This post is being written out of sequence. We arrived in Chagos on the 22nd of April and departed on the 22nd of May, 2015. With no internet access in the uninhabited Salomon Atoll, I wanted to wait until I could post photos.
The Salomon Atoll lies about 300 miles south of Gan, the southerly-most island in the Maldives archipelago. The atoll is a rough round shape if looked from the air, bordered by Île Boddam on the west, Île Takamaka on the east, Île Anglies on the north and Île Fouquet on the south. The entire atoll is no more than 5 kilometers across.
At one point, there were inhabitants at Île Boddam and there are still ruins and a dilapidated cemetery as testimonies to their existence. The jungle is quickly reclaiming its ownership of what’s left of a once-thriving community as the roofs of the buildings have long disappeared and now trees grow up through the building’s foundations. More on what happen to the Chagosian people later.
|Sundowners at the 'Yacht Club'|
Even though the anchoring is poor and the prevailing winds make it a lee shore near Île Boddam, that’s where most of the visiting yachts drop their hooks. We joined the fleet there and though we never had an incident with our anchor holding, we were never completely comfortable there. However, the lure of the cruising community was strong and we enjoyed being near friends, getting together for sundowners on shore and the occasional visits via dinghy. Though the water visibility wasn’t very good, we frequently saw black-tip reef sharks and leather-back turtles swim by.
One particularly squally day, we decided that we needed a change of venue, pulled up our anchor and steamed to the other side of the atoll to a small sandy-bottomed gap in between Île Takamaka and Île Fouquet. Our two marine biologist friends, Tom and Sonja, were anchored there on board their 51’ all-electric Wharrem cat, Pakia Tea, with their 3-year old son, Keanu. We felt like we were in heaven, The thick sandy bottom grabbed our anchor securely and the water remained flat even if the wind came up as we were in the lee of the island. The bulk of our friends were now 3 kilometers away but we came to treasure the time we spent with the Pakia Tea family. As scientists, Tom and Sonja were able to explain so much of what was going on around us but it was their kindness, humor and energy that instantly made them close friends. From time to time Tom and Sonja would need to do some underwater research and they would ask us to watch Keanu, which we gladly did. Even Keanu seemed to enjoy his visits with us and quickly learned that we didn’t speak German so he would switch to his limited English. One night when we were having the Pakia Tea crew over for sundowners, Ruthie spotted a manta ray swimming by. Tom quickly excused himself, jumped into his dinghy, went back to Pakia Tea for his snorkeling gear and camera and jumped into the water. He was able to capture world-class video of the giant manta rays feeding just off our boat, unusual in that mantas rarely feed inside a lagoon. The next day, Tom and Sonja came over to pick us up in their dinghy and took us to snorkel with the mantas, a completely unbelievable experience. The grace and beauty of these huge creatures is nothing short of remarkable and after a time, Tom and Sonja were able to identify 9 different mantas swimming right around our boats. Sometimes all four of us adults would be swimming while Keanu manned the dinghy that was being towed by his swimming mother or father.
Our stay off Île Takamaka was enhanced by the ability to go ashore and completely walk around the island – but only at low tide. It felt so good to get some exercise but especially in this remote and wild place. The tide pools created by the lack of water offered some views of sea life that we had never seen before – like a peppered eel attacking and eating a crab, tying itself into knots to develop enough purchase to break apart the tough crabshell. Too bad we didn’t have the camera with us that day!
Why a strong current developed remains a mystery to us. After 10 days of being anchored off Île Takamaka, the current began to make us uncomfortable. We don’t think it was specifically related to the tides as we had already been there through a full moon with no current at all. Regardless, we tore ourselves away from the precious company of Pakia Tea (for crying out loud, we were only going 3 kilometers away!) and reanchored ourselves off of Île Boddam again.
One night, one of the boats in our fleet brought a laptop into shore to show a documentary about the Chagos Archipelago which can be found at http://johnpilger.com/videos/stealing-a-nation. We were all intensely saddened by what the British had done to the Chagossian people, which, in my opinion, is a crime against humanity – the World Courts agree – and we also felt guilty that we were able to enjoy a visit to their previous homes while they were not. Coincidently, while we were staying in the Salomon Atoll, the British Indian Ocean Territory patrol ship, Pacific Marlin, a 60-meter trawler, brought descendants of those who used to live on Île Boddam back from Mauritius where they now live – 800 miles away – for a one-hour visit to the cemetery. The irony and tragedy was not lost on us – people who had lived on this island for 200 years – whose ancestors are buried here - were allowed a one-hour visit while those of us foreigners who were visiting on yachts were easily granted a four-week permit.
The BIOT patrol boat, Pacific Marlin, makes frequent visits to the Salomon Atoll and boards every yacht to inspect their mooring permit. Once anchored near the lagoon’s entrance, large, military-style RIBs are deployed, manned with substantial crews. Their boardings, while innocuous enough, are still intimidating. One particularly squally day, the RIBs approached the anchorage late in the afternoon, just as the sky was turning an ominous dark black. The BIOT crew boarded Amigo, a Najad 37, with our friends, Helga and René on board, whose permit had expired a few days prior. We watched in horror as we saw Amigo lift its anchor and slowly steam through the lagoon, darkened as though night had fallen even though it was hours before the sun would set. I later spoke with René on the radio and he said that the BIOT official told him that if he stayed another day he was at risk of being fined £1,000. The BIOT officials quickly back-pedaled, realizing that if Amigo was damaged or lost, it could be an international incident but the intrepid crew of Amigo was able to make it to the island of Rodriguez, 800 miles away, safely.
|Regal Angelfish Pygoplites diacanthus|
We did a lot of snorkeling as we waited for a weather window to make the jump to Madagascar, our own mooring permit expired and through a series of emails to the London office, we were able to talk them into a one-week extension, although they warned us that no further extensions would be granted and if our desired destination was unobtainable with the existing weather conditions, then we should choose a different destination. It’s not that the weather was bad but rather the lack of wind that troubled us. Our fuel was getting low and we were left with a limited range for motoring. Granted, we’re a sailboat and theoretically should be able to make it anywhere without diesel fuel but we also need fuel to generate electrical power as we suspect that there might be a couple of people who might get irritated if we didn’t send emails at least occasionally. So, even with a light winds forecast, we weighed anchor on the 22nd of May in the early afternoon and left the Salomon Atoll.