By Fiona McIntosh
DIVING SEYCHELLLESDon’t believe everything you see in the media. Sensational accounts of coral bleaching have discouraged many a diver from visiting one of the indian ocean’s most beautiful dive locations. But, as fiona mcintosh discovered, seychelles is more than just a romantic paradise, it offers superb diving, great vis, warm waters and a host of land-based attractions. I’m a lucky git. In the last year I’ve dived throughout the southwestern Indian Ocean enjoying the exotic spice islands of Zanzibar, Pemba, Reunion, Seychelles and Mauritius, as well as the waters off the coasts of Kenya and Mozambique....
Each has its own unique diving, colourful characters as well as land-based delights and to compare them is difficult. But if I had to stick my neck out I’d say the two places I enjoyed diving the most were; central Mozambique – where the privilege of diving with Manta Rays and Whale Sharks rates as one of my ultimate thrills; and Seychelles – not just for the superb submarine topography and colour but for the tranquillity of this pristine destination. However, Seychelles has taken quite a knock with 90% mortality of corals following the devastating El Nino effect in the late 90’s. This created the general assumption that divers might as well head somewhere else.
The granite and coral archipelago of Seychelles consists of 115 islands scattered across 1.3 million square kilometres of Indian Ocean. Including the granitic main islands of the north; Mahé, Praslin and La Digue, where most tourists visit, which sit on a shallow plateau only four degrees south of the equator. So, the waters are warm, sheltered and shallow, but this becomes bad news when sea temperatures rise. The 300 species of corals were devastated by the mass coral bleaching of 1998, only to be hit again by further bleaching in 2002 and 2003, and the December 26th tsunami of 2004.
So why read on? Well, the good news is that according to the recently published 2005 Status Report on Coral Reef Degradation in the Indian Ocean, the recovery of Seychelles’ coral reefs has been positive overall with particularly strong recovery in the marine protected areas. The even better news is that many of the top dive sites are granite boulders which have been unaffected by the bleaching of the hard corals.
Of course Seychelles wasn’t exactly a major dive destination before 1999. The diving’s good but it’s certainly not the Red Sea or Micronesia and the bad press would certainly have deterred divers from visiting the islands had they not been there before, which leaves Seychelles heavily dependent on return guests. But, once they’ve dived the wonderful granite outcrops and spent time in Seychelles most divers conform to that pattern, spreading the word among their friends about the underwater world and revisiting, year after year.
I’m one of those aficionados and my most recent trip was to take part in the annual SUBIOS festival – a celebration of the sea that is the focal point of the islands’ marine calendar. For most dive tourists, this is an opportunity to attend presentations of winning marine wildlife films, participate in workshops, hobnob with marine scientists as well as professional underwater photographers (including last year’s lucky winners) and of course enjoy special dive and entertainment packages. But while the underwater photographic competitions are important, they are just one aspect of this all-embracing festival of the sea. SUBIOS is very much a local festival, where the emphasis is on education, the dissemination of information and raising awareness of the wonders of the underwater world, marine issues and conservation programmes to the Seychellois.
Community participation is central to this and the colourful floats are a sight to behold. Watch out for the crew of primary and secondary kids bedecked as beautiful mermaids, sharks and tropical fish riding sedan cars and trucks disguised by imaginative and painstakingly
constructed papier-mâché underwater scenes, clearly demonstrating just how successful the programme is in motivating the young. During SUBIOS there are free ‘try dive’ courses, glass bottomed boat and marine park trips as well as a number of competitive events such as a mini iron-man contest set around the water. All this is aimed at showcasing Seychelles’ unique marine environment and encouraging the local populace to enjoy and conserve it.
At the opening and closing ceremonies the environment minister and his aides boasted about Seychelles’ success on the conservation front and this theme was reinforced throughout the week-long festivities through films, displays and presentations. A month before the festival, the government announced a ban on shark finning for all foreign fishing vessels in Seychelles’ waters. And Seychelles has been requested, under the Convention on Migratory Species, to host the first meeting to negotiate a global agreement for the conservation of migratory sharks. Quite something when countries such as Australia and New Zealand ask tiny Seychelles to take the lead in global protection.
On the eco-tourism front Seychelles can afford to be proud. The archipelago boasts one of the best track records in protecting Sea Turtles and since 2003 has succeeded in fully protecting the Whale Shark. A government endorsed Whale Shark Encounter Policy controls the way swimmers, divers and boats approach these huge but docile creatures so as to disturb them as little as possible. It’s one of the few places in the world where, in season, thanks to an aerial monitoring programme, you can sign up for a snorkelling trip and be virtually assured an interaction with a gentle giant, and at the same time take part in serious scientific research.
But I digress. What of the diving? Well one of the selling points for me is that with only six, widely-spaced dive schools on the main island of Mahé and a couple on the other main islands, you’re almost always the only divers on the site. This is exclusive diving at its best, not exclusive by price, diving is not significantly more expensive than in SA, but rather by the large number of sites and the preference of the dive schools for small groups. The dive centres are all extremely well-equipped and professional (as you’d expect from a five star destination such as Seychelles), and the diving is easy. Most of the popular sites are on granite boulders and small islands close to the shore, rarely more than a ten or twenty minute boat ride from the dive centre. But there are also sites to suit all levels of experience, so if you want challenging diving, it’s available. Particularly on the more outlying sites such as South Marianne off Praslin, with areas of strong currents attracting big pelagics, intricate topography offering swim throughs or overhangs and beautiful soft corals adorning the dramatic rocks. Despite the coral bleaching, some hard corals have survived intact. We dived a superb coral reef called Alice in Wonderland from the Plantation Club in the south, where the dramatic corals were in superb condition.
The level of marine protection is evident in the number of close encounters you have with turtles, massive rays and small sharks. The highlight of my recent visit was sitting on the sand at Brissare Rocks watching over forty Eagle Rays cruise by in formation. The fish-life is diverse, with huge shoals of Snapper, Fusiliers and Jacks on most sites. At one stage of my dive off L’Ilot an enormous shoal of Makro passing overhead blocked out the sun for almost three minutes!
The calm waters and proximity of the sites to the shore ensure the popularity of Seychelles as a night diving destination. One of the highlights of the trip was a night dive with Le Diable des Mers with a post-dive braai on the beach offered as part of the package. Sitting under the palm trees on the soft white sand enjoying fine wine and fresh seafood was the perfect way to round-off the day’s diving.
The cherry on the cake is the likelihood of encountering Whale Sharks and Manta Rays, a big attraction particularly from July to October, but Seychelles is a year round destination and the water is actually clearer outside these plankton rich periods, with visibility typically around 30-35m.
I could go on forever about my favourite sites. Here are just a few to tempt you.
Brissare Rock, 20m, is one of the most compact and beautiful sites - a dramatic rock sticking out of the big blue just to the north of Mahé. Its isolation means strong currents so you often see big pelagics as well as shoals of Snapper, Fusiliers and Jacks. The large granite boulders have steep walls that are adorned with soft coral and there’s a swim through which makes for great photos. We saw big Napoleon Wrasse, White Tip Reef Sharks and big shoals of Eagle Rays on each dive, and the Stingrays are so friendly that they literally brush against you as they pass. A highlight that I only discovered on my second dive here is a small outcrop of boulders a short distance from the main rock, which have incredible white fan corals. Nearby Dragon’s Teeth is not dissimilar, with outsized lobsters that have your mouth watering, as well as some very cheeky Batfish.
Shark Bank, 30m, is a popular advanced site, and as the name suggests small sharks are often found sleeping under the overhangs. I’ve always enjoyed this site, we’ve had incredibly clear blue water every time, with at least 30-metre visibility. The soft coral on the granite boulders are impressive, and you often find yourself in big shoals of Jackfish and Snapper. But this is also the ideal site to keep looking out into the big blue to watch the smiling Eagle Rays flit by, or the Barracuda and Tuna cruising overhead.
One of the most picturesque sites is the tiny island of L’Ilot, 20m, just off the northern tip of Mahé. The island is a jumble of granite boulders sprouting palm trees and is small enough to swim right around on the dive (though the current can get quite strong in the channel between L’Ilot and the mainland). You almost always see turtles grazing in the shallows and during October to December this is THE place to encounter Whale Sharks.
If I had to pick my favourite site in Seychelles it would be South Marianne, which is dived regularly by dive schools in Praslin and La Digue as well as on day trips from Mahé. This is an advanced dive as the current can be hectic, but the rewards are immense. The underwater topography reflects the surface of the island, giving you the chance to dive between dramatic underwater pinnacles, alongside precipitous walls and through narrow gullies. Big Napoleon Wrasse are often silhouetted overhead, we always saw turtles and there are plenty of colourful tropical fish to amuse. But it was the sharks that really impressed. As we finned through a narrow canyon, a dozen sleek grey torpedoes darted by. At the end of the canyon there was a drop-off, complete with a perfect natural viewing balcony, where dozens of curious Grey Reef and White Tip Sharks circled sometimes only a metre away.
Seychelles may not have the corals it once had, but with the wealth of colour and varied marine life, I doubt very much that you’ll be disappointed by the diving.
SEYCHELLES Fact File
When to go:
- Diving is possible all year round but is governed by each island’s position and the prevailing winds.
- Generally speaking, the best conditions are in the calm change-over periods, April/May and October/
- November, when the water temperature can rise to 29ºC and visibility can be over 30 metres on offshore sites. A 3mm wetsuit and open heel fins are ideal for these conditions.
- In December and January, the north west winds blow; they are not particularly strong so the conditions are similar to the change-over periods with the exception of greater surface movement and thus the possibility of localised turbidity.
- From May to September/October the winds are south-easterly causing the upwelling of plankton rich waters onto the plateau with associated pelagics, such as mantas and Whale Sharks. Visibility and temperature may drop during August with water temperatures around 24ºC; a wet suit of at least 4mm is necessary during this season.
Dive infrastructure:The full range of diving courses is available and Angel Fish Dive Centre offers nitrox. There is a twinlock, two-man recompression chamber located at Victoria Hospital. Liveaboard dive trips can also be arranged.
Getting there:Air Seychelles fly from Johannesburg to Seychelles weekly.
Phone 011 452 0932 or visit www.airseychelles.com.
No visas are necessary for Seychelles.
Other attractionsIf you tire of diving, soaking up the sun, scenery and tasty Creole food as well as taking part in the numerous excursions on offer should offer ample distractions. An excellent (and cheap) bus service means that hiring a car is not necessary. It’s worth doing a helicopter flip, or, if you really get lucky, a trip up in the microlight, to appreciate the unbelievable beauty of Seychelles, during the whale shark season. As you approach Mahé on an international flight, the dramatic landscape comes almost as a shock. A spine of granite peaks run north to south, culminating in the island’s highest point, the Morne Seychellois, which towers over Victoria. The green flanks of the peaks run down to small resorts or tiny houses on secluded coves. The waves crash against the rocky promontories and you can pick out the underwater topography in the shimmering azure water.
Mahé, the most populated island in the archipelago, is home to Victoria - its quaint capital, which is an interesting place to stroll for a few hours taking in the old colonial past. The most popular tourist spot is the glorious Beau Vallon beach, a long stretch of white sand where dive and fishing boats come and go and lovers stroll hand in hand in the shallows. This is the main beach on the island but it is quiet and the water is deep and a perfect temperature for swimming. One of the island’s most prestigious hotels is the ultra luxurious Northolme Hotel and Spa which lies just beyond Beau Vallon. This is a new style of development that is putting Seychelles resorts firmly up there with the Indian Ocean’s top resorts.
One of the benefits of a dive holiday in Seychelles is that there is plenty to amuse non-divers. The islands offer great snorkelling in the marine parks and from August to December Whale Sharks are often seen from dive and fishing boats. Tourists can join a research boat and enjoy the adventure, and privilege, of snorkelling with Whale Sharks as part of the Whale Shark monitoring programme.
Glass-bottomed boat trips and kayak hire are available at most of the main beaches and sunset boat cruises provide a romantic way to explore the tiny bays and islands. As in Mauritius and Madagascar, the waters around the Seychelles are home to Marlin, Shark and Tuna which attract big game fishermen from all over the world as well as first timers and adrenalin junkies trying to land the big one.
Although the sea and the beach are obviously the main draw, there are plenty of activities in the forests and hills. There are guided and self-guided trails in the Morne Seychellois National park on Mahé – where you can hike up 905 metres to the summit of Morne Seychellois, the archipelago’s highest point, or scramble along the scenic coastal path from Danzilles to the deserted beach of Anse Major.
Praslin is the second largest island and can be easily reached through a short hop aboard Air Seychelles, or the Cat Coco ferry from Mahé. In addition to its wonderful beaches, Praslin boasts the exotic Vallée de Mai, a World Heritage Site and home to numerous beautiful and rare palms including the Coco de Mer, the erotically shaped nut, which is the national emblem of Seychelles. Much controversy surrounds the interpretation of the shapely fruit (the outline is indisputably of the female pelvis) but is it viewed from the back or the front? History records the excitement that the early sailors experienced when stumbling on the coco de mer nut after enduring months at sea.
Try to visit La Digue, the third most populated island. The short transfer from Pralin is in an old wooden schooner, which serves as a good preparation for the somewhat sleepy adventure that follows. Only essential vehicular traffic is allowed so you explore on foot or bicycle, meandering past tiny guesthouses and boutiques. One of Seychelles most photographed beaches, the golden sands and dramatic granite boulders of Anse Source d’Argent, lie a few kilometres from the jetty, providing the perfect sundowner spot but also virtually the only place on the island where you feel part of a crowd. If you have the energy you can hike or cycle over the hill to the Grand Anse and the beaches on the east coast. This is wild country where the waves crash against the shore and you need to take care if swimming in the strong currents. The sea is an amazing turquoise, the beaches are deserted and if you follow the trail all the way to the end of the third beach, Anse Cocos, you will chance upon a deep sheltered gully where you can swim safely and picnic in your own corner of paradise.
Diving contact details:
UNDERWATER CENTRE SEYCHELLES (Coral Strand Hotel) and DIVE SEYCHELLES (Berjaya
Praslin:LEMURIA DIVE CENTRE (Lemuria Resort) +248 28 1281
La Digue:AZZURA PRO DIVE +248 29 2525
SUBIOSThe Sub Indian Ocean Seychelles (SUBIOS) underwater festival 2007 will take place from 19-25 March 2007. The theme for 2007 is ‘Our Ocean Cousins’. SUBIOS includes an annual underwater photography contest comprising categories for both stills (slide and digital) and videographic images from around the world.
What makes this event particularly interesting is the generous prizes. The winner of the categories win an all expenses paid diving trip to SUBIOS the following year from any Air Seychelles gateway city.
For more information visit www.subios.sc
The winning stills pics for 2006 are:JURY’S CHOICE
1st prize: one return ticket to Seychelles to participate in SUBIOS 2007 and a trophy sponsored by Nouvobanq: MR MARTIN TOMZIK – The Protector of the Lake
Best Image Shot in Seychelles: one return ticket to participate in an underwater festival overseas sponsored by STB and a trophy sponsored by Barclays Bank PLC: DR PEDRO VIEYRA
– Marianne Pinnacles. (Picture taken in May 2005, Praslin, Seychelles)
Public’s Choice: one return ticket to participate in an underwater festival overseas sponsored by STB and a trophy sponsored by North Island Dive Centre: MRS ELIZABETH FIDERIA – Green Turtle
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