Say Shells

By Jheri St. James

At the very dawn of time, when the shape of the planet earth was evolving, the crumbling fragments of the giant super continent of Gonwanaland came to rest in what was to become known as the Indian Ocean, between Africa and Madagascar. Today they are known as the granitic islands of Seychelles, the only mid-oceanic granite islands.
The Republic of Seychelles (pronounced “say shells”) is an archipelago nation of 155 islands and islets in the Indian Ocean, about 600 miles from the east coast of Africa. Other nearby island countries and territories include Zanzibar west, Mauritius and Reunion south, Comoros and Mayotte southwest, and the Suvadives of the Maldives northeast. Seychelles has the smallest population of any sovereign state of Africa.

There are many reasons why charter yacht enthusiasts and other tourists are drawn here year round: idyllic white sandy beaches, sparkling lagoons and brilliant coral reefs; Seychelles is one of the rare spots on earth protected from pollution. Man first landed on the Seychelles islands only 250 years ago and any damages to Mother Nature have been stopped, thanks to the Seychelles Government policy regarding environment. In common with many fragile island ecosysytems, the early human history of Seychelles saw some loss of biodiversity, including the disappearance of most of the giant tortoises from the granitic islands, felling of coastal and mid-level forests and extinction of species such as the chestnut flanked white eye, the Seychelles parakeet and the saltwater crocodile. However, extinctions were far fewer than on other islands such as Mauritius or Hawaii, partly due to a shorter period of human occupation (since 1770). The Seychelles today is known for success stories in protecting its flora and fauna.

Seychelles is home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites run by the Seychelles Islands Foundation. They are the atoll of Aldabra, which is the world's largest raised coral atoll, and also the Vallée de Mai on Praslin island, billed as the original site of the Garden of Eden. The Cousin Island Special Reserve, purchased by the Royal Society of Nature Conservation in 1968 and managed by Nature Seychelles, is an internationally-known bird and marine sanctuary which has won several awards for conservation and ecotourism. Seychelles has six national marine parks including the St. Anne National Marine Park located adjacent to the capital, Port Victoria, which are managed by the government’s Marine Parks Authority. Much of the land territory (about 40%) and a substantial part of the coastal sea around Seychelles are protected as national parks, marine parks, and reserves.

Coco de mer and a bronze-eyed gecko.

Shores surrounding the Indian Ocean are often littered with empty shells of the erotically shaped coco de mer (sea coconut). These mysterious husks were thought to come from the sea until they were found growing in the Seychelles--sea shells.

As the islands of the Seychelles had no indigenous population, the current Seychellois are composed of people who have immigrated to the island. The largest ethnic groups are those of French, African, Indian, and Chinese descent. French and English are official languages along with Seychellois Creole, which is primarily based upon French. Most Seychellois are Christians; the Roman Catholic Church is predominant.

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Our soil collectors are immigrants to the Seychelles. Isuru and Charani Walpola are two Sri Lankan children. Isu was 15 in March and Cha 12-1/2. They came to the Seychelles when their mother got a teaching contract there. They study at Anse Boileau Secondary school where she teaches math, site of the soil collection for Common Ground 191.

They wrote (2/24/07): “We like interesting projects. We too are good in art and really love art projects. . . . Seychelles doesn’t have a very long history but there are places which have interesting background stories. Like where pirates have hidden treasures. Pirates’ graves. This is a very famous tourist destination. It has very beautiful beach. Even we live by the beach and the view from our verandah is breath taking. We got to know about the project from our aunt who is in Sri Lanka. She is the Media officer for the US embassy in Colombo. It is the embassy who will send the soil sample from Sri Lanka. Since we are foreigners in this country, we have to get permission from the ministry of environment if we take a soil sample to send abroad. Our mom called the ministry of environment and the officer responsible wanted more details. What ever we have, we’ll send him. Mr. Joubert thinks we have to send a very clean sample. By the way we received the collection package on Friday. So, the moment we get permission from the Ministry, we will hand over the package to DHL. Isu and Cha”

March 12th, the message read: “Dear Gary, We still didn’t get red light from The Ministry. The moment we see green light, we will hand over the soil to DHL….”

On March 13th, they wrote: “Dear Mr. Joubert, Hope you received our earlier mail. But we sent you the address of the website. We have a little description of the project. If you need one of us can come there to show you them and the collection package. Please give us a date and a time to bring them if necessary. It would be very much appreciated if you could guide us how to obtain written permission from your ministry as soon as possible. Thank you for your cooperation. Best regards, Isuru and Charani Walpola, Anse Boileau Secondary School.”

Mr. Joubert replied: “I have already sent your email to the persons concerned at agriculture. I am following up with them and will let you know. Flavien Joubert.”

Same day; Mom gets involved: “Dear Mr. Joubert, Mr. Kevin Arnephy from soil section called me today and said he will meet the Director General and let me know when I will get the written permission. He also suggested contacting The Director of National Archives regarding the site. Thank you very much for your corporation. Devi Walpola.”

Finally on March 20: “Dear Mr. Joubert, I got the feed back from Mr. Kevin Arnephy who conveyed the message from the Director General that we can go ahead with the sending of the soil sample. I thank you very much on behalf of my kids and Mr. Gary Simpson for the sincere support extended to us in this. We plan to take the soil sample this Saturday after getting a clue of a good place so that the journal will carry a nice description of Seychelles. Best regards. Devi Walpola.”

On March 25th, Gary wrote requesting the waybill number off the DHL mailing label and an update on the return package. This was the reply:

“Hi Gary. Hope you will understand our situation. Isu and Cha have been busy submitting their work for several competitions, getting ready for quizzes, etc. Both are good in art, poetry and story writing. Then attending prize givings. Though I got the permission from the environment ministry last Wednesday, this is why we couldn’t go and collect soil. Actually I have to think of a good place as you need a description of it. Seychelles doesn’t have much of a long history. There have been pirates who have hidden their treasures in several places and there are pirate graves. Also there are stories of the slaves being brought here. You must have heard that Seychelles is a very beautiful country. One of the best in the world. Being foreigners living in Seychelles I think I have a duty to give a good picture to the world in the description. I think it is good to tell the world about the scenic beauty of Seychelles. The other thing Gary we don’t have a digital camera. Only kids’ dad has one and he comes once a year! So I have to get a good friend who has a digital camera and who can take nice pictures to go with us. Anyway, since you need it soon this week I will try my best to get it and send . . . Regards, Devi.”

April 22: “We handed over the soil sample on Wednesday the 18th. Will send photos tonight. We were too busy with school exams. That’s why we couldn’t mail you. Sorry for inconvenience. Regards, Devi, Isu and Cha.” Success at last! Collected at Anse Boileau Secondary School, Mahe, Seychelles.

The first step of many . . .

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The pirate stories are real. The Seychelles would have provided the ideal hideout. A number of merchant ships crossing the Indian Ocean with precious cargoes fell target to piracy. Among the famous pirates known to have operated in Seychelles was Olivier le Vasseur, nicknamed La Buse and his most important loot was the priceless Cross of Goa, which is still being sought today.

The Seychelles Archipelago derives its name from the French Minister of finance, Vicomte Moreau des Sechelles. Some historians believe that the Phoenicians and the Greeks visited the Seychelles in ancient times, however the first navigators known to have recorded Seychelles were the Arabs. The old Arabian manuscripts of the 9th and 10th centuries mention the name Al Khadra (the green), or Al Dabaran (the five stars in Taurus) linked to Aldabra. This is the largest atoll in the Seychelles group, donated to the world by the people of Seychelles as an UNESCO World Heritage site. A lengthy struggle between France and Great Britain for the islands ended in 1814, when they were ceded to the latter. Independence came in 1976. Socialist rule was brought to a close with a new constitution and free elections in l993. President James Michel took over the presidency and in July 2006 was elected to a new five-year term.

Aerial View of Victoria, capital city

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The name Seychelles (pronounced “say shells”) sounded like the old tongue-twister: “She sells sea shells by the sea shore” – say it fast 10 times. That led to wondering about the life of seashells in Seyshelles, which led to Frenchman David Touitou.

David Touitou and Roger Rault
A Seychelles shell collector at work.
Granite Rocks

“My name is David Touitou. I was born in 1975 in the city of Toulon (South of France). I studied for 7 years in Marseille City (South of France) at the Medical University and became a Pharmacy Doctor in 2000. Since my childhood, I always collected stuff (stamps, coins, shells, rocks...). I had the chance to go often with my parents to one of the last preserved paradise on earth : The Seychelles Islands. There I always searched along the granite rocks in shallow water in order to find freshly dead shells. The only shells I found that way were the very common snake-head cowries (Cypraea caputserpentis) and sometimes a common histrio (Cypraea histrio). In 1997, I found while snorkeling in 3 meters of water, a GEM freshly dead amazing cowrie... It was green colored and had many very nice light spots. I was really astonished by the beauty of that shell. Only to find out it was just my first eroded cowrie (Cypraea erosa). This find launched me in the shell collecting exciting hobby!! We can now say that I really started shell collecting in 1997, because after I came back to France, I tried to meet other collectors and I met Mr Roger Rault with whom we launched this website ( in late 1998.”

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The soil from Seychelles probably did not really require sterilization by the USDA. One suspects it was already pretty clean. The government of the Seychelles seems to be making sure its 155 islands remain what they are—pristine. The writer of this journal entry has requested the collectors to write a poem for us about their heavenly home. Maybe they will call it “Say Shells”. We thank all the people involved in the success of this soil collection for Common Ground 191, especially Isuru and Charani Walpola. The word for peace in Seychelles is La Paix”.

A gallery picture of some of the shells collected in the Seychelles
by David Touitou--Mother Nature’s Art

Seychelles- Paradise on Earth

Under a sky of curious blends of blue
Between Africa and Asia
Lies a necklace of islands
Full of nature's pure beauty
The Seychelles

From there comes this handful of earth
It speaks of steamy, vitalizing mountain forests
And of cool salt spray on white shores,
Of squawking black parrots, huge lumbering tortoises
And two-lobed "coco-de-mers" borne forth

Each grain brags, each grain is proud
For, after all, consider where its from…




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