Our journey to Middle camp took longer than I expected. The southeast monsoon wind has stirred the ocean and our 30ft boat feels very small on its surface, especially riding against the swell of the waves. Our departure was delayed an hour due to last minute technical difficulties – hard drives full with thousands of expedition images crashing and frantic efforts to ensure all images were backed up twice on working devices, and we left sometime after 14h00. Two and a half hours later we, together with all our gear, were deposited on the shores of Malabar and Gilbert, our new and most accommodating captain, promised to return in two days at 16h00 to pick us up.
A small wooden hut with a corrugated tin roof, a few bunk beds and a view over the Pass Houareau channel on one side and the lagoon on the other was our new home. Large Dracula shaped shadows zigzagged across the shore cast down from the soaring frigate birds ahead and the thick mangrove forests that edge the inner lagoon beckoned us to explore – we took to the place immediately; it felt wilder – more Aldabra somehow than anywhere else we had stayed on the Atoll.
Arriving on a high incoming tide gave us the opportunity for an afternoon and evening venture into the mangrove channels across the lagoon. For the first time I was seriously torn between donning fins or balancing on the boat to photograph the raucous of the frigate bird colony in the tall (Rhizpophora) mangrove canopy, which was already speckled with the white of nesting boobies. The different hues of the blue lagoon and the emerald green of the mangrove foliage glowed under that beautiful golden light that only appears in the hour before dusk. The lure of the drowned forest and the multitude of fish sheltering amongst its labyrinth of buttress and knee roots was too strong and I joined Tom and Dan underwater.
Mangroves are essential for the health of the ocean, provide a source of income for coastal people, and protect coastlines from erosion, surge storms, and tsunamis. They support a unique ecosystem and provide a habitat for a wide spectrum of animals, from adult and juvenile fish to sponges, crabs and shrimps. Shrimps use the muddy bottom as their home, and sadly mangrove forests all over the world have been totally destroyed, cleared for intensive prawn farms. (So think again when you see prawns on the menu.) Mangroves desperately need protection – in recent times over half of the world’s mangroves have been lost. Thankfully the mangrove forests here on Aldabra are protected and snorkeling in them with the sun percolating through the leaves and between the roots is a magical experience.
We motored back as darkness started to fall, pushing and pulling the boat over the sand flats in low water. Luckily sleep wasn’t a priority as the coconut crabs, which scratched their claws across the corrugated tin roof, screeching like nails down a chalkboard, all night was followed by a cracking tropical rain storm, and just as silence fell, dimorphic egrets catching insects started banging on the guttering during the early morning hours.