Places | Chagos
The Chagos archipelago (essentially consisting of Peros Banhos, Salomon and Diego Garcia atolls with numerous other scattered islands and reefs) has been administered by the UK since 1965 as the 'British Indian Ocean Territory' (BIOT). The biggest atoll, Diego Garcia, is leased by the USA and has been turned into a military base, prohibited to visiting yachts except in genuine cases of emergency. The UK issues commercial fishing licences for some areas within the BIOT, though not within the atolls. The previous inhabitants of the islands (known as 'Illois' or self-proclaimed 'Chagossians', descendants of migrant workers brought in to work on the copra plantations) were relocated with some compensation in the 60's, mostly to Mauritius. The Illois have been fighting for the right to return to Chagos and their claim was accepted in 2000, though little seems to have happened to implement that ruling to date. Negotiations are still underway about how re-occupation or handover will be accomplished and subsequently administered, with the additional complication of Mauritius claiming sovereignty over the islands. It will be interesting to see what the future holds. There is some concern that a return of inhabitants and/or change of 'ownership' might turn the islands into resorts. Meanwhile the displaced Illois are claiming that they are discriminated against and live in poverty in Mauritius as refugees.
These atolls have the almost legendary reputation of being a tropical island paradise for cruisers with fresh water wells, huge coconut crabs, wild oranges, papaya, an endless supply of coconuts ashore plus waters teeming with fish. The archipelago still has some of the best coral reefs and nesting colonies of endangered bird species in the Indian Ocean, though its splendours are likely much reduced from its hey-day and the freedom for yachties to play Robinson Crusoe is being steadily curtailed. There are significant continued threats to the environment from global warming, consequent sea-level rise, illegal fishing and poaching. Some estimates of the global warming trend predict that water temperatures in and around the atolls will reguarly hit 30 deg. C, killing all the coral, by about 2015.
It looks like current rules (2005) allow yachts to visit only Peros Banhos and Salomon atolls, and restrict anchoring in Peros Banhos to the western arm of the fringing islands. The conspicuous red and white British fisheries protection vessel 'Pacific Marlin' periodically brings a troupe of marines to collect GBP55/US$100 from each yacht for a 3-month stay permit. Moving to another atoll renders a yacht liable for a repeat $100 fee. There are no services or facilities provided except the removal of a limited amount of glass and metal rubbish from Boddum in Salomon Atoll. Yachts should only go to Chagos if they are fully equipped to be entirely self-sufficient for the duration of their stay. We hear that spearguns, taking coconut crabs, fishing with a wire leader on your fishing line and diving are prohibited, as is the cutting of trees (no harvesting of palm hearts) and the construction or modification of any type of structure or camping ashore. These rules are reported to be subject to change with the arrival of each new commander, though they are unlikely to get any more permissive. We did not meet up with authorities while we were in the area so received no direct confirmation of the current regulations.
The 1998 El Nino seems to have taken its toll on the corals, although yachts who have visited before and after 1998 (some of whom stay for over a year at a time) say that the coral has made an amazing recovery in some places, growing sizeable (0.5m diameter) acropora table and sub-massive corals in just a few years. Giant clams, butterfly fish and acropora coral, indicators of a healthy reef environment, are common. Water temperatures in the lagoons are reported to have reached an astounding 35 deg. C in April/May 2005, however, and we saw a lot of new coral that had been recently bleached anew. The fish life is good, though perhaps depleted by cruisers and/or Sri Lankan fishing boats in some areas. While we were there a Sri Lankan fishing boat appeared in and around the Peros Banhos and Salomon atolls several times and a cruiser who said he spoke with the crew reported that they were taking large quantities of shark, manta ray and turtle. The Pacific Marlin seems to find it difficult to be effective in policing these boats, perhaps in part because capturing and impounding them only leads to bigger headaches.
Many of the 'hard-core' cruisers neatly care for little shore camps where they have (or at least at one time had) laundry-washing areas, cookout facilities and even brick/earthen ovens and fish smokers, embellished with numerous trinkets from wrecks and materials scavenged from the beach. Long-stay cruisers row or sail small tenders about the anchorages, daily baking bread and cooking fish ashore on open fires (you cannot easily carry enough LPG or other fuel to last for many months) without the benefit of a fridge. There are also several makeshift moorings installed, using chains around bommies, floats and ropes, so that boats can move in close to shore without needing excessive swinging room or damaging coral with their chains. Things had at one time developed to the point of fenced vegetable and fruit tree gardens with buried stashes of fuel and other goods until the British authorities stepped in and leveled all the organised shore structures that were not original. This was presumably to suppress the development of 'squatter's rights' and semi-permanent shore structures that would complicate negotiations with the Illois and compromise efforts at protecting the atolls as a marine park. The locations of many camps, wild fruit tree groves and moorings are now kept low-key among the long-stay cruisers.
Peros Banhos atoll
This is a large atoll with many wide passes and can be quite exposed, especially since you're only allowed to anchor in the western part. This is where a yacht goes for some peace and quiet, away from the crowd that occupies the smaller, better-protected Salomon atoll. Isle Fouquet in the south offers the best protection for winds east of south. The interior of the atoll has sparse patches of bommies, easily avoided in good light, provided someone is looking! There is a very good one for snorkeling, with minimum depth of about 5m when we stopped, at 05°20.585'S, 071°46.671'E.
There was an offset of approximately 0.98 n.m. between the WGS84 GPS datum and the C-map chart we were using, based on a UK Hydrographic Office chart that was digitised in 1997. The offset put our GPS plotted position 0.98 n.m. SSW of our estimated position on the chart based on radar returns from the islands and breakers.
A lot of the coral seems to have been destroyed in the 1998 bleaching event and has turned into rubble, but the fish life is prolific. The coral seems to be recovering, but more recent sporadic bleaching is evident. We visited Ile du Coin where we saw the remains of a settlement. Not very much is left standing, but the well was covered and the water still usable. Our favourite area was near Moresby Island in the north where the coral looked very healthy. Through a small dinghy pass the outside of the reef was easily accessible and the coral here was exceptional. The variety of coral and fish on the reef flat and the drop-off was wonderful. On the island boobies were nesting in the trees and amongst the coconuts covering the ground were large robber (coconut) crabs (some with claws the size of a fist) and huge numbers of hermit crabs.
This is a much smaller atoll than Peros Banhos, lying 25 n.m. to the east. It is entered through the single pass at the north on a SE course. Again, there is a significant chart offset, plotting GPS positions 0.3 n.m. to the WSW of actual with respect to the chart (though the offset seems more W at Takamaka), so that although the recommended route is to keep to the NE of the centre line (splitting the pass in a ratio of about 1:2) the GPS track showed us entering significantly to the WSW of this track. We were given GPS waypoints to line up and enter the pass that looked good and agreed with our eyeball estimate of wanting to pass as close as possible to the middle of the blue streak between the shallow green reef areas to either side. The one outside is 05°18.36'S, 072°14.39'E, with the one inside at 05°18.93'S, 072°14.98'E. We found the pass to be about 1.4 n.m. wide and left 0.58 n.m. to port (Isle de la Pass) and 0.81 n.m. to starboard (Isle Anglaise) as measured by radar. Another good guide in good visibility (and you wouldn't be going in under any other conditions, right?) is to find the edge of the reef SW of Isle de la Pass and drive in leaving it 100m to starboard, whatever feels comfortable. The pass is not so narrow as to give any serious qualms.
There are more bommies in Salomon than in Peros Banhos. We found the direct route from the pass SE to Takamaka pretty-much clear, although we did find one close to the reef at the eastern edge of the anchorage. Takamaka has a well and cookout camp ashore with a clear dinghy pass over sand right up to and along the beach. Shallow-draft vessels can moor on multiple anchors on a sand patch just 100m off the beach. There is a superb banyan tree just inland from the camp. The shallow rip between Takamaka and the Isle Fouquet (this is not a typo, they really did name the island with the same name as one in Peros Banhos) next door has good coral and lots of fish activity. Hit it at slack tide or you'll have too little time as you are washed through! The only pity here is that it is not easy to reach the outer reef, as it is at Moresby in Peros Banhos. There is passage over the reef deep enough for a dinghy just north of Takamaka.
Moving down to Boddam, there are many bommies to be avoided. Some are marked by buoys, others not of course. We noted the GPS (WGS84) position of three on our path (steering 240 Magnetic) and some more on the way back up to the pass as follows:
It is best to proceed only in good light (sun more than 30 degrees above the horizon, so not within 2 hours of sunrise or sunset) with the sun behind you (or at least not in front!) to avoid glare off the water surface. We found that the bow watch could only see the bottom clearly at a distance when it was just a few metres deep; shallow patches of 6-9 m were not visible until almost right under the bow. This will depend on water clarity, of course, so may be very different on some other day. The recent rains will have clouded the water for our visit. Approach Boddam skirting Isle Poule, to the south of centre track into the protected bay formed by Boddam itself. Close to the beach there are many small bommies, many marked by buoys, with some inner mooring spots in prime locations near 'French camp' (a large open area next to the beach) and the social camp with volleyball court. These inner mooring spots require tying onto bommies and careful manoevering to reach.
Boddam is 'downtown' Chagos, the home of 'hard-core' cruisers in this season. There are quite a few remains of a settlement, including a barn near the well that can be used to dry clothes. There's rubbish area with containers where you can leave your cans and bottles to be collected by the British once a month or so. You can burn your plastic and other rubbish. There are paths that lead to other camps and across the island, including one to a dilapidated cemetary. Cruisers met at the camp ashore every afternoon at 4 o'clock while we were there to socialise and play volleyball.
Isle De la Passe is a delightful island full of birds, hermit crabs, coconut crabs, land crabs, shore crabs, well, a lot of crabs anyway. Good anchorage can be had either on the sand spit (if you don't draw too much water) or a little further out on the SE side. There is a kind of passage through the coral patches to the beach about in the centre of the S side where there is a pretty little camp, delightfully situated. There is also a well and paths across the island.
© JIOQ 2004, 2005