The Ankle Deep Sea – Cotton Bay and the Priority Zone

The meals at Cotton Bay were not brilliant, though they did have some signature seafood dishes, and I was glad of a cold Phoenix after the rollercoaster travels I had come through in the last couple of days. We discussed our plans.  I had to visit the government departments in Port Mathurin and see what data existed.  Like on many islands, the mapping of Rodrigues was not great – part of the problem is no-one had ever really worked out a good map projection of the island and now everything was going digital, you could not fit one map over another easily.  I also was to sit in with SHOALS, our key collaborators in Rodrigues.  As opposed to the Ministry of Environment on the mainland, SHOALS of Rodrigues are a small  NGO trying to look after the huge lagoon that surrounds the island; they do an incredible amount of research with support from UK universities, as well as community outreach and education.  They were to be our partners for the marine and land surveys that Jeremy and I were to manage. They were based in a small shed adjacent to the little estuary where many fishing and other boats moored up in Port Mathurin.  Because of the lagoons, we could not always use the SHOALS equipment, but had to hire fishermen from our launch sites.

Our Priority Zone for this area was the east coast.  Several new hotel developments were planned along the cliffs.  The reef was limited as it was on the more exposed side of the island – I was a little surprise it had been chosen. It was an area where less research had been done by others, so we were balancing out areas of focus for SHOALS, I suppose, but it did not really move our work forward much.

Mike, Jeremy and I wandered along part of the coastline; not as part of the formal survey but to gauge some of the issues along here.  There really were none.  The coastline here was predominantly a hard limestone rock falling as a cliff into crystal clear waters full of coral and fish and other life.  Yes the coastal vegetation was degraded by overgrazing and the drought, but this was by no means irreversible.  There was no pollution to speak of, and if there were any it was quickly broken up by the energy of the sea.  No developments had compromised either the land or the sea.

The resulting landscape had probably not changed for generations and was a fabulous mix of small sandy coves in amongst the hard rock bluffs, and a well developed reef that was pummelled by natural forces but had learnt to survive them.  The local population obviously revelled in these locations – we saw a bunch of fishermen stripped down to their briefs trying to trap large pelagic fish in one beach.  Another bay was perfectly fan shaped – its narrow entrance managed to deflect most of the ocean’s energy away and only a diluted diffusion of waves spread between the two high limestone cliffs.  I snorkelled in here quite safely, although with the energy of the sea and the sandiness of the bay there were only a few shoals of fish to observe.  The waves undercut the cliffs and formed small caverns.  It was perfection.  If it were almost anywhere else it would be a highly prized touristic site, but this was Rodrigues where such natural beauty was almost taken for granted.

We walked back to the beach where we had left our rented pick up and, next to an enormous spider’s web, managed to assimilate this wonderful coastline and start thinking how it could be protected, and yes, exploited, for the good of Rodrigues.  Exploitation is a dirty word amongst conservationists, but we needed to find a way where people would healthily conserve this pristine environment and showing them a form of exploitation for them was the only way forward we could find, sustainable exploitation.  We had to persuade them that by keeping it almost the same as it is – with a little ecotouristic enhancement  – they could exploit people who came to experience the same life enhancing  moments we had for free.

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Walking the Beaches – The other side of Le Morne

We broke off for the day when we hit the main road – there was not much left to do but we were not going to get it done in one session.  We waited quite a while for Keith to arrive (he had apparently taken a leisurely lunch at an Indian restaurant along the coast), and he drove us back to Calodyne.  It was the scariest thing that ever happened to me in Mauritius.  Keith talked and talked normally, but I had never experienced him driving  – we had tried to avoid him taking the wheel.  We now knew why – he continued to talk  (and look at us while he was talking)  and we had several near misses on the road back to Port Louis.  The worst was when he tried to slip into the traffic on the M2 heading into the city centre, right in front of a petrol tanker.  The screech of brakes and rubber on tarmac as the tanker swerved past us on the other lane, only just managing to find a gap between two cars, was too much.  We were glad to get to the office in one piece and we never let him drive us again.

Jeremy and I headed back to the Morne the next day to complete the survey.  We knew it would not take too long, but it was still an hour’s drive down there and we wanted to avoid the Port Louis traffic.  But once in le Morne area we decided we could take it a little easier.  We had worked bloody hard over the last couple of weeks, the sheer physical exertion of conducting both the sea and land surveys was sapping, so we started with a coffee in a little cafe in Black River before heading to pick up the survey route.

This section started with us traversing a hard pan of volcanic pebbles revealed by the low tide – like tamped hard core, and was remarkably easy to walk across.  A few drains and the occasional mangrove stand was all we saw.  Eventually we reached the village of Gaullette.  I’d driven down the main road next to Gaullette many times and seen the usual mix of half constructed villas, family homes, little shops and a couple of bars and restaurants, as well as the odd institution – the school , the police post.  It looked the typical Mauritian village.  But I had noticed  as you sped past on the tarmac that there were pathways into the trees and you go a glimpse of washing hanging out by tin shacks and children playing outside.

Now we were walking the coastline slowly we had time to see more detail.  While not the impoverishment of some African villages or city suburbs, this was at the bottom of the scale for Mauritius.  In most cases people were living in concrete buildings, but there were some that were roughly made and packed with people.  They were also built below the main village, right on the fringes of the coast.  Indeed because they were often spilled out onto this hard pebbly core, the tide would relentlessly come in and flood their compounds.  Some had attempted to build their own rudimentary defences.  Even the best ones, made of concrete walls, had gaps in that the water would just flood over.   The worst defences were made of brushwood and palm leaves and did little more than mark out the space.

People used the coastline as a refuse dump, not just for household waste but also fly tipping larger items, and, worst of all, their sewage flowed out of pipes at the edge of their plots onto the pan of the lagoon.  We had to pick our way carefully through several hundred metres of this, and once or twice we slipped in our steps and our trainers sank deep into the mud, the slime oozing over our uppers.

Despite this, there was some industry down here, fishing boats every so often, a boatyard or two (unfortunately their waste products also spilled into the lagoon).  I could not help but glance across the wide open stretch of the lagoon to the exclusive peninsula we were on the day before, and its sumptuous excess.  So many tourists would never see even a hint of the world we were exploring around the coastline of Mauritius.  Their experience of the Creole way of life was a highly sanitised one of people in highly coloured clean costumes dancing Sega, the local custom, of curious little artefacts that they can purchase in the foyers of their hotels without once stepping out on to the road or leaving the company of talkative tourist guides who will keep cheerful and informative but never be controversial.

Walking the Beaches – Shrines

More than anywhere else in Mauritius, the Morne is a corner of the coastline, moving from the calm protected lagoons of the west coast to the harsher but more ruggedly beautiful south coast.  As it is backed by the Black River Gorge mountains, the highest in the island, the landscape is quite overpowering and feels cut off from the regular landscapes to the north and east.

Le Morne is another long drive from Calodyne in the north but this time we came with our colleague, Keith, who was a coastal engineer.  He left us by the filao trees at the south end of Le Morne Village and headed off to look at some of the engineering issues around the peninsula we were to walk.  We arranged to meet him at a road junction later in the afternoon.  I was sorry in a way we were not getting to walk the opposite direction.  The coast down to Souillac from here was a gorgeous mix of sand dunes and small lagoons, not as dynamic as the previous walk, but with the roaring sea only half a kilometre away on the fringing reef.  With the mountains behind and a series of sleepy Creole villages and old sugar plantations, it was an interesting mix.

We would head west, though, and the walk ahead was still going to be stunning  – even from the beach at the village of the Morne, the bluff looked magnificent against  the early morning sun.   We dealt with the minimal issues along the village front – a couple of storm drains that might cause pollution but nothing serious, and headed out on to a long spit of sandy land.  The lagoons around the Morne are the shallowest of any around the island, and at low tide large expanses of coral rubble and rocky fragments are exposed.

In the middle of the lagoon here, a couple of catholic shrines had been set up.  Taking religious ownership of the water was a strong trend in Mauritius – the Hindus in particular were not averse to setting up huge temples in lagoons, on small islands or low rocky headlands.  At best these looked functional, at worst the most horrible excesses of gaudiness, with badly painted , badly cast concrete or plastic representations of their deities being plonked unsympathetically in the environment.  Don’t get me wrong, a well designed and sculptured Hindu temple can be a delight, the detail mesmerizing and its colours vivid statements against the drabness of human routine.  But so many examples I saw were not of high quality, and spoilt for me what could be an incredibly aesthetic view, as spiritual in its own right as much as any group of icons.  The use of clay pots in various religious ceremonies close to the water’s edge has left a significant debris layer around many a bay.  Some religious tensions have grown up around these practices and especially the building of temples or placing of statues on what should be common land.  The Catholic response has been to set up statues and crosses in various parts of the lagoon and this is what we could see – with binoculars we could see there was a white Virgin Mary statuette.  Why there was felt the need to have somewhere to have a pilgrimage to on Assumption Day, I could never find out.

Walking the Beaches – The iconic Morne

The last area I walked as part of this study was the south western corner of Mauritius.  For reasons I shall explain later, I never got to walk the coast round Ile D’Ambre.  If Pont  Naturel and le Souffleur were unexpected landscapes here, Le Morne Brabant is the iconic feature of all tourist brochures.  A large cubic bluff of land sticking out beyond the main island, enclosed by two large lagoons, it has long been surrounded by a cluster of exclusive resorts.  The western side has some of the best beaches on the island, and the south western tip had one of the few locations where surfing works, but the southern lagoon was popular with all kinds of active sports from dinghies and jet skis to kite surfs and diving.

le Morne is not just a recent global tourist symbol, but has always held a special part in Mauritian history and is of almost spiritual importance to the Creole community.  It was here that Creole slaves would escape to from the harshness of a sugar plantation.  The geology of the Morne allowed the mountain to be used like a fortress.  On the only side where an approach is truly feasible, a huge gully splits the massif.  The Slaves were able to use a plank across this gap and pull it up like a drawbridge when anyone tried to get close.  They then lived in the caves around the central block.  Life must have been harsh here in what became known as the Maroon Republic, the freshwater limited to what the clouds condensed or could be caught in the limited rainfall of this part of the island.  Food had to be scavenged or foraged for from the sparse vegetation or forays back across the plank.

The end of the maroon period was also tragic – when the authorities tried to communicate to the occupants of le Morne that slavery had been abolished, the former slaves misinterpreted the approach as an act to capture them, and threw themselves over the edge of the cliffs to escape; threw themselves to their death.  In amongst Mauritius’ beauty and opulence, it seems there has been a lot of heartbreak and misfortune in its history.

Ever since, the Morne has become a focus of the search for the Mauritian identity.  Like many formerly colonised territories, history was often forged, built and written by the occupiers, whereas the vast majority of inhabitants were seen as bit part players.  Mauritius had both the slavery period and the indentured period, and the sources of populations from both these parts now form the dominant communities.  For the Creoles, they came from slave ships forcing them here from Africa; for the Indian community, both Hindu and Muslim, it was the promise of better lives that brought them to the island, only to be indentured into a lifestyle that was little better than a slave’s.  A symbolic part of that journey into indenture was the gateway at Port Louis where they disembarked from the ships from India.  Although now it looks little more than a series of much altered stone warehouses tucked behind the main road through Port Louis, Aapravasi Ghat, or the Immigration Depot, holds a symbolic place in Mauritian Indians culture, and was awarded a World Heritage Site status in 2006.  The Indian population, and in particular the government majority, want to highlight its importance both nationally and to visitors, so much so that in 2008 a series of road signs were created pointing to Aapravasi Ghat from almost every corner of the island.

The Creole population were put out that this Indian site was put forward as representative of cultural identity, and it heightened the activities to get the Morne better recognised, and it duly became the island’s second World Heritage Site in 2008.

Walking the Beaches – Calming down Mike

Mike arrived in the pickup, fuming at some politics at the office in Port Louis and also at not being able to find the road to the beach in Le Bouchon.  To me the off the beaten track nature of the beach was part of its magic – Mauritius had so many corners that seemed a world away from the busy active island elsewhere – but to Mike right now this was a huge cause of irritation.

We tried to calm him down by promising to show him the most marvellous view.  We navigated him back around the cane fields and into the Pays geometrique, past some of the cattle fields and high stone walls till we opened out at Pont Naturel.  We walked him up to the rocks and we sat next to the arch and drank some Phoenix Beer.  It was still grey and cloudy but the sheer energy of this coastline was infectious, a uniquely important landscape to the whole republic.   However, it was  tragedy-tinged that day.  We spoke with a local guy still searching the headlands.  Two young adults were lost here and it was thought they had committed suicide at Pont Naturel; the search parties were looking for the bodies in the water, as was the helicopter from the airport.  Regrettably this kind of occurrence was all too common, and Pont Naturel was a favoured spot as a lovers’ leap.  Having strong communities of Muslim and Hindu means arranged marriages are a norm, and lovers who have affairs without the families’ sanction are destined to be isolated.  Suicide could seem the only way, and the south east coastline was the spot.  What a desolate last journey those kids must have gone on, from whatever part of the island they came from, through the cane fields and woodland, out to this clifftop where others picnic, play and come to see the beauty and force of nature, only to use that force for themselves to wipe out their existence.

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Stormy waters calm severed nerves

Walking the Beaches – The mystery of the lagoon

When we eventually got out on the water looking for the algal mats that were the source of material on the strand line became a priority.  This coastline was a problem to navigate in; whereas elsewhere the lagoons were wide and extensive, here there were several rocky barriers that meant we had to use either different boats in each section or transport the boat by road from ramp to ramp to obtain full access.  Even so, one or two of the smaller lagoons at the southern end were inaccessible by any boat.  Also, the prevailing wind direction for Mauritius was from the south east at this time of year, which impacted strongly on the Belle Mare area; whereas Grand Baie had been sheltered, the outer reef was bashed by high waves almost continually, and where the reef was broken up by deep water gaps called passe, the currents rushed in causing a significant hazard for a small open boat.

Again we were lucky to use glass bottom boats, and had a charming Creole captain who was much more courageous and lagoon-savvy than his Grand Baie counterpart.  We were afraid we were going to find the whole lagoon smothered in a green algal covering, choking the reef to death.  On the satellite imagery I had interpreted there were large dark green areas throughout the lagoon and the characteristic colours and textures of reef were rarely present.

The nearshore area was sandy bottom, with the occasional rocky substrate, as we expected.  When we reached the first of these dark green areas, we were astounded.  Yes there was algae tangled around the reef but the reef itself was very much alive, and if anything expanding.  On the staghorn coral, at the ends of lots of little yellow branches appeared almost fluorescent blue patches of recent growth, and there were not just the large ancient stands of coral heads, but plenty of tiny baby corals starting to branch out.  In fact, it was the liveliest and most densely packed area of coral organisms I had seen anywhere in Mauritius. Tangled up amongst it was all this algae, though.

We trawled extensively over the lagoon trying to pick up clues on the original source of the algae and the impact on the reef but we continually saw that the reef and other habitats here were generally in broad health, despite the slimy covering.  Then the boat engines cut.  The captain had underestimated the amount of running around we were going to do and the boat’s fuel tank was empty.  The boat started to drift northwards along the lagoon parallel to the beach.  Fortunately when the power was lost, the boat was less than thirty metres from the shore, and given our captain was local he spotted a friend on the beach.  It happened to be a Sunday and the beach was busy enough.  Although he spoke in Creole, we got the Captain’s drift; he was asking his friend to fetch some more fuel from a nearby resort.  As in many places the water was shallow and our helper splashed out with some more outboard motor fuel in a large water bottle.  Our captain gave him a grubby rupee note and then looked at the water bottle – he looked at us all in the boat waiting for him to start again and smiled.  He handed the bottle to me and reached below the outboard motor to release the fuel intake pipe.  He dipped it in the open bottle, then fired up the outboard.  He took back the bottle and settled it on the seat beside him then with a huge grin on his face recommenced the trip.

Walking the Beaches – the mystery of the east coast algae

Our work on the coast at Belle Mare and Palmar was split in a similar way to before – trips in the lagoon to look at the coral reef and seagrass beds, and walking the coast to look at defences and other issues.  A major new issue here was the washing up of huge amounts of algal material onto the shoreline day after day.  The Department of the Environment for  whom we were working had done some preliminary investigations.  The Beach Authority were trying to tackle the result.  In a few days, a layer of algae would coat most of the beaches from one end of the lagoon to the other, and the rate would increase if the weather had been turbulent.  Having decaying alga on your beaches is severely detrimental to your tourist image (you would not put it in your brochures!) so the hotels employed people to rake it off the beaches every day.  That was not so bad where a resort had , say 100m of beach, but the larger resorts and the public beaches had kilometres to clear.  In some places the work was on an industrial scale, with diggers coming down on the beach to scoop up the strandline, and trucks towing away the smelly , dirty loads.  One day, when exploring the back of the district to look for possible reasons for why the algae was blooming in the lagoon, we discovered where they were dumping the problem – along a disused forest track there was several hundred metres worth of rotting algae over 3 metres high in places.  It was posited with Environment that they could be looking at this as a valuable source of fertiliser is the salt could be washed out.

Before commencing the detailed survey we looked around the area to try and find the reason why the lagoon was starting to choke with algae.  Pollution seemed the obvious culprit – enriching the lagoon with either agricultural inputs or human waste, but there were no natural run off channels along this part of the coast.  Instead the coast was a sandy berm higher than the immediate hinterland.  Behind the sand, in an intensely agricultural zone predominated by onion growing,  were several freshwater lakes.  We took a close look at them but could not see any concentrated sources where fertiliser could be running off – so unless it was the combined effort of all the onion growers or the large catchment from the island’s interior covered in sugar cane fields,  we could not fathom it out.  If it were just the drip drip effect of so much agriculture – why was the algae prevalent in the lagoon here but not elsewhere in the island where similar intensity of agriculture was in the catchments that fed into them.

We did work out how any pollutants could potentially be transferred from these lakes into the sea, though.  A common feature of both sandy coastlines and ones where permeable rocks exist is that freshwater can leak through and appear at or below the shoreline.  While we were walking the coast, we noticed damp patches in the sand, even pools in some places, and in a couple of instances could see water bubbling up in a spring.  A quick finger in the water and taste test determined that the water was sweet and we duly noted these locations in case we found some pattern of these against the distribution of the algae in the lagoon itself.  Only after a few taste tests like this did we suddenly think – what if this is a sewage leakage of some sort?  Well, we spat out the sample as soon as we had our verdicts, and I never did get diarrhoea during this period, so it must have been “safe” – at least in a field working manner if not covering health and safety rules.

The other potential source was human effluent, but the resort hotels were meticulous about their sewage treatment – why would they not be – there was no point dumping waste in the lagoon you wanted your guests to swim, dive and sail in.  Occasional transgressions may occur when some failure in the system caused a leak, but it would never be on the scale to cause such algal blooms.

The other potential source could be offshore.  I know many beaches in the Caribbean can suffer from huge builds up of seaweed, thought to have been carried in on wind and wave from the Sargasso Sea, but I knew of no equivalent in the nearby Indian Ocean.