This blog is about Bird Island, the most northerly island in the Seychelles. It has been described as a paradise with too many palm trees – read on to find out why.
Earlier this year I wrote a blog on Moyenne Island, also in the Seychelles, which has become a national park. Both islands are tiny specs in the Indian Ocean but their stories are fascinating and, most definitely, they are candidates for “Bucket List” visits.
Moyenne Island was bought by Brendon Grimshaw for US$8,000 in 1962. He kept it pristine and isolated despite offers of up to US50 million to sell. Eventually, he worked with the Seychelles government to turn it into a national park before he died in 2012. The story of Bird Island is no less compelling.
Bird Island is the northern tip of the Seychelles’ 115-island archipelago. It sits on the outer rim of the vast, undersea Mascarene Plateau, an extraordinary uplift of mid-ocean shallow water that covers an area larger than Portugal. The plateau begins at Bird Island and continues south for 2,000km. To the north of Bird Island, the Indian Ocean is deep, wide and uninterrupted by any landfall all the way to the Arabian Peninsula. Bird Island itself is barely 1 square kilometer of land.
Bird Island’s geography alone makes its story worth telling but, in the past half-century, it tells a story of natural renewal almost without peer in the world of birds. And it all has to do with a contradiction: Bird Island was a tropical paradise with too many palm trees.
Bird Island first entered the historical record in 1771 when the captain of a passing trading ship, The Eagle, described the island as “covered with birds innumerable” and with “many sea cows (dugongs) on the beach”. Thirty-seven years later, in 1808, the French privateering ship Hirondelle ran aground on a reef off Bird’s north-eastern coast. Half of the 180 people on board died; the other half made it to land.
They survived, in part, because it was September, when the island is filled with birds, which they caught and ate. Even so, after 22 days, with limited water and with no prospect of rescue, six of the sailors set out on a makeshift raft for Mahé, the largest island in the Seychelles archipelago 100km south of Bird, and the shipwreck survivors were subsequently saved.
The Island then had a speckled history for the next 150 years involving small farmers and, eventually, groves of palm trees that produced copra (dried coconut).
In 1967, a Seychellois accountant named Guy Savy bought the island. “We ran it as a normal coconut plantation,” said Savy, “until it became clear that there was more money in birds than in coconuts – wildlife tourism was the future.”
Gambling on wildlife tourism over coconuts was a pioneering move and Bird Island was the first of Seychelles’ smaller islands to go down that path.
When Savy bought the island, there were 15,000 nesting pairs of Sooty Terns – sleek, black-winged birds with a black eye stripe.
Sooty Terns are remarkable birds. They have no oil in their feathers and are, therefore, unable to float. Most Sooty Terns only land when nesting and rearing their young. “Between seasons, they spend the whole time on the wing: they do not return to land to roost or to rest,” said Rachel Bristol, an expert in the birds. “They obviously do sleep, but they probably sleep for short bursts frequently while flying, and may be able to shut down the two halves of the brain separately so that they are always aware of what is around them.” Just as incredibly, she said, “they can clearly spend years airborne: when they fledge, they possibly do not return to land until they reach breeding age, which is around five years old.”
Savy discovered that, because Sooty Terns need open, sandy soil on which to lay their eggs, they could not nest beneath the coconut palm trees. Hence, paradise with too many palm trees. Savy cleared the coconut trees from the island’s north
Almost immediately, the Sooty Terns returned: In season, there are now an estimated 350,000 breeding pairs, although the number has reached 500,000 in the past. Bird Island is now one of the world’s largest bird breeding colonies.
However, Savy initially faced another major problem in his design for wildlife tourism. The only way to reach the Island was on a monthly ship from Mumbai, India, or Mombasa, Kenya which docked in the big Island of Mahé. The trip from Mahé to Bird involved a 12-hour boat ride. Wildlife tourists may be intrepid, but that was a journey too far.
In 1972, Seychelles finally got its first international airport. By the time it opened, Savy had finished Bird Island’s own airstrip in readiness. The following year, the island welcomed its first tourists with 10 chalets, rising to 24 a few years later. Savy completed a new lodge in 1993.
If you are considering a “Bucket List” trip, Sooty Terns are not the only attraction. Visitors to the island fall in love with Esmeralda: a giant male Aldabra tortoise nearly 2 meters long. He entered the Guinness Book of Records in 1989 as the world’s heaviest tortoise, weighing in at 298kg. According to local legend, Esmeralda was born in the 1780s and arrived on Bird Island aboard the shipwrecked Hirondelle in 1808. If true, that would make Esmeralda nearly 220 years old, meaning he has been alive for almost as long as there have been people living in Seychelles. You can also see green and hawksbill turtles, as well as the 23 other giant tortoises who live on the island. But the real focus is the birds.
Unlike other Seychelles islands, which have exclusive, luxury resorts, Savy and his team have gone for simplicity. There is in-room electricity and wifi, for example, but ocean breezes flood the rooms instead of air-conditioning.
“We’ve always tried to keep things simple,” said Savy. “It’s a back-to-nature experience. We don’t compromise on that. We’ve never disturbed the island. We leave it alone and see what happens to it.”