Cousin Island - an unmissable part of a trip to Seychelles
It is built into the British psyche to exaggerate. Whether it’s the fisherman whose fish was “Yea big” or your mate who used to be so good with his feet he had trials for Crystal Palace, we do have a tendency to take our stories one step further than is believable. So when I tell you there’s an island in the Seychelles that was saved by a bird I can understand if you just shrug your shoulders and politely agree.
Cousin Island was a coconut plantation up until the discovery of the highly endangered Seychelles Warbler. At that point the 26 found in the mangrove forests on the island were the only ones left in the world. The International Council for Bird Protection (now Birdlife) then stepped in, purchasing the island and restoring it to its original glory. The coconut trees were cut back with native plants re-introduced and it quickly became a sanctuary for wildlife. This not only saved the Seychelles Warbler but other birds and animals started to flourish here too. It is now a key breeding ground for lesser noddy and tropicbirds and the most important nesting site in the Western Indian Ocean region for the endangered Hawksbill Turtle.
So, due to this rather nondescript little bird, Cousin Island has been saved from the encroachment of tourism and is now classed as a ‘Special Reserve’ meaning the wildlife needs protection making all other activities subordinate to this. You cannot visit alone (tours are only allowed with a guide) and you’re not even allowed to moor up your boat for risk of some nasty little stowaway escaping out onto the island and wreaking havoc with the wildlife! Not a bad effort for a bird you wouldn’t even give a second look to.
Getting onto Cousin Island is an experience in itself. We’d booked a return trip to the Island with a boat tour company but they are only allowed to get you part of the way. To keep away rats or any other unwanted invasive creatures you might be harbouring. The boats moor up within view of the beach and then wait until an allotted time to be picked up by a taxi boat from the island. This ends up rather resembling a child’s football match at the park with one side on boats at the shore and the rest in the bay who are each hoping they are going to get picked first. I don’t like to brag but we did get picked first and were soon skimming our way towards the beach.
After getting our feet on dry land again there was a bit of waiting around to be done. Getting large groups of people from one set of boats via another set of boats onto an island is not a quick process. Being the first on essentially also meant we had to wait for the others. A lot of people had taken to Tripadvisor to air their frustration with the waiting around but I really can’t see why. Waiting around is part of travel, make the most of it, you’re never getting those minutes back in your life!
I filled the time wandering around the area close to the shelter which was just packed with wildlife. An island with no predators means two things; life that is both abundant but also no longer fearful. There were birds everywhere overpowering all the senses. Flashes of colour, the smell of guano, the din of squaking and chattering, the soft feel of the feathers that had dropped to the ground the taste of…. well actually eating them was positively discouraged so I was only really working 4 out of the 5 senses!
The most extraordinary part was the noise. It was what I imagined a primeval forest to be like – a world of animals with no human contact calling out to one another from tree to tree. It was loud and shrill enough to almost be uncomfortable to listen to – piercing like braking rusty wheels on an old train track – but also somehow melodic in tone resembling the challenging high notes of a soprano’s operatic solo.
By the time everyone had disembarked we had quite a group together. Briefings were given and we were separated off into three groups, two for English speakers and one for French. Even when broken down there was still alot of us, our group was about twenty five strong led by a sparky young guy called Chris. He was charismatic and entertaining but with a gentle tone of voice and fleeting eye contact that suggested someone who was masking over a naturally more introverted personality. He skilfully quietened down our troop with a quick raising of his voice and a couple of self-deprecating jokes. We were ready to go!
We followed the barefooted Chris into the forest. His eyes seemed to pick up everything – our first stop off being to have a look at a hermit crab he had seen rustling around in the leaf litter. His knowledge was brilliant but he also had a natural ability to handle the group. Working with the public can be hard – being a retailer I can attest to that – as you get a real mix of people and personalities thrown together.
Within the safety of a predatorless environment Cousin Island throws up some really unusual sights. The first of these were the tropicbirds so safe in their habitat they were nesting on the floor. It’s so abnormal to see birds on the ground like this that when the first chick popped its head up I naturally assumed it had fallen from the nest, not that this was actually the nest! They were settled in the rounded out stumps of old trees, sheltered behind fallen logs but often just left right out and exposed in the open. Every so often an adult would wisp in through the trees their elongated tail feathers following behind them exuding the elegance of a ballroom dancer’s dress. Their ivory feathers reflected what little light could make its way down through the trees giving the impression of almost luminescing light like a spirit escaping the earth.
For our next rare treat we were served up a Seychelles Magpie Robin. If the Seychelles Warbler was the bird that saved Cousin Island the Magpie Robin is now one of its real highlights. With less than 250 on the planet this island holds the largest population in the world at around 40. As with so many conservation good news stories, what is very rare from a global perspective can actually be very common locally. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of conservation groups in maintaining habitats these animals can thrive. Chris took us off into a small break in the trees and asked us to stay quiet whilst he cleared an area with his foot and whistled. He clearly speaks pretty good bird as within seconds we were joined by a Magpie Robin.
This little guy was clearly an entertainer and was completely unaware that he was meant to be playing the part of one of the rarest birds on earth. He was so common in this spot that the wardens had given him a name – Bob after Bob Marley – so named because the monitoring rings on his leg were the colours of the Jamaican flag! He was joined by his partner and then hopped around less than a metre in front of us. It was a rather bizarre experience. You expect moments like this to be had from a distance, a fleeting glimpse of one of the world’s rarest birds seen through binoculars 50 metres away. But here we were with one performing for us and completely comfortable in its environment. For me this is a testament to how safe they feel on the island. At their very lowest these birds were down to 23 in the world but now here we are seeing them starting to thrive again, albeit in a very limited range of places. It’s one of those success stories that makes even the coldest hearted of people optimistic and shows what can be done to save species like this on our beautiful planet.
Tropicbirds fighting over nest space
I just wish I could speak a bit of bird too, if so I think I I would have heard Bob singing the fitting words of his namesake:
Rise up this morning, smiled with the rising sun.
Three little birds, pitch by my doorstep.
Singing sweet songs, of melodies pure and true,
Singing, this is my message to you.
Don’t worry, ’bout a thing
‘Cos every little thing, is gonna be alright!
Cousin Island isn’t just for bird lovers. You’ll find everything from hermit crabs and skinks through to the Aldabra Giant Tortoise one of only two giant tortoise species in the world (the other’s on the Galapagos). If you’re incredibly lucky you may even get a glimpse of a Hawksbill Turtle but unfortunately the turtle gods weren’t smiling on us today. If that doesn’t get you then the stunning views from this immaculately preserved desert island might just do.
Worth the Trip?
So would I recommend Cousin Island as an excursion whilst you are on the Seychelles? Absolutely! When you read the reviews online there are two main criticisms levelled at it – one is the mosquitoes and the other is the expense. We didn’t see any signs of mosquitos on our trip, so got fairly lucky but it seems others have really struggled. Repellant is offered when you get there but we had come prepared with long trousers and t shirts if needed.
The second is the price. As always this is a personal decision but for me I don’t have a problem spending money when I know it is going to a good cause such as this. If you are travelling on a budget I recognise it might not be as simple as that but I personally would far rather pay an entrance fee for an incredible place like this than I would waste it on a 5* hotel and see it go back into a big business. It’s easy enough to save on accommodation costs and stay in somewhere like an AirBNB and then invest that money into great excursions like this that see the money go back into a project that is really deserving of it.
If you are at all interested in wildlife, conservation or just deserted paradise islands then I would say Cousin Island is an unmissable part of a trip to Seychelles.