I am crammed among hundreds of fusiliers that have formed a string that meanders off into the far blue. Sam, the dive centre manager, AKA my model, is patiently hovering just above. I almost think I see him sigh as I angle and then re-angle the camera to frame what must be my 10th shot. My DS-Y2 strobes yield a burst of pure white light and before I can recompose, I am swept away, carried further along the Napoleon dive site by the slightest current. Out of what seems like nowhere, three majestic napoleon wrasse glide by ceremoniously, a little too fast for the drag opposing my DSLR. Later at the dive centre while rinsing our gear, I hint at Sam, “Guess where we’re diving tomorrow…?” Without a moment’s hesitation, he bellows “Napoleon!”
THE LIFE OF AN ALPHONSE ISLANDER
Alphonse is a small coral atoll 500km South of Mahé, about an hour’s flight time. Its iconic shape is that of a horse hoof print with the runway spanning the entire length of the island, right down the middle. Alphonse Atoll is part of a cluster of three small islands called the Amirantes group, comprising Bijoutier, St François Atoll and Alphonse Island. The envy of my friends, family and colleagues, there is something very flattering when confessing, “We are off to the Seychelles next week”. Eyes grow even wider when I continue, “Yes, we are going to a private island – I believe the diving is spectacular!”.
Little did I know how true my very own words were. The scenery – above and below – is breathtaking, and undeniably something to write home about. If you are not surrounded by the lush, green of the gardens, plantations and trees, or the fine, pure white of the tropical sand, you are lulled by the crystalline blue of the softly rolling Indian Ocean. Owing to the favourable location near the equator and outside of the cyclone belt, the weather is consistently warm with temperatures seldom dropping below 22°C. Although this outer island is the right destination to fully explore the sheer abundance of fish, the inner islands should not be overlooked when sojourning to the Seychelles, especially the likes of Mahé and Praslin.
DIVING ON A WHOLE NEW LEVEL
The fully kitted-out dive centre is an accredited 5* PADI Dive Resort with a full range of dive courses available on site. Run by Sam and Lucy, this centre is very organised and efficient. Sam is at the helm of the dive centre and other activities, and Lucy runs the reef expeditions as an instructor. Highly educated individuals, they have mounds of knowledge about marine life and the environment, both in and out of the water. The centre has two boats and gear for rent, including nitrox. There are so many dive sites to choose from for every level of diver, from simple reef dives on Tamatave Reef and House Reef, to wreck diving. Most of the sites are located around the entire island, while there are a few that Sam and Lucy like to venture to that are a little further away. Sam and Lucy have all their bases covered. Their operation is not only very professional, it is efficient. A typical morning goes like this: We arrive at the centre, and our kit is assembled and on the boat. Our wetsuits and booties are neatly folded on a dedicated tree stump that has been carved into a chair. Did I mention that they are dry? Fresh towels are on hand. Smiles are prevalent. My camera is safely loaded. I am one very happy diver…
The dive team go beyond the extra mile to ensure ease of diving, ultimate comfort and an exotic dive experience. Of all the sites, Napoleon was the one that blew me away. Between 16m and 25m, this raised reef is loved by photographers who can snap schools of emperors, fusiliers, snappers, jacks, potato groupers, napoleon wrasse and, if he will let you, your very own underwater model, Sam. The amount of fish is so large that it is almost as if you have come upon a huge, shimmering wall. Because the area is so remote and there are very few divers, the fish seem to form these massive shoals. I almost felt claustrophobic surrounded by all the fish; just a few neoprene-covered spots in a literal sea of scales. Most strikingly, the shoals of different species gracefully swim above and below one another, reminding me of a layered cake (though slightly more exotic). One particularly striking image was a sheet of blue fusiliers above a massive shoal of blue striped snappers. We also saw gigantic napoleon wrasses, sharks, turtles, dolphins and a veritable treasure trove of macro subjects. Michael and I were there during the time of year when the thermoclines are making their appearance and bringing nutrients to replenish marine life. The water temperature is usually 29-30°C, so we were happy in our 3mm suits. However, in between Alphonse and the nearby islands, there are deep gorges where cooler water constantly feeds in to the shallower warmer water. When these thermoclines come towards us, shining like an icy mirage in a desert, we would clench our jaws, knowing the iciness that was about to envelope us. I can tell you, when that cooler current hits you, you will never underestimate the need for a 5mm again. Do not fret though, because these thermoclines only last a few seconds and it soon feels like you are in a warm bath once again. We did a night dive on our very first evening on the island. To make this experience even better, the centre is kitted out with fluorescent diving equipment.
There is also the option of snorkelling with sailfish. With a skilled bluewater team that knows how to lure the sailfish, you will soon be swimming amongst these majestic gamefish. With the plethora of dive sites on Alphonse’s doorstep, we had only hoped to dive them all. Good luck to those who try, as they can expect to have a very full dive schedule or a very, very long holiday.
LUXURY AFTER A BUSY DAY’S DIVING
With an admirable activity offering, our days were filled to the brim. Besides a classy diving centre with a flexible diving schedule for the most discerning of divers, Alphonse has something for everyone. Along with swimming in the tropical ocean, you can snorkel, kayak, windsurf, take a sunset cruise, view dolphins, spot the giant tortoises (and the great tortoise, Ivan), visit colonies of nesting birds, try your hand at stand-up paddle boarding, as well as explore the reef flats. Keen anglers are accounted for with fly fishing, big game fishing and game fishing boats. If these are not to your taste, there are also walking, cycling and running paths all over the entire island. Every guest is armed with a bicycle as a means of transport. Due to the perfectly private distance between suites, bungalows, the restaurant and activity centre, a bicycle is a refreshing way to burn off those unwanted kilojoules after a hard day’s feasting. And to ease the “strain”, you can unwind at the spa. I must admit, we were so enthusiastically engulfed in the diving that I never made it to the spa, although it was my absolute intent. The resort is, in a word, magnificent. The private beaches are truly peaceful – every suite or bungalow has a sea view and access to the beach. Being seduced with candlelit dinners under the stars, I could not shake the feeling that I was an adventure-seeking protagonist in a romantic novel.
Although, I would be a fat protagonist: Delectable food is offered at every meal, with fresh fish and a delicious array of creole and international dishes prepared by gourmet chefs. About 50% of all the food consumed on Alphonse is generated from the island itself. There is a full vegetable garden and dedicated team, meaning that the astounding variety of fresh fruit and vegetables is homegrown. The overall offering is second to none. If you are looking for a true adventure, to fall in love, revive the taste buds, embark on an enticing diving adventure or to just breathe, you may have found your spot. After a week of pure diving bliss and topside scenery that left us in awe, Michael and I were transferred back to Mahé Island for our final night in the Seychelles. After a sumptuous meal and a refreshing night’s rest, we boarded our Air Seychelles flights back to OR Tambo International Airport. We look forward to visiting paradise again with the exceptional team who have boundless enthusiasm in their desire to make everyone feel like a VIP. This was an experience that cannot be conveyed in words, so Michael and I strongly encourage you to consider a holiday to the Seychelles.
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