Walking on the wild side: Chagos archipelago


Anchored at the east end of Salomon atoll, Totem floats in clear water that is swimming-pool turquoise, her hull shadow sharply outlined on the sand below. On shore, coconuts sprout where they wash up with the tide, building a picket fence of young palm trees along the high water line.  It’s been nearly five decades since humans were here in enough force to bend the environment to their will, and in the interim a glorious tangle of overgrown mangrove trees and casuarinas have grown, coconut palms leaning out over white sand beaches.


Birdlife International designated Chagos as an “Important Bird Area” – certainly important to the many seabirds with colonies in the islands. Fearless birds roost at eye level: the fuzzy heads of red-footed boobie chicks poke out of the nest to gawk at Diane and I as we walked around Takamaka island one day…stern parents nearby croak an alert.


In the evenings, we gather on the beach to share the sunset with our fellow sailors, and watch as frigatebirds swoop and dive–literally scaring a meal from the mouths of boobies and terns.

Behind the beach, former copra plantations have turned the islands we visited into a monoculture of coconut palms. The seabirds that call this archipelago home- terns, frigates, tropicbirds and more- don’t like the palms that have taken over these islands, preferring native hardwood trees. After seeing a few awkwardly perched on a slippery palm stem, it was easy to see why! It’s just not clear if the monoculture is also squeezing them out of sufficient nesting territory.


Underwater, the fish life may not be dramatic, but the fishing is outrageous. If you’ve had bad luck fishing for a while (*cough*) and want to get back in the groove, Chagos is a great place to feel like an expert! It’s all hook and line- no spearfishing allowed- but typical to have a substantial fish bite within minutes. Taking only what we can eat in a couple of days is a reasonable requirement but one that means fishing expeditions sometimes end sooner than we’d really like, because we only catch what we can eat in a couple of days. Trolling a diving lure at the dropoff outside the pass gets the big pelagics: yellowfin and dogtooth tuna, wahoo, barracuda; a baited hook in shallower water snags grouper, snappers, jobfish and trevally. It is exceptional eating for everyone except Niall, our “pacifisht.”

Landing a sizeable wahoo in Utopia’s dinghy

The challenge is to get your fish into the dinghy before the sharks get it. I think we decided to leave this one off our BIOT-mandated fishing log, as most of the big grouper ended up in the belly of a shark…a clean bite at the gills.


Although the fishing is tremendous, it belies the state of the reef. Newly arrived cruisers waxed on about how beautiful the coral was at sundowners one evening. They’re not wrong- it IS beautiful- an underwater garden of varieties in eye-popping fluorescent colors.

OK…so I made these pop a little with software…but it’s not hugely different than what’s in your face underwater.

The problem is that those fluorescent colors are presenting instead of ‘normal’ coloration because the coral is bleaching in response to stress from unusually high water temperatures. If the conditions don’t improve, the coral dies. What’s happening is that the symbiotic algae that live inside the limestone coral skeleton typically obscure the actual color of the coral by lending their own, but these algae are expelled by the coral polyp as a response to stress, in order to survive. Our inexpert estimate is that around 90% of the coral is bleached or bleaching. Try as I might, I can’t snorkel and dive among this devastated reef without just feeling really sad about the state of the environment- even if it is still “pretty”.

bleached, bleached, bleached.

For more about Chagos reefs and what’s happening, check out the Chagos Conservation Trust project blogs, and check also with the blog of the Wharram catamaran Pakia Tea– look at their blog post from last month about witnessing death (and a little recovery), it has GREAT information to help better understand the dynamics of coral “bleaching” and reef health.


This is tough, and it’s frustrating. Here is a stunning, recently pristine environment that’s being kicked where it hurts. And why? It’s not like there is effluent from shoreside factories to taint the water. There’s not much more on shore than coconut crabs (many) and rats (too many). But humans are culpable, even if they aren’t settled here any more- it’s our actions driving the change in climate causing an increase in water temperatures…and killing the reef.

We send our annotated pictures of the reef, with data about location, water temperature, etc. to researchers remotely monitoring the atoll. It is a meager contribution, and a false panacea, to make us feel like we’re doing something to preserve this beautiful place.

Readers who get excited about a healthy trepang fishery know we love it when you read this on Sailfeed.


3 Responses

  1. Hi Behan, coral bleaching is not a phenomenon restricted only to rising sea temps produced by anthropomorphic global warming. Localised warming occurs due to current shifts in all tropical areas. Blaming human-induced factors alone ignores the reality. The Maldives had serious bleaching several decades ago. Much of it has since recovered., If sea warming was linear that couldn’t happen. There is also the fact that the earth has been warming without human assistance since the last ice age peaked 20,000 years ago. Even without the human contribution, the planet is warming quite quickly so bleaching should become more common. This also could lead to the expansion of coral’s range into oceanic latitudes previously too cool to support coral.

    Regards, Peter

  2. Love following your journey! Your photography is wonderful! In particular, the shot with the crab on the sand with the waves fading in the background is brilliant! Thank you for sharing your lives. Sail on! Kevin

    1. thank you Kevin! The crab was posing for me (very conveniently, they freeze when they feel threatened…so slowpoke shooters like me have lots of time to play with the camera settings, ha!)

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