A report from Nature Seychelles’ International Volunteer Program
Nurse shark photo by Nick Graham
Seychelles, where is that? I vaguely remembered reading the name after ‘googling’ the world’s best dive destinations. I can safely say that after being here for the majority of two months, my knowledge of this tropical paradise, including its geography, Creol culture and cuisine, and most importantly Cousin Island, has since expanded.
So what would bring an aspiring young conservation biologist such as me here, to a tiny spec of land in the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean? While staying on Mahe, we were pushing to try and get some work experience before the academic year began in September. There was light at the end of the tunnel. We were invited by Nature Seychelles to go and stay on Cousin Island Special Reserve. Surely, we had struck gold.
The British Summer has just kicked off, and as my friends regale me with tales and photos of festival season over the internet, I wake up in the morning, walk outside the research house on Cousin and I am greeted with a pleasant breeze and a blissfully perfect 27 degree heat.
I step onto the pale white sands of the beach, look into the darkened water as it rips past, with Praslin as my reference point. I am starkly reminded that I really am in the middle of nowhere. I can’t help but imagine the big sharks swimming past beneath the surface.
Before jetting off from home, I thought it would be suitable to research the famous dive scene these granitic islands and coral reefs have to offer. All the way here and not dive? Sacrilege! Even on a student budget.
The Seychelles has so many sharks, and I’ve always wanted to see one! This could be the trip. Eager to learn more, and to increase my chances of getting that all important snap I took it upon myself to brush up on some Shark facts.
Cousin wardens surfing photo by Dailus Benoit
After talking to local divers, fishermen, boat crew, fellow volunteers, wardensand referring to various online news articles and biology text books, every source had a different story to tell about these supposedly fearsome creatures of the deep.
With information about what sort of sharks we could expect to find around the islands it seemed as though we had come to the right place, with white tips, nurse sharks, lemon sharks and guitar sharks to name a few possible on the list. Time to get snorkelling!
After attempting several spots on Mahe, and no sharks to be seen, it became my mission to witness one of these predators amongst the more favourable coastal environment of Cousin. Reports from Nature Seychelles’ various projects pointed to aggregations of sharks at one end of Cousin where they are protected by the marine reserve. Cousin Island Special Reserve has been a no-take fishing reserve for 40 years and all forms of marine life from sea cucumbers to large humphead parrotfish have been very well protected. But sharks are not sea cucumber- they are highly mobile. So would I see them near Cousin?
On the island I peered from the beach edge into the buoys in the distance - the warden explained that these marked the end of the parks marine reserve. As they bobbed amongst the rich plankton bloomed waters, it was obvious that this was our best chance of an encounter.
Apart from our volunteer tasks, snorkelling became a part of our daily routine but as the first two weeks passed there were no sharks to be found. The final week came around quickly, and so far I had seen and documented baby groupers, large parrot fish, puffer fish, tuna, turtles and eels in one the islands small lagoons, this was a treat but truthfully I was not satisfied.
An eagle ray photo by April Burt
During the second week, two new volunteers arrived on the island. On their first day they ventured to the lagoon and came back with the news of having spotted a lemon shark. They had two more sightings in the same week, this seemed a little unfair.
So, they were definitely around, maybe I should check out some of the dive spots. On my day off, I went and dove with ‘White Tip Divers’ the name seemed to fit the bill perfectly. On the boat to the site, a Pilot whale breached the water just before the boat moored up. This was exciting.
A swarm of eagle rays appeared alongside Napoleon wrasse and giant sting rays, an awesome spectacle, but where were the sharks? The second dive revealed the same, even though reef sharks were supposed to definitely be around. Where were these sub aquatic hunters, when there was so much to feast on?
With just a few days to see what Cousin has to offer I went back to the lagoon. Whilst I was busy taking a picture of a baby grouper, Ian jumped up and shouted that he spotted a Nurse shark. In my rush to swim over it disappeared. So close, but no cigar. The following excursion, he spotted a guitar shark.
Drinking my coffee on my final free morning, I saw six bottle nosed dolphins swimming above a reef in the reserve boundaries, they seemed to be feeding on something. Next up four eagle rays swam past, and finally amongst the waves a Nurse shark. Although this is not quite how I imagined it, it was a glimpse nonetheless. A wide smile spread across my face, it will have to do until next time on Cousin because I want to see the aggregation of sharks that I keep hearing about