Conflicting emotions in picture perfect Chagos.
Ahhhh, Chagos. All my life I will dream of Chagos. Most people do not even know where it is and to be honest neither did we, until we bought a boat and started to read about other sailors’ journeys around the world.
Chagos is a group of 7 atolls, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, below the Maldives. It has Seychelles and Madagascar to the west of it, and Sumatra to the east.
With the drama of the Maldivian lockdown wearing thin for us, we decided that with the opening of Seychelles now imminent, (June 1st for sailing vessels), it was time for us to leave for new horizons.
Chagos. A group of islands in the middle of the Indian ocean. Now uninhabited, but more on that later…
2 very organised and efficient days were spent in Hulhumale, the island connected by a bridge to the Maldivian capital of Malé.
It was a funny little anchorage/port. A walled in soup of seawater, filled with all the liveaboard boats, yachts, and other vessels that had stopped operation when Covid ruined everyone’s plans.
We were allowed to pull to the Jetty and have food delivered to us, which I had to organise through WhatsApp conversations with suppliers, photos being sent to me about goods and brands available. Some were as they sounded when delivered, others, like a lot of the fresh food, was not so good. But in times like this you take what you can get.
Everyone was stressed, every supplier suspicious and wary when at pick up, masks, gloves, the whole lot.
We were stocking up for 3 days at sea to Chagos, then 3 weeks in the Chagos archipelago, then a 1000 or so mile sail to the Seychelles capital of Victoria.
There was a LOT of food arriving on board…
The Captain always bemoans the amount of money I spend on food, but with 3 children who eat like whales, sucking everything into their mouths within their vicinity, it is always our biggest expense!
With the boat loaded, and I mean loaded – hundreds of litres of diesel, jerry cans full of petrol for the dinghy, and the food, we set off on what was meant to be a 3 to 4 day, relatively easy passage, looking at the weather routing.
The first day was amazing sailing in the shelter of all the islands that we were saying hello and goodbye to at the same time, seeing as we had not got the chance to stop at them with the strict restrictions enforced. Maldives had not been what we expected, in terns of freedoms, and covid had definitely not helped.
The seas were flat and the winds were full, meaning we were flying, miles slipping easily under us. It felt amazing and we hoped it would continue…
But then, haha, the joke was on us and we were thwarted.
We were tricked by a funky mini system that managed to build (basically around our boat) on the second day, bringing torrential rain and giant squalls that sucked any weather in the surrounding sea to them and then spat it all out on top of us.
Rough seas, due to the crazy wind in the squalls, and our favourite… current against us!! Serious current against us for several days, causing even rougher seas. Like a washing machine type of ocean. Delightful.
It was not the walk in the park we had expected.
We got messages on the Iridium from family, asking if we were OK, with the little red spinning circle of weather that was hovering over our position on our Predict Wind tracker.
Wet weather gear was worn, meals were basic and we battled on. It was not pretty.
Another boat who was doing the trip at the same time ended up having to pull into one of the lower Maldivian atolls as it was just too rough for them to keep going. They had breakages and it was just too unsafe for them.
Basically, it sucked.
On the morning of the 4th day, after slowing down that night when conditions calmed, we spotted land. Glorious land made all the more delicious after a rough sail!
The weather had calmed to large ocean rollers, that we glided across for the last few hours, while the sun poked its head out of the remaining clouds. We hovered around the outside of the atoll until the sun was sufficiently risen so we could pick our way through the reef. No sailor with a brain enters a new reef without good light. It’s boat-killing madness.
With the fishing lines out, hopeful for a bite after not being able to fish on the way down due to the weather, the Captain picked our way into the shallow pass in the reef.
All of a sudden the line was screaming and we were all shouting with excitement!
It was big! It was heavy. It was hard to get in.
Just as the monster of a fish rose to the surface, 2 drastic things happened….
The steering chain of the boat, which makes us go where we need to go, gave a huge BANG. Not a little bang, but a boat shuddering bang and we lost all steering.
And my fish got attacked by 4 or 5 black tip sharks, leaving me pulling in the head of the largest coral grouper we have ever seen.
With the breeze blowing us toward the reef, the fish head was thrown unceremoniously and still gasping, onto the deck while the emergency tiller was located and put to work.
Worst timing ever for this to happen, not that I guess there is ever a good time…
Our boat isn’t light. It may be fibreglass, and she weighs in at a light 10 Ton when empty. Yet we have filled her with a lot of things (mostly all that food, but add another 6 ton at least !!) and steering a 16+ ton vessel with a small, slippery metal pole, while sitting on the back steps, with limited view, add in not being able to see properly from the heavy rain squall that just appeared, while being directed by your Captain is not what I would choose to do as fun!
My right and left got mixed and the rain pierced into my eyes as we navigated across the coral filled lagoon, littered with boat eating, giant coral bombies!
What a trip!! With a poor gasping grouper head lying bleeding at my feet and the rain washing down my face, we made it slowly to the clear sand patch across the lagoon to finally anchor.
There is no better feeling than dropping the anchor after a passage, and even more so when you have been beaten up by the weather on the way.
The relief was palpable and as the rain slowly drifted away from us, the stunning scenery of where we had come to shone through.
It was like a magical dream.
It was glistening, and shiny.
It was all the shades of blues of the ocean and sky.
It was lush, tropical greens from the coconut palms stretching across the islands. The sound of the birds, fluttering white terns and majestic frigates, curious boobies circling our boat, wondering what this foreign visitor was doing disrupting their island paradise.
It was paradise. It was THE most beautiful place we have ever seen.
Chagos is a series of atolls, nestled in the Indian Ocean, with a giant American military base called Diego Garcia on one of them.
A little history lesson now…
Chagos was initially part of Mauritius in the 18th century,
Chagos was once home to local peoples until the British took over the sovereignty of the islands then later decided to remove all the inhabitants to create a giant marine reserve and military base.
Unfortunately the people were displaced between Mauritius, La Réunion and Seychelles. Not allowed to return to their homeland.
Originally the French were the first to claim the island group, back in the 1600’s, making it a part of Mauritius. They gave permits for plantations of coconut for copra and oil production.
In 1793 the first settlements were made, mainly of slaves to work the copra plantations. These people were later released from their servitude and made free peoples who continued to live on their islands they had been farming.
After Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, Chagos was governed by the Brits, who were also in control of Mauritius, which was at that stage, still a British Colony.
The British acquired the islands totally for themselves during the deals made when Mauritius gained its independence from them, in 1965, and they then created the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). They then made a deal with the Americans to lease an island, Diego Garcia, for them to build a military base. There was an option for a 50 year lease, with ability to extend it for another 50 years.
Between 1967 and 1973, the British forcefully removed the local peoples and sent them to Seychelles and Mauritius, where they were generally unaccepted into the communities and ended up living in less than ideal conditions, in countries that did not want them.
It was an unfair time for the Chagossians and still to this day there are lawsuits and disagreements from the original descendants of the islands, to be able to return and live there again.
The one thing the British did do, however, is to create one of the largest Marine Protected Areas in the world, where the thriving ecosystem is unharmed and unspoiled by humans. This has led to an incredibly diverse environment, which is hard-pressed to replicate anywhere else in the world.
The vast ocean is, by its geographical location, extremely isolated and then with no humans, aside from those at the military base on Diego Garcia, life flourishes in a natural and wild way.
The lack of human intervention and subsequent destruction that comes with it has made for a wild paradise.
But at a cost to the people who have been displaced.
People are only allowed to stop at these atolls if you are on a transiting yacht, heading across the Indian Ocean in need of rest stop to break up your trip. Heavily permitted and restricted to where you are even allowed to go, as some of the islands in the atolls are strict reserves, breeding grounds for vital seabirds and other creatures.
So it makes it a pretty crazy place for us to be able to visit.
Aquiring a permit is a long and drawn out process with many stipulations regarding vessel insurance particulars and evacuation coverage for all crew, plus a nice tidy fee per week you choose to rest there during your Indian Ocean transit.
You can have up to 4 weeks maximum, which we took, not knowing Covid would cut it short.
Luckily I started our application in January, and had been able to have our permit approved and issued, and our payment processed before BIOT decided to cancel the remaining in process permits due to Covid.
This was a real shame and we had 2 kid boats who we are travelling with have their permits revoked as their payment had not yet cleared. We were doing it solo. Which is nothing unusual to us, but sometimes friends are nice too.
There was not another living soul in the atoll with us. We were castaways with a home, exploring the islands and beaches that make up the Salomon Atoll.
The powdery white sand squeaked between our toes as we walked the beaches.
The bark of the coconut palms scuffed our hands and thighs as we climbed palm after palm for our new daily obsession of coconuts.
The crystal clear water lapped at our feet and swallowed us as we swam and played at the beaches.
Huts were built. Coconuts were drunk, husked and eaten as snacks on shore.
Beaches were wandered, marvelling at the array of hermit crab filled shells. Shells like none of us had seen before. All scuttling along the tide lines and climbing into the jungle behind.
Coconut crabs were watched going about their business of eating and sleeping. (kind of like our children’s favourite activities.) The size of them blew us away as we saw them wandering the interior of the islands and the beaches, ever in search of food.
Giant black frigate birds would dive bomb the friendly and curious boobies. Trying to steal their fish without getting their feathers wet. It’s a curious thing, a sea bird that cannot get its feathers wet! The Frigates chase the boobies until they drop their catch and they swoop in and collect it from the bewildered and harassed boobie.
The array of sea birds fluttered around our heads, seeing their new visitors up close, sometimes giving us a low pass overhead. Never shy, as we watched them in their daily activities. Nests were often low in trees giving us full view of their gorgeous plumage and sometimes, even their crazy fluffy chicks who were tucked up on beds of haphazardly placed sticks. We all decided it couldn’t be comfortable!
We had ever present shark friends who swam around the boat. Obviously over the years with the visiting yachts, they have learnt they can get a free meal off the back of a boat, so they were always there, between 5 and 8 of them. Black tips are usually pretty docile but we were not too keen to push our luck in case one got frisky while we were so far from medical treatments, so we mostly swam at the beaches.
This feeling was cemented when a 2.5 to 3m tiger shark came to check out the boat one day while we were all out the back! An incredible sight and we were lucky to see it, but that pretty much stopped any swimming off the boat apart from very quick dips to rinse the sand after the beach trips.
The fishing was always entertaining!
We were allowed to fish as part of the permit conditions, as long as it was just for us (as if there was anyone else to give it to!) and that we only took what we needed for 2 to 3 days of meals.
Fishing was easy. These poor fish have never seen a lure and it was almost instantaneous after putting the line while trawling in the dinghy, that we would have a hook up.
But then the trick was to get the fish in before the tax collectors came and took it from you! Those sharks are fast! Many times we lost a fish near the boat when a hungry shark pack decided to eat our dinner!
Many rainbow runners, skipjacks, trevally and giant sized groupers were eaten while there.
The Captain and Emelia had the funniest, or most outrageous, fishing experience of the lot.
They decided to trawl out at the pass one day, a 2 mile trip in the dinghy.
So off they sat, armed with a beer or 2 in the cool bag, 2 rods and some lures, plus the VHF should something be needed.
They were gone for maybe 30 minutes, when I heard a static filled call on the vhf, something about a shark and the dinghy coming up. I couldn’t really understand as our VHF ariel had been damaged on the rough trip down.
I could see them coming toward the boat, flying along at breakneck speed. But something didn’t look right….
As they arrived at the boat, with Emelia shrieking, and Chae telling me to pass over the lines to pull the dinghy up on, I saw the issue.
One side of it was almost completely deflated!
They had hooked a nice tuna, their 2nd fish of the outing and had it almost at the side of the boat when a shark decided it was his dinner instead. He grabbed the fish, but also got the lure in his mouth too. As the Captain was trying to remove it, the shark freaked out and trashed alongside the dinghy and took a bite…straight into the inflatable tube!
Air started to gush out and Emelia was less than happy, seeing all the fish blood in the bottom of the dinghy and thinking of her potential end at the mouth of the hungry sharks of Chagos! Our ever dramatic daughter was in hysterics by the time they got back to the mothership!
The Captain managed to repair our ‘car’ the next day, and while out of action it gave us a chance to paddleboard and kayak to the islands to explore.
All in all we spent 3 weeks exploring this incredible and vast wilderness and felt supremely blessed for being able to be there.
The kids surfed on waves that would come up when the tides changed. We wandered empty beaches and climbed on sand spits as they appeared at low tide. We swam in sheltered lagoons and when thirsty drank from the ever present coconuts, always the trusty machete at our side.
We wandered the islands, feeling a sense of overwhelming sadness that the people had been removed, but it was also tinged with a feeling of wonder at what happens to a place when no humans are allowed to live there and nature is given back control.
It left us feeling very conflicted for the whole situation.
For sure the area would not be as ecologically important and significant had humans been allowed to remain there.
The area is huge. The Chagos Archipelago measures 640,000 square km, that is twice the size of the UK’s land mass, or larger than France, or the state of California, to give you an idea of its vastness. That is a significant part of our world that has been allowed to be itself.
There are, without a doubt, species there in the underwater caverns and drop off ledges that science and man has yet to discover.
There are 371 species of coral, some endemic to the Chagos atols. There are 784 species of fish, along with manta rays, whale sharks, normal sharks and whales visit in season. Stocks of some fish that are almost depleted in neighbouring island nations are flourishing here.
17 types of seabirds nest here and make the area their home. Living in predator free conditions, aside from 2 islands where the humans once lived that house rats, the rest is safe for all birds and chicks.
We saw turtle tracks and nests where mothers had come up the beach in the night to lay their eggs. The tracks were as wide as Libby is tall, the biggest we have seen yet. No one to poach their eggs to eat or sell. No one to wreck their nests with inconsiderate behaviour. Just animals free to do what they were born to do.
One of the reef atolls there, The Great Chagos Bank, is the world’s largest coral atoll. This is an incredible place, and would it have been so had humans remained living there? Or would it be filled with airstrips and hotels, resorts stretching over the waters and depleting a vital part of the oceans fish and animals. As it is there is still illegal poaching and fishing that happens, which the BIOT team try to stop, as best as they can monitor an area that large.
Regardless of what is right or wrong, the place is magical. The environment is important and we were so very lucky to have been able to spend the time there.
It was the pinnacle of the trip so far. It was everything you could ever want in a tropical setting and I can fully understand how the original people would want to go back.
Finally we had to set sail from the top of the second atoll we were permitted to visit, after picture perfect days anchored in a channel between two islands.
There was a pandemic going on, after all, and we needed to get to the Seychelles to make sure we had a country to be cleared into while we waited out the next stage of the world’s ever changing health landscape.
It was with heavy hearts we lifted the anchor for the last time in the mighty Chagos Archipelago.
Forever it will be remembered by all 5 of us as perfect.