March 19, 2020
This story was originally titled: Guardians of Cosmoledo. To read the full story, look for Fly Fisherman's 'Destinations' edition, now on osgnnewsstand.
The morning of our first day on Cosmoledo Atoll, I walked across a wide expanse of sand toward six white skiffs anchored on long tethers. Keith Rose-Innes was there talking to head guide Cameron Musgrave while I loaded my rods and gear into his boat. I overheard only part of the conversation, but I heard Musgrave say: “I don’t think you’ll make it across there, mate. The tide’s too low.”
Rose-Innes looked southwest across the lagoon and replied, “I guess we’ll just have a look at it.”
He quickly stowed the anchor and rope, loaded the cooler, and in minutes we were on plane, weaving our way through a minefield of coral heads, and across shallow turtle grass flats.
When we made it to South Pass, he navigated the swells coming from the open ocean, turning almost 180 degrees to the northeast and running just outside the breakers along Wizard Island.
To our left was the outside reef surrounding the atoll; to our right, the open ocean. Below us, a pattern of dark parallel cracks ran through the coral. Most of them were deep, narrow fissures, but up ahead there was a wide lane with a sandy bottom and broken outcrops of coral heads exposed to the sun. Here, the ocean didn’t break in white waves over the reef, it surged through the gap, creating a lane for fish moving from the ocean to the fertile feeding grounds inside the reef.
Since 2004, this place has been called Keith’s Cut, and while a novice might see it as a logical passage to the inside, Rose-Innes took a wide berth around the only navigable opening, and turned the bow toward the beach. In front of us, white waves crashed over the reef, and the wave troughs left the coral exposed. It was obvious that if we got caught on the reef, the waves would turn us sideways, capsize the boat, and give us a thrashing.
Rose-Innes let one wave pass, twisted the throttle of the outboard motor, and caught the crest of the next wave. While the skiff was riding high on the curl of the wave, he quickly pulled the tilt pin, lifted the outboard motor, and surfed the boat over the reef. Now, we were on the other side, prepared to meet the giant trevallies that we hoped would be cruising through Keith’s Cut toward us.
When Rose-Innes first laid eyes on Cosmoledo Atoll, he thought he might be the first fly fisher to set foot on it. Of course, it was no stranger to humans. In the 1800s, whaling ships frequented the entire Aldabra Group of islands to stock up on turtle meat, and in the early 1900s fleets of ships sailed across many oceans to mine guano throughout the Seychelles. At one time, the Campbell Soup Company even had an outpost on Cosmoledo to feed America’s insatiable appetite for turtle soup.
Those early visitors had their minds on two things—survival and profit—and likely paid little attention to the triggerfish that appeared on coral oceanside flats at the start of the incoming tide. They probably didn’t notice the GTs surfing in the waves, or see the schools of bonefish ghosting over white sand flats.
Cosmoledo Atoll had been abandoned and uninhabited for many years when Rose-Innes first spotted it on nautical charts in a government office in Victoria, the capital city of the Seychelles. A South African by birth, he was taught how to fly fish by his Scottish grandfather. His father was a trout fisherman also. Saltwater fly fishing got in his blood when he was 17 years old, and his dad and three friends chartered Island Girl from Mahé, and motored to St. Joseph’s Atoll for a week of big-game fishing.
Each morning his dad dropped him on the beach of the remote atoll armed with only a 7-weight Killwell fly rod, Daiwa reel, Cortland 444 fly line, and a spool of 20-pound-test Chameleon Maxima. He had learned to tie flies from Lefty Kreh’s book Saltwater Fly Patterns, a volume that was smuggled into South Africa during the apartheid era, and given as a gift from his grandmother to his grandfather in 1992. From that book, he learned to tie Crazy Charlies, Gallasch’s Skipping Bugs, and Bucktail Deceivers, and he had those flies with him when he first discovered bonefish.
“I slept under the coconut trees in the afternoons, swam over deep channels to get to far-off flats, and found bonefish in the shallows on the ebb tide,” he says. “I had no polarized sunglasses, so I couldn’t see fish unless they were tailing. I’ll never forget trying to entice two massive fish with golden sickle-shaped tails. I had no idea what they were, and I didn’t find out for many years that they were a couple of Indo-Pacific permit.”
His “light bulb moment” about guiding in the Seychelles occurred 1998 when he accompanied a group of fly fishers to Clipperton Island. The group traveled eight days to get there, and it was then he realized that the fishing in the Seychelles—just a five-hour flight from Johannesburg—was much better.
He got started in the fly-fishing industry in the mid-1990s, working as a self-taught fly-fishing host in the Seychelles, and to fill the gaps between those trips, a guide on the Ponoi River in Russia (eventually he became head guide there ), and a retail clerk at Farlow’s on Pall Mall in London. The Indian Ocean was always his end game, and when he first saw Cosmoledo in 2004, Rose-Innes and his business partner had already opened up regular fishing venues on Farquhar Atoll, Providence, and Astove Atoll.
When he arrived on Cosmoledo, it was aboard the 100-foot schooner Mika, chartered from Elizabeth, South Africa. The captain had never experienced the outer atolls of the Seychelles, and they soon found that the depths on the old nautical charts from Mahé were inaccurate. They explored the inner lagoon at high tide, but when the tide dropped, the Mika flopped onto its side, grounded by its deep keel.
Flats fishing (particularly wading) is often best at the start of the incoming tide when cooler ocean water begins to flood over the shallows, and Rose-Innes remembers wading far from the grounded Mika, planning for the captain to pick him up when the water became deep enough to float the schooner. But when the water passed his waist, he could see in the distance the mast of the schooner was still at 45 degrees. It was impossible to wade back to the grounded ship against the tide, so Rose-Innes inflated his waterproof backpack, dumped the water from waistpack bottles, and was floating with his boots off by the time the captain picked him up.
In those days, the Seychelles was like the Wild West of fly fishing. If you got there first, what you saw was untouched, pristine saltwater flats and a stampede of gamefish, everything from GTs to triggerfish, Napoleon wrasse, bonefish, and at least two kinds of Indo-Pacific permit. And you had it all to yourself.
But the Earth’s population has grown by two billion since Keith Rose-Innes first set foot on Cosmoledo, with most of those in nearby Africa and Asia.
Conventional sport fishermen soon started showing up on islands throughout the Seychelles, living aboard their own ships, fishing by any method they chose, taking what they could, and moving on to the next island. Illegal fishing vessels from nearby Madagascar and the Comoros also began entering the fertile waters around the Seychelles Outer Islands. Aldabra became a World Heritage Site in 1982 and has been carefully patrolled ever since, but many of the other more isolated and uninhabited islands were randomly pillaged by illegal poachers. Meanwhile, Keith Rose-Innes and his partners hosted their catch-and-release clients on chartered live-aboard vessels, moving from one island to the next to keep ahead of the curve and keep on top of the best fishing.
Then, in 2009, disaster struck. The 115-foot Indian Ocean Explorer—chartered by Rose-Innes’s company—sailed 60 miles from Cosmoledo to Assumption after a successful week of fly fishing. Aboard were two Americans, two Canadians, and seven South Africans. They disembarked to wait for their flight from the airstrip, and Capt. Francis Roucou set a northeast course for Mahé. The Indian Ocean Explorer had provided accommodations for guests at Cosmoledo for several months, and was finished for the season.
Just before midnight on March 27, Capt. Roucou was awakened by 11 heavily armed pirates who boarded the ship and forced him to set a course for Somalia. When they finally anchored along the central Somali coast, the pirate boss who came aboard to appraise the haul was greatly disappointed. His crew had previously captured the Faina, a Ukrainian freighter carrying 33 Russian tanks, and just two months earlier, the Sirius Star, a 1,000-foot tanker carrying 2 million barrels of Saudi crude oil. The Indian Ocean Explorer was a former research vessel built in the 1950s, and had no wealthy tourists aboard . . . just a crew of working-class Seychellois.
The pirates negotiated with the Seychelles government for nearly eight weeks, beginning with a ransom demand of $4 million for the return of the ship and crew. In the end, the government paid $450,000 for the safe return of the crew, and the Somalis burned the Indian Ocean Explorer.
Shortly afterward, different Somali pirates captured the 500-foot U.S.-flagged container ship Maersk Alabama. The crew of the American ship resisted, locking themselves in the engine room where they retained control of the ship, and the Somalis escaped on a lifeboat with just a single hostage: U.S. citizen Capt. Richard Phillips. When the Somalis first spotted the Maersk, they saw it as a financial windfall, but it was literally the beginning of the end for pirates in the region. Four days after they boarded the Maersk, snipers from Navy SEAL Team Six killed the three pirates in the lifeboat with simultaneous shots to the head. Soon after, NATO started Operation Ocean Shield to put an end to piracy in the region. The joint effort involved a huge number of U.S. warships, including the aircraft carriers USS Enterprise, the USS Carl Vinson, and many other warships. Operation Ocean Shield lasted from 2009 until 2016, when the final operation was to carefully photograph 1,800 km of the Somali coastline, including all the protective inlets and camps to provide a detailed intelligence report against future activities. Piracy in the region dropped from 236 attempts in 2011 to two unsuccessful attacks in 2014, and it’s been nonexistent in the Seychelles for the last five years.
A Path Forward
After the Explorer was burned, Rose-Innes came to several important conclusions, most importantly that live-aboard vessels were not the best way to operate in the Indian Ocean. After the Explorer and Maersk incidents, the Seychelles government closed the Outer Islands to all live-aboard vessels for the duration of Operation Ocean Shield, but Rose-Innes’s motives were internally motivated, and more about the quality of the experience and the health of the fishery. Live-aboard ships are often incredibly cramped, with 10 guests or more and all the guides, crew, and support staff stuffed inside. They limit the operator’s ability to manage all aspects of the operation, and they aren’t good for the fishery. The lights attract all sorts of baitfish, and the guests often take advantage of the situation, catching and releasing GTs and other fish off the stern until the early hours of the morning. Those fish survive, but they don’t show up on the flats the next day. Most important, a live-aboard operation takes advantage of the fishery, but gives nothing back. The ship stays for a period of time, and then leaves with just a hope and a prayer that the fishing is as good next season.
Rose-Innes was confident there was a better way. He sold his portion of the outfitting business, and in 2012 found new partners to start Alphonse Fishing Company. His plan was simple: secure a land-based agreement from the Seychelles government to set an example of how sustainable resource management is more profitable than exploitation, and control the type and amount of fishing pressure his guests would exert on the Alphonse group of islands. There would be no conventional fishing on the reefs or flats, and the number of catch-and-release guests would be restricted to produce the best possible fishing.
“From that point on, I refused to do it any other way,” Rose-Innes told me one afternoon while we removed old fishing nets from a turtle-nesting site called Normandy Beach. “If you can’t protect the fishery, there’s no point in doing all this. You’ve got to have boots on the ground.”
Once the Marine Protected Areas Act is in place, it will set fishing regulations, limit the number of rods, the type of tackle, and where they can fish. A land-based operation provides a useful vantage point to monitor the fishery 365 days a year.
At Alphonse, guests stay in comfortable beach bungalows, suites, or entire villas, with incomparable fishing for milkfish as well as bonefish, triggerfish, giant trevally, and a host of other gamefish. Rose-Innes showed that a successful Seychelles-based business with significant investment was the best way to protect the fish and the ecosystem.
When Alphonse Fishing Company started, it allowed 14 rods per day, while the owners worked hard at building a parallel eco-tourism business called Blue Safari Seychelles. This side of the business caters to nonfishing guests who ride bikes around the island, take guided nature walks to see giant Aldabra tortoises, assist Island Conservation Society (ICS) researchers in their turtle tagging efforts, and take guided snorkel tours inside the reef. It’s a safari in the sea, with boats heading out daily to swim with dolphins, whales, sailfish, sharks, and manta rays. Blue Safari also operates the island’s 5-star PADI dive operations with a staff that matches the quality of the fly-fishing guides. All the guests economically support a number of ongoing research projects and they create an economy that ensures the ongoing protection of the atoll.
When I last spoke to Rose-Innes, he had 137 full-time employees on Alphonse (there are no other permanent residents) and due to the success of the eco-tourism operations, he was able to reduce the number of pre-sold rods per day from 14 down to 10, with 2 rods available only for last-minute reservations by guests already on the island. He hopes to reduce the number again next year, solely in the interest of protecting and enhancing the fishery. As in all places, fewer fishermen means better fishing and a more sustainable fishery.
After these successes at Alphonse, Rose-Innes saw that this model could be used to protect other islands that were even more remote. And he especially wanted to get back to Cosmoledo, the crown jewel of giant trevally fishing in the Seychelles.
Cosmoledo was still closed to live-aboard ships in 2014 when the Seychelles government repaired the runway on nearby Astove Atoll (about 35 kilometers away) and announced plans to construct a runway on Cosmoledo, both to provide tourism opportunities there and to put a stop to illegal commercial fishing. Tourists hadn’t been there in years, but surveillance showed that poachers were making use of the island to net fish, kill turtles and collect their eggs, harvest sea cucumbers, and to collect the eggs of seabirds. Cosmoledo is an important nesting site for three booby species, including the red-footed booby, of which there are about 15,000 pairs. The eggs are considered a delicacy and fetch about 50 cents apiece. The atoll is also home to the largest colony of sooty terns in the Seychelles. Rose-Innes often refers to Cosmoledo as the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean.
When Rose-Innes heard about the plans to build a runway, he immediately contacted the Seychelles government with a proposal that would protect the fishery and increase tourism with as small a footprint as possible.
With a newly completed guest house already operational on Astove, his plan was to use the runway there as a launchpad to bring guests by boat to Cosmoledo (35 kilometers away). For guests at Cosmo, he proposed luxury accommodations inside modified, recycled 40-foot shipping containers called eco pods. Think of a “tiny home” with air conditioning, solar power, and outdoor freshwater showers with radiant hot water, and a covered front porch with white sand all around, and a view looking west toward the setting sun.
After years of dreaming, negotiating, and then planning, three fully loaded barges came ashore at Cosmoledo in October 2018, and Keith Rose-Innes, his guide staff, IDC CEO Glenny Savy, and a team of 2o artisan craftsmen built the entire Cosmoledo Eco Camp in 22 days. The purpose of the IDC agreement was to avoid building permanent structures, or altering the environment.
The eco pods can be removed using the same barge they arrived in, and there is no dock, dock pilings, or channel dredging of any kind.
The Cosmo Eco Camp opened for business in November 2018. It takes a maximum of 12 guests per week. Some guests choose single guides, single accommodations so it’s possible that in some weeks there are as few as six rods over the vast terrain of Cosmoledo Atoll, which includes 26 islands and cayes spread over 145 square kilometers. And perhaps the biggest step forward is that in the off season, the staff quarters provide year-round housing for two Island Conservation Society rangers to patrol the atoll and protect all of its natural beauty and resources.
The best reason to have a lodge at Cosmo is to maintain that full-time presence. Just five days after the first full season of operation, ICS rangers notified the Coast Guard of an illegal foreign fishing vessel, and the Coast Guard apprehended the entire crew and a cargo of sea cucumbers. (Sea cucumbers can bring up to $3,000 per kilogram in some markets in China, and at Cosmoledo harvesting them is a simple matter of walking the flats at low tide and picking them up.)
At Alphonse, fishing and nonfishing guests fund the Alphonse Foundation, which steers research and restoration projects for Alphonse, St. Francois, and Bijoutier islands. The Alphonse Foundation has for nearly a decade worked to restore native vegetation, study and protect coral reefs, monitor the sea temperatures, protect and study the nesting areas for hawksbill and green sea turtles, and rescue and repatriate giant Aldabra tortoises—Alphonse now has 53 of them. The Alphonse Foundation also supports an ongoing acoustic telemetry study aimed at determining how catch-and-release fishing affects the habits of giant trevally.
Using Alphonse as a successful model, the Cosmoledo and Astove Foundation was up and running before the first guests even arrived at Cosmo Eco Camp. The foundation is already gathering baseline studies on the bird, turtle, and marine mammal life for future studies. The IDC, ICS, Alphonse Fishing Company, and Blue Safari Seychelles are involved in cleanup activities almost daily, removing fish attracting devices (FADs) that have washed ashore, along with abandoned nets, buoys, ropes, and other hazards that have washed ashore in nesting areas for turtles and seabirds.
And most importantly, the guides, guests, and the rangers are now the unofficial guardians of Cosmoledo. Commercial fishing has been greatly curtailed (if not eliminated), and the fishery is being carefully managed for the future. Teasing GTs with giant hookless poppers inside the lagoon is not permitted, and some sensitive spots have been closed to fishing altogether to provide inshore sanctuaries for giant trevally. Under the watchful eyes of Keith Rose-Innes and his staff, the fishing can only improve. It’s staggering to think of how much better this fishery could be two or three years from now, but that’s what will happen now that the habitat is protected, and the fishing is carefully managed.
Book your Destination
visit alphonsefishingco.com for more details
Fly Fisherman editor/publisher Ross Purnell is hosting a return trip to Cosmoledo during the full moon week of March 25 through April 1, 2021. To join this group, contact Michael Caranci at The Fly Shop at 800-669-3474 or email email@example.com
Adequate sun protection, a great pair of boots, and fly lines built specifically for GTs are priorities. You’ll be fishing 100-pound-test leaders, so the fly line must have at least a 50-pound-test core. Bring extra as the lines will be cut or damaged on sharp coral.
G.Loomis Asquith 9-foot 12-weight Rod, $1,200
Abel SDS 11/12 Reel with Native Tarpon Finish, $2,300
Simms Intruder Saltwater Boots, $190
Cortland GT/Tuna fly line, $90
Simms Superlight Pants, $80
Patagonia Tropic Comfort Hoody, $60
Yeti Panga Backpack 28, $300
Abel Pliers, blue $300
Ross Purnell is the editor of Fly Fisherman.