Diving into conservation in the Seychelles

Diving into conservation in the Seychelles
Coco de Mer trees on Curieuse Island
Coco de Mer trees on Curieuse Island

When you arrive at the Seychelles International airport on Mahe you can spot a GVI volunteer from a mile off. In amongst the Louis Vuitton matching suitcases, and the Ralph Lauren polo shirts, a backpack stuffed to bursting point, often with a pair of diving fins strapped to the outside, causes them to stand out from the usual Seychelles crowd. Best known as a destination for honeymooning couples including members of the British Royal Family, the Seychelles is not your typical volunteer destination.

Text and images by Christophe Mason-Parker

The Seychelles is an archipelago made up of 115 islands scattered like jewels across the western Indian Ocean. The inner granitic islands are covered in lush vegetation and sit on top of the Mahe Plateau; home to the majority of the population of 90,000 people. The warm, shallow waters of the plateau are perfect for coral growth and numerous coral reefs, home to an impressive diversity of marine life, surround the tiny islands that rise up from the seabed.

A future marine conservationist trying out the Scuba equipment
A future marine conservationist trying out the Scuba equipment

The main industries in the Seychelles are fishing and tourism, with both relying heavily on the support of a healthy marine environment. In 1998, unusually high sea temperatures caused by an El Niño Southern Oscillation event led to widespread coral bleaching. Reefs were decimated throughout the tropics and the Seychelles was no exception. Within the inner islands, coral mortality in certain areas reached as high as 90%.

Following the bleaching event the Shoals of Capricorn Marine Programme, with funding by the Royal Geographic Society, began monitoring reef regeneration as part of a three-year programme. This was then taken over by Reefcare International as part of the Seychelles Marine Ecosystem Management Program (SEYMEMP).

In 2004 Global Vision International (GVI), under the invitation of the Seychelles National Parks Authority, began monitoring the coral reefs of northwest Mahe and almost ten years later they continue to collect critical data on reef health.

GVI dive instructor Joe explains how to set up your dive equipment with SNPA staff
GVI dive instructor Joe explains how to set up your dive equipment with SNPA staff

Volunteers unload the dive boat after a successful day of surveys
Volunteers unload the dive boat after a successful day of surveys

GVI is a social enterprise that runs conservation and community development programmes in numerous locations around the world. Whether it is Healthcare Projects in Nepal, Wildlife Research in South Africa or Community Development in Costa Rica, GVI has been making a real difference by sending volunteers into the field since 1998.

Aside from the backpacks and an obvious interest in conservation, stereotyping a GVI volunteer is not so easy. From gap year students and university graduates, to professionals and pensioners, volunteers come from all walks of life and from every conceivable part of the globe. Each has a different reason for joining, but all leave having given a little of their time and having made a significant contribution towards protecting the organisms that inhabit these fragile shores.

The expeditions are broken down into four-week blocks, with volunteers arriving for either four, eight or twelve weeks at a time. The main focus of the programme is coral reef monitoring and volunteers are allocated either fish or coral to study prior to arrival in the field. The species lists are extensive and have been developed in conjunction with the Seychelles National Parks Authority to cover those organisms that are frequently observed on the reefs, are commercially valuable or act as indicators of reef health.

Located on the northwest coast of Mahe Island and sandwiched between Cap Matoopa and the Morne Seychellois National Park is the Cap Ternay marine expedition base.  Situated adjacent to the Baie Ternay Marine Park it is the ideal location for training in survey techniques and provides quick and easy access to the coral reefs of northwest Mahe.

Quadrats are used to measure the rate of coral recovery
Quadrats are used to measure the rate of coral recovery

Upon arriving in the field, GVI volunteers immediately undergo an intensive science training programme, specifically designed to teach species identification and monitoring methodologies.  On completion of computer and in-water tests and after a suitable amount of practice they are then able to commence monitoring the coral reefs. Accuracy is paramount and only volunteers who have successfully passed these tests are allowed to collect data.

In 2004 Global Vision International, under the invitation of the Seychelles National Parks Authority, began monitoring the coral reefs of northwest Mahe and almost ten years later they continue to collect critical data on reef health.

In 2010 GVI opened its second expedition base in the Seychelles. Curieuse is the fifth largest of the inner islands and along with its surrounding waters was designated as a national park back in 1979. Initially the GVI expedition was to replicate the marine monitoring being undertaken on Mahe. However, since 2011 attention has shifted towards monitoring the terrestrial flora and fauna that inhabits the island.

The GVI Curieuse Island Research Base is located at Anse Jose overlooking Praslin Island. The ruins of a former leper colony have been developed over the years by GVI staff and volunteers and today provide an excellent example of a working research base. Photovoltaic panels provide the expedition’s energy needs, while a comprehensive rainwater harvesting system assists with the collection of water.

The Coco de Mer is highly sought after
The Coco de Mer is highly sought after

Curieuse along with neighbouring Praslin Island is home to the endemic Coco de Mer palm (Lodoicea maldivica). Its Latin name derives from when Maldivians used to find the nuts washed up on their shores and believed they came from submarine trees. A slow growing palm, the Coco de Mer has the largest seed in the plant kingdom.

The nuts are an iconic symbol within the Seychelles appearing on everything from postcards and t-shirts to company logos. Their resemblance to the female private part has in the past led to its use as an aphrodisiac and today they are highly sought after.

The nuts are traded under license and are valued between $200-$300 each. Their high value means poaching is a real issue and due to their slow growth rate and limited distribution could have severe implications for the future of the species. GVI volunteers alongside the SNPA are in the process of conducting the first complete census of the Coco de Mer trees on Curieuse Island.

GVI staff & SNPA rangers insert a tag into a giant tortoise
GVI staff & SNPA rangers insert a tag into a giant tortoise

The Giant Aldabra Tortoise (Aldabrachelys gigantea) was once found throughout the Seychelles islands. Today the last remaining wild population exists on Aldabra, where 100,000 of these giants roam upon the coral atoll.  Between 1978 and 1982 almost 300 Giant Tortoises were translocated from Aldabra to Curieuse Island as part of a conservation programme designed to safeguard the future of the species. Thirty years later and GVI is assisting the Seychelles National Parks Authority to conduct a census of the Curieuse Island population. Passive Integrated Transmitters are injected into the tortoises near the base of the tail. These tags act as barcodes and when scanned provide unique information about the tortoise.

GVI staff & SNPA rangers check a giant tortoise for a p.i.t. tag
GVI staff & SNPA rangers check a giant tortoise for a p.i.t. tag
A GVI staff member administers a P.I.T. Tag
A GVI staff member administers a P.I.T. Tag

From September through to April much of the research on Curieuse Island focuses on nesting turtles. Hawksbill and Green turtles nest within the Seychelles, though Hawksbill turtles tend to favour the inner islands. They are currently listed on the IUCN Red List as ‘Crtitically Endangered’ with global populations having crashed by over 80% in recent years.

Hawksbill Turtles nest during daylight hours
Hawksbill Turtles nest during daylight hours

In the Seychelles prior to 1994 huge numbers of nesting females were taken from most islands each season. Though the trade in tortoise shell is now illegal, and on the decrease, the species continues to face many threats to its existence. Entanglements in fishing nets, destruction of nesting grounds, and predation of eggs by feral animals, have all contributed toward a continuing decline in population numbers. Today the Seychelles is home to the largest remaining Hawksbill nesting population in the Western Indian Ocean.

During nesting season GVI staff and volunteers, alongside national park rangers walk up and down the beaches of Curieuse Island, searching for turtle tracks. Assisted by the Hawksbill’s tendency to nest during daylight hours in this part of the world, when the teams encounter a turtle they wait for her to start laying before approaching to record vital information.

A green turtle swims slowly thought the shallows
A green turtle swims slowly thought the shallows

Aside from the scientific monitoring programmes, a large part of the work GVI Seychelles undertakes focuses on community involvement and capacity building. The National Scholarship Programme is free to all Seychellois over the age of 18 with an interest in conservation. Applicants can take part in either the marine or terrestrial expeditions and gain valuable practical field experience. To date GVI has trained several park rangers and university students in species identification and scientific monitoring techniques.

The idea of spending two months living in remote conditions with a group of people you barely know is not to everyone’s liking. The days are long and hard, the accommodation is often basic and access to the trappings of modern day life is extremely limited. Yet volunteering offers something that you won’t get from your traditional vacation. There is the opportunity to make lifelong friendships with like-minded people, to get up close to nature in a way that you would never have thought possible, and the ability to make a real difference towards protecting the natural environment and improving the lives of those people who depend upon it for their livelihoods.

Playing games at a GVI open day

Kid’s at Port Launay primary school try out the GVI dive equipment

For many, volunteering is a life-changing experience, providing them with a new direction in life or an alternative insight into how they view the world. As our lives become ever busier, driven by mobile technology and our 24-hour lifestyles, many of us have forgotten what it is like to connect with nature. Our planet is facing increasing threats from climate change, overpopulation, pollution and dwindling resources, so it is good to know that there are people out there who still care enough to want to make a difference.

The Seychelles has an enviable record of looking after its environment with much of the land and surrounding waters designated as national parks. Small-scale conservation projects such as the one run by GVI in conjunction with the Seychelles National Parks Authority can go a long way towards protecting biodiversity, educating communities and conserving the environment for future generations.

For more information on GVI’s projects in the Seychelles and around the globe, visit: http://www.gvi.co.uk/

GVI staff and volunteers join the local community for a beach clean
GVI staff and volunteers join the local community for a beach clean
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