THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JAMES A. BONDOUX

CRUISING THE SEYCHELLES

We're told that it’s the most-photographed beach in the world… in any event, it is a spectacular site, with huge rounded granite boulders punctuating a pinkish-white fine sand beach, lapped by absolutely clear aquamarine waters. The jungle comes right down to the edge of the sand, with swaying palm fronds. The water itself is about 82 degrees, and quite gentle, as the Indian Ocean rollers break up on the outer fringing reef.

This is the “Anse Source d'Argent” beach on the island named “La Digue”, one of the few populated islands of the Seychelles. The beach is just a short bicycle ride from the harbor where excursion boats from the capital, Victoria, drop their loads of local and foreign tourists.

The island nation of the Seychelles boasts more than 100 islands, widely scattered on average some 1000 miles east of the coast of Kenya. Only a handful of these islands are populated, and most of the inhabitants live on the largest island, Mahe.

The Seychelles were settled late in the 18th century, and have evolved a Creole culture mixing primarily French, English and African influences. The absence of a native culture is more than compensated for by a rich and unique ecosystem, enhanced by a variety of endemic species. Natural history was the focus of our exploration of these islands and their surrounding waters.

Kathryn, Mitchel and I embarked, in March 2008, aboard the French sailing ship "Le Ponant", with approximately 50 other travellers under the Stanford and Zegrahm Expeditions banners. Our first stop was a nearby island named Praslin, home to the "Vallee de Mai" National Park. This is a World Heritage Site and it preserves the original ecosystem of the Seychelles, including the famed Coco de Mer palm as well as giant tortoises.

We completed a hot and humid hike under the equatorial sun with our botanist, Dennis Cornejo, and we were rewarded with sightings of the endemic black parrot, as well as a couple of mating giant tortoises. On this and other island walks we stumbled across skinks, geckos, tropicbirds, flycatchers, fairy terns and boobies, just to mention some of the more memorable fauna.

Le Ponant then left behind the "granitic" islands (steep and rocky, and home to most of the country’s population) to sail southward to the coral atolls, where the main exploration activities were snorkeling and SCUBA diving. Substantial distances are involved (more than 400 nautical miles between island groups) so that we spent a couple of days at sea (including Easter Sunday) making the transit.

Time on shipboard went by quickly, as we had numerous lectures – Jack Grove on the Fishes of the Seychelles, Dennis Cornejo and Greg Homel on the birds and flora of the Seychelles, and Joel Simon on photographic skills and techniques. We spent three days exploring the marvelous atolls of Aldabra and Astove (Aldabra is another World Heritage site, and is the world's largest raised atoll). We were lucky to be there in settled weather and during the full Moon. The result was peak tides and great visibility for drift snorkels in the passes to the lagoons and drift dives along spectacular coral walls.

Kathryn and Mitchel buddied for some dramatic dives, and brought back superb video footage from their adventures, including fascinating scenes of sting rays, eagle rays, manta rays, green turtles, groupers (“potato cods” in the Aussie parlance of dive guides Thomas and Natalia Baechtold!) and hundreds and hundreds of colorful reef fish, including Moorish idols, butterflyfish, puffers, wrasses, and so on.

Four days after we disembarked, Le Ponant was seized by pirates off the coast of Somalia as she was dead-heading for her next charter in the Red Sea. We followed closely the week-long ordeal of the ship and crew, most of which had become good friends during our cruise. We were relieved to see the crisis come to a peaceful end, thanks to the high-energy response by the French Navy.

Le Commandant

Le Commandant - Regis Daumesnil - was a most gracious host as well as an experienced mariner.

The Ship

Le Ponant - a 50-passenger sailing ship.

Tortoise Encounter

This Tortoise nipped Kathryn's hand while taking the offered leaf. It then went on to remove and eat the cork from a wine bottle!

Lunch

Lunchtime on the aft deck.That's Botanist Dennis on the left, and Expedition Leader Lia on the right.

Mederic and Francis

Chef Francis has studied with Paul Bocuse - our jovial Maitre D' is Mederic.

Joel Simon

Joel Simon, lecturer on photography and avid snorkeler.

Engine Room

Chief Engineer Mathieu in his space.

LaDigue Beach

The very famous beach.

Terns

A couple of Fairy Terns.

Leaders

Expedition Leader Lia Opera and Jack Grove, Marine Biologist Extraordinaire.

Divers

Kathryn and Mitchel ready to head out and capture some undersea video.

Cycling on LaDigue

Kathryn arriving at l'Anse Source d'Argent.

Divemaster Thomas

Divemaster Thomas.