Paradise saved

In 2020, the government of the Seychelles designated the waters around D’Arros Island a Marine Protected Area, thereby protecting many keystone species and restoring important habitats. What ingredients went into this conservation win? And what lessons can other nations learn from this model to apply to their own waters?

Words by Lauren De Vos
Photographs by Shane Gross

Somewhere in the Seychelles, an undersea symphony is playing. The tide’s ebb and flow beat the percussion as endangered green and critically endangered hawksbill turtles haul themselves beachward to secrete their eggs in the sand. Ghost crabs scuttle shoreward and are plucked by seabirds that soar octaves above. In the mangrove roots that tangle like wayward staves, sicklefin lemon and blacktip reef shark pups are gifted a nursery where they can grow large and strong. Reef manta rays dance across the corals that house humphead wrasse and gobies, butterflyfish and pipefish. D’Arros Island and St Joseph Atoll stand out as small but hopeful havens, a protected sanctuary in the Seychelles’ far-flung Outer Islands. It is a near-pristine refuge crammed with life, a living laboratory that shows us what the ocean might look like if we give it space to play its own tune.

“What always strikes me is the sheer abundance and diversity of life in an area so small,” says Dr Robert Bullock. “That alone is one of the most important factors for defining this place as special.” As the research director at the Save Our Seas Foundation D’Arros Research Centre (SOSF-DRC), Robert tries to understand what sets this site apart – and what we stand to lose if we don’t protect it. He is part of a team that implements conservation-oriented research and monitoring on the island. It is a mandate handed down when the Save Our Seas Foundation (SOSF) assumed stewardship of the island in 2012 and shaped the vision of the SOSF-DRC, formed under the island’s private ownership in 2004.

D’Arros Island is small. So small that you could stroll around its oval perimeter in less than two hours. Neighbouring St Joseph Atoll is a ring of 16 islands on a shallow reef flat that surrounds a 3.5-kilometre-long lagoon. “There are many places in the world where you can enjoy a day’s incredible diving, but you return the following day to nothing,” says Dr James Lea, the CEO of the SOSF and a marine biologist who has spent countless hours tracking sharks here. “It’s unpredictable. It’s patchy. D’Arros and St Joseph are remarkable for their density and consistency of life.”

The rich biodiversity is underscored by an array of habitats that create a variety of living conditions. “There is seagrass habitat, lagoon habitat, shallow coral reef habitat, deep pelagic habitat – all right on top of each other,” says James. D’Arros and St Joseph are separated by a channel one kilometre wide and 70 metres deep. This natural divide notwithstanding, they are considered one ecological unit. St Joseph is one of only six atolls in the Seychelles and the only one to be considered fully enclosed. “There are reefs on the northern side of D’Arros where the crest slopes down steeply to about 20 metres and then goes onto the Amirantes Bank. The upwelling pattern here is different from the one to the south, with its more gradual slope,” says Robert as he sketches out the undersea landscape with his hands, spreading them wide as he explains. “We’re sitting on the Amirantes Bank, which is this huge space of shallow water with expanses of sea grass to the north and south, which are in themselves massive ecosystems connected to everything here. We’ve got dolphins and whales offshore that are almost certainly bringing nutrients to this system through their faeces. As are the sharks, turtles and seabirds. They all live in different habitats, but carry important resources as they move around.”

“It’s a wild place,” remarks photographer Shane Gross, who was on a shoot supported by the Save our Seas Foundation Ocean Storytelling Photography Grant. Its inaccessibility (D’Arros lies 45 kilometres from the paths of commercial flights that land on Desroches Island) has kept this region relatively pristine and ecologically functional. “The blacktip reef sharks here kept a solid two to three metres from me,” explains Shane, who captured the elements that distinguish this place and underscore its protected status. “We see many images of sharks bumping into the camera’s dome port, but those are from sites where sharks are used to humans being in the water,” he adds. There is value in the variety of habitats, the biodiversity and the abundance of life at D’Arros and St Joseph. But there is something more intangible: a magical sense of place that strengthened the impetus to achieve its protection.

Photography has landed Shane in other beautiful places before, “but this time, as the plane lifted into the sky when I left, I had a deep sense that I’d likely never see such a special place again in my life”. For James, whose research helped inform the protection of the island and atoll, “it’s the one place on earth where I feel I can be fully present. The abundance and diversity of life is so commanding, the rest of the world ceases to exist.”

In an ocean of priorities, demonstrating the value of D’Arros and St Joseph to environmental health and livelihoods in the Seychelles is essential to motivating for protection. In the 12 years since the SOSF-DRC began operating under the SOSF’s research vision, rapid biodiversity surveys have recorded 514 marine species from 17 different families. The species recorded here make up almost two-thirds of all reef-associated creatures ever documented in the Seychelles. D’Arros is a lifeboat for species of conservation concern, where 15 of the IUCN’s Red Listed species have been recorded. Among them is the Endangered humphead wrasse, which can reach 1.8 metres long and weigh more than 180 kilograms. Research suggests that the coral reefs of D’Arros provide a rare refuge for this valuable and vulnerable fish in the Indian Ocean. Scientists have discovered 22 new records for the Seychelles (16 of them fish) and one species – the Daly’s dwarf goby – that was new to science.

But none of this was demonstrable in 2012. “Our first port of call,” recalls James, “was to ask questions about our specific focus area: sharks and rays. There was longstanding research on turtles on the island, but we asked which elasmobranchs were living there and where were they moving?” The intention was to establish baseline information to inform a conservation plan to create a Marine Protected Area and build long-term monitoring programmes. The research would help to demonstrate not only which species use the site, but how they use it and why.

Photographs by Shane Gross

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Issue 37
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This feature appears in ISSUE 37: WILD ALASKA of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue 37
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Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_thrudark

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