Journey to the Western Indian Ocean

22 March 2014 The Western Indian Ocean is home to an abundance of remote islands and underwater habitats. These are some of the last remaining pristine marine wildernesses on the planet. In the month of April, the Save Our Seas Foundation will be celebrating these incredible places, examining the threats that they face and exploring diverse efforts to protect them. ALL PHOTOGRAPHS BY THOMAS P. PESCHAK
The Western Indian Ocean is home to an abundance of remote islands and underwater habitats. These are some of the last remaining pristine marine wildernesses on the planet. In the month of April, the Save Our Seas Foundation will be celebrating these incredible places, examining the threats that they face and exploring diverse efforts to protect them. ALL PHOTOGRAPHS BY THOMAS P. PESCHAK

Save Our Seas Foundation’s (SOSF) director of conservation Thomas P. Peschak always dreamed of a perfect marine wilderness. After two decades as a marine biologist and photographer, he finally found himself in an aquatic Garden of Eden. As part of an SOSF expedition into a remote section of the Western Indian Ocean, he journeyed to two tiny French territories hundreds of kilometres from the nearest continent: Bassas da India and Europa Atoll. Thomas’s photographs of these incredible environments appear in this month’s issue of National Geographic Magazine.

For centuries Djibouti’s Afar people have told stories of a large creature living in the “Pit of Demons.” True marine monsters are unlikely to roam the seawater loch, but whale sharks occasionally venture up this fjord-like passage. [PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS P. PESCHAK]

Recalibrate your senses: your skin is submerged in 30-degree tropical water, your mouth and nostrils are tinged with salt and your ears are filled with the swoosh of highly energised surf and the screams of seabirds. Now push your face into the warm and infinite inky blue.

You are staring down into a silent, constantly fluctuating discotheque. The crisscrossing shafts of sunlight obscure your peripheral vision and propel you deeper. Finally, beyond the reach of the hallowed beams, you stop and turn in a slow circle. Your lines of vision are punctuated by leisurely gliding full stops: turtles swimming up sunbeams towards their next gulp of oxygen. Below you a torpedo-shaped tiger shark is flicking its tail slowly against the current. Breathe gently and let your heart rate slow. You have descended into a time warp where nature is barely aware of human existence.

The region known as the Western Indian Ocean extends northward from the KwaZulu-Natal coast in South Africa to the southern coast of Somalia and encompasses the islands of Madagascar, Comoros, Réunion, Mauritius and the Seychelles. It is only in the past 40 years that scientists have been exploring the region’s abundant marine biodiversity. Studies suggest that the area is home to more than 10,000 species (of which 2,200 are fish) and many of these are found nowhere else in the world.

The region is also home to an immense human population. It is estimated that 60 million of these people live within 100 kilometres of the coast and are almost entirely dependent upon the ocean as a source of protein and income.

The significance of a pristine wilderness is about far more than satisfying a nature junkie’s fantasy. These optimally functioning ecosystems allow us to witness what the world might have looked like before the onslaught of the anthropogenic pressures that threaten our oceans today. By observing these areas, researchers can create a benchmark for conservation efforts in other places. What’s more, the relatively intact biodiversity of these wildernesses makes them ideal sites for the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs), the best example of which is Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles.

While some parts of the region are examples of the healthiest marine ecosystems on earth, others are under extreme pressure from the threats experienced by ocean environments all over the world: overfishing, climate change, habitat destruction and predator loss. Scientists have pointed out that we are not fully aware of the extent of the Western Indian Ocean’s biological wealth – or the rate at which it is disappearing.

During its first decade the Save Our Seas Foundation has supported a plethora of projects in the Western Indian Ocean, from acoustic tracking along South Africa’s north-eastern coastline to turtle conservation and environmental education in the Seychelles. Over the next few weeks, under the guidance of SOSF scientists, we will be exploring the region’s incredible natural abundance, the threats that it faces and the work that is being done to preserve it.

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Introduction

The threats

Looking to the future