Alphonse Island | Diving in the Lap Of Luxury
More turtles than you can count, hungry sailfish, marauding sharks, ancient hard corals and lots of reef fish. Mark 'Crowley' Russell is pampered in the remote island of Alphonse in the Seychelles
Seychelles. Just the name is evocative. Coming in to land on the remote island of Alphonse in a small, light aircraft, fulfilled all my expectations. It is an emerald green dot at the end of an arching coral atoll 400km south of the main island of Mahé. Once the propellers wound down, the only sounds were of the distant lapping of the surf on the beach, the breeze through the palm trees, and the enthusiastic greetings of Gordon, the general manager of the resort.
At just over half a square mile in area, this is a small island. There are only 27 villas – 22 bungalows catering to couples (and possibly a young child) and five larger suites for families of four. As a result, each villa is very private, set back from the sandy lanes that meander through the island. Each has a spacious surrounding area and is secluded from the others by tall vegetation on each side, with open access to the beach front which they overlook.
Before going any further, it is worth addressing the fact that Alphonse is a sport-fishing resort, with some scuba diving. This does not always sit well with the dive community, but it needs to be stressed that – as a dedicated eco-resort – Alphonse is committed to sustainable fishing practices. Fish that are caught are measured and weighed and immediately released, except those that are brought back to the kitchens for the restaurant and for the workers who live on the island. If it’s not needed, it’s not taken.
The resort’s dedication to conservation is also very apparent from a diving perspective. Alphonse caters for eight divers at any one time, with two instructors – Lucy and Byron – and Sam, the dive centre manager, on hand to look after dive guests. There are no plans to increase the number of divers on the island, as Gordon told us over dinner: ‘It’s not about bringing in more divers, it’s about bringing in the same number of divers on a more consistent basis.’
Underneath the clear blue water, the reefs are in excellent health. There is no evidence of over-fishing, and very little in the way of damage. A wide swathe of broken coral indicated a possible collision with a boat at some point in the past, or perhaps the natural effects of storms and currents, but it was old, and there was no sign of repeated damage caused by boat traffic, of which there is very little.
Coral bleaching in recent years has had some effect on the reefs in the area but not at any of the nine sites we dived. When they’re not busy with customers, the dive staff, along with Pep and Ariadne, who maintain the Alphonse station of the Seychelles’ Island Conservation Society, are out at sea monitoring the state of the underwater environment.
The scale of the coral colonies is immense. Some of the giant porites formations have a lifespan measured by the millennium, dwarfing everything but their neighbours. Some of them would make for an entire dive all by themselves – especially for photographers – were it not for the distraction posed by the richness of the rest of the reef.
The coral cover was perhaps not quite as colourful as it can be in the Indo-Pacific region or the Red Sea, but this is only due to the extent of the colonies which exist here. The aforementioned porites, for example, are not the most colourful species of coral, neither are the thickets of gorgonian fans, the extent of which I have never before encountered. My mind’s eye will always revert to my time as a guide in Sharm El Sheikh, but the gorgonian forests we used to delight in at Ras Umm El Sid, for example, were mere shrubberies by comparison. And yes, there are long-nosed hawkfish in residence.
What the coral may (very slightly) lack in colour is more than made up for by the sheer mass and exuberance of the fish life. Much of it will be familiar – tiny golden anthias are everywhere, swimming for their lives to stay in the same place in the current, a welcome sight on any reef. Large schools of bright yellow blue-lined snapper circulate and gracefully part as you swim through them – excellent footage for any amateur videographer, as are the almost motionless oriental sweetlips.
Humpback snapper, bigeye trevallies and barracuda school by the hundreds, with inquisitive batfish circulating around the divers. We encountered so many turtles that I lost count. Their behaviour may be somewhat indicative of how little these reefs have been dived. Unlike some other locations, where turtles will chomp away at the reef and ignore divers until the underwater paparazzi set their beaks on edge, Alphonse’s turtles were much more wary of our presence.
The same was true of most of the Napoleon wrasse we encountered. Often known for their close approaches, these Napoleons, however, kept their distance from the divers. One of the giant potato groupers, the size of which I have not seen since the Great Barrier Reef ’s Cod Hole, was far more inquisitive. It appraised me as if it were considering its dining options, and came so close that I thought I might be more than just a ‘consideration.’
Large pelagics are in the area, although perhaps not as many as there once were. The Seychelles was at one time known as a destination for whale shark encounters. However, their numbers have declined to such an extent that in 2015 a government-funded programme to study the creatures was suspended due to the lack of sharks. The reasons for this are not well known, but an increase in sightings towards the archipelago’s outer islands in the past couple of years may have indicated a shift in their food supply. David Rowat, chair of the Marine Conservation Society Seychelles, thinks one explanation could be that the wind and the currents have changed and there is now more plankton found towards the outer islands.
Other species of shark, however, did put in an appearance, including two of the largest tawny nurse sharks I’ve ever seen, and I had an odd encounter with a sicklefin lemon shark. It sidled up behind me while I was engrossed in trying to photograph a gorgonian. I turned to find it not two metres behind me, and it appeared to be as startled as I was. The sicklefin has a brutish, muscular front, but an altogether more slender tail section – rather like a bodybuilder who skips leg day. As it barrelled away up and over the reef, I was left with the impression of a cyclist in low gear, pedalling furiously, but not moving very rapidly.
We were also treated to what, for me at least, was one of the most memorable sights of the trip. Under instruction to ‘find sharks for the journalists’, Lucy took us to a site called Galawa, and we jumped in to find at least two metres of grace and beauty circling underneath us. It was an oddly familiar shark, but I hadn’t seen one before. I knew what it wasn’t, but couldn’t quite identify what it was. It circled a few times, toddled out of sight for a moment and then returned for a second, closer inspection.
I was therefore delighted after we surfaced to be asked: ‘How was your first bull shark?’ My colleagues, proper photographers with industrial sized cameras, had all fitted their macro lenses for the dive and weren’t so pleased. Most of our dives had been very pleasant, gentle drifts, with one at West Side Wall picking up slightly, but nothing to make stopping for photographs a significant effort. The exterior of the atoll can be prone to much harsher currents, but there is always the shelter of the atoll’s lagoon in which to dive.
The lagoon has a flat and sandy bottom, with slightly sparser – but still impressive – arrays of coral than the outer walls, making for perfect entry-level diving and training, though still with a chance of encountering larger critters. It was inside the lagoon that we found our reef manta, albeit from the boat, and giant trevallies are in residence. The GTs follow the boats to shore where they will circle as you disembark, hoping to catch scraps of food from the fishing boats. The giant trevallies leaping out of the water hunting birds, as seen in the recent BBC series of Blue Planet II, were filmed in the Seychelles. Ours didn’t take off, but one did have a good chomp on a colleague’s camera.
Our final highlight was to head a few hundred metres out to sea to snorkel with sailfish. This was awesome. Not in the cheesy, American teenage way, I mean actually being ovecome with awe. The giant fish are attracted by a lure trailed from the back of the boat, and once they appear, the boat is put into neutral and you jump in for 60 seconds of mayhem. Three of these magnificent animals flashed in front of us, each of them with their sails raised, two metres of fish – half of which appears to be their rapier-like bill – thrusting at lightning speed towards your soft, unprotected flesh. It was moderately terrifying, brilliant fun, and an outstanding memory.
Back on the resort island, life was tranquil and sedate, just as it should be. Cycles are provided to each guest for transportation, with the dive centre a pleasant five-minute ride from the resort’s centre, although you can be collected by golf cart, if necessary. Travelling through the dense palm trees might give the impression that something larger is lurking in the jungle, but there are no snakes or venomous lizards, or anything particularly unpleasant.
One needs to be a little wary of palm spiders, not because they are dangerous, but because they build huge webs and cycling through them is bound to give you the willies. They are otherwise rather pretty.
A successful breeding programme on the island of Aldabra has reintroduced the giant tortoise to Alphonse, one of the longest-living land animals (Jonathan, the famous resident of St Helena on the other side of Africa, is thought to be over 180 years old). There was once a number of different species in the archipelago, but they were hunted to extinction by early French settlers, who used them as a beef substitute. The Island Conservation Society monitors not only the tortoise population and the health of the reefs and the fish but also monitors the nests of the wedge-tailed shearwaters that come to breed on the island. Alphonse is also a nesting site for green turtles, and visitors are sometimes lucky enough to find them doing so right in front of their accommodation.
Conservation is important to Alphonse. They have worked hard to build a sustainable resort, and are rightly proud of the fact that they grow as much 50 per cent of the fresh fruit and vegetables required to feed the staff and guests, in the island’s plantation. There are other things to do besides fishing and diving, including kayaking, paddle-boarding and other water-based activities. There is a small graveyard where some of the earliest settlers in the Seychelles are buried.
Communal excursions can be arranged for cycling and snorkelling, and the guests gather for sundowners at dusk. The barbecue hosted out to sea on a brilliant white sand bank is so marvellous it’s almost decadent. You dine under the stars in the beach-front restaurant.
Needless to say, diving in the lap of luxury on an island paradise comes at a price, and a seven-night stay in one of the beach bungalows comes in at US$7,385 (around £5,300) per person, which includes a ten-dive package, return flight from Mahé, three meals per day and the communal excursions. Flights to Mahé are not included.
Is it worth it? It’s not the most expensive diving in the world, but it’s not that far off. You do get a lot for your money. The island is remote, secluded and intimate. The catering is superb. It is an idyllic location with a tranquil atmosphere. Would I pay that much to return? Well – if I ever have the money, then yes, I would.
Flights: London Heathrow to Mahé via Dubai with Emirates. Prices start at £700 return. Etihad via Abu Dhabi came in slightly less at £594, but with a much longer journey time.
Visas: None required for UK passport-holders
Alphonse Island: www.alphonse-island.com / Tel: +248 422 9700 / +248 422 9030
Seychelles Tourist Office UK & Ireland: www.seychelles.travel / Tel: +44 207 730 0700