The beautiful blue waters of Mahebourg Bay from Ile aux Aigrettes.

Stephanie Winton is WPC’s 31st New Noah. Stephanie’s first stop was the 3-month long Endangered Species Management course at the Durrell Conservation Academy in Jersey, UK. She just finished a practical placement on the island of Mauritius and will be returning home to Canada soon.
Southeast Islets, Mauritius

Covid was not the only disaster to strike Mauritius in 2020. The MV Wakashio bulk carrier ran aground on the coral reef surrounding the island, spilling oil into the beautiful blue waters, and threatening marine and terrestrial biodiversity. The plants and wildlife on Ile aux Aigrettes and the Southeast Islets in Mahebourg Bay were at risk of contamination and were rapidly evacuated. Skinks and geckos from the islets were even sent all the way to the Jersey Zoo in the UK to create safety-net populations of these endangered and genetically distinct species (watch the story of the amazing reptile rescue here)

I recently found myself camped out on those very same islets with an experienced team of reptile ropers searching for telltale flashes of skink scales in the grass among Napoleonic and World War II fortifications.

Our mission: survey for skinks during the day, and geckos, crabs, and nesting seabirds at night. These surveys are part of a long term program monitoring populations of reptiles and other environmental indicator species on the small islets that will be valuable in detecting any changes following the oil spill.

It was a truly special time to be able to help with mark-recapture of reptiles that I first met at the Jersey Zoo in the spring and see that the wild populations are persisting for now (read about my time at the biosecure reptile facility here).

On Ile aux Aigrettes, I spent a week searching transects for another endemic reptile – the ornate day gecko. A beautiful species with striking facial markings, males are bright blue and green while females are more subdued earthy colours, that peer at you from their almost perfectly camouflaged hiding places on candle trees and strangler figs.

View of the other islets from Ile de la Passe.

A successful skink capture!

A curious ornate day gecko observed during a survey.

The reptile communities on the offshore islands are important remnants of the unique historical Mauritian reptile fauna and play a variety of important ecological roles such as pollination of native plants. In several cases, these islands provide refuge for species from threats like invasive species, as was the case for the orange-tailed skink which was saved from extinction through the establishment of a secondary population on another island.

Camping on Ile de la Passe.

It is strange to think that if not for covid travel restrictions I probably would have been on the ground in Mauritius during the oil spill. Now, as I skim over the crystal clear waters of Mahebourg Bay en route to Ile aux Aigrettes or snorkel in the Blue Bay Lagoon, it is hard to imagine what it must have been like two years ago. Only time and continued monitoring will tell what the lasting consequences of this environmental disaster may be and for now it is an important reminder to the world of the vulnerability of marine, wetland, and island ecosystems.

Until next time,