Twenty metres beneath the Indian Ocean, suspended in the boundless blue, it’s an alien planet. Here are creatures worthy of any SF writer: striped lionfish float in clouds of ribbon-like, venomous fins; iridescent squid pulse towards me tentacle-first, like a squadron of Starfighters; an acid-green Moray eel gapes from beneath a brain coral. The sea does odd things to sound, making it amplified yet muffled. I can hear the constant clicking of tiny shrimp colliding with my mask, my own Darth Vader breathing, a deep metallic clang – wait, that’s Oliver, the Big Blue Divers guide, rapping on his oxygen tank. It means: “Over here, I’ve spotted something!”
At that moment, an inky shadow sweeps over the seabed. Whatever the creature is, it’s above me now, and it’s huge. I try to twist round – tricky, strapped into the bulky dive gear and a mask that leaves me blinkered. Finally, floating on my back, I’m able to see it: a manta ray. A rippling sheet of ghostly grey that moves in a mothership glide, it’s one of the biggest coups in any underwater safari. But down here there’s no gasping or taking a selfie; the moment is silent and solitary. I stretch out my arms, starfish-like; the ray dwarfs me.
Everywhere you look in the Seychelles, nature is on steroids – this thought strikes me as the dive boat chugs back across Baie Ternay, one of the nation’s six designated marine parks, to dock on the biggest island, Mahé. Instead of pebbles, the beaches have colossal granite boulders – surely hurled there by some prehistoric giant – and whale sharks, the world’s largest fish, feed in its warm, clear waters (October–November is the prime time to see them). On neighbouring Praslin, coco de mer palms sprout the planet’s heaviest (and most suggestively shaped) nuts, 20kg apiece. Curieuse, a mangrove-fringed emerald stud in yet another marine park, is ruled by giant tortoises, some reaching the grand old age of 130, their shells the size of bathtubs. This is a place so fecund that in 1881 a visiting British General, Charles Gordon, declared it the original Garden of Eden; today, it’s more often called “the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean”.
But despite its super-size good looks, the Seychelles’ unique ecology is fragile and in need of protection. Current trajectories suggest that 90 per cent of global coral reefs will disappear in the near future, while rising sea levels would be dire for its low-lying islands – a one-metre increase would cause a 70 per cent loss of land mass, America’s National Academy of Sciences estimates.
Fortunately, this is one corner of the globe where authorities are taking such threats seriously. President Danny Faure even issued a personal plea (live-streamed underwater from a submersible, no less) to save the “beating blue heart of our planet” earlier this year. “We’re running out of excuses to not take action and running out of time,” he said. “The scientists have spoken.” And the action he’s taking? Banking on the blue economy.
Exactly one year ago, the Seychelles issued the first sovereign blue bond, a World Bank-backed initiative that raises capital specifically for marine projects or businesses promoting environmental, social and economic benefits. Modelled on the $150 billion-a-year green-labelled bond market, the Seychelles’ $15m blue bond issue (the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation stumped up $1m) is now being disbursed as loans and grants, much of it invested in sustainable fisheries. As part of the deal, it’s committed to making a third of its waters – an area the size of Germany – marine protected areas by 2020. It’s well on track, last year adding two large zones around the Aldabra Atoll.
“The shadowy peace is punctured only by birdsong”
On the 15-minute propeller-plane flight from Mahé to Praslin, a glance out of the window brings home just how much the Seychelles is at the mercy of the sea: all those idyllic, award-winning beaches become little more than lace frills on vast swathes of blue fabric (turquoise, cobalt, navy – the Seychelles has every shade imaginable). Lying 1,500km from East Africa, this remote archipelago of 115 islands sprawls over 1.4 million km2, a mere 0.03 per cent of which is landmass, the rest purely ocean and reef. It’s a true water world.
Recognising this vulnerability, hoteliers across the Seychelles have been doubling down on their own marine conservation efforts. Both Raffles and Four Seasons Mahé, two of the most luxurious resorts, have introduced coral reef restoration projects.
In a cabana on the Four Seasons’ Petite Anse beach, Flora Blackett, a marine educator for partner NGO WiseOceans, leads the demo: fragments of broken coral collected from the sea floor are kept submerged in vats of seawater while we bind them to small metal hearts (this bit caters to the honeymooners). Guests then snorkel out to the bay’s coral nursery and add their piece to a series of underwater frames. In time, the coral fragments will grow together and form a new limestone reef – the goal is to create 10,000m2.
Coral is one piece in far wider sustainability drives by such resorts. Four Seasons Seychelles’ F&B Heart of House Manager, Thibaut Vieira, talks animatedly about “our on-site glass-crushing machine: it turns bottles back to sand, not in a million years but in minutes. And our restaurants are now plastic free.” I look quizzically at the straw in the fresh coconut I’m sipping. “Made from vegetable pulp,” he grins. On Praslin, Raffles has eliminated single-use plastics, and bottles its own water on site straight from the source. The kitchen team follows a garden-to- table ethos, gathering everything from lemongrass to papaya to avocados from its lush grounds.
“There’s actually now a committee that audits all the resorts every two years, and they have a long road map, from energy supply to catering,” Viera says. There are also plans afoot for an eco-tourism tax for all visitors (a proposed $10, built into airfares), following the nationwide bans on plastic bags and Styrofoam packaging.
The challenge now, says Pristine Seychelles project officer Rosetta Alcindor, is to consolidate and communicate better. “A lot of eco-conscious tourists arriving ask questions about where to go, how to explore with a small footprint, and there are lots of good projects happening, but the information is all spread around,” she explains. “So, Pristine Seychelles will be a single platform for sustainable tourism – a central base with everything from tour guides to guest houses to artisan producers.”
“Today, at least, we’ve recognised the importance of the environment, but it wasn’t always the case,” reflects guide Paul Morin of Mason’s Travel, a local partner of travel specialists Carrier who tailor-made my “eco adventure” itinerary. As we skirt Praslin’s coastal road, he tells of how early settlers from Britain and France wiped out the country’s salt-water crocodiles and nearly hunted the Aldabra tortoises to extinction. “This road was once all mangroves, that beach went further out,” he nods towards the shore. “The sea has to impact something – you dig up the mangroves, dredge the coral, and what do you get? Coastal erosion, storm surges. We have to rehabilitate, try to reverse the damage.”
Tangled jungle thickens along the roadside, ferns and hammock-sized palm leaves; it seems we’re heading back in time. “You’re seeing the original vegetation that once covered the entire island,” Morin confirms, as we head into the Vallée de Mai. We pick one of the clay-earth hiking trails that thread through this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Skinny trunks shoot upwards like columns in a Gothic cathedral and web into a thick canopy; it’s one of only two places on Earth where coco de mer grows wild, with the oldest tree here reaching 200 years and 25m tall. The shadowy peace is punctured only by birdsong – the electronic chirrup of the Madagascar fody, which looks like it’s been dipped in scarlet paint, or the chuckling call of the bulbul – and the tap of their discarded seeds hitting the leaves below. While bronze geckos dart up trunks, we listen closely for the call of the endangered Seychelles black parrot (maybe as few as 520 left in the wild), another of Praslin’s endemic species.
It’s mind-boggling, really, how many species aren’t only unique to the Seychelles but to individual islands. Think about it: a creature exists on this lump of granite or coral, and nowhere else on earth. On La Digue, where everyone travels by bicycle, we spy a Seychelles paradise flycatcher – black, long-tailed silhouette against a burst of hot-pink bougainvillea – while peddling through the coconut plantation to Anse Source d’Argent, one of the world’s great beaches. Want to see a giant tenebrionid beetle? You’ll have to head to Fregete island. For the fingernail-sized Seychelles palm frog, it’s Silhouette. Accordingly, on land, as on sea, huge zones have been cordoned off from development and guarded by rangers – more than half of Seychellois land has protected status now.
But while flora, fauna and well-intentioned travellers may all be on the same team, what about those in the country’s second-biggest industry after tourism, fishing? “Some fishermen do complain because there are strict rules for the marine park, no fishing’s allowed inside,” Morin tells me. Is this the chink in the Seychelles’ sustainable armour, then?
It’s nearing sundown on Praslin’s Cote d’Or and a 20-strong local crowd is waiting on the sand, swigging bottles of SeyBrew or smoking, as three wooden fishing boats sway into the shallows. A boy jumps out and wades to shore, each hand grasping the tails of three fat silver skipjack. The atmosphere of languid boredom snaps like a breaking storm and they part to let him through, Moses-like, then fall in behind and surge around the stall. He slaps the fish on the slab, two other fishermen adding their hauls. Haggling erupts in loud Creole, orange Seychelles rupee notes are thrust forward. Then, just like that, the feeding frenzy is over; everyone heads home to cook their catch, leaving nothing but a slick of water and fish blood on the table. “You see, that’s real fresh fish,” Morin smiles.
I take my chance to quiz fisherman Winsley Bellard about the restrictions and overfishing. He shrugs, “Our fish are all line-caught, or using kazye [bamboo traps]. We don’t use trawlers, so we can’t take too much; when the boat’s full, we’re done.”
What’s more, local fishermen have spearheaded their own initiative: last autumn, members of the Praslin Fishers Association signed a voluntary agreement among themselves to limit fishing in certain areas, allowing fish stocks to replenish. Now they’re spreading the pact to other islands, starting with La Digue.
With the blue bond, the Seychelles has struck upon a powerful way to reconcile conservation with the bottom line – so much so, they’re now being approached by other island or coastal states, from the Caribbean to East Africa, to share their experience, reports Jan Robinson, project manager of SWIOFish3 (the Seychelles Government/World Bank-appointed project framework for the Blue Bond). “What the World Bank wants to see is for this, like green bonds, to become a global financial instrument,” he says. “Because the message is getting through that government budgets, development aid, donors and so on can’t take the full burden of dealing with the issues facing our oceans; we need a new blueprint. Everyone’s watching us.”
Back on Petite Anse, eager to plunge back into the big blue, I take a deep breath and kick down to the sea bed. As rainbow shoals of reef fish – named for angels, butterflies, clowns – flicker past my snorkel, I secure my piece of salvaged coral to the metal frame, alongside dozens left by previous visitors. A tiny gesture, quite literally a drop in the ocean, but they all add up, don’t they? After all, who would’ve thought this far-flung string of islands might send ripples around the world with its new, blue economy?
Carrier (+44 (0)161 492 1358) offers 10 nights from £9,545 ($11,800) per person based on two adults sharing, including five nights at Four Seasons Seychelles (Ocean View Villa, half board) and five nights at Raffles Seychelles in (Ocean View Pool Villa, half board), return business class flights from London Heathrow and return private transfers. Offer valid 9 January – 31 October 2020, on departures from 11 May 2020.