Photographer Thomas Peschak worked on Aldabra atoll in 2008, so he had a pretty good idea what he was in for when he started prepping for his recent National Geographic assignment.
“The climate wreaked havoc on all my gear. So much that I ended up using my broken laptop as a cutting board, and wrecked cameras to hammer in tent pegs,” he says of his first experience.
“When the propeller plane drops you on Assumption Island (a 30-mile boat ride from Aldabra), you will only see it again when it comes back to pick you up a month or so later. Whatever you forgot, you might as well forget about it. You have to have backups of backups of backups.”
(Watch video above to see the packing in action, as well as scenes from life on Aldabra.)
Peschak made the arduous trek to the remote Indian Ocean Atoll of Aldabra to photograph the incredible recovery of the island’s marine and terrestrial biodiversity. Sharks, groupers, corals, tortoises, birds, and crabs have perfected the art of thriving in this harsh environment. However, people (and their equipment) are still learning the ropes. He packed up an amazing amount of gear (572 lbs.), two assistants, and then crossed his fingers that no one forgot anything. (Related story: Photographing on an Island that Wants to Kill You)
“It took a full week of obsessive list making, packing and repacking to ensure that we had everything”, he says. “Nonetheless the evening before my journey I became sick to my stomach every time I thought about the consequences of leaving a crucial piece of equipment behind.” An inside joke among photographers at National Geographic is that the magazine publishes photographs, not excuses.
Despite being so remote, there is a well-equipped and comfortably rustic scientific research station on the small island of Picard (one of four that make up Aldabra atoll). However most of the animal behavior that Peschak wanted to photograph was on the more remote islands of Grande Terre and Malabar.
To get to Grande Terre, Peschak, his crew and a ranger were dropped at low tide in a mangrove swamp carrying 200 lbs. of equipment in waterproof cases and bags, which they then shuttled in multiple trips to their small camp. Both assistants had the beginnings of trench foot and lost toenails along the way.
At the camp, things weren’t much cushier. Living quarters were a corrugated hut with no running water. Bunkbeds. A sandy floor. Food was stale bread and canned meat and veggies. With heat stroke and dehydration as constant threats, they had to carry a massive medical kit and know how to use it. Also, there was no power—Peschak and his team had to charge all their gear using a small portable solar panel.
“Power management was very, very hard. You had to ration your batteries. It was almost like mounting a military campaign to make sure you had enough power when you needed it,” he says.
On top of the primitive lifestyle, the animal inhabitants created their own challenges for the crew.
“If you leave the doors open the tortoises will just come in, and the coconut crabs, (also called robber crabs) will not only eat you out of house and home but also steal your cameras, shoes or water bottles,” says Peschak. “The crabs climb and scrape across the corrugated roofs, and it sounds like nails on a chalkboard. Some nights are so bad you have to keep climbing up to remove crabs from the roof.”
But despite what might seem like a hardship posting, Peschak said he’s never been more content.
“Nowhere was I happier than on Grand Terre and at Middle Camp [on Malabar]. There’s just something about being surrounded by this primordial landscape. The real world ceases to exist. Your whole world is about making pictures and surviving. It makes you live in the moment and for me that’s a very comforting place to be.”
“Once you get back to Picard with comforts, and Internet and electricity, you get confronted with the future and you begin to assess the past,” he continued. “I loved being out there. It was a privilege. They are two of the most remote wilderness areas anywhere. Tourists cannot go there. It is a reserve for researchers and a few very fortunate photographers and filmmakers.”
Thomas Peschak would like to extend a very special thank you to the Seychelles Island Foundation and the amazing staff at the Aldabra research station for making this visit possible.
Read the other stories in this series:
• Photographing on an Island that Wants to Kills You
• Sharks and Ladders: A Photographer Gets A Lift
• Getting By With a Little Help from his Friends