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The United Nations (UNESCO) acknowledged the ecological importance of Aldabra Atoll in 1982 by naming is a World Heritage Site.
Photo: Chris Johnson

December 7, 2002
Aldabra - A Living Eden
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Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from Aldabra atoll in the Western Indian Ocean.

Aldabra is over 1100 kilometers from Mahe. It is actually closer to Madagascar (at 400 kilometers) and Africa (at 640 kilometers) than it is to it's own capitol - a pristine land, where plants and animals of every persuasion exist in a natural but fragile equilibrium in the almost complete absence of man.

After several days on a rolling sea, the crew was eager to go ashore. With Odyssey safely anchored, we landed on the beach just before sunset. We have all read about the wildlife wonders of Aldabra, but none of us were prepared for such a welcome. It was obvious after spending only a few minutes on Aldabra that a window to a land beyond our wildest imagination was opening.

As the crew came ashore, blacktip reef sharks patrolled the shallows between our legs. We later learned these sharks are a common sight in front of the station when the tide rolls in.

The powerful pincers of the Robber Crab enables it to tear apart coconuts. Rare, or extinct, on other islands around the world, the world's largest terrestrial arthrophod is common on Aldabra.
Photo: Chris Johnson

Guy Esperon, the Warden at the research station greeted the crew and showed us around. What a relief to be on stable ground again.

Unwieldy giant tortoises plodded around the station grounds, these are perhaps the islands most famous inhabitants and are the only wild population in the world besides those in the Galapagos Islands.

One in particular named 'Biskwi', Creole for biscuit, is particularly large due to his fondness for the oven-baked treats from the staff kitchen, he was the first to greet us.

A unique variety of land birds inhabit the islands, several sang and chirped in the casuarinas above or glided overhead.

As the sun set the 'robber' crabs emerged, these terrestrial arthropods are the largest in the world and are endangered or extinct on most other oceanic islands.

We were shocked at their number and size, large males can reach a meter from leg tip to leg tip. At first sight the ground appears to move, closer inspection and a flashlight reveals a legion of red and black crabs, eager to snap at any food scraps on offer with their powerful claws. A walk at night is taken at considerable risk to your toes.

It was difficult to comprehend the chaos and profusion of life that continually bombarded our senses. This was just the beginning of some of the most memorable days of the voyage so far.

At 35 kilometers long and 14 kilometers wide, Aldabra is the largest raised coral atoll in the world. It is a split-ring atoll, broken up into four smaller islands by four channels that link the massive, shallow lagoon to the ocean. The water surges through the narrow channels twice daily bringing in a host of marine creatures. Life on Aldabra is entirely based around the movements of the tide. Even the work of the rangers must be coordinated with tidal movements in order to access and monitor some of the more remote areas.

The male Aldabran Fody exhibits its exquisite mating plumage.
Photo: Chris Johnson

The outside of the atoll consists mainly of very low coral limestone cliffs that resemble a lunar landscape. It is predominantly this sharp, jagged, inhospitable terrain and the remoteness of the island that spared Aldabra the ongoing exploitation that beset most other islands. The inside of the lagoon is fringed with pristine mangrove swamps, a haven for birds, fishes, turtles, sharks and rays.

Spectacular colonies of seabirds nest in the canopy of the mangroves including red-footed boobies, which breed alongside the second greatest colony of frigatebirds on earth. While at sea, frigate birds tend to make a living by harassing the unfortunate boobies and stealing their hard earned catch, a practice known as cleptoparasitism.

At low tide, the lagoon is transformed into a vast expanse of sand and mud, leaving several small islands and champignons- mushroom shaped limestone islets exposed and undercut by constant wave action.

Aldabra is situated on a volcanic pinnacle and over the long course of geological time it has undergone several submersions and emergences due to sea level variations. It was probably some 125,000 years ago, after the last emergence that the first members of the present day unique flora ad fauna species began to evolve.

We were awake before sunrise this morning eager to start exploring the old village.

In 1888, the first settlement was established for the exploitation of the natural resources, most of the old buildings, including the old turtle bone crushing mill still remain today. Giant tortoises were taken for their meat, while turtles were taken in vast numbers for their meat and shells.

Slowly the ecological values of Aldabra have been realized and despite an attempt to construct an air force base on the atoll, conservationists ensured that the native inhabitants won the day. In 1970, the Royal Society of London brought the Lease putting an end to all exploitation and built a research station. In 1980, the station was handed over to the Seychelles Island Foundation and in 1982 it was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The atoll and its surrounding waters are now totally protected, a fitting tribute to the most majestic and ecologically intact raised coral atoll on the planet.

Terrence Mahoun - Head Ranger, Aldabra Research Station-

The tide surges twice daily in and out of the lagoon through the four narrow channels. Low tide reveals the strange mushroom-like shape of many of the lagoon's islets.
Photo: Chris Johnson

My name is Terrence Mahoun and I am a ranger (SIF Ranger - Seychelles Island Foundation) working here on Aldabra.

It is significant to protect Aldabra. Here we have a unique ecosystem. You have got this avifauna and flora which is very rich, untouched and the island is so remote in a sense. Everyday you can go somewhere and there are things to see that you haven't seen before, and there are places that you haven't been before. I mean, it is wise and scientifically good to keep Aldabra as a nature reserve.

Genevieve Johnson-

I can honestly say that we are among the most fortunate people in the world. We have spent the last two days on Aldabra Atoll, a World Heritage site. We have seen Giant Tortoises. We have seen nesting green turtles. We have seen 'upside-down' jellyfish. We have swum with sharks. We have snorkelled on the most pristine coral reefs. This place is absolutely amazing! There is no where else on earth like it. At the moment, we are doing a great job preserving it, but if we don't keep these efforts up then we are going to lose this place and there is no where else on earth that could possibly replace it.

Tomorrow, the crew will be spending the day exploring the habitat and documenting the behavior of the giant tortoises of Aldabra, so stay tuned.

Written by Genevieve Johnson

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