Changing Planet

Gabon Expedition: Rendezvous in Rough Seas

Mike Fay’s exploration of Gabon’s untouched wilderness led to 11 percent 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.

The scene is surreal-the sun is setting, the skies overcast. We are bombing south in a tender boat for a rendezvous in rough seas. 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.

The tender captain didn’t like the looks of what we needed to do. It was almost dark. He had to power the bow of the boat up to pipes arranged in a cup below the rig and keep it there. At the right second we needed to jump on to a ladder in a six foot swell. Do or die, I slid myself out on the bow deck and waited for a rise, jumped and ran up the ladder. One, two, three we were all up. We started up the stairs, layer after layer of offices and living quarters. The whine of turbines and smell of half-combusted petroleum was heavy in the air. We met with Benjamin Seigneur, the head of his sector Grondin, an agglomeration of about 20 platforms. He was young, had about a two-week beard, looking like a combat Lieutenant that needed to be on top of it 24/7, for weeks. He was welcoming and cut to the chase. We could dive as we wished at the designated places, we needed to make sure we anchored in the right spots to avoid the sub-sea pipes and the rest was process.

We went back to the ominous ladder that went into the dark, I looked down at the water and there in the glow of the flare and lights were hundreds of large jacks.

We went back to the dreaded ladder, I looked down at the water and there in the glow of the flare and lights were hundreds of large jacks. (Photo by J. Michael Fay)

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.

 

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Mike Fay has spent his life as a naturalist—from the Sierra Nevadas and the Maine woods as a boy, to Alaska and Central America in college, to North Africa and the depths of the central African forest and savannas for the last 25 years. He has worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Bronx since 1991. In 1996, Fay flew over the forests of Congo and Gabon and realized there was a vast, intact forest corridor spanning the two countries from the Oubangui to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1997, he walked the entire corridor, over 2,000 miles, surveying trees, wildlife, and human impacts on 12 uninhabited forest blocks. Called Megatransect, this work led to a historic initiative by the Gabonese government to create a system of 13 national parks, making up some 11,000 square miles (28,500 square kilometers). In 2004, he completed the Megaflyover, an eight-month aerial survey of the entire African continent. He logged 800 hours and took 116,000 vertical images of human impact and associated ecosystems, many of which are now visible on Google Earth. In 2008 Fay completed the Redwood Transect, a new project to learn more about the redwood forest. He walked the entire range of the redwood tree, over 700 miles. Since then he has participated in the 2011 BioBlitz at Saguaro National Park, and is a regular team member of fellow NG Explorer Enric Sala's Pristine Seas Expeditions, recording the life and land above the waves.

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