Wildlife & natural highlights of the Indian Ocean

Made up of the coastal waters of three continents, and encircling many exotic islands, the Indian Ocean has an incredible variety of marine wildlife. The east coast of Africa boasts some of the planet’s most stunning coral reefs, and many marine parks and reserves protect these waters that teem with life. Coral reefs hugging the coastline of Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique combine to create one of Earth’s largest fringing reefs that nourish huge populations of tropical fish, dugongs, sea turtles and sharks. Off the coast of continental Africa, Madagascar sits in the western Indian Ocean, and its surrounding waters provide one of the foremost breeding areas for humpback whales in the Eastern Hemisphere and are home to 55 species of sharks, 5 species of marine turtles, 300 types of hard corals and 1,300 types of bony fish.

From manta rays and sharks in Mauritius, to tortoises in the Seychelles and swimming with humpback whales in Reunion Island, the Indian Ocean isn't just about the beach.

Maldives

The Maldives are made up of 1,000 or more tropical islands, which form an archipelago of 26 atolls stretching across 90,000 square kilometres of azure waters of the Indian Ocean. The atolls are formed of live coral reefs and sand bars, sat upon a sharp underwater ridge that rises from the depths creating this unique and special natural phenomenon. Each atoll consists of a coral reef that surrounds a lagoon, with deep channels separating the reef ring. The reefs of the islands, brimming with marine life and colourful corals, protect the islands from wind and wave action of the encompassing oceans. The waters themselves are habitat for a number of small marine animals and microscopic plant cells, present as a result of the monsoon tides, which in turn attracts larger species that come to feast on the plenitude of food. Tiny shrimps, tropical fish, sharks and manta rays all glide through the warm island waters. Five of the seven species of turtle on earth are found in the Maldives; the islands are the ultimate snorkelling and diving paradise. 

In June 2011, the Baa Atoll in the Maldives was declared a UNESCO World Biosphere reserve, an area recognised for its unique harmony between man and nature.

Seychelles

Seychelles is an archipelago of 115 granite and coral islands spanning miles across the Indian Ocean. The innermost islands are granite outcrops that pierce turquoise waters forming rugged peaks covered in dense rainforests. A beautiful pristine environment, these alluring islands are also home to an abundance of rare indigenous animals, plants and birds, and conservation is a top priority. Almost 50% of its landmass is devoted to national parks and reserves. Seychelles is the proud owner of two magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the infamous Valleé de Mai on Praslin where the interestingly shaped and endemic coco-de-mer nut is found growing on ancient palms; and the fabled Aldabra, the biggest raised atoll in the world. The Aladabra is home to the heaviest land tortoise in the world, which can live to 200 years old and weighs a massive 300kg. 

Other endemic species include possibly the smallest frog in the world, Gardiner’s tree frog, and the only flightless bird of the Indian Ocean, the white throated rail. The underwater world of the Seychelles is equally if not more prolific. Tropical fish such as butterfly fish, angel fish and squirrel fish amongst others are found in the reefs of the inner islands as well as invertebrates such as octopus and spiny lobster and nudibranchs like Spanish dancer. The outer islands are a haven for larger specimens with stingrays, giant grouper and reef sharks, and even hammerhead sharks have been spotted. 

The magnificent whale shark can be spotted all year round, but peak sightings tend to be in August and October through January.

Mauritius

Mauritius, a rocky volcanic protrusion, sits in the pristine turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. Like other islands in the Indian Ocean, there are many endemic species, of which some have come very close to extinction. The pink pigeon, the echo parakeet, the world’s rarest pigeon and parrot respectively, and the Mauritius kestrel, once the world’s rarest bird, are just some examples of the endangered species on the island. Conservation efforts have increased in recent years and the introduction of National Parks has proved vital to their survival. Mauritius boasts 110 square kilometres of national park with the greater part of this occupied by the Black River Gorges. Mammals are rare on the island, with the Mauritius flying fox, and the Rodrigues flying fox, two distinct species of fruit bat being the only notable mammals. 

There are many small native reptiles found on the island, including skink lizards and various types of gecko. The once present domed and saddle-backed giant tortoises are now extinct but the Aldabra giant tortoise, a native of the Seychelles, can be found in captivity in the nature reserves. Mauritius is almost completely surrounded by an incredible coral reef providing a habitat for a great variety of brightly coloured fish including trumpet fish, boxfish as well as the playful clownfish. 

Whales and dolphins also frequent the waters close to Mauritius, as do various reef sharks, rays, and sea turtles.

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