Out across the bay from Essaouira lie the Îles Purpuraires, named from the dyes for purple imperial cloth that the Romans once produced on the islands from murex shellfish. Here also, Sir Francis Drake ate his Christmas lunch in 1577, commenting on the “verie ugly fish”. The largest of the islands, known as the Île de Mogador, is flanked on each side by a fort which, together with the fort on the islet just off the town harbour and the Bord el Berod on the beach, covers all possible approaches to the bay. It also has a small harbour, a mosque, a few rusting cannons and a nineteenth-century prison used for political exiles but long closed. There was a Phoenician settlement on the landward side of the island in the late seventh century BC.
Nowadays the island is a nature reserve, and the only non-Mediterranean breeding site of Eleonora’s falcon, Morocco’s most dramatic bird, which is best seen with binoculars from the beach, in the early evening half-light. The falcons are summer visitors to Morocco, staying between May and October before heading south to Madagascar for the winter. They are often seen hunting over the dunes south of Oued Ksob. The nearby river course also has many waders and egrets and occasional rarities such as gull-billed tern and Mediterranean gull.