Seychelles is a global destination for honeymooners. The islands’ glaringly white beaches, warm blue seas, exotic cuisine and verdant forests offer adventures for couples who can unclinch long enough to collect Instagram shots that will have their followers #sojealous.
Travel brochures and websites for Seychelles all contain photographs of vibrant coral reefs with bright fish darting among them.
But don a mask, dive underwater and the reality is shocking. The global bleaching caused by warming ocean waters in 2016 and 2017’s warm El Niño has resulted in a graveyard of white coral. The skeletal remains of once vibrant reefs now rim the islands.
The level of bleaching across the world is similar to the catastrophe of 1998, when up to 97% of corals in some areas bleached. In Seychelles, many reefs around the islands collapsed into rubble in 1998.
Marine biologists estimate that about 75% of the world’s coral reefs face imminent danger. Local threats include destructive fishing, uncontrolled coastal development, tourism and pollution. Global threats include climate change and ocean acidification.
About half of the world’s coral reefs have disappeared over the past 30 years. Scientists warn that even if global warming was halted today, more than 90% of reefs will die by 2050.
Some bleached coral is alive, but without its brightly coloured symbiotic algae it loses most of its food sources and becomes extremely vulnerable to disease, predators and invasive organisms such as seaweed and sponges. If the water temperature remains high, the coral will eventually die.
Even more shocking than the graveyard under the sea is the produce on sale at fish markets on Mahe island. Seychellois eat young sharks and turtles.
"We are not overfishing the shark," says the country’s vice president, Vincent Meriton. "It is our culture to eat them. Young and tender shark meat is better for our palates."
At the fish market in the capital Victoria, heaps of definned young shark carcasses are covered with buzzing flies. At a roadside fish market, colourful reef fish are tied into bunches and baby hammerheads are decapitated on the stone steps leading from the lagoon.
Seychelles’ permanent representative to the UN, and the island’s former environment minister Ronald Jumeau, says he prepared a policy for shark conservation in 2011 and, just as it was about to be adopted, two tourists were killed by sharks on popular beaches.
"We were traumatised by the attacks," he says. "I withdrew the policy, but one of its measures was eventually implemented — we banned shark fishing by foreign boats.
"It is our tradition to eat shark and we will not be able to change that habit. Shark fishing is part of the blue economy."