Swiss tycoon sends patrol boat to save Serengeti of sea
12 September 2010
It is part of a £3.5m gift by Ernesto Bertarelli that will safeguard ocean covering an area twice the size of Britain
She is nowhere near as sleek as the racing yachts that have twice helped him win the America's Cup, but Ernesto Bertarelli's latest vessel will protect a British underwater paradise known as "the Serengeti of the seas".
The patrol vessel, the Pacific Marlin, is to guard the world's biggest marine reserve, which was created by the British government in April around the Chagos islands in the Indian Ocean.
It is part of a £3.5m gift by Bertarelli, the Swiss biotechnology billionaire whose wife Kirsty is a former Miss UK, that will safeguard ocean covering an area twice the size of Britain.
The Pacific Marlin has a top speed of 12½ knots, half the speed of Bertarelli's racing yachts, and will chase down illegal fishing boats.
The reserve is contentious. About 2,500 islanders were thrown into exile 40 years ago so the British and Americans could build a military base on Diego Garcia, the biggest land mass in the Chagos archipelago, also known as British Indian Ocean Territory. The rich marine life of turtles, dolphins and tuna has since been denuded by Sri Lankan and Thai fishing vessels.
There may be political turbulence too. David Miliband, in one of his final acts as foreign secretary before the election, signed a treaty for a marine protection area around the islands to preserve the coral paradise.
William Hague, who in opposition voiced his support for the Chagos islanders' right to return, has now as foreign secretary agreed to accept Bertarelli's money.
The treaty bans fishing for 200 miles out to sea from the archipelago's 55 islands. The £3.5m gift will also offset the loss of revenue from fishing licences and allow the Pacific Marlin to escape the effect of next month's spending cuts.
The waters around the islands are home to the critically endangered hawksbill turtle, as well as green sea turtles, dolphins, sea cucumbers and types of brain coral and clownfish that only exist there. The discovery of 86 seamounts, underwater peaks that rise from the sea bed to 5,000ft below the surface, has sparked hopes that entirely new organisms may be found.
The islands are home to colonies of red-footed boobies and giant frigate birds, as well as the fearsome coconut crab, the biggest crab in the world with pincers large enough to crack open coconuts.
Charles Sheppard, a marine biologist at the University of Warwick who first went to the islands in the 1970s as an assistant to David Bellamy, said: "It is one of the last great hopes of the Indian Ocean. It is as important as the Great Barrier Reef is to Australia."
The deal with Bertarelli has been negotiated by the Blue Marine Foundation, a conservation group whose founding trustees include Charles Clover, the Sunday Times columnist.
George Duffield, a producer of The End of the Line, the film of Clover's book about the devastating effects of overfishing, knows the billionaire because they both have homes in Switzerland.
Clover said: "This is Bertarelli's way of saying he is a man of the ocean and that what the sea needs most is protection."
Henry Bellingham, the Foreign Office minister for overseas territories, said: "We are very grateful to the Bertarelli family, their foundation and to the Blue Marine Foundation for their interest and we look forward to working with them.
"This government wants to form innovative partnerships with the private sector to deliver ambitious objectives. This is a great example of how this could work in practice."
The Chagossians are divided about the initiative. Their supporters include Philippa Gregory, the novelist, who last week likened their treatment to "the most traditional imperialist abuse of a people".
The islanders were originally paid £14.5m in compensation and moved to Mauritius. During the past decade about 2,000 have settled in and around Crawley in West Sussex. Many hope to return one day.
Allen Vincatassin, chairman of the Diego Garcian Society who had to leave the island when he was one year old, said: "The history of our exile was appalling but it is important to protect the area so new generations will one day be able to enjoy what is there."
But Roch Evenor, chairman of the UK Chagos Support Association, said: "We would like a rich benefactor as well. We are not opposed to the preservation of the islands but we are against anything that will delay our return. We now have a case pending at the European Court of Human Rights."