Marvel at sooty tern colonies and the world’s largest giant tortoise on this exclusive island.
Remote Bird Island, another privately owned sandy speck in the ocean, lies 105km northwest of Mahé on the edge of the Seychelles Bank. It is, in fact, the most northerly island in the Seychelles, being a mere fraction closer to the Equator than Denis. It covers only 70ha of land, is 1,500m long and 750m wide.
Very little is known of the early history of Bird but the first recorded visit was in 1771 when the master of The Eagle charted the island. In 1808, a French privateer, Hirondelle, with 180 people on board, was wrecked on the reef and the survivors remained on the island for three weeks while they constructed a raft, before sailing to Mahé.
Bird was originally called Île aux Vaches (‘Island of Sea Cows’), after all the dugongs that grazed on the prolific seagrasses in the clear waters. They have become extinct but the island is still sometimes referred to as Île aux Vaches and it appears on many maps as such.
In 1896, guano was already being mined on the island and 17,000 tonnes were removed between 1900 and 1905. At the end of that phase, coconuts were planted for the copra industry. The present owner bought the island in 1967, an airstrip was cleared, and a small tourist lodge was developed. He declared the island a wildlife sanctuary in 1986 and the lodge was upgraded. Over the years, the lodge has been enlarged and upgraded but it remains a delightful, unpretentious hotel with a blend of hospitality, relaxation and simplicity in a natural environment.
What to see and do on Bird Island
Bird, as its name implies, is for the birds, and they are the main tourist attraction of the island. Walking paths traverse the island and reveal a variety of natural and introduced plants. Guests are free to wander anywhere around the nature reserve on easy and well-marked sandy paths. Besides, it is such a small island you could never get lost!
About 800,000 pairs of sooty terns breed there during the southeasterly trade wind season. Their first ‘wide awake’ calls are heard as early as mid-March when they start gathering prior to nesting. Great noisy masses of terns swirl over the island like a low, hazy cloud and by June they are laying their eggs.
The sooty tern colony is at the northern end of the island, reached by walking along the beach and following the sign inland. A small raised platform enables guests to have a good view over the nesting ground without disturbing the birds.
Tortoises and turtles
Besides the birds, 24 giant Aldabra tortoises live out a quiet life, roaming wherever they please, even grazing the airstrip. The largest tortoise in the world, Esmeralda, lives on the island and when he was weighed by the Royal Zoological Society in 1980, he broke the scales at 303kg and is reputed to be around 250 years old! Two yellow-and-black radiated tortoises from Madagascar, called Jeremy and Jermina, can also be found wandering around.
Both green and hawksbill turtles use the sandy beaches for their nests, which are closely monitored by staff, together with interested guests, under a programme initiated by Dr Jeanne Mortimer. It is a great thrill for guests to see the hawksbill turtles laying their eggs during the day between October and January, and also a special treat to see the tiny turtle hatchlings making their way to the open ocean. As many as 13,000 turtle hatchlings can emerge in one season.
Getting to Bird Island
Any of the tour operators on Mahé will be able to arrange a visit to the island. Alternatively, the Bird Island office at the Inter-Island Quay, Victoria, will make all the necessary arrangements. Air Seychelles flights, in small aircraft, depart from the domestic airport, take about 30 minutes and are arranged in conjunction with the accommodation.
Guests are met on the grass runway by the friendly island managers and are taken to the reception area where they receive an informative and passionate talk about the island. A motor-boat trip from Mahé to Bird takes about 8 hours.