The Fairytale Islands of the Indian Ocean

Story & Photos by DIANE SELKIRK

Article originally featured in YTM #21 issue - Winter 2015

By the time the moray eel treed me, our walk around the small island had already proven wilder than expected. It had slithered out of the water while chasing a fast-moving crab up the coral beach when it came after my toe. So, I scrambled off the beach and onto a palm tree trunk. Losing sight of my tasty toe, the eel decided  to settle for the crab. As I watched it dine, I went back to contemplating my way forward: through thigh deep water over slippery coral, or back inland through dense bush.

My friend Behan and I had set out on a morning beach stroll to check out a fishing boat wreck at one end of Ile Takamaka in the Salomon atoll in the Chagos archipelago. Along the way, we’d hoped to bird watch and maybe catch site of some of the feral roosters we heard crowing each morning. Fowl is a bit of a mystery here—we have no idea how it survived (and seemingly thrived) in the nearly 50 years since the local human population was expelled. But midway through our walk, while we were captivated by a pair of tropicbirds, the tide started to rise and our gentle meanderings turned into an expedition.

For yachties, the Salomon atoll is a fabled Indian Ocean stop. It’s found in the northern part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), a huge region that encompasses six atolls and over 1,000 islands. Off most people’s radar, the best known island in the territory is found 100 miles south: Diego Garcia,  a US Naval base which rose to infamy when it was identified as a possible CIA black site.

These days it takes proof of medical evacuation and wreck removal insurance, as well as a hefty fee to get a 28-day yacht permit. But in previous years cruising boats were able to stay in Chagos for months on end. The crews traveled between fair weather anchorages like the one at Ile Takamaka with its lush bird life, dolphins and manta rays, and the old settlement on Boddam Island, with its wells, once-flourishing gardens and orchards. Each week, or so, the BIOT boat would stop by to collect garbage and a token payment. All that was required of the cruising boats was an adventurous spirit and a measure of self-sufficiency.

While 28 days is not an unlimited stay, it’s still a better deal than the one the Chagossians got. In the 1960s Britain and the US made an unsavory arrangement to ‘sterilize’ the islands and build the base at Diego Garcia. Over the next decade, the 2000-2500 islanders, who started off in the 1790‘s as slave workers for the coconut plantations and went on to develop a unique and permanent culture, were removed.

Some had journeyed the 1200 miles to Mauritius for healthcare, or an annual shopping expedition, only to discover that when it came time to return to Chagos they were abandoned on the docks. They were told that there was no boat available and they couldn’t return home. Ever. Others were slowly forced out. The plantations were closed, cutting off their jobs. The flow of goods into the stores was halted, the shop shelves grew empty, church attendance dropped and the schools were closed. A boat arrived and the last of the local population was herded aboard. The Chagossians were then taken to the Seychelles or Mauritius where they’ve been fighting legal battles for their return ever since.

It’s a strange thing to be permitted to use the nation of exiled people as your personal tropical playground. While the Chagossians are waiting to see what will happen with their claims, we make our way around Takamaka  scrambling over logs and wading through the thigh-deep ocean,  struck by the richness of the place. Each tidal pool held a treasure: a shark nursery full of newborn black tip reef sharks, a lagoon with a half dozen turtles and dazzling turquoise parrot fish that darted in and out of the shallows. Each tree held dozens of seabird nests with boobie babies, terns, noddies and frigate birds that soared high overhead.

As the waves churned higher, we headed into the island’s interior. Even with sturdy shoes and a machete, it’s hard to transverse the islands—the foliage is dense and often impenetrable. There are coconut crabs that are big enough to hunt rats.  But  there are also gorgeous old banyan trees and mysterious open groves that must’ve once been part of the workings of the island. In several places, we found old bottles and, once, the broken globe of an old glass fishing float. Several times we came back out to the beach with its red and blue coral rubble under foot and in the distance we could see our boats. But, then, the shore would recede into deep current churned waters and we’d need to plunge back into the jungle.

A few hours after we started our hike around Takamaka, we scrambled back into the dinghy and headed home to the boats. Even before washing the sand off my feet, I started planning my next adventure. It’s been a long time since we last had the option to stay in one anchorage until we became tired of it. Unlike the forced stops, where we’ve waited for weather or boat parts—we stayed in Chagos because it’s one of those places that people literally sail around the world to reach. There’s the tragic history which gives it an air of gravity and importance. So, if sailors stopped coming and stopped sharing the story of Chagos, the Chagossians  would lose one more voice in their fight for justice. But mostly we were visiting for the simple lush beauty.  This is as unspoiled a tropical paradise as it gets.

In 2010, a marine protected area (MPA) was created to cover the territorial waters of the Chagos Archipelago. The reason for its creation was in part a somewhat shrewd one: the environmental no take zone acts as yet another hurdle to stop the return of the Chagossian people. The positive result, though, is a rebounding of fish, shark and seabird populations and a reef that’s considered one of the most pristine in the world.

On one snorkel, we were treated to a long and leisurely swim with a turtle as well as the puppy-like attention of a young and curious black tipped reef shark. As our daughter Maia swam and dove with the turtle, which circled back again and again rather than speeding off, we were  mesmerized by the color around us: fluorescent lime green, pink, purple and blue corals sprouted like wildflowers across the seafloor, each one a more extraordinary shade than the last. 

We’ve seen the aftermath of coral bleaching many times in our travels—it appears as stark white coral that has crumbled or is covered by algae and seaweed. But this short-lived first step of bleaching, which occurs after the coral animals expel their algal cells (zooxanthellae) which usually live in their tissue—is less well known. To better understand what was happening and report what we were seeing, I contacted the BIOT who informed me  that in healthy coral the algae are pigmented from the chlorophyll they use for photosynthesis, giving most of them a dark green, brown, beige or yellow color. But when the algae are expelled, the coral’s white limestone skeleton becomes visible. And for a brief time a coral with fluorescent pigments may appear lime green, purple, pink, red or blue.

Marine researchers were in the BIOT in March and April of 2015. During their first voyage in April, their reports were extremely positive—there was no sign of the bleaching event that’s been sweeping through the Pacific, and water temperatures were a healthy 25-29° C. But by late April, sea temperatures had risen to 30-31° C (which is enough to stress the coral) and a warming and bleaching event was underway. By June, when we were there, the coral was psychedelic-hued and only time would tell how much of the reef would survive.

Back on Ile Boddam, on one of our final days, we used a machete to cut our way through the jungle, searching out the old town’s crumbled cottages, abandoned school and ruined church. Chagos may seem as far from the troubles of the world as you can get, but even as we revelled in its beauty it was impossible not to appreciate how fragile it is. At one point, on our walk we found the old path into the graveyard. Time has rubbed away the inscriptions from almost all of the grave stones but, as I stood in that peaceful place, it seemed fitting to make a pledge to share the story of Chagos.

Learn more about the Chagossians:

More information about visiting the BIOT:

Additional information on the Marine Protected Area: