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Seychelles: Farquhar Atoll Revisited 03-30-2008

In April 2007, Todd Sabine wrote a "Recent Destinations" trip report on Cosmoledo that carried the title, "Seychelles: A Matter of Change". click here to see that article Agreeably, the Seychelles is evolving, but I'm pleased to report that the change that Todd spoke about wasn't evident on Farquhar, at least not yet. This is only my second visit to the atoll, but it didn't take long to discover how prolific a fishery Farquhar really is. It did live up to its reputation.

However, having but this proverbial stake in the sand, Farquhar can't stand up to the pressures that some of the other Seychelles atolls have been getting since they've been put on the itinerant angler's map. With cautious optimism, over exploitation may not be its fate. Nonetheless, way before the angling world discovered Alphonse and St. Francoise, the reports written and the guest lodge built, I cautiously remember remarking that it was so unspoiled, and such a fantastic fishery - how could anything ever impact that. Well it did...and those of us who travel to these remote locations and share our stories, each own a piece of that burlap.

Nevertheless, change was a big part of this trip so I'm going to focus on it, even at the expense of the fishing because the accompanying photos can speak for themselves, (or just give us a call if you want more information...).

It's true, a trip to the Seychelles is a big commitment and undertaking, but if you want to fish one of the last great remaining remote destinations of the world, get on board because these remote spots are getting fewer and farther between. If you're coming from the US, get set for 2 days of travel to get to the main island of Mahe. Be tolerant of local customs, because many people are on "island time", and remember, you're on vacation. We'll help you deal with the usual pre-trip hassles, and sorting out what to and what not to bring. Yes, costs have increased, as the world has discovered the beauty of the Seychelles, but how long are you willing to wait? Put that all behind you quickly because once you arrive, get settled in your hotel and have one of the popular local Seybrew beers, the hassles of the trip soon wear off. You had better get to bed early because the EARLY morning flight to Farquhar always catches everyone by surprise. On the positive side, after a quick 1 hour and 45 minute flight you can have your rods strung-up and be knee-deep on the most gorgeous saltwater flats in the world. Isn't that what you came for in the first place?

So let's get into this change thing that I've been teasing you about from the beginning, because this time change has had a positive impact. First let's start with the easy stuff... the live aboard boat the Illusions was even better than I remember. If you're familiar with our previous references to the vessel, it was affectionately called the "MV Illusions". The first thing I noticed when I approached the boat was the bright new paint job and in big bold letters "Illusions". Naturally curious, I had to ask the obvious of our captain and host Chris "what happened to the name, where's the "MV"? As only Chris can, his response was rather quick and straightforward, "I got sick and tired of everyone always asking me what the word "MV" stood for so when I repainted the boat I took it off, end of story..." For the less, nautically inclined like myself, "MV" is the nautical abbreviation for "Motor Vessel". I tend to agree with Chris on this one.

The real meat of this trip report was the weather. No, not the every day wind, rain or lack of sunshine that often disappoints when we plan our whole vacations around one particular week that gets blown out, but something more dramatic... tropical cyclones. To look back, and put this into context, I'd like to call the readers attention to Scott Heywood's October 2006 trip report on this site. He reported on how opposing tropical depressions stalled below and to the east of Farquhar, altered weather patterns that presented us with some challenges. For those of us who have been around for a while, that's fishing; this time I witnessed something much more dramatic.

Straightaway, let's talk about how quickly these immense and sometimes freakish tropical storms can change the face of an atoll. What you think you remember from one year to the next, might be totally different the next time around. In this particular case, change was to our advantage. Piles of coral debris that didn't exist previously, created endless new reef edges opening up vast new areas to explore and fish. New cuts and channels became the perfect haunts for predators, especially Giant Travelly or "GT's" who were waiting to charge-up on the flats. For the angler and predator alike, these were perfect spots to ambush a school of bonefish. If you were brave enough to risk a fly line at low tides, the new coral edges provided great opportunities for marauding predators happy to take a big fly.

To put the change we saw at Farquhar into perspective, let's start with a more well-know recent event. New Orleans is just that example, that is, before the catastrophic hurricane Katrina devastated the city in August 2005. The saying, "you should have seen this place before the storm" might be well-suited. With a little play on words, and all too familiar to fishermen is the saying, "you should have been here yesterday". In most instances, that's usually due to some minor inconvenience, or a few days of bad weather, but in this case, it might be more appropriate to compare hurricane Katrina to cyclone Bondo that unleashed its furry on Farquhar and Providence in December 2006, 2 months after our prior trip. If you're familiar with how tropical storms can permanently change an atoll's physical attributes, this may come as no surprise. Have you ever walked along the shore and ask yourself how the piles and piles of debris on the beach got there. I know I have. We'll here's your answer... cyclone Bondo was a category 4 storm that according to the National Climatic Data center and NOAA Satellite and Information Service, had sustained winds of 120 mph and wind gusts up to 145 knots (167 mph).

In his brilliant book on the search for the Green Snail in the Seychelles Islands (Beyond the Reefs, by William Travis "George Alllen & Unwin Ltd". 1959). Travis recounts this passage as he came upon Farquhar...

I had expected the usual glorious spectacle: live coral, of many different varieties, and amongst its branches swarms of brilliant fishes, some as big as parrots and other smaller than humming birds the bird like inhabitants of this submarine forest. The water was clear. The coral was also there, but where was the color and movement? What had happened? "...everything was topsy-turvy. Huge banks of coral rock lay scattered about and all around them coral debris. Fragments of every type littered the seabed, right off into the final drop-off into the abyss, which lay some fifty yards out. '... it was barren of life as a lunar landscape and as depressing'. I swam around, forgetting the pirogue, tiger sharks and everything else. What could have caused this? The further I went, the more apparent became the magnitude of the damage. For a while I thought that there had been an underwater earthquake, but the actual atoll foundations had been untouched; only the surface layer had been disturbed in this violent fashion. It was as though and immense explosion had torn up the reef face along its entire length the place looked like a battlefield. The destruction was as bad as that caused by the cyclone in its passage across South Island (referencing Farquhar's South Island). That must be the answer! It was the cyclone that had caused this. Just as the howling wind had torn up the trees, so had the lashing of the waves flattened the submarine vegetation, beaten down the coral bushes, torn up the limestone pavement until everything was destroyed.

William Travis didn't name, or date the cyclone that changed the face of Farquhar prior to his visit, however, he witnessed the evidence just as we did. We weren't looking for the Green Sail, but we were able to capitalized on the aftermath.

Suffice it to say that tropical storms, and in this case devastating tropical cyclones, can change the face of an atoll overnight. To the north of the little island that Chris named "Rats and Mice" lays an old wreck of a 11,000-ton steamer, the S.S. Aymestry. Reportedly, it too was caught off-guard in another severe cyclone in 1897. Driven ashore by the huge waves, still today she lays beam-on right up on the reef. The pounding of successive weather has gradually broken her up, but the remaining keel, boilers, propellers and some bridge structure, are grim evidence of the tragedy. In 2006, we took the Zodiac over to the wreck and had a great time catching reef fish amongst the wreckage and coral heads. Today, during the right tides and due to the resultant coral build up of debris from Cyclone Bondo, one can walk right up to the wreck from "Rats and Mice" for some great fishing the entire way.

Permit me to digress one last time to share a few facts about cyclones. The Saffir-Simpson scale for Tropical Cyclones categorizes these storms on a scale of 1-4. Bondo, was at the top of the range rated as a Category 4 storm at 131-155 mph (210-249 km/hr). No matter how you look at it, that's a lot of power. The storm surge must have been incredible. Hurricane Katrina clocked in as a Category 5 storm with winds of 175 mph (200 km/hr), the damage from that storm was immense. So why all these seemingly meaningless facts on a fishing trip report from Farquhar? All because as the saying goes... "you can't judge a book by its cover", and in this case, one trip report may not be predictive. On Farquhar, Bondo created some new and exciting fishing grounds that we had only begun to discover and explore.

So at the risk of spinning another trip report on how great the fishing was, I choose to tell you about a seemingly inconsequential storm. However, I felt it helped to differentiate what we reported on from Farquhar in October 2006. For the fist-timer, it obviously makes no difference whatsoever. Nevertheless, no trip report would be complete without a list of species that this great atoll is well noted for. The GT's are always the star of the show. For some, GT's are why they come. On the incoming and falling tides they cruise the flats recklessly, sometimes coming within feet of you to investigate. They are glad to take your offerings, if you can throw out a cast quickly enough. Get that big fly or crab pattern in their face and be prepared for the time of your life. For others, fishing for GT's in the surf is the only way to go. Just be prepared with your 12 wt. and don't cry over the loss off a line or two. As Graeme Field said to me early in the trip, " just tie on a commitment leader" a.k.a., 100 or 130 lb test mono and hang on for the ride. I learned quickly that either you get em or they get you... none of this fooling around with class tippets with these beasts. For others, the hard charging Indo-Pacific bonefish are the major attraction and why many come to the Seychelles in the first place. At certain tides, they seek protection from predators and cruise in huge schools of hundreds of fish; you can cast to your hearts content. To be honest with you, I much prefer the challenge of tailing fish or the attraction of singles and doubles. The beauty of the Seychelles is always the variety. On the flats we also caught, Yellow-Lipped Emperor Snapper, an absolutely beautiful fish. A new species for me this time was the Coral Grouper. They loved a big crab fly, and some were so big you were afraid to cast to them in fear of what might happen next. Admittedly, I'll have to openly confess that I wasted a lot of time sneaking up on tailing Indian Ocean Mimic Surgeon fish. I swear, their tails glisten in the sun just like a school of tailing bonefish, only they refuse everything you offer them. Lastly, the Yellow Margin Trigger fish was a prize sought after by everyone on this trip. When you find them tails up feeding, they were happy to take a crab fly. They are a beautiful fish, and a nice fly-rod caught species to add to your lifetime list.

For persistence, Graeme Field has to take the prize for the most casts at Bumphead Parrotfish. We saw schools and schools of them, and they loved crab flies. I spent a lot of time following Graeme with camera in hand hopefully to get a photo of one... if he could only land one! I think I personally witnessed 25 hook ups, the problem didn't lie there, the problem was landing them. No mater what we tried their sharp pointed mouths, well suited for crunching on coral, would inevitably cut through monofilament leader material. However, as my luck would have it, he finally landed one on the very last day and I was nowhere in sight. He did send me a photo.

With cigar and beer in hand, evening "entertainment" off the back of the boat provided great diversionary fun. With our spinning rods, we caught Bohar and Twin Spotted Snappers. In addition, the ubiquitous Red Snapper was a prized catch for the dinner table. Giant Trevally and the beautiful Bluefin Trevally were always hanging around and awaited the offerings from cleaning the day's catch of Marbled Grouper or Green Job Fish. I swear, trevally have eyes on the top of their heads. When Chris would toss the carcass off the back of the swim platform, 3 or 4 Travelly at a time would leap out of the air in a feeding frenzy to see who could get there first. Needless to say, this provided great entertainment and a chance for all of us to act like kids again.

Lastly, I think if anyone asked her, Sue Hoey would tell everyone how wonderful the snorkeling was. Chris knows all the great spots. When Sue wasn't fishing, she either had her nose in a good book or was out there amongst the coral heads just poking around. Next time we're going to get her a camera to take along.

I would like to thank the South African's who joined me on the trip, certainly Graeme Field who helped host the trip and who's been to Farquhar more than any of us. His trip mates were Leigh Pedersen and the hard-charging Jeremy Steward. In addition, the group from the U.S. consisted of Vince Tobia, Rufus Williams, Drs. Steve Pericak and Mike Hoey and of course, Mike's wonderful wife Sue. This group can share a boat with me any time. Thanks also to our wonderful hosts on the Illusions, Chris and Des, and the boat staff that created the most wonderful meals and who always had a cold drink waiting for us as we returned to the boat each day.

Photography and Article by: Eric Berger











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