Bowermaster’s Adventures — Communing with hermit crabs

It is with great privilege and no small amount of humility that I spend as many days as I can on remote, uninhabited atolls. This Sunday morning it is in the Alphonse group of the Seychelles – south of the main granite islands of Mahe, Praslin and La Digue – and is called St. Francois. Shaped like a broken piece of coral, with several small fingers jutting northwards, it is just two miles around. But the lagoon that surrounds, outlined by a sharp reef, is a sizable nine by three miles.

Two facts of nature here in mid-April warrant an early morning exploration of the island: high heat and low tides. By nine it will be over 90 degrees F and humid, the lagoon covered by just a shallow, warm sea.

At seven, when much of the world is contemplating miraculous ascensions and chocolate egg hunts, I am communing with hermit crabs. I’ve never seen such a huge population (though it’s rivaled by a small island off Peru we visited last fall, which had a more intense concentration but nowhere near the volume). Every shell on the beach has been converted into a mobile home, from fingernail sized round shells to the long and conical to big, mossy, partially busted. There are easily fifty quick-moving hermies per square foot trundling shells of every size, shape and color. There does seem to be some weird segregation going on; though admittedly purely empirical it looks on parts of the beach that white shelled crabs mingle only with other white shelled crabs and that in other parts, moss-backed green shells hang only with their own kind.

It’s possible that Sunday morning is moving day too, because we saw an inordinate amount of “house hunting” going on; big red hermit crabs having grown out of their existing shells looking for, and fighting over, bigger, empty versions. Something resembling a Manhattan condo open during headier real estate times.

By eight, it’s too hot not to be in the water, though it’s almost 90 degrees too. While the plunge is not exactly refreshing it’s an absolute necessity. Swimming alongside are a solitary hawksbill turtle and dozens of bonefish being chased by big jack fish. This lagoon is a Mecca for fly fishermen in pursuit of glassine-tinted bonefish, but never a paradise for boaters given the mean reef rimming the lagoon. From shore three big metal hulls rust where they ran aground decades before. It’s certain that this beach on an otherwise uninhabited island has been home over the centuries to a variety of shipwrecked sailors. I wonder if their ghosts still roam here?

It’s important on luxurious days like today – far from land, away from civilization, alone on an uninhabited island – to stop and listen. My aural memories of remote corners are as powerful as the visuals I carry in my head. This morning it is the far-off crash of waves on the reef; the gentle wash on sand as they lap onto the beach; and the distinct clicking of dry palm fronds rubbing together, blown by a hot breeze. (The most distinct sound I took away from yesterday was on yet another pristine sand beach, on D’Arros Island, where hundreds of frigate birds nested in tall, beachside palms. As they swooped just overhead on the way to feeding it was possible to hear only the flap of wings as they whooshed by.)

By nine, the tide is running out fast through the lagoon’s main pass, requiring a slow kick and swim to reach the reef edge. Floating on my back in the now hot, two-foot deep Indian Ocean, a last ditch attempt to cool off, I am surprised by another great sound, the whiz of a flying fish as it zips out of the water and past my head. Which if it isn’t a good-luck sign, I’m making it one.

Read more from Jon at Bowermaster’s Adventures.