Where the forests and rivers of Gabon meet the sea, a stunning array of wildlife makes an incongruous appearance. Hippos surf the breaking waves. Forest elephants stroll the beach. Buffalos soak up the sun.
On this stretch of West African coast the world’s largest nesting population of leatherback sea turtles comes ashore by the thousands to lay eggs in the sand. In the coastal reefs offshore, olive ridley sea turtles feast on invertebrates, while out to sea the Southern Hemisphere’s largest population of humpback whales plies the waters during peak season, nursing their young before migrating south.
Here, freshwater rivers carry inland nutrients to the sea, creating rich feeding grounds for marine life. Barracuda and tuna swim the murky depths, schooling around the pilings of working offshore oil platforms rooted in the seafloor. Covered in coral polyps, the pilings have become a reef-like habitat for fishes large and small, including rainbow runners, damselfish, wrasses, and snappers. But it’s the top predators—sharks—that make Gabon’s underwater ecosystem complete.
Little was known about Gabon's marine life before the October 2012 National Geographic Pristine Seas expedition, conducted in partnership with the Waitt Foundation and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Led by Explorers-in-Residence Enric Sala and Mike Fay, a team of marine ecologists and filmmakers spent three weeks surveying and documenting Gabon's undersea world to discover whether the country’s waters are as rich with life as its land.
In 1997, Fay walked more than 3,000 kilometers through intact forest from Congo to the coast of Gabon. His project, called the Megatransect, brought attention to the need to protect these pristine areas, and in 2002, then President Omar Bongo Ondimba established 13 national parks that collectively cover 11 percent of the country’s landmass. But Gabon’s waters remained unprotected, and illegal trawling threatened its fisheries. So Fay, Sala, and their team set out to explore the country’s marine environment, tracing the coast northward and diving beneath oil rigs and a massive supertanker. What they discovered were exuberant soft-coral forests teeming with large fishes such as grouper and barracuda. Using a remotely operated vehicle, they surveyed undersea rocky shoals rich with life and were ultimately rewarded with a spectacular sighting—a group of ten silky sharks, proof that Gabon’s waters supported a complete marine ecosystem.
The team presented their findings to President Ali Bongo Ondimba, whose father had established Gabon’s national park system. After the expedition, Fay stayed in Gabon to help the government establish the marine protected areas, update fishing laws, and renegotiate international fishing licenses.
On November 12, 2014, Bongo committed to creating the Gabon Marine Protected Area Network, which will cover 26 percent of Gabon’s waters. The first of its kind in the region, the more than 46,000-square-kilometer network will protect, among other marine creatures, 20 species of whales and dolphins and four species of marine turtles.