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.
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.)
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.