For Olivier Bancoult, of the Chagos Refugee Group, it is the sight of two skuas sliding on the waves that heralds the long-promised landfall on his native islands.
During the first three days of the voyage from the Seychelles there had been remarkably few seabirds, until the Mauritius-chartered Bleu De Nîmes, a cruise ship converted from its former use as British minesweeper, approaches the Chagos Islands.
Excitement began to build among the exiled Chagossians returning to their homeland. They played music on the poop deck. “I will be free,” said Rosemonde Bertin, raising her arms in anticipation of landing on Solomon Island, where she was born 67 years ago.
The captain sounded the ship’s horn as the ship sailed through waters the UK claims as British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), despite the United Nations confirming three years ago that the area belongs legally in Mauritius.
On the upper deck, Chagossians danced and sang in the soft, warm rain, raising glasses of champagne beside two open-air hot tubs.
After repeated recalculations of tides and headwinds, the ship expected to drop anchor on Saturday afternoon (local time) off Peros Banhos. The Chagossians will be among the first to set foot on the island.
They plan to plant a Mauritian flag and their own orange, black and blue Chagos banner – symbolizing the brilliant sunset when they were deported by British chartered boats 50 years ago, the dark years of their exile and the blue ocean.
Flowers will be laid in the overgrown cemetery on the island where their ancestors rest. One photograph that has infuriated the exiles is that of the carefully maintained military animal cemetery at the nearby Anglo-American base at Diego Garcia. The decay of their families’ cemetery at Peros Banhos seems cruel in comparison.
The main scientific objective of the voyage is to place underwater tide gauges on the sea floor on the Blenheim Peripheral Reef. This should be done early Sunday. The devices will measure sea level and allow the ship’s Swedish experts to calculate whether any of the reefs remain above water at what is known as the ‘astronomical highest tide’.
Ola Oskarsson, a maritime expert hired by Mauritius, is leading the project. If he finds that any part of Blenheim Reef – even a small rocky or shingle beach – remains dry all the time, this can be used as a new outdoor base point to extend an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 200 miles in a legal argument. under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The work, to resolve the maritime borders with the neighboring Maldives, is being undertaken by Mauritius in the hope that at some point it will regain control of the Chagos Islands from the UK.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office promised “that it would not interrupt the investigation”. It is unclear whether Mauritian activity and landings in what is purported to be BIOT will be monitored by UK authorities. In Mauritius itself, the media criticized the cost of the expedition and complained about the lack of Mauritian journalists invited on board the ship.
The strangest fact to emerge during the voyage, however, is that the seas around the Chagos Archipelago are nearly 100 meters below mean sea level elsewhere in the world.
This extraordinary marine feature is due to the fact that the Earth is not a perfect sphere but rather a lumpy potato. The different densities inside our planet cause fluctuations in gravity, which affect the behavior of the oceans.
“Mean sea level is not constant,” Oskarsson explained. “It’s undulating because of gravity. Water moves to even out irregularities. The Chagos Islands are on a slope that culminates in the Maldives.
Pravind Jugnauth, Prime Minister of Mauritius, told the Guardian in a phone call that organizing his country’s first expedition to the Chagos Islands was “in no way a hostile act”. “It is in no way intended to embarrass the UK. It is simply an exercise of our sovereignty over part of our territory and it is in line with international law.
“We totally condemn the way the Chagossians have been treated by the UK. Uprooting people from where they were born and where they live without any warning and putting them on a boat and just leaving them docked in Mauritius and preventing them from coming back – that’s clearly a crime against humanity and that’s is extraordinarily serious.
A spokesman for the UK Foreign Office said: “The United Kingdom has no doubts about its sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory. Mauritius has informed the UK of its intention to conduct a scientific study near the Chagos Islands. The United Kingdom shares this interest in research and environmental protection and has assured Mauritius that it will not interrupt the investigation.