Text and Images by Al Hornsby
What follows is a collection of excerpts from my journal of the remarkable journey we’ll always remember as “Expedition: Aldabra”.
Day 1: Approaching the Seychelles
Sunrise over the Indian Ocean; it’s a quickly-brightening dawn. The sea stretches away far below us in all directions, a pale, medium blue. 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 – and where Fantasea II is awaiting our arrival.
Day 2: Open Ocean
We had moved onto the boat with a huge mass of equipment. By rough count, we have some 29 housed cameras, 15 Nikonos V’s, seven Nikonos RS’s (David and I had some of the first ones recently introduced into the US), four housed video systems, and 70 strobes and movie lights, all of which virtually cover Fantasea’s rear deck.
Our first day closes with a lovely sunset and 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 tiny, postcard-perfect sand islet; its interior thick with coconut palms. We walk in across the shallow reef-flat through a foot of water. The bio-system is pristine and unusual, with a heavy, deep-green seagrass covering everything, with small corals growing underneath and in-between. Large, spotted tiger cowries lie about, nestled in the grass by the hundreds.
Day 7: Cosmoledo
We have arrived at desolate Cosmoledo – hundreds of miles from anywhere. It is a large lagoon surrounded by thin, duned islands. The vegetation is mainly low, rough scrub.
We dive just north of its pass into the lagoon. John, Robin, and I move down the reef and see potato cod, groupers, and schooling jacks. At the drop-off edge, we encounter a strong, cold-water upwelling.
Then, magic happens. I see a gigantic school of at least a thousand blacktailed snappers moving over the reef edge below me. As I near them, at just over 30 metres, I find a large star coral mound covered with swaying white and purple soft corals. The milling snappers move in to form a solid, swaying backdrop, a living curtain. A school of oriental sweetlips hovers over the coral, and more potato cods drift in and out of the panorama. I shoot picture after picture, nearly mesmerised by the scene before me. Finally, film gone, out of air, and visually blown away, I must reluctantly ascend.
Day 9: Astove
We have anchored off Astove, a low, sandy spit of land with low, dry bushes and grass surrounding a shallow inner lagoon. We 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 seem to be everywhere. A school of circular spadefish joins us and stays for the rest of the dive, nipping at our fins and exhaust bubbles.
As I move away from the boat, I reach an area massed with schooling humpback snappers squeezed closely together; from underneath, they are a solid two-to-three foot, thick mat, packed so tightly side-to-side that I can’t see through them to the surface. I glance below me and discover I’m hovering over two large black-blotched stingrays, nestled closely together in the sand.
Day 11: Aldabra Lagoon
After an all-night, rolling, stormy run from Astove, we arrive at Aldabra, the largest, most remote, coral atoll in the world, with thin, fringing islands of sand and iron shore strung around a gigantic, central lagoon.
As we cruise near shore looking for a potential dive site, we see mantas breaking the surface. We grab cameras and skin diving gear, and jump in. The mantas, two of them, large with dark backs and brilliant white undersides, move away slowly and we follow. I notice that one manta is leading crew-members Betty, Ruth, and Tally in a large circle. I swim hard and position myself in its expected path, then free dive down to about 10 metres and wait. It’s not long until he comes into view and then swims directly to me – stopping about two metres away, claspers curled. I shoot. A moment more and he swims closer and directly over my head; my second image is manta overhead, full-frame.
Day 12: Aldabra
We take a Zodiac to the beach just before sunrise to hopefully 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. We are all very quiet afterwards, filled with wonder at this rare and beautiful encounter.
Later, we move Fantasea up-island to the Grande Pass and enter the lagoon. The current is incredible – water is running into the lagoon, which stretches over the horizon, at more than 14 knots, creating a wild maelstrom as 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 where Calypso was anchored in 1954. To me, whom as a young teen diver read dog-eared copies of The Silent World and The Living Sea over and over, the moment is near mystical.
Day 13: Assumption Island
We make the two-hour run to Assumption – a long, sandy island with dune hills and low trees, and anchor off a curving, white sand beach. The water is brilliant cobalt, turquoise in the shallows. We jump in to find a sandy bottom sloping away to deep water, interspersed with large coral bommies. Life is amazingly prolific; each bommie is a small community, with anemones, small schooling fish, morays, groupers, coneys, hawkfish, lionfish, and angelfish.
As Robin stretches out on the bottom filming a close-up of a curious lionfish and me, he jumps and gives a muffled yelp. As he turns over, we see a small moray has emerged from a crevice under him and latched on to his inner thigh – right through his wetsuit! I laugh enough to flood my mask; the little morays in this area are ferocious – I’ve been bitten three different times so far, myself
Day 15: Off Aldabra
Late night; after a day of diving Aldabra’s lush outer reefs, we now drift in the open sea. Lionel and I slip into the blood-warm water on snorkel to photograph whatever may be attracted to the huge spotlight David has lowered beneath the boat. It is a mysterious, a moonless night on the rolling surface, of the deep, dark ocean. We sweep our lights around and are met with a parade of small creatures flowing by in the current, including thousands of minuscule, squirming, jetting, golden octopi, smaller than a fingernail, that latch onto anything they encounter, be it camera, strobe or us; and, something marvellous I had never seen before – several, small jellyfish with slightly larger fish living, unharmed, inside their bells.
Day 18: Inside Aldabra Lagoon
Robin, Chris, and I go to a quiet beach to photograph tortoises and birds. There are several large tortoises under the trees, and they gaze at us with wrinkled, ancient faces as we move close to shoot. Unconcerned, they browse as they move slowly about, seeming to eat anything and everything – leaves, pine needles, grass.
That evening, under a steady rain, we stand at Fantasea’s rail looking down at the dark water; a horde of baby turtles swims slowly by. The terns know this is a night of hatching; by the hundreds, they are everywhere, hovering just over the surface, searching for baby turtles. One rain-battered tern approaches us, and Tally extends her arm. The fearless bird lands, shakes his feathers dry, and then flies off into the deep night.
Day 20: Assumption
We move the boat back to Assumption for a last day of diving. Afterwards, we head out for a final, late afternoon snorkel. I swim as a glowing, setting sun breaks from under the clouds at the horizon. As I surface from a free dive, the sun’s rays suddenly pierce the surface of the water, showering down a brilliant cascade of sparkling, golden light. I rise through it, mesmerised by this scene of such breathtaking beauty. I rest on the surface, immersed now, not simply in the sea, but in a moment shared with a magical universe.
Al Hornsby is a well-known dive professional, diving and wildlife photographer, author, and environmentalist. With four books to his credit, Al also is a regular contributor to international dive magazines. Along with his photography and writing, Al is a longtime executive (currently Senior Vice President, Legal Affairs) for PADI; former Editor/Publisher of Skin Diver Magazine; former President of the Dive Equipment and Marketing Association; and a founder of the Project AWARE environmental organisation.
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