Tortoises rule on this isolated island

A photographer discovers a primordial paradise where he’s just part of the ecosystem.

This story appears in the June 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The first time a tortoise walked through my hut at Middle Camp on Aldabra Atoll, I was amazed. I grabbed my camera and carefully positioned myself to capture this wildlife encounter. The second time: same thing. The third time: I picked up my phone and took a snapshot. By the fourth or fifth time, I didn’t even look when I felt something bump into me. I knew what it was.

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Tortoises pay little attention to humans as they pass through the huts on Aldabra Atoll.

I was there to shoot a story about island restoration in the Seychelles, far off the east coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean. Until roughly the middle of the past century, the small island nation showed signs of real environmental carnage—indigenous vegetation cleared to make way for coconut and cinnamon plantations, invasive rats and mice running rampant, native sea turtles and giant tortoises being exploited. Biodiversity seemed doomed.

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But then the country experienced a shift in conservation consciousness—and the giant Aldabra tortoises are among its most visible signs. These massive reptiles lived on most islands in the Indian Ocean until 17th-century sailors discovered that they were the perfect source of fresh provisions on long voyages because they can survive for months without water or food. The mariners filled their holds with hundreds of tortoises at a time, flipping them on their backs to prevent them from wandering on deck. Little by little the tortoises on islands throughout the Indian Ocean were eaten to extinction—except on Aldabra, which was the only island in the entire ocean basin where a few thousand of these tortoises survived.

Aldabra’s isolation and hostile environment protected the tortoises and does so still. Sitting more than 700 miles west of Mahé, the main island of the Seychelles, the island isn’t on anyone’s direct path. (To get to it, I had to charter a propeller plane to the closest island with an airstrip and then take a small boat.) And Aldabra, one of the world’s largest coral atolls, is quite inhospitable to visitors. The shoreline is razor-sharp coral rock. There’s no permanent freshwater, but there are plenty of mosquitoes, and it’s so hot that tortoises bake in their shells if they don’t find shade during the day. Yet the tortoises thrive here because nobody was tough enough to go and get them—and because the atoll was designated in the 1980s as a special reserve by the government and as a natural World Heritage site by UNESCO. Protected from human interference, the population of tortoises has rebounded to roughly 100,000.

Watch Thomas Peschak photograph mating giant tortoises while rolling on “tortoise turf” on Grande Terre.

For two weeks of my six-week stay on Aldabra, I was based at Middle Camp, a daylong hike through hellish mangrove swamps from the research station run by the Seychelles Island Foundation. I lived in a hut with a dirt floor and a tin roof. At night coconut crabs scuttled across the roof to the sound of screeching metal.

Every morning when I woke up and walked outside the hut, I had to remind myself that I hadn’t traveled back in time. I could see flightless Aldabra rails, coconut crabs the size of dinner plates, and giant tortoises—roughly four feet long and weighing up to 550 pounds—just wandering around. The number of sharks in the bay was insane. Frigatebirds and boobies nested in the mangroves.

The tortoises didn’t seem to distinguish between me—a National Geographic photographer—and a frigatebird or a coconut crab or a flightless rail. We were all part of the ecosystem, and they treated humans as they treated every other creature: They ignored us. When we left our hut doors open, which we often did to let in air, the tortoises would walk right through. It didn’t matter if we were cooking or sleeping or preparing camera gear. Our quarters were part of the daily migratory highway. When we sat on a small sandy patch behind the hut to eat, the tortoises would try to walk over us, almost bulldozing us out of the way. That’s how much they feared humans.

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Giant tortoises can safely sleep with their heads and necks exposed on Aldabra Atoll, where they don’t fear predators.

In the late afternoon or early evening, whenever they’d finished grazing, the tortoises would plop down and fall asleep with their heads outstretched. That made nighttime trips to the outhouse perilous. To get there, we’d have to go 200 feet into the mangroves, negotiating what I called the tortoise slalom trail. It was a trail without a pattern, because of course they picked different places to sleep every night. Avoiding them was important: Falling headfirst over a tortoise onto the sharp coral rock could lead to serious injury on an island far from medical facilities.

Nothing was easy on Aldabra, and much of it was insanely difficult. Yet living among the tortoises in this primordial place, in one of the last spots where reptiles still rule, was one of the happiest times of my life.

Photographer and marine biologist Thomas Peschak has shot nine feature stories for National Geographic. He specializes in documenting both the beauty and the fragility of the world’s oceans, islands, and coastlines.