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August 2006 Vol. 21, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Two Undiscovered Destinations

and one that stands out

from the August, 2006 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

With all the hullabaloos claiming Indonesia has the worlds best diving, one of our longtime writers, who seemingly has been diving everywhere, doesnt accept this conventional wisdom. He nominates the Aldabra Group, four virtually uninhabited atolls 600 miles north of Madagascar, as perhaps the best, with astonishing and diverse cities of fish and exceptional walls. The only way to dive there is aboard the 50-year-old Indian Ocean Explorer (IOE), built as a Danish research vessel. Its a laborious journey, starting with a 1200 km charter flight from Mah, in the Seychelles Islands, to Assumption Island. Our writer booked two eight-day trips, including the seasons last, which concluded with a three-day steam island hopping from Aldabra back to Mah.

Indian Ocean Explorer

My plane out was full of scientists (and, only God knows why, eight elderly Japanese women snorkelers), so we were required to lighten our loads. At the airport, I had to stow books, spare clothes and sandals, dive lights, battery packs and camera gear a stiff price for a photographer. Even fresh food destined for the IOE didnt make the plane.

On the desertlike Assumption Island, an inflatable met us for a 200-meter ride to the anchored IOE. We motored to Aldabra Atoll to drop scientists at the research station and go diving. Karrin, a young, slender, blonde Swiss divemaster, managed dive activities. Fat steel 12-liter tanks were always filled to at least 3000 psi. All diving was done from two RIB tenders.

Two Undiscovered Destinations

Our first dives produced all kinds of sizeable fish, many found only in the west Indian ocean: potato and lyretail groupers, blue-line snappers in huge schools, Seychelles anemonefish, skunk clownfish, potato cod wanting to be petted, eagle rays, Napoleon wrasse among my fishiest dives ever. Yellow-lipped and whitebarred sweetlips were close to a meter in length. The smaller diagonal-lined African sweetlips and the black sweetlips were new to me as well. The complex patterns on the African groupers were stunning. Some potato cod were nearly two meters long. The third dive of the day was Aldabra Stingray Chute, with tawny nurse, gray reef and blacktip reef sharks; a loggerhead turtle, and big groupers. Though the reefs werent very pretty, vis was cloudy when shallow overall it averaged about 45 feet and the water ran about 82F.

At Astove Atoll, I dived three world-class walls with huge undercuts and swimthroughs. Turtles swam above throughout the dive. A Queensland grouper (two meters in length) displayed its spinal dorsal fin, and potato groupers, a manta, lionfish, meter-long mangrove snappers and red raggy scorpionfish kept me busy. At Cosmoledo Atoll, huge sea fans waved at 140 feet, and again a dive loaded with fish.

The robust IOE is basic yet seaworthy. Its compressors are new, the onboard power (200V) reliable. It retains an old-fashioned feeling, with small portholes, low beams and an ochre paint scheme. The en suite bathrooms functioned well; however, it was easy to flood the shower and need crew help. I relied on the two deck showers. The lower double bunk in my cabin was turned 90 degrees from the longer, narrower upper bunk and was shorter. Even when I lay in the bunk diagonally, my feet were pressed against the hull and my head was jammed against a vertical pipe. But Im a tall guy. and others had no such complaints.

We regularly did four dives a day, occasionally adding a night dive. I started with a hearty breakfast: plenty of bacon, fried eggs, sometimes pancakes or French toast. Bananas, apples, pineapple, watermelon or musk melon appeared at many meals. Lunches were cold cuts, cheeses, veggies, make your own sandwiches. Sit-down dinners, sometimes buffet, started with soup, followed by a salad, entree and dessert. Even when fresh food arrived for the second week, meals didnt change much: adequate and plentiful. The ship made major transits at night (up to 250 nautical miles), and at times it was difficult to maintain your balance. Some people got queasy; seasoned liveaboard folks had no problems.

We returned to Aldabra, where in the main channel at a clip of nearly six knots, I flew by a school of spangled (bluescale) emperors, then big schools of paddle-tail snappers, tawny nurse sharks, black-blotched reef rays, turtles and lots of emperor angels. Then back to Assumption Island to drop off our snorkelers and to pick up a young French-Australian woman diver and eight scientists doing species assessments on the islands. And fresh food arrived, with beans for the boats high-tech Italian coffeemaker. We made two dives at Assumption Island, where schools of bluefin trevallies were hunting over the reef. Napoleon wrasse and potato groupers followed us.

During the next six days we largely repeated the previous eight days, returning to Aldabra, where at Stingray City I dived with a school of 20 eagle rays, schools of 30 pinnate spadefish, turtles, blacktip and gray reef sharks, and three big leathertail stingrays on the sand. At Astove jetty wall, our new diver dropped down to 57 meters (I was at a more discreet 50 meters) to view one of the best walls in the world, with wonderful undercuts and natural bridges and big fish. At the surface, the other diver thought that schools of needlefish might be swordfish fry. Hmm.

Heading home to Mah, we stopped after a 22-hour crossing at St. Pierre Group, then traveled 24 hours to Alphonse, where at the Abyss a huge school of dogtooth tuna hunted over a spectacular reef. As we approached Mah, the water got colder and the quality of the reefs went down. We had a few shore excursions, including the islands with the research station, and a snorkel with dozens of blacktip reef sharks.

The Aldabra Group provided some of the best underwater experiences I will ever have. With the enormous numbers of large fish rarely seen in our depleted oceans, a journey on the 50-year-old IOE is a journey 50 years back in time. They run this itinerary October into December. For info: www.ioexplorer.com.

PS: Were talking good money. Flights from the U.S. to Mah begin around $2000, but I added Kenya to my trip. The flight to Assumption Island is $600, and there is a $300 park fee. Eight days aboard the boat is $2800, but back-to-back trips cost me $4400. At this price, the Aldabra Group is only for those divers who think they have seen it all. I thought I had, but I learned otherwise.

If youre looking for a side trip from Palau or Truk, consider Rota, where few Americans go. One of our writers visited in May and came away impressed, especially with the visibility. Next issue, well report on more second stops in Micronesia.

Diving with Mark Michael on his 19-foot boat, we could see the 100-foot-deep bow of the Japanese freighter Shoun Maru, sunk in 1944. Once I entered the probwater, the 220-foot. wreck spread out from stem to stern and from deck to keel. Two spadefish the size of pizza pans posed 50 feet below the bow. Poking up from the sand were two dozen garden eels. At the Rota Hole, or Puntan Senhanom, jungle vegetation nearly obscured its entrance. We followed our guide, Kumiko, who led us into and out of swim-throughs and light-filled grottos with schools of pyramid fish and orange anthias. Her flashlight picked out cowries the size of Big Macs. Surge occasionally rammed us into boulders, but my 3 millimeter wetsuit protected me. Rota has deep walls, where I saw anemonefish, Moorish idols, five species of butterflyfish, morays, gobies in corals and others in less-than-one-knot current. Nice dive.

WWII ruins dominate the jungles, beaches and limestone mountains. I lodged at the 20-year-old Coral Garden Hotel ($55 double) and walked three blocks downhill for breakfast and dinner at As Paris Restaurant. Pancakes and coffee ($5), shrimp teriyaki ($15) or lumpia with pancit noodles ($8). Only entertainment is 24-hour poker clubs. Mark Michaels has closed his Dive Rota and is a freelance captain for four dive operations on the island, all of which cater mostly to Japanese. For info, e-mail him at mark@diverota.com.

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