Gabon Expedition: The Lost Underwater Volcano

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.


Today we explored a seamount that is not on the nautical charts. It is about 20 miles off the coast of Gabon, and we had little hope to find it. A local fisher gave us GPS coordinates, and we followed them. But in our sonar we could only see a vast expanse of deep water, flat, without any significant feature. One mile before arrival to our destination, we were making bets on whether this seamount actually exists, when all of a sudden the depth sounder of the research vessel of the Waitt Institute started to climb, and climb, and climb – from 450 meters depth to only 100 meters. The seamount – an underwater volcano according to local lore – was there, and we were probably the first humans ever to send a camera to explore it.

The first dive, on top of the one nautical mile-wide seamount, was far from exciting; it was like flying over the Empty Quarter and seeing nothing but sand, from here to infinity. We moved the vessel and dived near the edge of the seamount. The first half hour was equally boring. We decided to finish the dive and bring the ROV back to the surface; and then magic happened. We saw a darker area on the background, and drove the ROV there. The bottom was full of grapefruit-sized rocks covered by pink encrusting algae. We pointed the camera up, and saw a large rock formation covered with a cloud of fish. There were scorpionfish, jacks, basslets, and a couple of large dogtooth groupers, which came very close to the ROV’s camera, apparently fascinated by that alien creature with two powerful lights.

Those rocks were an oasis in the desert, and showed us that there are still pockets of wild life off the coast of Gabon, unique features that need to be preserved before they disappear like the rest of marine life in most of West Africa.


Read All Gabon Expedition Posts


Changing Planet


Meet the Author
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.