August 26, 2004

Nairobi, Kenya
The Land of the Smutty Coconut

My day started on Mahe with a mile long walk uphill to the bus stop carrying 55 pounds of luggage in the rain. A taxi to the airport would have cost $30 and the constant price gouging on this island has worn me down to penny-pinching mode, so I opted for the $1 alternative.

The flight out of Mahe was uneventful, aside from a dumbfoundingly slow check-in line. But that seems positively expeditious now that I’m in Kenya.

Stories about hassles and bureaucracy aren’t very interesting. I’ve learned not to share them with other travelers, cause I end up having to listen to theirs and I don’t need that extra dose of pain and frustration in my life. But in this forum I don’t have to worry about hearing your stories, and I desperately need to vent, so please enjoy the following Kafka-escapade:

There are three foreign immigration lines at Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi. One is ambiguously labeled “Visa” and the other two are even more ambiguously labeled “Other Passports.” Not having a visa, and indeed having what I consider to be an “other” passport, I chose the shorter of the latter two lines. I waited at the front of that line for 20 minutes while the same two people stood at the counter in front of me, talking casually to the immigration agent in Swahili. Finally the agent looked past his two buddies and told me that he was going to take a long time and I should wait in a different line. By this point, the other “other” line was 30 people long, and it got even longer when everyone behind me rushed to the new line before I could get there.

So I started waiting in this new line when it occurred to me that the “Visa” line might be for people applying to GET visas, rather than those who already have them. I took a risk and switched lines again. After 5 minutes in this third line, a free-roaming immigration agent came by and asked if I already had a visa. I answered no, and he told me I had to get back in the “Other Passports” line.

Going back to this second line, it took a good 30 minutes to get to the front, where I was told – and it pains me even in writing this – that I was in the wrong line. Since I’m applying for a visa, I should naturally be in the line labeled “Visa.” I explained very clearly that I had just been told the opposite by a guy on the floor. The agent expressed pity and suggested the man was either uninformed, or perhaps some rogue troublemaker. It seems not impossible to me that there are people in this country who get their kicks like that.

So back into the “Visa” line again. By this point, my entire flight has been processed, so the lines are slimming. The guy takes my visa application and everything is going fine. He says it will cost $50. I ask if they take credit card. Of course, they don’t. He tells me to go to one of the banks outside baggage claim, get the $50, and come back. He sends me off, passport in hand, fully stamped and processed. I don’t know why I came back with the money, but I did.

Getting the money from the bank teller was a hoot. I asked for $100 and the teller gave me a $50 and a $5. When I showed him his mistake, he looked at me like I was trying to swindle him. A little bit of shouting cleared that up – either by convincing him I was honest or scaring him out of his “commission.”

But the real fun didn’t start until I was out of the terminal – a white guy, traveling by myself, exposed zippers everywhere, with the letters U.S.A. tattooed in fluorescent colors across my forehead. I had a caravan of people behind me as I walked shouting anything they could think of to get my attention. Bangkok all over again.

I knew I was looking for the Metro bus into the city, but there’s no one you can ask for directions because every single person has an angle. “Oh, the bus is very dangerous. You come with me.” “Oh, the roads are no good this time of day. You must take a taxi.” “Yes, I can sell you a bus ticket right here. You pay in US dollars?”

Any piece of information you share spreads through the group in seconds and they’re all trying to figure a way to make it work for them. The only thing to do is get out of there on foot and get some breathing room. I did that, and soon after I managed to find the bus and get into the city.

The next curveball came at the train station, where I was told there was no train running today. It used to be a daily train, but with the sharp drop in tourism following the embassy bombings in 1998, and then another drop when some planes crashed into some buildings in 2001, and then another drop when Al Qaeda blew up a hotel in Mombasa in 2002…now the train runs every other day.

There is one fundamental rule about Nairobi. I’ve read it and been told it at least a dozen times. It is that you must absolutely never under any circumstances or for any length of time be out after dark. I don’t know what happens at night here, but there is definitely no kidding around about that rule. And there I was at the train station at 6pm and I just found out I’m stuck for the night.

Fortunately, I was standing next to a group of young Italian aid workers. They were planning to go to Mombasa too and had run into the same problem. They offered to give me a ride in their van back to the hostel they were staying at. They seemed a little dodgy, but the situation around me was a whole lot dodgier.

Going with the Italians turned out to be a really really good idea. They took me to what I discovered is a Catholic mission on the outskirts of the city. It’s gated and secured on all sides like a military compound, only with crosses instead of guns. They got me a room in one of the cottages for $14 a night with three buffet meals included.

I had dinner tonight with two Sudanese priests. They’re here getting trained to deal with trauma victims in their country – which I am sure there is no shortage of. We had a fascinating conversation in which they explained the history of the Sudanese conflict. They had very thick accents and I could only understand about half of what they said, but it was a lot more than I knew before.

The thing that surprised me most was learning how pleased they are with the war in Iraq. It turns out the Iraqi government had been supporting the Arab leadership in Khartoum, providing weapons and money for their war against the Christians in the south. With Iraq crippled, the Sudanese government has lost their supplier and are suddenly scrambling. According to these priests, the current peace negotiations are the direct result of the Iraq war. Otherwise the Arabs wouldn’t even be at the table.

From their point of view, the Bush administration has been a liberating force for southern Sudan. They were thrilled when we defied the UN. They understand the messy circumstances of the war and that many people are very angry, but they are in a desperate situation and global politics are not important to them.

Three hours in Kenya and I’m having this conversation.

It’s been an interesting day. This place is alive in a way I don’t often experience. There are life and death struggles everywhere you look. The dire is commonplace. Chaos is the norm. It’s upsetting and it’s tragic, but it’s something else too that I can’t quite articulate and I don’t want to risk trying.

There’s a lot to say about my time on land in the Seychelles and if I agonize over it the way I usually do, I’ll never get around to posting this. So instead here are some semi-stream-of-consciousness ramblings:

The Seychellois are a mixture of Arab, Indian, Chinese, and European heritage, but they are predominantly a nation of freed African slaves. The islands were uninhabited before their discovery by Europeans in the 17th century, and continued to be uninhabited for quite a while after that.

The tiny bits of real estate that poke out above the Indian Ocean are summit points of the mostly sunken continent of Gondwanaland. The 800-some meter peak on the main island of Mahe is the Everest of a lost, prehistoric region we’re unlikely to ever know much about.

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I dig that.

I had three days on the island after my dive trip, and as a daily constitutional, I hiked from one end of the island as high up towards the summit as the roads would go, then down to the other side of the island and back. I’ve still got a mountain climb to prepare for and can’t be slacking off.

The government is – or was until very recently – nominally communist. But like so many other places, its professed ‘ism’ is a thin cover for hysterical greed and self-interest. It was taken by force in the late 70s by some guy with the very sinister-sounding name of Rene, who has since become one of the richest men in the world. I won’t pretend to know how a guy with a country as small as this one could end up as rich as he has, but I suspect it has something to do with the incredible number of banks in the country’s one very small town center. Aside from some DVD rental shops and a casino, banks are about the only thing going in Victoria. I think I smell an international tax haven.

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The combined population of the islands is somewhere around 100,000. It’s small enough that even though the people are thoroughly screwed over and poor, no one is actually starving. Tourist dollars likely have something to do with that too.

The prices in the Seychelles are crazy. I’ve never paid so much for so little. $110 isn’t outrageous for a hotel room in the states, but for a hard bed, intermittent cold, brown water, and a tiny TV with one channel in French, it’s a lot. Fortunately, I only booked one night at that rate before arriving. Once on the island, I was able to get my remaining nights for $70 – still 5 times what I’m paying in Kenya for the same thing.

I paid $12 for a nuked frozen burger patty and a bottle of water.

Most interesting menu item I saw: giant fruit bat curry. That was on the island of La Digue, where I got let off for an afternoon during the dive trip.

I rented a bike to get around. The owner identified me as American – a rare thing on an island of mostly French tourists.

“I love Americans. They are very strong. And very rich. If anyone tries to steal your bike, you will shoot them, yes?’
“No problem. I’ve got a handgun in my bag.”
“Yes. I thought so.”

La Digue is home to L’Union, one of the finest beaches in the world. Walking on L’Union is like invading a collective dreamspace – where we all go in our minds when we don’t want to be where we are. It doesn’t entirely feel like a real place.

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I stole these pictures from Carlo’s camera and they’re not the ones I would’ve taken. What makes L’Union special is the large, smooth, curvaceous slabs of granite that partition the beach into a series of perfect little alcoves.

Also, there are a lot of naked French boobs on display.

Speaking of things salacious, one of the things the Seychelles was famous for among whalers and merchants back in the day was the coco d’mer. It’s a type of coconut, found only on one island, whose shape reminded lonely sailors of…well, you figure it out.

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They sell them now for hundreds of dollars, which strikes me as a lot to pay for a pornographic coconut.

The islands have a strange history of international espionage. There were, during the cold war, secret spy satellite control stations on opposite sides of Mahe – one owned by the U.S., the other by the Soviets. They both paid huge sums of cash to the local government for use of the land, and managed a tense coexistence for several decades. The islands were also a haven for mercenaries and assassins, which I imagine would’ve made for some interesting night life.

The primary language is Creole, a bastardized version of French, but everyone speaks English as well.

This is the only place I’ve ever been where the locals seem to be having more fun than the tourists. The main beaches are often packed with kids playing soccer, music, and practicing the Brazilian dance/martial art of kapuera (I’m very curious how that got here).

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By contrast, the French tourists sit around a lot, get sunburned, and occasionally take walks.

There is one movie theater in the country, the Indian owned and run Deepham Cinema. They have imported their homeland’s love of rigidly enforced, arbitrary rules designed to make customers suffer.

The start time of their early screening is 6:47pm. Patrons are not allowed into the building before this time. They’re forced to wait out in the street until a repurposed fire alarm goes off, signaling to enter. Everyone has to run inside and scramble for a seat as soon as the bell sounds, because the movie has already started.

There are two doors leading into the theater. They are both wide open. Customers are only allowed through one of the doors. There is no sign indicating that this is the case. If the other door is attempted, the guy in the ticket booth starts screaming and bangs his shoe against the glass.

If you ever find yourself in the Deepham Cinema on Mahe island, DO NOT rest your leg on the seat in front of you.

At the time of my visit, they were screening Spiderman 2 and had somehow acquired a massive, 20 foot plastic cut-out of Spiderman hanging upside-down on a web above their marquee. It covered the entire front of the building. I don’t know where it came from or how in the world it got there.

Ah, yes. Spiders. Palm spiders are real, they are very large, and they are all over the island.

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August 18, 2004

Mahe, Seychelles
Chasing the World's Biggest Fish

When a whale shark is spotted, it's like an alarm call in a firehouse. Everyone jumps. The engine stops. The deck starts thumping. Tony and Gerard get the gear ready, Ian and Winfield pull the line on the Zodiac, and Captain Francis keeps his eye on the shark from the bridge. Jean Claude, the deckhand, scrambles around for anything that needs doing. Somewhere in the belly of the ship, Nelson quietly chops onions and Antonia folds fresh towels for when we get back.

The only passengers are me and Carlo, an utterly joyless building contractor from Luxemburg. I remain stumped at how a man so devoid of wonder could have enrolled himself on such an expedition. He has all the finest equipment and is prompt for every dive, yet he exudes the kind of enthusiasm you'd expect from a town deputy ordered to clean up road kill.

I race down to my cabin, toss my glasses on the bed, strip down to my wet suit-friendly lycra shorts, and inelegantly cram my camera into its housing. When I reach the dive deck, Carlo and Tony, our Seychellois dive master, are already wearing their wet suits and waiting for Ian to steer the Zodiac to the side of the ship. I try to catch up, but pulling a full wet suit on in a hurry takes experience and finesse that I don't have. Half-ready, I awkwardly toss my mask, fins, booties, and camera into the Zodiac and we push off.

We sputter around for twenty minutes looking for the shark. Calls go back and forth on the radio between Ian and Captain Francis, looking out over the horizon. They finally spot it. Ian turns the Zodiac to face the shark, revs the engine to push us forward, then shuts it off and we drift. Tony points at the waves until I can see an imperceptibly greener shade of blue under the surface.

"Which way is it moving?" I get no answer, then realize I don't actually care. Just a little nervous that there's nothing left to do -- no procedure for this. You get close and you jump in -- backwards.

There are no tanks involved because they don't like bubbles, so it's just fins and mask. I wait for Tony to go in first and then push off with my feet, waving goodbye to Ian.

There are a few seconds of bubbles and disorientation with backward entry. You right yourself, adjust your mask, and see what's in front of you. In this case it's a 5 meter whale shark -- a baby. Still, my heart pounds and I have to catch my breath through the snorkel. If the thing had teeth, it would be the most terrifying image I've ever seen. Pretty soon its too much. I stick my head up and take some deep breaths. I see Ian and Jean Claude on the Zodiac and all I can think to shout is "Big!" They laugh.

I can't stay up long with something like that underneath me, so I duck down to get another look. It's impossibly huge -- more than twice my length from head to tail. I lift my camera up to start shooting. It doesnt turn on. And then I notice the water line swaying back and forth inside the housing. In the rush, I didn't close the seal properly and the camera has flooded.

Shit.

I swim back to the Zodiac and the camera over. They get it out quickly and start drying it off. I can tell they've had to do this before. It's clearly in better hands with them than me, and I'm missing out on what I came here to see, so I leave the dinghy and shelve my worries for a later time.

I've calmed down a bit by this point and I swim up on top of the thing, watching it slowly glide through the water with its mouth slightly open, catching whatever drifts in. The locals call whale sharks sangren, a Creole spelling of the French word meaning "sad," or "sanguine." The name is surprisingly profound, and understandable when you see it firsthand. This languid, toothless leviathan has no agenda. It's not a hunter and it cannot defend itself. Its size is a deterrent and nothing more.

The urge to reach out and grab it is irresistible -- a strange phenomenon that everyone I ask sheepishly confesses to. You're not supposed to touch them, but touch is so important; maybe to make sure it's real. Anyway, I can't quite reach, and it must know I tried, cause it dives. We follow until it disappears into the blue, then crawl back in the boat.

"Was that your first time?" I'm surprised Tony has to ask, as if it wasn't obvious from my face. He reaches his hand out to shake. "Welcome to the club."

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Tony is a sweet guy and I like him a lot. He's 24, from the island of Praslin. He's never left the Seychelles. His dream is to dive in Aldabra, an atoll a thousand miles southwest of here, toward Madagascar and the African coast. It's uninhabited but for 150,000 giant tortoises, a legendary paradise among serious divers, and one of the most remote places on earth.

His dream will come true next spring when Peter and Maureen, the Swiss owners of the ship, take a group out there.

I say Swiss, but Maureen is actually from my home state of Connecticut. She was an architect in the states, lived in Egypt during the failed coup attempt in the eighties, and later moved to Switzerland, where she married her second husband, Peter. They purchased the Indian Ocean Explorer a few years ago for their impending retirement and are down now on one of their semi-annual trips.

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The ship itself is already enjoying its retirement. An oceanographic research vessel built in Hamburg and used in the North Sea, it can take a lot more abuse than this region will likely throw at it. At fifty years, it still has its original engine -- that's German engineering for ya. They refitted the hull with seven spacious wooden cabins; each includes a full bathroom and a nifty porthole, and conveniently matches my laptop.

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The dive deck was modified for commercial use, and the crane was moved to the third floor sun deck, where it holds two dinghies for trips to shore, dive sites, and for our current purpose of chasing whale sharks.

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We stay out on the Zodiac and wait for Captain Francis to call in another spotting. How he does it is beyond me. There's no equipment involved. He has a pair of binoculars that I've never seen him use.

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Captain Francis came with the ship from its previous owners. He assembled the crew from local islanders, some of them distant family members, others fishermen he knew. Before this job, he worked on cargo ships and traveled the world. He lived in France for a few years and liked it there, but his home is the Seychelles.

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The radio screeches and Captain Francis says something in Creole. We see him pointing. The Zodiac springs forward so fast I have to grab the side rope to keep from falling out. A minute later we're on top of another whale shark and it's clear even from the surface this one is bigger.

In the water, my mind tells me it's a special effect. The hydraulic pumps are hidden. The Universal Studios tour guide will chime in momentarily with some cornball scripted line about the ride malfunctioning and our tram being stuck on the bridge. But no, this thing is bigger than Jaws. Maybe not the one from Jaws 3D, but definitely the first two. It has a huge scar across its back, which we later speculate to be from a propeller, and a chunk missing from its right pectoral fin. Tony says another shark must have bitten it off.

"Well...that's reassuring."

Carlo starts taking pictures. His camera stopped working at the same time mine did, but from a less serious error. He put it in its housing wrong, but the seal held, and the only consequence was an almost drained battery from not being able to turn it off. He has enough juice left to take a few shots.

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I get close to the beast and it doesn't seem to mind. It even loops around to take a head-on look. Finally, I feel confident enough to lightly grab its tail. The thing sweeps away from me and I'm stunned to see something so big move so fast. Then I realize the tail is coming back with enough force to knock me out. I get out of the way. Punitively, the shark dives out of sight and I assume it's time to get back on the Zodiac. But Tony keeps an eye on it and soon it's back on the surface. I follow along next to it, this time at more of a distance, but sporadically diving down to get slightly underneath. We stare at each other for a while. At one point it rolls on its side to get a better angle. Eventually it gets bored and dives down, then back up again. Watching it emerge out of the abyss gives me chills.

This thing I'm looking at closely resembles the terror from the deep that haunts me every time I get in a swimming pool. In a clear, empty body of water, it's part of the imagined unknown. But here it is right in front of me and the fear is a dull whisper. Funny how that works.

Before all this, we started the day with a morning dive that featured a lobster, a white tip, a couple eagle rays, and a misanthropic octopus. I got some good video of the octopus sidling away along a wall, but I was generally bored by the experience. After 60 dives, watching fish hide under rocks doesn't do much for me anymore.

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After the dive, Peter and Maureen headed to shore. They're main purpose here is to do accounting for the ship, and the papers they needed were back on the island. They were gone for the rest of the day, leaving us to search for the elusive whale shark on our own.

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For a couple hours everything was quiet, except for me wandering around pestering the crew with questions. "Do they get close to shore? Do they mind heavy current? Are birds on the surface a good sign? Does the engine scare them away?"

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The crew is polite and tolerant, but a little frustrated not to find anything. The previous week had only one spotting, and by the time they got out on the Zodiac, it was gone. The week before that, they saw three, but again no close encounters. And for the rest of the year, there is nothing. When you consider that this is one of the few places in the world where whale sharks can be reliably spotted, and that we are the only ship in the region bothering to look, it puts into perspective how rare an experience it is to be in the water with the world's largest fish for even a minute.

Interesting piece of trivia: there has never been a single documented sighting of whale shark mating.

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Captain Francis gets a call from a micro-light spotter plane flying over the island. They just saw nine off the southern tip, two hours away. Nine! He tells us to take lunch and wait for word.

The food onboard is fantastic. Nelson, the ship's cook, spent years working on various cruise ships, learning from the different head chefs. He specializes in French and Creole cuisine. Food seems to be his only interest in life. The rest of the crew spends a lot of time loafing around and socializing. I've never seen Nelson speak and he's only very rarely outside the kitchen, always to pull more ingredients from the hold.

I came here thinking I'd be tagging sharks to help get an estimate of their numbers. That turned out to be bogus. Peter says they tried it a few years ago, but whale sharks like being tagged about as much as I like a needle in my arm -- a similar procedure, except the shark gets a puncture wound the size of a golf ball. So the problem is the sharks swim away immediately after days looking for them, not to mention the dangers of handing an inexperienced diver what is essentially a harpoon gun. And in my own speculation, a poorly executed tagging could easily result in a walloping tail thwack.

To sour things even further, the whole global operation of whale shark tagging seems to be somewhat of a boondoggle. A muddled agenda, staffed with the wrong people, and half-assed from the outset, its unlikely to produce any definite conclusions, and far less likely to persuade impoverished third world villagers to abandon a practice that puts money in their pockets and food on their table when nothing else will. If whale sharks survive, it will be their own reclusive ways that save them and not the benevolent research funding of the World Bank.

In the afternoon, we head to shore and pick up Marc, a French freelance journalist working on several potential whale shark pieces for newspapers, magazines, and television. He is immediately charming in that "freelance journalist" sort of way. Nothing is made absolutely clear, but he's been on the island for three weeks and he seems to be sneaking around trying to get at the sharks from any angle he can. He was on the micro-light in the morning and called in the nine sightings. Now he wants to get close.

Meanwhile, I'm exhausted from the sun and increasingly mournful over my camera. Winfield, the chief engineer, and his assistant Gerard, have been drying it with a towel and blowing the remaining moisture off with an air hose attached to an open dive tank. A noble effort, but it's still broken. I get off the Zodiac to see what I can do. Moments later, Captain Francis spots another shark, but I can see from the bridge it's not even the size of the baby we saw in the morning.

Gerard loans me a mini-screwdriver set and a cloth. Having bought the camera in Singapore sixteen months ago, I doubt I could get it replaced. The coffin is sealed by a warranty that doesn't cover dive accidents. Were there anyone on the continent of Africa who could repair it, and I doubt there is, the cost would be greater than if I just bought a new one. Bearing these things in mind, I take to disassembling the camera on the dining table.

It's fun and sort of cathartic. At a point, I'm not trying to repair it so much as I'm performing an autopsy. The moisture is indeed everywhere. I dry the big, juicy morsels, but there are some parts I can't get at without a lobster shell cracker. I carefully put the screws back in so that I once again have a presentably busted camera.

Later on, the loss gives me a sense of relief. It's like the accident was a small earthquake that relieved seismic tension, preventing something worse. Neither I nor anyone else is hurt, and there are so many things that could happen. Swimming with sharks is the last thing to be concerned about. Moving quickly about a heavily swaying steel ship and my own lurching stupidity are much greater dangers.

The Zodiac returns and the passengers are disappointed. The baby they chased swam away and a subsequent sighting was not in the mood to stick around. Marc didn't get any useable footage on his several very expensive cameras. We sit down in the lounge and talk. He tells me a story about crossing the border from Pakistan to Afghanistan on foot in the 80s with no food and a duffel bag full of cash.

Still lamenting my loss, I show Marc my dancing movie and explain that I wanted to get a clip from the water in front of a shark. He takes to the cause immediately, offering to use his cinema-quality digital camera to take the clip as soon as we get a chance, and in the meantime, he gets me to dance on the bow of the ship during some serious waves as back-up. The crew looks on, laughing without a clue of what I'm doing.

Before sunset, Marc shoots an interview with me about the day's encounter. It's sort of a tit for tat with the dancing thing. I try not to sound like an idiot, but fail. It's nearly impossible to be articulate about an encounter with a 25 foot shark. It's like trying to look cool while eating an ice cream cone. The two things are incompatible.

As a postscript, the next several days were sighting-free. I went on a few more dives, made mediocre by the global coral bleaching of 1998. A guarded secret of the dive industry; the after effects of El Nino wreaked havoc on the sea, and the shallow Indian Ocean worst of all. Once colorful coral gardens are now graveyards, and the effect has worked its way up the food chain. There are signs of recovery, but coral grows slowly and our gluttonous fisheries aren't helping things.

On the last day of the cruise, we got lucky and dove with two whale sharks and had a brief encounter with a manta ray, which is very uncommon in these waters.

I enjoyed the trip enormously. I did a lot of reading, a lot of writing, and a lot of staring out at the sea from the lookout platform. Next up is three quiet days on the main island of Mahe before my flight to Nairobi and a hopefully-not-too-harrowing overland journey to Mombasa.