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Expedition LogBook

29.10.2012 / Expedition Logbook

The last wild place in West Africa

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There is one place in Africa where jungles are still untouched by humans, with forest elephants and gorillas living an isolated existence. It is a place where buffalos roam the beaches and hippos surf. It is Gabon, the greenest country in Western Africa. In 2002, President Omar Bongo created 13 National Parks protecting over 10% of the country. Bongo was inspired by the findings of my fellow National Geographic Explorer Mike Fay, who in 1999 had walked across Gabon and discovered the most pristine forests left in West Africa – an epic walk called the “megatransect”. Mike is one of my heroes, and his megatransect inspired me to leave academia and develop my Pristine Seas project, to search for the last pristine places left in the ocean, and to inspire country leaders to protect them.

On October 5, 2012, I flew across the Atlantic to fulfill a dream: to meet with Mike Fay in Gabon, to undertake the first underwater expedition in the country. That unique opportunity arose because the Waitt Institute generously donated to us 3 weeks of their research vessel to conduct this expedition. Blancpain also supported this expedition as the second in our Pristine Seas partnership. The National Parks Agency of Gabon and the Wildlife Conservation Society secured research permits and helped with logistics. 

I did not know what to expect, because not much science or filming had been conducted underwater in Gabon. It was pure exploration, like in the old times where intrepid explorers set out to fill the white areas in the map. But we had a clear goal beyond knowledge: to inform a proposal for the creation of a system of marine parks in Gabon. The current President of Gabon, Ali Bongo – son of the late Omar Bongo’s – has expressed interest in expanding their conservation efforts to the sea.

With my most trusted scientists and filmmakers we started diving off oil platforms in the central coast of Gabon. From outside, the oil rigs look eerie, rusty and noisy, with flares and disturbing noises. It is difficult to think of anything positive when thinking of oil drilling. But what we found underwater surprised us. We jumped in the water and saw dozens of large barracuda, schools of rainbow runners and small tuna, and jacks and snappers spawning. The water was quite clear on the farthest oil rigs from shore, yet the sea here is very productive and it was full of comb jellies and lion mane-like jellyfish, which harbored schools of little silvery fish. But probably the most magic we experienced while diving off the oil rigs was the songs of the humpback whales. During the day we saw many of them breaching the surface, and falling on their sides, ejecting enormous quantities of water. Underwater, their songs were the most amazing music and transported us to a different world. 

Gabon’s oil rigs are industrial structures, but the sea is taking them back, little by little. These platforms could be the core of a large marine national park that would protect biodiversity and act as a source of fish for replenishment of Gabon’s fisheries. I cannot think of a clearest win-win conservation success.

After the platforms we sailed south, off Mayumba National Park, but the water was so green and murky that we could not see our fins while diving. This is because the Congo River, the third largest in the world, discharges a massive 41,000 cubic meters of water per second. This is the equivalent of 16 Olympic swimming pools of freshwater per second! This freshwater is charged with nutrients, which fertilize the waters and create blooms of plankton that give this water its green color. Because diving in the shallows was not practical, we sailed farther offshore and used Waitt’s remote operated vehicle (ROV) to explore reefs below 40 meters. The descent into the water column was like diving in green pea soup, but when we got to the bottom we discovered many red and yellow sea fans, like an enchanted forest. These deep reefs are like oasis in a sandy desert.

For 3 weeks we dived in more oil platforms and rocky reefs, and explored the dominant sandy bottoms of Gabon’s coast. We also surveyed one of the few seagrass beds in West Africa, around Mbanie Island on the north of Gabon. We started with almost zero knowledge and ended up the expedition with a treasure chest of information. But the most exciting surprise came near the end of the expedition. We were exploring a seamount that a fisherman told us about. It was supposed to be offshore, at a distance where one cannot see the coast of Gabon. But when we were one mile from the GPS coordinates that were given to us, the bottom was flat. The crew started to make bets on whether the seamount existed, when the line on the depth sounder started to climb, up and up and up. We found the seamount, which raised 350 meters above the seafloor, taller than the Eiffel Tower. We anchored near the edge of the seamount, and dropped the ROV. For the first hour we found nothing but sand and some weever fish and dead sea urchin shells. We were utterly disappointed. But when we were about to bring the ROV back to the surface, we saw some dark patches. They were volcanic rocks, and as we approached we could see clouds of fish, including large dogtooth groupers. We found a deep treasure trove. Nobody before us had seen those deep rocky reefs (which are still uncharted) full of large fishes. That was the icing of the cake.

Now we will spend months analyzing data and editing film, and work with Gabon’s National Park Agency to come up with a proposal to protect these last vestiges of the wild sea that once could be found throughout Africa. Today, most of West Africa is overfished, and corruption associated with fisheries is rampant. Gabon may be our last hope to make things right.

Credits : Dr. Enric Sala – National Geographic