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 Super Tanker loomed gigantic in the gray seas of southern Gabon. Our Surfer boat approached the solid steel wall like a Coke can clanging alongside. A Russian voice came over the VHF from the deck 100 feet up. He said they would send the basket. Basket I thought, looking up to see a mini version of what you would see on the bottom of an air balloon. The voice said that we should put one foot on the ground, one on the edge of the basket, hold on to the netting on the outside and he would hoist us up—yeah right!
As we went up I reminisced about climbing redwood trees on vertical ropes, it takes the breath out of you slightly. Then we were there, high up on what looked like a petro-chemical plant at sea. I was told not to use flash taking pictures because detectors could shut the whole rig down.
We were on the FPSO Petróleo Nautipa, a ship built in the 1970s in Japan that could hold more than a million barrels of oil. In the oil industry I have learned an FPSO is a Floating Production Storage and Offloading platform. This is the mother ship for a new field discovered by Vaalco, a small oil company out of Houston, that struck black gold 20 miles at sea on the border between Gabon and Congo. The ship collects oil from wells on the sea bottom, separates the water and gas from the oil and stores it waiting for a tanker to offload once a month. This is a slick way to get oil out of a small field; there are four such operations in Gabon today.
We met with a Tunisian, an Indian, and another Russian speaker who gave us the safety briefing for diving below the super tanker and their two platforms. Their biggest worry was that the divers stay away from the water intakes that could suck one of them into the hull.
Soon we were back in the basket. An hour later Enric and team were diving in the black abyss below the tanker. They said the water was like pea soup, the result of the gigantic plume of fresh water that comes into the ocean from the Congo River, still a couple of hundred miles to our south.