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The Intrepid Beauty of Africa and the Indian Ocean: Part Two – Kochi to Mombasa

As we departed Kochi the OWE team was down to two, as Dolphin Dave's Indian visa travails prevented him from joining Bolette until she reached Mahé in the Seychelles. Just prior to departure, the Captain informed those on board we would no longer be visiting the Maldives due to unresolved bureaucracy issues with the new Maldivian adminstration.

An unfortunate consequence was that our journey towards Mahé would now take us over four days worth of relentlessly deep water. It was likely to be a tough few days for sightings, as deep water is seldom productive, but we'd test the theory as hard as we could.

16th December 2023 At Sea

As dawn broke we were drawing level with the northern end of the Maldives, the underwater profiles were still full of convolutions and our spirits lifted. By 09.15 we had clocked up three species of cetaceans, four Indo-pacific Bottlenose Dolphins and a pod of Short-finned Pilot Whales were easy enough to identify, but the distant pod of small dolphins remained unconfirmed, though they were most likely Gray's Spinners. After this we plunged into the abyss and the cetacean show abruptly ended

Thankfully, there was more happening elsewhere to keep us and the passengers entertained. We were picking up hitchhikers, both avian and invertebrate as we travelled, the former included at least two Greater Short-toed Larks, one of which landed on the forecastle, as well as a number of swallows and swifts. We also collected a Eastern Cattle Egret and late in the day we picked up the first of two Amur Falcons. It is likely that the falcons were attracted to the ship by the ever-increasing numbers of dragonflies that were making it their refuge.

Greater Short-toed Lark on the forecastle of MS Bolette, west of Maldives © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Eastern Cattle Egret joins MS Bolette west of Maldives © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Amur Falcon joins MS Bolette west of Maldives © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Amur Falcon regurgitating a pellet aboard MS Bolette © Jeff Clarke - OWE

A sweep of the ship after dark revealed at least 70 dragonflies on board, most were Globe Skimmers, but there was also Vagrant Emperor, Lesser Green Emperor and Black Marsh Trotter in the mix. The Amur Falcons were assured a good breakfast the following morning.

Top left: Vagrant Emperor; Top right: Lesser Green Emperor; Bottom left: Black Marsh Trotter; Bottom right Globe Skimmer © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Other invertebrates on board included many lepidopterans, the showiest of which were Convolvulus Hawkmoth, Grammodes Geometrica moth and a Blue Moon butterfly.

Grammodes geometrica moth © Jeff Clarke - OWE

17th December - At sea west of Maldives

Deep water all day. With the exception of a cavorting pod of Striped Dolphin that fortuitously coincided with the wildlife deck watch, we spent most of it staring into an empty sea.

Striped Dolphin going aerial during the scheduled wildlife watch on MS Bolette © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Eventually we decided to scour the ship for the Swallows that arrived the previous day and a few more that joined us first thing. The Red-rumped Swallow was easy enough to identify. The other swallows seemed to be Barn Swallows but looked a bit odd, lacking any rufous or pink on the throat or forehead. Analysis of our images proved they were young Barn Swallows that had probably bleached their pinkish throats through feather wear and exposure to the sun. We never see them in this plumage condition in the UK but conversations with the team back home confirmed our suspicions. Sadly without aerial insect prey to feed on these lovely birds were doomed.

A young Barn Swallow showing bleaching effect on throat feathering © Jeff Clarke - OWE

At the tail end of the day we began our approach to a sea mount, the only feature in an otherwise flat abyssal plain. Just before the rise we finally picked up a few seabirds with 50+ Sooty Terns being the most prolific.

Then not much happened as we made our gradual aproach to the summit. Right at the top we finally spotted splashes ahead, light was fading fast but it held out long enough to confirm a pod of Striped Dolphin. It reminded us of crossing the Bay of Biscay on the ferry and just hitting the southern drop-off going southwards, Stripey's erupt from the swell and the sun sets on you.

18th December - midway between Maldives and Seychelles

The day began with a stunning sunrise. We were back in deep water but a look at the oceanic charts suggested that deep down a cold water current was pushing eastwards. Would this give us more hope? Or would it be another day of getting pummelled by the sun with minimal reward.

Sunrise in the Indian Ocean © Jeff Clarke - OWE

By 8.00am things were afoot. The first dolphins of the day appeared distantly. Then at 09.27, during the morning wildlife watch from Deck 6 forward, a large mixed pod (100+) of Pan-tropical Spotted and Gray's Spinner Dolphin passed Bolette on the port side. There was then a lull until 11.08 after which we had seven more pods until 13.25. Most remained as dolphin sp. though we did confirm another pod of Pan-tropicals. The final cetaceans of the day were a pod of eight Short-finned Pilot Whales.

Gray's Spinner Dolphin pod © Jeff Clarke - OWE

The birds were also doing their best to entertain with nine species recorded. A Bulwer's Petrel put in a brief appearance alongside its close relative Jouanin's Petrel, a handful of frigatebirds also appeared, most were associating with flocks of Sooty Terns that were targetting bait balls coralled to the surface by tuna, kleptoparsitising them when the opportunity allowed. At least two of the frigatebirds were confirmed as Great Frigatebird.

One of thousands of flyingfish taking flight during the day © Jeff Clarke - OWE

The bow of the ship was often disturbing shoals of flyingfish and these attracted the attention of a Red-footed Booby. By day's end at least two of these birds roosted on the Forcastle mast, with others up on the funnels.

Red-footed Boobies roosting on MS Bolette's forcastle mast © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Despite the deep water we'd had a better day. Why? Well it's likely we passed over an area of upwellings created by a mixing of currents. These upwellings commonly occur where the seabed rises steeply towards the continental shelf of over a sea-mount. They occur much less frequently in deep ocean basins.

19th December 2023 - On approach to the Seychelles

Our final sea-say before reaching Mahé seabirds were much more in evidence, presumably due to the proximity of their breeding islands elsewhere in the Seychelles. Twelve species was a respectable total. The most abundant was the Indian Black (Lesser) Noddy with over 800+ seen, alongside over 300 White Tern.

We also contacted our first Seychelles Shearwaters. Formerly considered part of the Tropical Shearwater complex, this species has now been split and most authorities regard it as a valid species in its own right. They are reasonably abundant in the waters around the islands, though they were hugely outnumbered by Wedge-tailed Shearwaters of the dark phase form.

Seychelles Shearwater © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Wedge-tailed Shearwater © Jeff Clarke - OWE

The star performers of the day were undoubtedly the White-tailed Tropicbirds, two of which came exceptionally close as they enacted some pair bonding rituals. Stunning birds in every sense and real treat for all on board to witness them so close at hand.

White-tailed (Yellow-billed) Tropicbirds © Jeff Clarke - OWE

We finally contacted some big whales. A handful of Sperm Whales were easy enough to identify by their distinctive angled blows. Two distant baleen whales showed themselves by single blows before disappearing and a presumed beaked whale breached on our port side. Annoyingly, the word 'unidentified' littered our cetacean sightings recording form for the day.

As darkness fell Bolette made her approach to the islands. Later that night the anchor was dropped off Mahé.

Seychelles 20-24th December 2023

Almost five full days in this tropical archipelago lay ahead and it was a chance to encounter some amazing natural wonders, but at the same time appreciate the ecological carnage humans have wreaked on so many Indian Ocean islands.

It was also a relief to finally get 'Dolphin Dave' Chilcott aboard, to share the load and add his considerable knowledge and experience of the region with the passengers.

The first land bird we set eyes on after stepping off the tender in Victoria, Mahé was the Madagascar Fody, or Red Fody as it is alternatively known. It's introduction to the Seychelles and other India Ocean Islands, alongside the likes of Indian Mynah is one of the reasons why so many native bird species are struggling. The male is doubtless a spectacular looking bird and it prompted more questions to the team than any other animal we encountered.

Madagascar (Red) Fody having a bath - Seychelles © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Non-native flora and fauna across the islands of the Seychelles achipelago is a constant presence. This extends to butterflies as well, as evidenced by these two Citrus (Lime) Swallowtails Papilio demoleus captured by Dave during one of his photographic forays. Our research suggests this asian origin species species was first recorded in Mahé as recently as 2017.

Citrus (Lime) Swallowtails - Mahé, Seychelles © David Chilcott - OWE

The National Botanical Garden was visited by the majority of passengers aboard Bolette during our stay in Victoria. It did host some native species, including the dramatic Seychelles Blue Pigeon, the rather more subdued Seychelles Bulbul and the Seychelles Sunbird, the male of which is irridescent, though less flamboyant than many sunbird species. We also encountered a Seychelles Kestrel in the grounds, a bird that was reasonably easy to see in and around the urban areas of the town.

Seychelles Blue Pigeon - Mahé, Seychelles © David Chilcott - OWE

Seychelles Bulbul - Mahé, Seychelles © David Chilcott - OWE

Seychelles Sunbird (male) - Mahé, Seychelles © David Chilcott - OWE

Seychelles Kestrel - Mahé, Seychelles © David Chilcott - OWE

One of the creatures most passengers encountered, often to their consternation, were the huge Palm Spiders, AKA red-legged golden orb-weaver. These are a member of the golden orb weaver complex. The huge individuals are all females. A closer inspection of their webs would often reveal the presence of their dainty male companions. These spiders are essentially harmless, but most passengers were reluctant to test the theory.

Seychelles Palm Spider and her male companion - Mahé, Seychelles © David Chilcott - OWE

One of the most striking aspects of the Seychelles are the day-flying fruit-bats. They travel by day with impunity here as there are no large aerial predators to threaten them.

Seychelles Fruit Bat - Mahé, Seychelles © Jeff Clarke - OWE

The botanical gardens also host a captive group of Aldabra Giant Tortoises, though seeing them in free-ranging mode on the island of Moyenne was a better experience. There were formerly nine different species of giant tortoise living on the tropical islands of the Indian Ocean, we ate them all until only the Aldabra Giant Tortoise was left.

Aldabra Giant Tortoise Moyenne Is, Seychelles, with average sized human for comparison © Jeff Clarke - OWE

For our third day in Mahé we hired a local guide Steve Agricole of Birding Seychelles. With his help we found some of the trickier native species, with the standout being Seychelles White-eye. Steve also showed us nesting White Terns right in the heart of Victoria as well as an obliging group of Crab Plovers.

Seychelles White-eye - Mahé, Seychelles © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Indo-Pacific White Tern (Noddy) - Mahé, Seychelles © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Indo-Pacific White Tern chick - Mahé, Seychelles © David Chilcott - OWE

Crab Plover - Mahé, Seychelles © Jeff Clarke - OWE

At night, when Bolette was at anchor off Mahé, the ship's lights attracted fish to the surface alongside the ship. We received reports of at least one hammerhead shark apearing but we mostly saw Crocodile Houndfish. During daylight hours we also spotted a couple of small pods of Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins from Bolette's anchor point.

Houndfish alongside MS Bolette at night off Mahé,Seychelles © David Chilcott - OWE

Our next port call after Mahé was Praslin Island. We witnessed plenty of seabird action on the early morning sail-in, with a minimum 2,000 Wedge-tailed Shearwaters streaming past Bolette's bow alongside Seychelles Shearwaters and a party of 40+ Great Frigatebirds.

Praslin Island is home to the Seychelles Black Parrot. A super-sweaty hike from the jetty to the top of the Glacis Noire Nature Trail within Praslin National Park paid off, with superb views of the parrots, alongside bonuses in the form of the Coco de Mer Land Snail, more Seychelles Palm Spiders, Seychelles Day Gecko, Seychelles Bronze-eyed Gecko and Seychelles Swiftlet.

Seychelles Black Parrot - Praslin, Seychelles © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Seychelles Black Parrot - Praslin, Seychelles © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Seychelles Bronze-eyed Gecko - Praslin, Seychelles © Laura Dennis - OWE

Seychelles Day Gecko © David Chilcott - OWE

Seychelles Coco de Mer Snail - Praslin, Seychelles © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Seychelles Swiftlet - Praslin, Seychelles © Jeff Clarke - OWE

View from the summit of Glacis Noire nature trail, Praslin showing MS Bolette at anchor © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Our final Seychelles island stop was La Digue on Christmas Eve, but before going ashore we rescued a Wedge-tailed Shearwater from the promendade deck of Bolette. It thanked Jeff by leaving a bloody mark on his left index finger.

La Digue is a very relaxing island, almost no cars, just bikes and the occasional service vehicle. The main target on La digue is the fabulous Seychelles Black Paradise Flycatcher. This entailed a walk to the Veuve Nature Reserve. Despite nearly two hours of torrential rain as the deluge subsided our patience was rewarded. We eventually managed to get terrific views of this highly range-restricted species. All Paradise Flycatchers are lovely but this one is even more spectacular than most of the others.

Seychelles Black Paradise Flycatcher - La Digue, Seychelles © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Seychelles Black Paradise Flycatcher - La Digue, Seychelles © Jeff Clarke - OWE

25th December 2023 - At sea, west of Seychelles Christmas Day would be the first sea three sea days as we headed for Mombasa, Kenya. When we awoke we were in deep water, for reasons we couldn't fathom. It was a day of ifs and buts. We did reasonably well on the bird front, with thousands of shearwaters and an incredible 500+ White Tern passing Bolette. At one point we watched a frigatebird swoop and snatch a fish off a Sooty Tern, it was then chased by a larger frigatebird and our photographs prove that the initial thief was a Lesser Frigatebird and its pursuer was a Great Frigatebird.

Lesser Frigatebird (left) chased by a Great Frigatebird © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Indo-Pacific White Tern © Jeff Clarke - OWE

At 14.10 we had one sizeable pod of Spinner Dolphin (100+). This was followed an hour later by a real 'aargghh' moment. From our watch position on deck three port side, a couple of small dark dorsals briefly broke the surface half way to the horizon, a quick switch to the scope and they were quickly relocated. At least seven animals surfaced, one porpoised clear and had no discernible beak and appeared all dark. They were small 'blackfish', either Pygmy Killer Whales or Melon-headed Whale. They were languid in the water and barely showed after that. Based on behaviour, size of the pod and the apparent headshape of the porpoising animal, the chances are that these animals were Pygmy Killers, but we couldn't get any clinching views. The were recorded as small blackfish. Truly frustrating.

26th December 2023 - At sea

The day started promisingly with a pod of eight Common Bottlenose Dolphins but in truth it was another tough day at the office. Very hot, a difficult sea, but just enough birdlife periodically to keep our attention.

Thankfully the flyingfish were pinging away from Bolette's bow wake with regularity and this attracted a few Red-footed Boobies to try their luck alongside an immature Masked Booby. Bird of the day was probably a Pomarine Skua which maruaded past the bow on a course for some distant terns.

Unknown species of flyingfish takes wing near MS Bolette's bow © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Red-footed Booby chasing down a flyingfish © David Chilcott - OWE

Masked Booby (a bird in its third year) © Jeff Clarke - OWE

The moment of the day came right at the death, As the sun began to set a large animal slowly rolled right in front of Bolette's bow. It was at the surface for maybe three seconds. A stubby beak and bulbous melon slowly gave way to a fairly tall, falcate dorsal fin, finally a beakie we could put a name to, an unequivical Longman's Beaked Whale. We searched frantically in the wake to see it resurface. In typical 'beakie' style it stayed deep and never showed again.

27th December 2023 - At sea Normal service resumed. Deep water and not much joy to be had. The highlight in the ocean was a Manta Ray that passed close to the port side bow of Bolette, just below the surface.

Manta Ray passes close to the port bow of MS Bolette © David Chilcott - OWE

Just three cetacean sightings at distance and no identification possible. Most of the birds, other than a single Great Frigatebird, also kept their distance from Bolette. In the afternoon OWE resumed their talk schedule and the evening roll call wrapped up this sector of the cruise.

Great Frigatebird (adult male) © Jeff Clarke - OWE

PowerPoint slide example illustrating the variety of flyingfish watched from MS Bolette © David Chilcott - OWE

Jeff giving his 'Why They Flock' talk on MS Bolette 27th December 2023 © Laura Dennis - OWE

Mombasa beckoned. It seemed like more than half of the passengers had booked a safari of some kind. We all went to bed dreaming of East Tsavo...

Note: All the images used in this blog have been taken during the cruise. Copyright to all images remains with the photographer and Ocean Wildlife Encounters. Passengers aboard the illustrated cruise are welcome to copy the images for personal use only.

Acknowledgments: Grateful thanks to Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, the crew of MS Bolette and Peel Talent for enabling Ocean Wildlife Encounters to support this cruise.

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