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October 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 35, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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National Geographic Explorer

real pirates use nets

from the October, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver,

Mozambique. French Comoros. The Seychelles. Exotic destinations all, featuring exotic cultures, gorgeous beaches, and lovely people. But not diving. Not anymore.

In two weeks cruising on the Lindblad/National Geographic Explorer in May and June, we covered 2000 miles of ocean between Dar-es-Salaam and Victoria, capital of the Seychelles. And in all that time, in a part of the world where the diving should be wonderful if not outright pristine, I had one proper, good dive. Not that it was wholly disastrous: it’s just that after shelling out sixteen grand (you read that right—$16,000) for a single room, one would hope to see more large fish (not counting rays) than three sharks and a single bumphead parrotfish. As far as any fish longer than a meter, those four were it.

This is a sizable vessel (passenger capacity: 140) re-commissioned in 2008 for what has come to be called adventure cruising. Though exceptionally well looked-after, diving is not its primary purpose. Indeed, there were rarely more than ten divers on any dive. With two divemasters always in attendance, dives were both relaxing and enjoyable. If only there had been more to see.

Diving conditions ranged from 35’ viz at Ibo Island, Mozambique, to 80’ in the southern and central Seychelles. Except where I encountered an occasional chilling thermocline, water was a delightful 80-84ºF. Currents ranged from non-existent to a moderate two knots off the northern tip of Madagascar. The Ibo Island (Mozambique) area was virtually fished out, though the coral was in decent shape. The “famous” S-pass dive at Mayotte in the French Comoros, led by a local dive guide, offered maximum 40’ viz and nothing to see but small reef fish. Pick your dive guides carefully: this one led the entire dive against the current.

National Geographic ExplorerA shallow (30’) drift dive off Cap d’Umber at the northernmost tip of Madagascar revealed few fish, but a unique underwater topography. Envision diving a submerged airport runway. Interrupted only by intermittent small coral bommies, the sunken surface was absolutely flat and resembled poured concrete. Again, no big fish save for a quartet of large remoras circling hopefully under our zodiac.

In the southern Seychelles, rarely visited by tourists, the Farquahar and Alphonse groups exhibited severe damage from recent cyclones, with entire reefs reduced to coral rubble. At Alphonse Island a flight of fifteen eagle rays out in the blue hinted at what once was and might be again.

St. Francois Island’s reef offered the best dive of the trip. Turtles, morays, different species of trevally, some bonito, a huge school of batfish, exquisite gorgonians, two sizable tawny sharks, a huge stingray, a friendly eagle ray that hung with the divers, lots of small groupers, swarms of reef fish, and to top it off, two huge potato cod, each one a good six feet long and weighing in at two to three hundred pounds. I can’t imagine how they managed to survive the rampant illegal fishing in the area.

This was the kind of dive I had looked forward to throughout the trip. But it was the only one of its kind in the entire two weeks. I was told by the ship’s Seychellois specialist that the diving would be much better at Aldabra, with its famous lagoon drift dive. But at the last minute the ship’s officers and management decided to skip that World Heritage site due to pirate activity in the area. Good thing, too. The day we were supposed to be there was the same day the local liveaboard the Indian Ocean Explorer was hijacked by Somali pirates.

I saw some healthy coral recovering from bleaching, interesting salps and other invertebrates, and perhaps surprisingly, a fair number of rays (eagle, sting, bat, manta). But commercial fishing boats don’t target rays—yet. In the main harbor of Victoria, in the Seychelles, were three enormous longliners: two from the EU, one from Taiwan. Each flaunted miles of black fishnet. Each was capable of catching more fish in one outing than every out-of-work fisherman in Somalia combined. And these were the legal boats.

The NG Explorer’s spacious cabins feature flat screen TVs, full-sized showers, daily maid service, in-room internet connection, direct dial telephones, and bathrobes. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet style. Dinner is informal dress and brought by waiters. Food ranges from good to excellent. Some cabins have balconies. Stern suites are big but the best cabins are amidships where it is quieter and calmer. Fancy gift shop. One of the best features of the ship is its extensive top-deck library. The crew, from the captain on down, exudes camaraderie.

Diving and landing are done via a fleet of 13 zodiacs. The dive ladder is provided on the zodiacs. Dive deck is at the waterline. From the ship you step into and out of zodiacs. BC and regs stay on the same tank throughout the trip. Dive team rinses them, you handle your suit and small stuff. Bring your own computer. Ample room on board for photo gear. There is a gym-sized locker room available to store whatever you like. Tech expert Dennis can repair many problems.

It’s hard to find better divemasters than American Lisa (she did her open-water certification in Antarctica) and Scotsman Kelvin (something like twenty-five divemaster specialties). Dives employed one divemaster in front and one behind. Most dives were slow drifts. Despite each site being virtually new and some, like northern Madagascar, perhaps never dived before, only common-sense constraints were imposed (stay in sight of one another, keep an eye on the divemasters for signals, keep above 100’). Most dives ran 50-60 minutes.

Late booking discounts of up to 25% are sometimes available—see Dives also cost extra, about $80/ea. NG Explorer trips are for those who wish to visit exotic locales in cruise-ship comfort with diving available as an additional activity—though the opportunity to occasionally dive extremely remote and even undived sites can be a special experience. But if it’s primarily good diving that you seek, this has become a part of the world to skip—at least until international warships start impounding illegal fishing boats and not just a handful of poor pirates.

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