Gabon Expedition: Sharks!

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.

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? We’ll continue exploring for one more week, and keep you posted.

 

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Marine ecologist Dr. Enric Sala is a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence who combines science, exploration and media to help restore marine life. Sala’s scientific publications are used for conservation efforts such as the creation of marine protected areas. 2005 Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellow, 2006 Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation, 2008 Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum.