The Location of the Chagos Archipelago
Stewart and the team signing the B.I.O.T flag at the end of the expedition to Chagos.
We first met Geographer, naturalist, explorer, author and documentary film maker Stewart McPherson in Cape Town at the False Bay Yacht Club, in Simon’s Town in February this year. He had just returned from filming on the island of Tristan Da Cuna, for a documentary series he is producing on British Overseas Territories. I was interested to know how their Southern Ocean Trip had gone and we got chatting. During the discussion Stewart mentioned that there was one last territory to film, this being the British Indian Ocean Territory of Chagos, but plans had been plagued with difficulties surrounding getting there and that they had been trying to find a way to get there for a year or two. They had also been refused permission to film twice but now had in fact been given permission and they needed to find a way there urgently.
We have various cruiser friends who had spent time there in the past and without thinking much I volunteered Jerrican thinking that it would be unlikely that Stewart would take me too seriously considering that Cape Town is a few thousand nautical miles away!
But, soon after our meeting he contacted us to begin the planning. After 3 months of planning and a rather rushed preparation we began our long sea journey to Gan to meet the film crew.
In Gan, the expedition team arrived on a huge red Dhoni, a traditional cargo boat with two dive compressors, oxygen tanks, dive tanks, masses of camera equipment, tripods, lighting cranes, personal luggage and a warehouse full of Apple Computers for post filming editing. All seven of us understood that three weeks on an overcrowded boat in a truly remote destination was going to be a massive challenge, that egos and “likes and dislikes” had to be put aside in order to live harmoniously together for 3 weeks. But . . .on the day of arrival my immediate thought was “Oh my Gosh! WHAT have we done??? We must have all gone completely MAD!!”
Arrival of our crew!
Red Dhoni delivers crew and equipment. Have we gone completely MAD?!
After filling every locker and every available space with Pelican Cases, dry bags and equipment and lowering our waterline level by at least 5 cm we set off on the two and half day sail to Chagos. The journey there seemed endless and hopeless, but once there everyone pulled together into a team and we fell into a rhythm of food production, dive team work, shore team work and boat work. Jeremy and I were fascinated as this film production unfolded, the evening planning sessions and intense discussions surrounding angles, lighting, story lines and how to conduct an interview, underwater, were lively and enthusiastic. As non filming people, we retreated into the aft cabin to give the team space to work. I marveled at the beauty of what was being discovered underwater by the dive teams daily and what was being captured on film on each island. No one has been allowed to scuba and film in Chagos before and most of the islands are strictly out of bounds to visitors.
Rich Stevenson prepares some of his equipment for filming.
Jon Slayer preparing camera equipment.
While the daily filming was happening largely on shore and underwater, Jeremy and I snorkeled over pristine reefs consisting of coral gardens so diverse, interesting and so full of life, just meters from the boat. The water quality in Chagos is the cleanest on the planet. I heard mention several times by Stewart McPherson and Jon Slayer that the waters in Chagos are cleaner than the waters in Antarctica which has a robust tourism industry. Some late afternoons we were run ashore for a walk around an island.
Beautiful Chagos, from Jerrican
One of the few Black Tipped Reef Sharks which joined us on snorkeling expeditions.
Chagos has always been a rather secret destination for the sailing community and there used to be a group of “yotties” who sailed there every year. There is a small shack or “Clubhouse” on one of the islands equipped with spare fan belts and odd bits and pieces of yachting equipment, flags and graffiti. Chagos is so remote and is really only accessible by US Army planes and the British Indian Ocean Territories (B.I.O.T) patrol boat, or by private yacht. It is situated a 48 hour sail South of Addoo Atoll, Maldives, 5 degrees below the equator and roughly half way between Somalia and Indonesia. America leases an army base on the Atoll of Diego Garcia which is strictly out of bounds to civilians other than scientists. The entire Chagos Archipelago covers a sea area of 544 000 square kilometers (twice the land area of Great Britain). Central to this is the Great Chagos Bank, a bank of coral heads and sea mounts, which to date have yet to be explored as the area is treacherous to boats. Diving using scuba gear is strictly forbidden to anyone other than divers who form part of scientific expeditions and most of the 55 islands are strictly no go areas. Sailing visitors are restricted to one or two anchorages and to two islands out of the 55. In 2010, Chagos was declared a Marine No Take Reserve, the largest Marine Reserve on Earth. It is very difficult, now to visit Chagos, the requirements for a permit includes evacuation insurance for yourselves and for your yacht in the event of the yacht floundering on any of the many reefs. This insurance is horrendously expensive, given the remoteness of the area. The area is littered here and there with boat and yacht wrecks that have happened in the past so running aground and floundering on a reef or coral head is a real threat. Most of the chart data dates back to the late 1800 ‘s !!!??
In addition to the stringent evacuation requirements, yachts have to carry everything they need with them, including water and fuel and have to take everything out with them, including organic waste as well as sewerage solids (there are no pump out facilities). This was a huge challenge for Jerrican, with seven people, living and consuming on board, but the opportunity presented us with an interesting “Permaculture” challenge. We needed to be COMPLETELY self sustaining for 3 weeks.
Dry Toilet Set up, a thing of beauty!
Storing organic waste, covered with peat and coconut husk.
Peat, sawdust and coconut husk mixture for dry loo and covering organic waste.
We operate a dry toilet system on board, a concept still very new to boats. We threw ourselves into the deep end with this experiment and simply had to make it work for this journey. We are happy with our decision as not once did we have to deal with a blocked loo, or with the challenge of finding a pump out facility. In three weeks we had to empty the system 3 times which we stored on board in two plastic containers in the lazarett. This was emptied overboard without any fuss once we were 10 miles outside of Chagos territory on the way back to Gan. It worked surprisingly well and far exceeded my expectations. Our team of “First World” film makers were politely accepting. The system takes a shift in thinking about waste disposal which they accepted without any resistance or fuss.
We also used a composting system for organic waste in a large “nappy bucket” which worked well enough to contain food waste smells. The only thing we discharged was urine and dish washing water but were very strict about using biodegradable washing and cleaning materials, including organic and biodegradable body soaps, but even this is unacceptable to B.I.O.T. They require boats to have grey water tanks. For our three week expedition this would have been impossible. The grey water would have amounted to many many tanks, grey water being the most prolific of waste products.
Plastic and Aluminum waste was still the largest challenge and the issue was highlighted in the amount of plastic litter found on the beaches of the outer islands (most of it consists of PET water bottles, plastic flip flops, Crocs shoes, children’s toys and fishing net waste).
We simply have to go back to our life before plastic packaging, footwear, clothing and children’s toys. We simply cannot continue using and producing plastic the way we do.
In Gan, they have the challenge of plastic disposal too and carrying the waste back to the island of Gan or back to South Africa is simply moving a problem around. A quick plastic audit around our surroundings on Jerrican left me feeling discouraged. Our cameras have plastic housings, our dive equipment, clothing, containers on the boat, our sails, our ropes, our food storage and packaging. Is it possible to live the life we know without plastic? Perhaps we need to consider seriously returning to storage and packaging used at a time before plastic was so prolific (1950’s?)
Perhaps we need to make producers responsible for cleaning up plastic waste? Perhaps we need to say NO to plastic packaging at the very least and be committed to natural fibers in our clothing. Perhaps the age of plastic is the herald of the age of the “Great Extinction Event”for the current crop of species on earth?
from left to right, Simon Vacher, Dr Rohan Holt and Rich Stevenson relaxing in the cockpit of Jerrican.
Our expedition team relaxed in the last three days after realizing that the filming was complete. It was a long and tedious two and a half day motor/sail back to Gan. The excitement as we approached Adhoo Atoll and Gan and the film crews thought of showers, fresh food, western style loos resulted in much hilarity. The diffusion of some of the tensions built over a really busy 3 weeks through humour is what kept us all going and I am grateful that we all managed to keep it all together and still feel a feeling of closeness as a team as we said our goodbyes.
Jeremy and I felt privileged to work with Stewart Mc Pherson and his team and look forward to seeing the documentary which promises to be something quite special.
Stewart McPherson at work in the saloon.
For more information on
The Chagos Conservatjon Trust and the Chagos Marine Protected Area – http://www.chagos-trust.org
Chagos Conservation Trust
CHAGOS FILM CREW 2014
Stewart Mc Pherson (Modern Day Explorer, Author, Geographer, Producer/ Film Maker of the documentary on the British Overseas Territories and others) – http://www.redfernnaturalhistory.com
Rich Stevenson (Underwater Camera and Diving Specialist) – http://www.divesolutions.co.uk
Jon Slayer (Marine and Wildlife Documentary Film Maker, Expedition Leader and representative of the Chagos Conservation Trust) http://www.johnslayer.tv
Simon Vacher (Cinematographer and Wildlife/Documentary Film Maker) – http://www.simonvacherfilm.com
Dr Rohan Holt (Marine Monitoring Biologist, Photographer, Cinematographer, Dive Medic and Dive Specialist) – Rohan Holt works for the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) and in his spare time Marine Wildlife Surveys (MWS), a company specializing in underwater and marine biological photography, videography, species identification and Seasearch courses and benthic surveys.
Contact: Rohan Holt
Its a wrap!
A truck load leaves Jerrican!