A PARADISE PROTECTED
Saint Joseph Atoll, just one of Seychelles’ 115 islands, is entirely encompassed by a marine protected area. This remote atoll in the archipelago’s outer halo of coralline islands is, like over half the country, a protected nature reserve. It is among several little islets set on a shallow reef flat in the Amirantes Islands group, named for the Indian Ocean bank on which they sit. A true castaway landscape, the atoll has been used by scientists to count sharks and turtles, and to map the physical changes of shifting sands.
WEIRD & WONDERFUL NATURE
Set just four degrees south of the equator, some 1,600 kilometres off the shores of East Africa, the Seychelles offers up exotic, diverse, and wildly contrasting landscapes – from coral island idylls to the forested peaks of its inner granite islands. Here, on the main island of Mahé, this endemic Seychelles species of carnivorous pitcher plant, which feeds on insects trapped in its liquid-filled cups, is among numerous weird and wonderful flora flanking the national park trails that wind through the island’s verdant, mountainous hinterland. Walkers may also hear the tiny Seychelles frog and spot several species of orchid.
ISLANDS OF CONTRASTS
Silhouette, a magnificent granite island, is the third-largest in the archipelago. This green and serene hideaway juts dramatically out of the Indian Ocean blue – a nature reserve where the surrounding waters are also protected as a marine conservation area. The island’s highest point, Mount Dauban, is a steeply forested 780-meter mountain peak and a natural nursery for endemic flowering plants as well as the vulnerable Seychelles kestrel. Trails here offer views of pristine bays and palm-shaded coves. The island is also home to one of the last significant roosts of the critically endangered Seychelles sheath-tailed bat.
An endangered green turtle grazes on seagrass in a lagoon on Aldabra Atoll, one of the world’s largest raised coral atolls. One of the outer islands, Aldabra is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, and is a refuge for over 400 species and subspecies found nowhere else on earth, including several species of turtles. The best known of these endemic species is the land-loving Aldabra giant tortoise. These enormous tortoises are found only on Aldabra Atoll, where they currently number over 100,000 – making them the largest population of tortoises in the world.
A RAINBOW OF MARINE SPECIES
Scissor-tail sergeants, two-spot red snappers, and a blacktip reef shark swim in the shallow lagoon of Saint Joseph Atoll. Famed for its rainbow array of reef species, Seychelles is a hotspot for divers and snorkelers, many of whom choose to navigate the pristine waters around such distant atolls on liveaboard cruises that can access the archipelago’s many dive sites and impressively barnacled wrecks. Dive into a sub-aqua world and you can expect to encounter Technicolor reefs, vast schools of pelagic fish, dolphins, whale sharks, and rays.
SPARKLING SNORKEL SPOTS
If you aren’t bound for Seychelles’ outer coral reefs, there are endless pristine places to swim around its central islands. Here, a snorkeler explores the aquarium-clear waters off tiny Île Cocos, a picture-book island in miniature. A protected nature reserve with a palm grove at its heart, the island itself is out of bounds, but the ocean around its white-sand shores is a popular spot for snorkellers and divers. An easy excursion from La Digue or Praslin, here you might swim with eels, sea turtles or even whale sharks.
This little uninhabited islet near Île Cocos is how the Seychelles would have looked to Portuguese sailors when they became the first Europeans to spot the archipelago, upon which no landing was recorded until a British East India Company ship arrived there in 1609. Largely unsettled until the 1800s, these remote tropical islands were a staging post for pirates, buccaneers and privateers – but now offer pioneering terrain for those keen to make adventurous exploration by kayak, canoe, or paddleboard.
AN AVIAN HAVEN
Though best known for its marine life, Seychelles is equally humming with birdlife. The archipelago’s avian biodiversity attracts nature lovers from far and wide, keen to record both endemic and rare species, from the Seychelles paradise-flycatcher to the Seychelles scops-owl, the pure-white fairy tern to the black parrot, the country’s national bird. Huge colonies of seabirds roost and breed here between globe-spanning migratory journeys: some 1.5 million sooty terns amass on Bird Island each spring, while the jungle-fringed summits of Aride are home to 10 breeding species of seabirds in some of the world’s highest concentrations.
Beautiful teardrop-shaped La Digue, with its fringe of pink granite boulders and string of pristine, untouched white-sand beaches, is the quintessential Seychelles hideaway for those who want to go off-grid and back to nature. Within easy ferry-hopping distance of the hub islands of Mahé and Praslin, cars are strictly limited on this tiny island that measures around five kilometres long and three kilometres wide. The best way to navigate La Digue’s main coastal road is by bike; pack a picnic, as once you leave the port there’s little by way of restaurants beyond the occasional shack selling sweetly spiced fish curries.
SWIM WITH THE SWEETLIPS
A school of Indian Ocean oriental sweetlips cruise the reef just off Assomption Island, a remote coral island crowned by twin sand dunes towering more than 20 metres. The school appears to mimic the shape of a much larger fish, most likely in order to fool predators. Schools such as these, and much larger, can be seen on day cruises to this sparsely populated island that lies about 35 kilometres southeast of Aldabra, where giant tortoises roam.
A powder blue surgeonfish, also known as a powder blue tang, near Astove Atoll, a coral halo renowned for blue water fly-fishing and featuring a large inner lagoon, lush mangroves, and beaches favoured by nesting hawksbills and green turtles. This surgeonfish is just one of an abundant variety of tropical fish that thrive in the waters here. Such a great biodiversity of marine species live in the Seychelles that new species are still observed. Eviota dalyi, a boldly coloured new species of dwarf goby fish, was recently discovered in the Amirante Islands.
A DESERT ISLAND OF YOUR OWN
There is a crystal-clear reason why the Seychelles regularly tops beach polls – but while the white-silica celebrity of such bays as La Digue’s Anse Source d'Argent, Praslin’s Anse Lazio, or Mahé’s Anse Intendance will always grab the headlines, it’s the unnamed, untamed beaches that make Seychelles such a stellar spot for nature lovers. This is terrain to claim as your own, at least for a few hours, where sparkling shoals of fish dart through turquoise waters, and only fragrant mangrove flowers litter powder-soft sands.