Farquhar pronounced phar-kwar. The name conjures up perhaps a fashion designer of questionable sexual orientation as in "The fall Farquhar collection is a yummy mix of tans and browns." Or a Farquhar might be a newly discovered subatomic particle as in, " Scientific American reports that the discovery of farquhars and quarks has fundamentally changed how we view the origins of the universe." But Farquhar is neither a Paris label nor a term from a physics textbook. Farquhar is an atoll in the Seychelles named after Sir Robert Farquhar, the governor of Mauritius at the time of its naming. The name Farquhar may not roll off the tongue as easily as some of the other atolls in the Seychelles like Cosmoledo, Le Bijoutier or Aldabra, but make no mistake, Farquhar is one of the most beautiful coral atolls on earth.
Isolated, remote and infrequently visited, Farquhar is closer to Madagascar than it is to the Seychelles' capitol island of Mahe making it a difficult and expensive atoll to reach. After hearing some stories many years ago about Farquhar from Martin Lewis, the captain of the Tam Tam who had originally explored Alphonse and St. Francoise Atolls, we had been wanting to explore Farquhar. We decided it was now or never. Farquhar is a maze of flats, channels, canals and coral heads and is endlessly recharged by three major cuts that feed fresh seawater into a huge inner lagoon. Shallow reefs and rocky ridges divide the lagoon into three smaller lagoons that get progressively more wild the further you travel from the small settlement on the north island which is carved out of the atoll's only substantial landmass.
As the life-giving tide pushes in through the cuts and floods the atoll's interior, bonefish, trevally, milkfish, triggerfish and Indio-Pacific permit take up their appropriate positions whether it be between endless sandbars and grass flats or around hidden motus or on the edges on deep drop-offs. The habitat of Farquhar is extensive, complex and superb. Unfortunately, on our trip, we had a tropical depression perched just above us and a high stalled just below and to the east of us. These two opposing forces generated constant winds that dogged us always and left us with a backdrop of a tortured sky. Sunshine was not a given. On many days, the winds cooled the flats forcing the bonefish to forage in slightly deeper water and the sea conditions made it difficult to get to the best sites to ambush trevally. Let's face it, our weather sucked! It is a testament to the quality of the Seychelles in general and Farquhar Atoll specifically that we still had a great week.
Our best bonefishing was found on both sides of the low tide. When we had sun and proper bonefishing conditions, our bonefishing was often stupendous. I had three 20+ fish days in spite of the bad weather! Our average bonefish was 3-4 lbs. and we caught fish up to 9 or 10 lbs. with many in the 6-7 lb. range. On the days that we had some extended periods of sunshine, the flats heated up and so did the bonefishing. At times like this, the bonefish would come into very shallow water often cruising the beaches with their dorsal and tail fins completely out of the water. This was great fishing as we walked the beaches and made casts without ever getting into the water. If the sunshine hadn't had sufficient time to warm the flats and the waters succumbed to the constant 20-35 mph winds, we would find bonefish in 3-6 feet of pale aquamarine water. Not ideal, but still possible if you really concentrated and worked hard to see them.
On our first day, after an excellent morning of bonefishing, half of our group chose to eat lunch on the MV Illusions. While waiting for our cook, Linda, to whip up another great meal, someone noticed that a large barracuda had taken up residence off the stern of the catamaran. They tried to catch him with big deceivers, but he was too wary. The only way they could get him to pay any attention at all was to spray water from the boat's hose onto the water's surface. Then, the big 'cuda would charge the splash no doubt following the dictates of a primitive brain that interpreted the water to be baitfish popping on the surface. Eventually, lunch was ready and the group decided to try the 'cuda again that evening perhaps after some "priming" with live chum.
We made the trip across to the lagoon on two separate days to visit a small cay that Chris (the captain of the MV Illusions) had dubbed "Rats and Mice". This was a drop-dead beautiful spot, but we also knew we would pay for our pleasure by running directly into the wind and chop on the way home. We had some great bonefishing in this area both on the flats out near the atoll's rim where big bones prowled in the surf and also to big schools that hovered near shore and refused to leave no matter how many we caught from their midst. This is a spot I would like to further explore, as the flats were too big to learn in the short time we had there.
While our trevally fishing was disappointing due to the high winds and weather, we had great fun trolling with conventional tackle and dragged flies in the three lagoons. Entertaining for sure, but also a wonderful way to provide Linda, our cook, with a fresh catch thus insuring another delicious dinner. Our fish of choice was babon grouper, but we also caught bluefin and giant trevally, bawa snappers, Capitan Rouge emperors and one strikingly beautiful Napoleon wrasse. On the days that we trolled a bit, we managed to successfully wind our way through the maze of coral heads, which were a potential nightmare if you couldn't read water. We went well into the far reaches of the third lagoon. This lagoon is huge and the potential seemingly endless. Flats, reefs, channels and small cays demand further exploration and as Guy Gardiner, our New Zealand compatriot, said on our last day, "I feel I have unfinished business with Farquhar."
That evening, tired from the day's explorations, we peeled sunglasses off sunscreen-encrusted ears and happily pulled off our flats booties and wet wading pants. While some sipped on their first Seybrew, the national beer of the Seychelles, others took their turn at the stern to dangle feet in the cool lagoon water and rinse sand out of booties and sox in preparation for the morrow's resumption of piscatorial pleasures.
Eventually, all the booties had been cleaned, rods and reels had been rinsed and wet gear had been hung out to dry. Before leaving the aft deck on the way to hot showers and bit of relaxation before dinner, we all lingered, still energized from the day's activities. As we sucked down the last of our beers, Chris, our 6' 4" South African captain (an ex-policeman who has size 15 feet and had built the MV Illusions with his own huge hands) stepped onto the port Zodiac's starboard pontoon. Chris paused with his non-weight bearing foot resting against the side of the chamber. I was on the MV Illusion's starboard stern steps picking up the last of my rinsed gear just as all hell broke loose and our world changed from the relaxation that comes at the end of a day of fishing to sheer, stomach turning chaos...
I heard a series of piercing screams and looked up to see Chris sprawled on the floor of the Zodiac clutching his leg. I thought he had slipped on the Zodiac's wet chamber and fallen. Then, I saw the blood. This is not good... I immediately thought compound fracture given the amount of pain he was experiencing. I thought air evac; I instinctively went to emergency mode... I dropped my wet gear, dashed up the stairs and rushed over to the Zodiac. That was when I heard Chris yell, "'Cuda!" My heart sank. I had seen four 'cudas bites in my time. They had always occurred in very shallow water usually with people running on sandy flats. These were all cases of mistaken identity on the part of the 'cuda and it doesn't take much to imagine what a 'cuda sees when someone is running in very shallow water. A mistake or not, these wounds were serious and given where we were right now, I feared the worse for Chris.
Although this was not a good day for Chris, it was in many ways, his lucky day... for with five doctors on board, pressure was immediately applied to his elevated leg. Doctors Larry Towning, Craig Johnston, Guy Gardiner and Steve Peskoe organized the appropriate first aid with Larry taking the point on the pressure team. Chris was out for a short time and shockey when he came to. His face was ashen and he was confused. When he finally regained his faculties, he started barking orders. Larry, a surgeon from Ohio, told Chris he was no longer in charge and that his only job was to relax and let the docs do their work... and they were masterful.
While Larry and Craig stabilized the patient in the dingy, Guy and Steve Peskoe set up an operating room in the salon. At Angling Destinations' request, Larry had brought a superb medical kit including sutures and Novocain. This was laid out and under the auxiliary lights of large battery powered flashlights and Chris was brought from the dingy into OR #1. Larry was to be the lead surgeon with Guy, Craig and Steve assisting. The numerous rips and tears from the 'cuda's razor sharp teeth were at first irrigated and cleaned and then examined for tendon or bone damage. Then it was time to stitch our captain up. Larry did the job you would expect from a highly skilled maxillofacial surgeon. Chris' stitches were beautiful and with that done, the next step was to deal with infection, which was potentially more serious than the injury itself. The doctors conferred, proper antibiotics and dosages were prescribed and Chris was sent off to bed. The next 48 hours would be crucial and he would be monitored carefully. If any infection developed, we would immediately air-evac Chris to Mahe. In the meantime, I was promoted from fisherman and host to skiff captain and guide...
In the evenings, after yet another great meal, we often retired to the aft deck for cigars and a glass of port. After glasses were splashed and Cohibas were glowing, we usually grabbed spinning rods and jigged with bait in 20 feet of clear Indian Ocean water. This was great fun and provided an often hilarious and entertaining end to our day. We caught grouper, snapper, emperors and trevally. It was fun to watch the Midwest boys grapple with these ocean fish. A 10 lb. babon grouper, bawa snapper or Capitan Rouge emperor can be a shock to the uninitiated. With laughing eyes and barely suppressed giggles, we either fought fish or offered advice and inappropriate comments. These little brutes schooled many in our group on the concept of strength-to-weight ratio. We landed a lot of fish in the 6-15 lb range, but also lost a lot of gear on bigger fish that we simply had no chance to stop. These big bruisers just stopped by to take a jig and teach us a lesson. We did catch one 10 lb. babon grouper that when cleaned, had a jig that we had lost the night before in his stomach. We not only got dinner, but our jig back as well!
On the day following the 'cuda attack, Chris showed no signs of infection. We all felt lucky. We were able to focus our attention on the relatively insignificant task of fishing and not worry about a life threatening infection. We decided not too travel too far today just in case Chris' foot blew up and an air evac became necessary. We decided to fish in the lee of the north island. As the near gale raged on, we had great bonefishing as we walked the beach and looked in the wind shadow the big cocoanut palms provided. That afternoon, we had a steady stream of 3-7 lb. bonefish pass by and Mike, Craig, Steve and I were, if not hooked up, at least locked onto a bone and trying to get into a position to cast. Some of these fish tailed in the wavelets near shore, while others sauntered in two feet of water just offshore. These fish were very aware when the fly line hit the water and their nervousness seemed entirely appropriate given that we were also a bit fidgety after last night's activities. Well-presented flies and longer casts worked well, as well as a more permit-like retrieve. That is to say, one micro strip worked best. To strip too much spooked these fish and since they were very unpressured, I assumed this was because they were eating prey species that did not move too much like worms or filter feeders. To these fish, motion meant danger and like us, they were a flinchy group. At one point, Craig Johnston had hooked a rather large bonefish when an absolutely huge 'cuda charged off a dark grassy patch to take a stab at his fish. This charge was a showstopper and left us shaken and with dry mouths and wet palms. This trip was a walk on the wild side and we were constantly being reminded to be careful.
When we loaded up the Zodiac at day's end, the rest of the group had had a little fishing tournament and a stringer of 15 or so small baitfish and two larger barbed mullet rested in the bottom of the boat. This was bait for tonight's fishing, but we also had an appointment with a toothed critter that had made a home near the back of the MV Illusions. After cleaning our gear, this time with hoses and a full bucket of water (no pinkies dangling over the back steps to be sure), we then turned our attention to the matter at hand.
Hayden Groendyke took the honors with a 12 wt. rod armed with a big black and blue streamer to which we had added a sashimi stinger. We were not in the mood for fair game. We wanted results and to be able to move about without anxiety. We gave Hayden specific instructions, "Just jig your fly, make it look like a wounded baitfish. Don't strip your fly as you would normally." Hayden smiled and looked at us to confirm the instructions and in the nanosecond that his eyes were averted, the big 'cuda struck!
The 'cuda was 30 feet away when Hayden was able to react. Hayden leaned into his rod and just like that, our nemesis was ripe for the plucking. This fight had special meaning and it wasn't long before Chris left his bed and hopped to the railing to take a look. Hayden did a great job keeping the big 'cuda away from the motor, anchor line and the other skiff. In 15 minutes, the 'cuda was done and Freddie, our Seychellois crewman, gaffed the creature.
The 'cuda was 42 lbs. and certainly big enough to take off my foot and probably Chris' size 15. I bashed the fish on the head with a miniature Louisville Slugger denting his skull. Freddie said my smacks were just a "caress" and he added a few roundhouses just for good measure. The 'cuda was dead and I felt only a momentary remorse as we slid his huge body back into the sea where it would soon be consumed by the many small sharks that we had seen circling the MV Illusions. I know the 'cuda was just fulfilling the dictates of an ancient and primitive brain, but I didn't want to worry about this assassin every time one of us got in the Zodiacs or released a snapper on the stern swimming platform. Maybe an even larger 'cuda took up residence upon the demise of this fish. We'll never know. But we did feel better and it didn't take long for the sentiment that I felt for this homicidal maniac to be replaced by relief.
This was a great fishing trip, but it was more importantly, time when lessons were learned. Specifically, we learned that habituating fish off the back of a liveaboard means that one must be very careful. If you choose to live chum, bottom fish and clean your catch, predators will be summoned and a higher level of attention is required. We, of course, had already learned this lesson aboard the Tam Tam so many years ago on St. Francoise Atoll when one of our guides, Donald, was bitten by a giant trevally while cleaning his hands after filleting some fish for dinner. This nasty wound required stitches and I've always been careful and instructed all our anglers to be careful when cleaning or handling fish off the liveaboards. But this was a step above. This could have happened to any of us. We all had dangled our legs overboard and Chris' bite came with his foot out of the water. There is no blame to assign here. No one did anything wrong. But there are lessons to be learned and the major one is to be careful and aware. Minimize opportunity.
On a greater level, it is important to do two things on these bigger expeditions to very remote destinations. First, come prepared... and we were. Without the right kit this could have been a much more dangerous situation. We had sutures, Novocain and antibiotics.
Secondly, and most importantly, have it firmly in the front of your brain that these type trips are not an amusement ride. You are not purchasing a controlled experience. Both your success, but more importantly, your safety, is up to you and the judgment you use. Go with experienced people. Listen to what they have to say and be conservative in your actions. When you leave the controlled circumstances of civilized society, the rewards can be great, but there is also a dark side lurking. Don't be afraid to go, this would be silly and to avoid risk negates many of life's best experiences. The main point is to be prepared, alert and attentive before all else... then have fun. The other point I will make is this experience illustrates dramatically why we strongly recommend medical evacuation and appropriate trip insurance policies. On a trip of this magnitude, we consider such insurance essential.
OK, enough said... I want to thank Dr. Brian Crock, Dr. Steve Peskoe, Dr. Guy Gardiner, Dr. Larry Towning, Dr. Craig Johnston, Eric Berger, Hayden Groedyke and Mike Schwarz for a wonderful trip. You guys rock! And thanks too to Chris and Desiree. The MV Illusions is a beautiful boat with a great crew. We loved the roominess of the boat and the comfortable accessibility of the cabins. The food was spectacular and we especially enjoyed the fresh grouper! We could have eaten grouper each and every night! Everyone did his or her best to make this trip go off without a hitch even when our captain had a "hitch" that he and all of us, will not soon forget. Thanks to all!!
Written by Scott Heywood
Photos by Eric Berger