Cargados Carajos Shoals (also known as the Saint Brandon Rocks) are a group of about 16 small islands and islets on an extended reef in the Indian Ocean northeast of Mauritius. The islands have a total land area of 1.3 km². The reef measures more than 50 km from north to south, and is 5 km wide, cut by three passes. The reef area is 190 km². The islands have a small population, made up of natives as well as others, and are rich in flora and fauna. The islands are classified as a dependency of Mauritius, which is more than 300 km south, and are administered from Port Louis. The islands are part of the Mascarene Islands.
In the past, Cargados Carajos was a large, volcanic island (part of the Mascarenes, caused by the Réunion hotspot). Over time however, the island eroded until it became submerged and a coral atoll was left behind.
A number of unnamed islands and sand cays complete the Cargados. The total number of islands on the reef is close to 40.
Siren Island, Pearl Island (Île Perle), Frigate Island (Île Frégate) are west of the reef, while North Island (Île du Nord) is about 4 km Northeast of the northern tip of the reef.
Albatros Island, about 18 km north, is geographically a separate single coral island at location 16°16'S, 59°35'E.
Albatros Island is the highest (its highest point is 6 m above sea level) and the largest of the islands in the group, with an area of 1.01 km², followed by Raphael, Avocaré, Cocos Island and Île du Sud.
The main settlement is on Raphael, comprising a privately owned commercial fishing station (with a minimum of 35 resident employees), a coast guard and meteorological station (with eight residents in 1996). Smaller settlements exist on Avocaré, Cocos, and Sud; the settlement on Albatros was abandoned in 1988.
Coconut trees can be found on a few islands as well as bushes and grass.
The islands are covered with white granular sand from eroded coral, and a thick layer of guano can be found in most places. Sea turtles take advantage of the low population of the islands and lay eggs on their beaches. It's problematic how long this refuge will exist without international protection, as the Mauritius economy is among the fastest growing on earth. The price of sugar (Mauritius's main crop, introduced by the French; it represents 17% of Mauritius's exports) is dropping and tourism is filling the economic gap.
The atoll may have been discovered c. 600s CE by Arabian sailors. It was named in 1506 by Portuguese sailors who put ashore for provisioning on their way to India. In 1598 the Dutch occupied the islands. The islands became a French protectorate in 1722 and passed to British hands in 1810. However, the name Cargados Carajos is Spanish for "[heavily] loaded crow's nests".
Pirates have used the islands as a refuge. In modern times the islands were mined for phosphates (guano). Mining ceased mid-twentieth century.
Cargados comprises about 190 km² of reefs. It has perhaps the largest algal ridge (see Coralline algae) in the Indian Ocean. The reefs of Mauritius have been overfished (see Overfishing) and have suffered from the effects of tourism and other development. Mauritius plans to establish two marine reserves (see Marine Protected Area) of coral reefs that were proposed for protection in 1974, when Mauritius was still a British protectorate. This may demonstrate the pace of protection of natural resources in the area, slowed by the complications of new independence.