Gabon Expedition: Life and Death at Sea

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.

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.

Man vs. ROV. (Photo by J. Michael Fay)

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. (Read more about Leatherback Turtles from the May 2009 National Geographic Magazine.)

Scarred by struggling against the fishing net that killed her, the leatherback floats beside our boat. (Photo by J. Michael Fay)

 

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. (Photo by J. Michael Fay)

 

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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.