Gabon is a wildlife Eden in West Africa, with 13 national parks covering 11 percent of its landmass, including megafauna such as gorillas, chimpanzees, forest elephants, and surfing hippos. Very little was known about Gabon’s underwater life before the October 2012 National Geographic Pristine Seas expedition in partnership with the Waitt Foundation and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Mike Fay’s exploration of Gabon’s untouched wilderness led to 11% of the country being named national park land. This inspired Enric Sala to explore and help protect similarly pristine areas of the ocean around the world. Now the two explorers go back to the beginning to explore the murky waters off the coast of this African nation.
On November 12, 2014, President Ali Bongo Ondimba expanded his father’s conservation legacy by creating a network of marine parks covering 23 percent of Gabon’s territorial waters, creating a first-of-its-kind network of marine protected areas in the region and closing these areas to commercial fishing.
The area will cover 18,000 square miles (over 46,000 square kilometers) of ocean and will protect some of Gabon’s outstanding marine life: 20 species of whales and dolphins, including humpback whales and Atlantic humpback dolphins; and four species of marine turtles, the world’s largest breeding leatherback turtle population and the Atlantic Ocean’s largest breeding olive ridley turtle population among them.
Off Cape Lopez, in the center of Gabon’s coast, there is an underwater canyon that starts near the surface and descends to 150 meters, meandering along the bottom like a river canyon. In fact, this canyon was an ancient river valley, formed more than 10,000 years ago when sea level was more than 100 meters lower than today. Now the canyon is covered by a thick layer of mud, which comes mostly from the nearby Ogooue River. We expected this canyon to be one of the highlights of our Gabon expedition. We deployed the ROV in the late afternoon, dreaming of strange animals living in the mud. But once again, we could not expect what was about to come.
Within one minute of soaking the ROV in the green waters off Cap Lopez, a familiar silhouette crossed the monitor screen in the high-tech ROV control room of Waitt’s research vessel. Unsure of whether we had seen what we thought we saw, we looked at each other and shook our heads. Then another came in, and then another, up to ten. Sharks! Finally, after two weeks of diving and looking for them unsuccessfully, silky sharks appeared in a place we were not expecting them.
The sharks were there as long as the ROV was below the boat, swimming elegantly below the vessel, which was a soft shadow as viewed from the green waters below. We were disappointed earlier, but now we have hope. Sharks are a sign of health. The question is: how many sharks are left in Gabon’s waters? Where else can we find them?
Incredible Baby Octopus. The research vessel of the Waitt Institute was anchored over a bottom of 52 meters off the Loango National Park in Gabon, a park known for his surfing hippos, and beach-roaming elephants. But we were probably the first to dive in these waters. We deployed Waitt’s remote operated vehicle (ROV) and drove it across the sandy bottom.
The most exciting thing we found was a large, dead seashell. Steve Firman, our ROV pilot extraordinaire, grabbed the shell with the manipulator arm of the ROV, and brought it on board for identification. We could have never expected what was going to happen.
When we picked up the shell from the ROV’s arm, to our surprise, a small octopus came out of the shell. It was a female that laid her eggs inside the shell. We put shell and octopus in a tank with seawater, and after one minute thousands of octopus larvae started to stream out of the shell. The octopus eggs were hatching! That was the first time we had observed such a magnificent show. The larvae were changing coloration from transparent with dark spots to brown, and swimming like squid – although on a millimeter scale.
We released octopus and larvae immediately after taking some photographs and video. Even on a featureless sandy plain one can find the perseverance of life. A good lesson in exploration: never hesitate to continue exploring, even when it seems you are not going to find anything.
Dive Under a Super Tanker. The Super Tanker loomed gigantic in the gray seas of southern Gabon. Our Surfer boat approached the solid steel wall like a Coke can clanging alongside. A Russian voice came over the VHF from the deck 100 feet up. He said they would send the basket. Basket I thought, looking up to see a mini version of what you would see on the bottom of an air balloon. The voice said that we should put one foot on the ground, one on the edge of the basket, hold on to the netting on the outside and he would hoist us up—yeah right!
We were on the FPSO Petróleo Nautipa, a ship built in the 1970s in Japan that could hold more than a million barrels of oil. In the oil industry I have learned an FPSO is a Floating Production Storage and Offloading platform. This is the mother ship for a new field discovered by Vaalco, a small oil company out of Houston, that struck black gold 20 miles at sea on the border between Gabon and Congo. The ship collects oil from wells on the sea bottom, separates the water and gas from the oil and stores it waiting for a tanker to offload once a month. This is a slick way to get oil out of a small field; there are four such operations in Gabon today.
The lights of square buildings many stories high and gas flares illuminate the sea to the horizon. This is the Total oil field south of Port Gentil, Gabon. Total has been producing a significant percentage of the Gabonese national budget for decades and today is the first time I have ventured so close.
We dove under an oil tanker off the southern coast of Gabon. It was a massive ship, with a hull that looked like a gigantic wall. The water was green and murky, because the Congo River sends its water full of organic matter hundreds of miles north. The organic matter is a powerful natural fertilizer that makes planktonic algae bloom. To us, it was like diving in pea soup, but we were very excited because this area of Gabon’s coast may be the most productive.
We jumped in the water and started descending down the hull. It was covered by invertebrates and algae, with barely a square inch without life. A school of jacks darted in and out of our short visibility range, making our hearts accelerate.
Below the hull, it was pitch black, but we could not venture into it because the swell was almost 2 meters high. Outside the hull we were being brought up and down like yo-yos. Under the hull, our heads might have been crushed. I peeked under it, hanging on a colony of giant barnacles, and my flashlight revealed a large grey grouper, which disappeared into the darkness. Even under a massive industrial ship there is astonishing marine life.
Life and Death at Sea. Generally the bottom of the ocean in southern Gabon is sandy, but we found a 1980 map called “Carte Sedimentologique du Plateau Continentale du Congo.” On this map we saw about ten small spots marked “bancs rocheux.” Seemed very unlikely, but we decided to take the ROV down to the bottom and see if we could find these “rock banks.”
We got a radio call: the Gabonese Navy had arrested a Chinese trawler boat fishing illegally and had the captain in custody. The ROV hit the ground, sand, so we decided to go see the trawler boat. We took off on the dive boat and left the ROV driver to find the rocks.
On the way to the coast we saw some humpbacks blowing mist in the distance. We went over and they were heading south, back to the Antarctic, so no chance to dive with them. The pilot stopped short. We thought it was a whale at close range, then we thought it was a buoy, then I realized whatever it was it was dead. It was a leatherback turtle.
We pulled alongside. She was bloated, floating like a bobber, with traces of net marks on her front legs. This turtle had met the same fate as many I have seen here: drowned by a net. Hundreds of leatherbacks and other sea turtles are killed by fishing and logs on the beach every year.
We headed back to the Plan B after meeting up with the Navy. They were taking the captain to Mayumba for booking. We got a radio call they found the rocks with the ROV. There was life down there–groupers, damselfish, butterflyfish, snappers, sea bream, grunts. The sea fans of many species made it look like a two-dimensional forest with strange whip corals interspersed. Later we went to a second rock plate: same thing, fish and corals. It is by no means pristine, but we are starting to piece together what is left here in the seas of Gabon. Rocks on the bottom serve as a base on which algae, coral, and other creatures anchor and grow, providing an oasis for fish and other more mobile creatures to inhabit.
Oil Rigs Are a Haven for Marine Life. The oil company TOTAL kindly authorized us to dive on several of their oil rigs, and we were quick to jump in the water. These were the first scientific dives on oil rigs in Gabon, so we were very excited.
The oil platforms look eerie at night, with flares lighting the sea with a hellish glow. During the day, they are imposing structures that made us feel very little. But as soon as we jumped in the water all worries disappeared. The pilings were covered by orange and yellow cup corals, contrasting strikingly with the deep blue. Fish schools were swimming around the platform, including large red snappers, barracudas, jacks, and rainbow runners. These oil rigs are the only hard substrate on the sandy seafloor of Gabon’s central coast, and therefore they attract a large abundance of fishes, both migratory and sedentary.
Tomorrow we will dive in three more oil rigs, which are larger than those we saw today. We are already dreaming about seeing more and larger fishes—and maybe some sharks?
We have now conducted two more dives on oil rigs owned by the oil company TOTAL. The last one was the best we’ve seen so far. We jumped in the water and saw dozens of large barracuda, and schools of rainbow runners and small tuna. The water was quite clear, since this was the farthest oil rig from shore, yet the sea here is very productive and full of comb jellies and lion mane-like jellyfish, which harbor schools of little silvery fish. The perfect shelter from predators!
These 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.
Humpack Whale Sightings. We continue our dives under the rigs. Amazing amounts of fish. Today we decided to film the last of the humpback whales on their way south. There are a few thousand humpbacks that come up from Antarctica every year to breed off the coast of Gabon. Usually they are gone by now but we are discovering that there are still hundreds around. Lots of them are females that have babies and so they are probably slow. We saw a baby today—it was tiny. Crazy to see all these giant whales making their way through the network of oil wells.
We saw whales several times but these guys are all swimming fast south at this point.
Now we are heading south too, to dive the rock off the border between Gabon and Congo.
A light went on my head. There are seven billion people on Earth and counting. Resource use is on a scary trajectory and these guys are out here on the front lines providing what everybody wants. So what about a new kind of protected area out here? One that takes this industrial landscape, with a whole world of features that attract fish, maybe even increase productivity, and rules that limit human activity, including all fishing and focuses on conservation. We can put a layer on the map that adds biodiversity and fisheries management to the oil fields. It needs to be done everywhere.
This is the meaning of the slogan adopted by the Gabonese Government and its President, Ali Bongo Ondimba: “Gabon Vert – Gabon Industriel – Gabon des Services” – Green Gabon – Industrial Gabon – Services Gabon”. The Green is about conservation, parks, sustainable harvest of natural resources and sustainable development. Industrial Gabon is founded on the principal of respect for the environment. These two pillars are not mutually exclusive, and looking down into the waters of the Atlantic, teeming with hundreds of fish lit by gas flares, I got it. Now it is up to us to implement the model—conservationists and industrials working together—and Gabon des Services is about sharing the model with the world at large.