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  • October 22, 2014

Photographing Giant Tortoises on an Island That Wants to Kill You

Thomas Peschak is full of energy. Passionate, full-blown, infectious, energy.

When I sat down to interview him for a series of blog posts about his recent trip to Aldabra Atoll for National Geographic Magazine, he stoked the conversation with a mix of heady scientific research, and down-and-dirty descriptions about what life is like for tortoises—and photographers—on the brutally harsh island environment.

“Aldabra wants to kill you,” says Peschak. “It’s the antithesis of your tropical honeymoon destination—bone dry for much of the year, little shade and ridiculously hot. The coralline rock that makes up the atoll is so sharp that if you stub your toe hard enough it will fall off. It destroyed my new hiking boots in a matter of weeks.”

But the harsh environment on Aldabra—an Indian Ocean atoll that’s part of the Seychelles—is ultimately what saved its unique giant tortoise population from extinction. Peschak went there to show how a species that had been nearly decimated by human activity could make a resurgence if it was simply left alone.

Picture of: Giant tortoise
The main thing tortoises on Aldabra need to survive is shade—if they are not in a cool space by mid-morning they cook in their shells.

Aldabra—an Indian Ocean atoll that’s part of the Seychelles—was colonized in the early 1800s by the French, and later by the British. The Seychelles are now an independent nation.

In it’s early years, traders scooped up sea turtles, coconut crabs, sharks, and giant tortoises for consumption, and by the early 1900s the tortoises were nearly extinct.

Picture of: Map of Aldabra atoll
Aldabra is made up of four islands, with a lagoon in the center approximately the size of Manhattan. These tortoise photographs were all taken on Grande Terre.
Alessando Bonara/Courtesy of the Save Our Seas Foundation

But in the 1960s, an exploratory mission to Aldabra by the Royal Society of London (the British and American governments were looking to build a military airbase) found an ecosystem unlike any they had ever seen, sparking a conservation effort to save its flora and fauna.

“Aldabra’s unique biodiversity was almost ruined through overexploitation, but the Seychelles stepped up to the plate and decided to make things right,” says Peschak. “Going there today is like environmental time travel.”

There are now more than 100,000 giant tortoises on Aldabra—making it the largest population in the world (10 times as many as in the Galapagos.) It’s also the only large ecosystem on our planet dominated by reptiles.

Picture of: Giant tortoises
Giant tortoises photographed during a rainstorm on Aldabra’s Grand Terre island.

Since the 1980s, the environment on Aldabra has been managed by the Seychelles Island Foundation, which only allows rangers and scientists to live there. Tourists on yachts or small expedition ships are far and few between, having been kept away by Somali pirates who frequent that part of the Indian Ocean.

“From a survival perspective this place is harsh, so living there is incredibly difficult,” says Peschak. “To document the life of these tortoises you have to endure what they endure.”

For Peschak that meant an incredible amount of planning, and a willingness to get cut, scraped, and beaten up by the landscape while pursuing tortoises on the remote island of Grand Terre—one of four islands that make up Aldabra.


Watch Thomas Peschak photograph mating giant tortoises while rolling on “tortoise turf” on Grande Terre.

“Once the boat drops you in the mangrove swamp and you begin your epic trek to the “tortoise turf” you realize that this place wants to eat you and spit you out. If you don’t drink enough water you are done. If you fall, injure yourself or get sick you’re in real trouble. The nearest medical facilities are over 700 miles away. You have to be incredibly disciplined, manage risk and really look after yourself,” says Peschak.

For six days Peschak and his team lived on Grande Terre, deep in the heart of wildest part of the atoll to photograph the tortoises.

“You have to think and act like the tortoises do. They graze only in early morning and late evening when it’s the coolest, as well as on cloudy days. Unfortunately the most interesting behavior occurred when the light was at its worst. That was demoralizing even though I knew it was going to happen.”

Picture of: Giant tortoises
“One of the reasons they could recover so well is because they are reptiles. They lay lots of eggs, reproduce easily and are very tough,” says Peschak.

Regardless of the challenges, Peschak was able to capture giant tortoises in their truly natural state: Seeking shade from the hot sun under bristly bushes, hunkering down in a rain storm, and yes, even mating.

“I want to give the reader a sense of what it’s like to live with dinosaurs,” says Peschak. “I want to give them a feeling that they are on a different planet. Because photographing and living on Aldabra really is an otherworldly experience.”

*****

Read the other stories in this series:
• All You Need to Pack for a Remote Atoll Is…
• Sharks and Ladders: A Photographer Gets A Lift
• Getting By With a Little Help from his Friends

Thomas Peschak would like to extend a very special thank you to the Seychelles Island Foundation and the staff at the Aldabra research station for making this visit possible. Without the expert guidance of senior ranger Catherina Onezia and tortoise researchers Dr. Dennis Hansen, Rich Baxter, and Wilfredo Falcon Lienro, his photographic coverage of Aldabra’s giant tortoise’s would not have been possible.

There are 28 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Jonathan Stone
    December 13, 2015

    Fabulous photos and a heart-warming story. Because of your coverage we don’t all need to go there and ruin it.

  2. ALDABRAMAN
    August 23, 2015

    ~ Awesome ~

  3. Nash
    November 9, 2014

    Loved this article… Aldabra is on my bucket list…

  4. Carson
    November 8, 2014

    If you need another PA, I’m skilled with a camera & working in both cold & hot remote locations. Fabulous adventure!!

  5. Carol McGuinn
    November 1, 2014

    Thanks for sharing your amazing story and fantastic photos of these marvelous creatures!

  6. Amelia Lyons
    October 28, 2014

    Fabulous – so interesting

  7. Janet Yu Xu
    October 27, 2014

    I read your story again and once again I’m attracted by the light that you used in your pictures. You have your own way to photograph the light.

  8. Mike A
    October 26, 2014

    Great recovery. Wonderful contrast to the now common stories threatening extinction. Thanks in a weird way to the Somali pirates.

  9. Gale
    October 26, 2014

    Can’t wait for the next part of the story. Great photos.

  10. Christopher Hall
    October 25, 2014

    Getting down, getting dirty and getting it done. Nice work!! Thank you … very jealous!

  11. Larry
    October 25, 2014

    Has there ever been a DNA comparison between these giant tortoises and those that live in the Galapagos ? Wondering how long ago they might have separated if in fact at one time they were same species ?

  12. joan henderson
    October 25, 2014

    They are magnificent, and I can not wait for a follow up story. Meegwetch

  13. kirk
    October 25, 2014

    amazing glad to see the recovery

  14. Sue Ingram
    October 25, 2014

    How wonderful to see what you were up all that time away. And I thought of you on sunny tropical beaches and beautiful coral seas! looking forward to the follow-up

  15. Wingding
    October 24, 2014

    Keep up the great work! Love the photos. Love the new geography introduced to me. Regarding topography and climate: Have hope, you’ll become conditioned to the environment and have an easier go of it.

  16. Scott
    October 24, 2014

    Great read, looking forward to the next one. Are there any other video elements online from this expedition?

  17. Pradeep Khare
    October 24, 2014

    A wonderful article! A great effort indeed!

  18. Chen Dazhen
    October 24, 2014

    I’ts very wonderful both descriptions and phtos.Thanks for the writer.You provide a good chance for me to learn English.

  19. sujan sarkar
    October 24, 2014

    Thanks for showing us what it is really like to be a serious wildlife chronicler , sans all the romanticism it entails. I have come across an Aldabra giant tortoise named Adwaita at Kolkata zoo yes back . It was supposed to be more than 250 yes old , and it passed away about 10 yes back.Thanks again for the great writeup.

  20. Janet Yu Xu
    October 24, 2014

    Thank you for your had work! Thank you for these stories and pictures!

  21. Ark Sell
    October 24, 2014

    This is one of my favorite articles on National Geographic ! It shows the beauty and harshness in nature. It shows great will of survival and fighting for life. Simply stunning article with stunning photography !

  22. Teddy Pantelas
    October 24, 2014

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I look forward to what’s to come. My motto has always been ” the turtle won the race” and I try to live by it.

  23. Grethe Holm
    October 23, 2014

    Thanks…!!

  24. Christine English
    October 23, 2014

    Wonderful. I actually saw giant tortoises mate in the Galápagos Islands. Incredible and very noisy experience

  25. Ankur
    October 22, 2014

    You are awesome my friend. Thanks for showing the wonderful world of tortoise to us…

  26. charles brown
    October 22, 2014

    Amazing, nature always finds a way

  27. Mariel
    October 22, 2014

    Outstanding photos and video. Thanks.

  28. Dwayne Hickmn
    October 22, 2014

    Fascinating article. Cant wait for the next one.

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