cod, groupers and schooling jacks. A huge Giant Trevally comes in close, then streaks away. At the drop-off edge, we encounter a strong, cold-water upwelling.
I believe this has been the single most vibrant and beautiful sight I have ever witnessed in the sea.
We have anchored off Astove. It is a low, sandy spit of land covered with sparse scrub and grass that surrounds a shallow inner lagoon. Chris and I enter the water just at the channel mouth. The spot is lovely: bright, clear water on a steep slope of intermittent coral and sand valleys. Huge schools of snappers, large Giant Sweetlips, groupers and other fish abound as do Green Turtles which are everywhere. A school of Longfin Batfish joins us and stays for the rest of the dive, apparently fascinated, nipping at our fins and exhaust bubbles.
As I move away from the boat, I swim underneath an area massed with thousands of schooling Yellow-margined Snappers. They are squeezed closely together, a solid, three-foot-thick mat packed so tightly side-by-side I can’t see through them to the surface.
I head down the reefline and am joined by a school of lovely African Pompano. As I shoot, the batfish surround us, then snappers and throngs of baitfish. Through the swirling congregation, a five-foot-long, yellow-green Giant Cod comes into view. I follow him back into a sandy amphitheater of coral, and he gives me several shots. As he leaves, I glance below and realize I’m hovering over two large Feathertail Stingrays, nestled closely together in the sand.
Day 11—Aldabra Lagoon
After an all-night, rolling, stormy run from Astove, we arrive at Aldabra. It is a huge area with thin, fringing islands of sand and ironshore strung around a gigantic central lagoon. The islands extend as far as we can see.
As we cruise near shore looking for a likely dive site, we see mantas breaking the surface. We grab cameras, masks, fins and snorkels and jump in. The mantas, two of them, immense with dark backs and brilliant white undersides, move away slowly and we follow. I notice that one manta is leading Betty, Ruth and Tally in a large circle. I swim hard and position myself in his expected path. After a few moments, I freedive down to about 30 feet and wait. It’s not long until he comes into view and then swims directly to me—stopping about four feet away, claspers curled. I shoot. A moment more and he swims closer and directly over my head, only two to three feet away. My second shot is Manta Overhead—full frame.
We take a Zodiac into the beach just before sunrise to see if we can, by chance, find a turtle who has yet to return to the water after her nighttime egg-laying. A fresh set of tracks leads up over the sand; in her deep crater, a Green Turtle remains.
After laboriously flipping sand over her precious eggs, she begins to head back to sea. She looks exhausted as she drags her ponderous weight across the beach; her eyes run tears to wash away the clinging sand. Afterwards, we are all very quiet, filled with wonder at this rare and beautiful encounter.
Later, we move the boat up-island to the Grande Pass and enter the lagoon. The current is incredible—water streams along at 14 knots into the lagoon which stretches over the horizon. It peaks and swirls, creating a wild maelstrom as millions upon millions of gallons pour in. The lagoon takes four hours to fill; the water level then drops three to four feet over the next four hours as the cycle reverses itself.
That night, Howard reads from Cousteau’s writings about Aldabra. As best we can determine, we are at the very spot where Calypso anchored in 1954. To someone who, as a child, read dog-eared copies of The Silent World and The Living Sea over and over, the moment is near mystical.