Photographing Giant Tortoises on an Island That Wants to Kill You
Thomas Peschak is full of energy. Passionate, full-blown, infectious, energy.
When I sat down to interview him for a series of blog posts about his recent trip to Aldabra Atoll for National Geographic Magazine, he stoked the conversation with a mix of heady scientific research, and down-and-dirty descriptions about what life is like for tortoises—and photographers—on the brutally harsh island environment.
“Aldabra wants to kill you,” says Peschak. “It’s the antithesis of your tropical honeymoon destination—bone dry for much of the year, little shade and ridiculously hot. The coralline rock that makes up the atoll is so sharp that if you stub your toe hard enough it will fall off. It destroyed my new hiking boots in a matter of weeks.”
But the harsh environment on Aldabra—an Indian Ocean atoll that’s part of the Seychelles—is ultimately what saved its unique giant tortoise population from extinction. Peschak went there to show how a species that had been nearly decimated by human activity could make a resurgence if it was simply left alone.
Aldabra—an Indian Ocean atoll that’s part of the Seychelles—was colonized in the early 1800s by the French, and later by the British. The Seychelles are now an independent nation.
In it’s early years, traders scooped up sea turtles, coconut crabs, sharks, and giant tortoises for consumption, and by the early 1900s the tortoises were nearly extinct.
But in the 1960s, an exploratory mission to Aldabra by the Royal Society of London (the British and American governments were looking to build a military airbase) found an ecosystem unlike any they had ever seen, sparking a conservation effort to save its flora and fauna.
“Aldabra’s unique biodiversity was almost ruined through overexploitation, but the Seychelles stepped up to the plate and decided to make things right,” says Peschak. “Going there today is like environmental time travel.”
There are now more than 100,000 giant tortoises on Aldabra—making it the largest population in the world (10 times as many as in the Galapagos.) It’s also the only large ecosystem on our planet dominated by reptiles.
Since the 1980s, the environment on Aldabra has been managed by the Seychelles Island Foundation, which only allows rangers and scientists to live there. Tourists on yachts or small expedition ships are far and few between, having been kept away by Somali pirates who frequent that part of the Indian Ocean.
“From a survival perspective this place is harsh, so living there is incredibly difficult,” says Peschak. “To document the life of these tortoises you have to endure what they endure.”
For Peschak that meant an incredible amount of planning, and a willingness to get cut, scraped, and beaten up by the landscape while pursuing tortoises on the remote island of Grand Terre—one of four islands that make up Aldabra.
“Once the boat drops you in the mangrove swamp and you begin your epic trek to the “tortoise turf” you realize that this place wants to eat you and spit you out. If you don’t drink enough water you are done. If you fall, injure yourself or get sick you’re in real trouble. The nearest medical facilities are over 700 miles away. You have to be incredibly disciplined, manage risk and really look after yourself,” says Peschak.
For six days Peschak and his team lived on Grande Terre, deep in the heart of wildest part of the atoll to photograph the tortoises.
“You have to think and act like the tortoises do. They graze only in early morning and late evening when it’s the coolest, as well as on cloudy days. Unfortunately the most interesting behavior occurred when the light was at its worst. That was demoralizing even though I knew it was going to happen.”
Regardless of the challenges, Peschak was able to capture giant tortoises in their truly natural state: Seeking shade from the hot sun under bristly bushes, hunkering down in a rain storm, and yes, even mating.
“I want to give the reader a sense of what it’s like to live with dinosaurs,” says Peschak. “I want to give them a feeling that they are on a different planet. Because photographing and living on Aldabra really is an otherworldly experience.”
Read the other stories in this series:
• All You Need to Pack for a Remote Atoll Is…
• Sharks and Ladders: A Photographer Gets A Lift
• Getting By With a Little Help from his Friends
Thomas Peschak would like to extend a very special thank you to the Seychelles Island Foundation and the staff at the Aldabra research station for making this visit possible. Without the expert guidance of senior ranger Catherina Onezia and tortoise researchers Dr. Dennis Hansen, Rich Baxter, and Wilfredo Falcon Lienro, his photographic coverage of Aldabra’s giant tortoise’s would not have been possible.