Equatorial Guinea: The Waters at the Middle of EarthLatest update July 5, 2019 Started on March 5, 2007
WCS have been working in a one of the pristine places on earth, Equatorial Guinea, since 2007. The only spanish speaking country in Africa, it is a singular arrangement of islands and continent with 92% of seas.
Prehistoric giants among us!
As a Costa Rican, I had the privilege to grow up in a country with coasts on both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Through the years, I heard many friends tell stories of how they visited leatherback turtle nesting beaches to see these amazing animals. As a teenager, I went fishing with my father to the canals of the Tortuguero River on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, but I never visited the nesting beach just on the other side of the jungle to see leatherbacks. Later, as a marine biologist I had the opportunity of going on an expedition to Playa Grande, the main leatherback nesting beach in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, however the nesting population of these giants had dwindled down to a dozen a year, and they eluded my curious eyes once again.
My elusive encounter with leatherbacks would only become a reality years later. When I arrived in Equatorial Guinea, I heard many stories about Ureka, an area on the southern part of Bioko Island. The stories were full with lush green forests, fabled waterfalls that seemed to appear around every corner, long deserted beaches and, most importantly, hundreds of leatherback turtles visiting every year to lay their eggs. Considering the state of leatherback populations around the world, I figured that perhaps there would be several dozen turtles during the whole season, yet I was constantly corrected and told “you can see a dozen leatherbacks in a single night!” I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to visit during nesting season, which lasts from early November to late February, and finally accomplish a childhood dream and meet these giants of the ocean.
The opportunity finally presented itself early in 2019, when collaboration between Wildlife Conservation Society, the University of Exeter, the National Institute for Forestry Development and Protected Area Management (INDEFOR-AP) and the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program (BBPP) organized a satellite tagging expedition to understand how leatherbacks move in the Gulf of Guinea and beyond. Leatherback turtles are highly migratory, travelling thousands of miles between their nesting and feeding areas, visiting the territorial waters of many countries and international waters during their travels.
In order to effectively protect leatherbacks, scientists need to know where they go after they nest and how they get there so that countries can join efforts and secure their survival. But how can they track a sea turtle in the open ocean? They place small devices on their backs that transmit their geographic location to satellites, information which is later accessed by scientists.
BBPP has a research camp on Moaba beach and for years they have studied nesting sea turtles and promoted the conservation of these animals. I couldn’t have been more excited as we reached the camp. Would I finally witness one of these giants emerge from the ocean after travelling thousands of miles, looking for the perfect spot on the sandy beach to lay her eggs? As sunset began, the camp started to come alive, dinner was being prepared, equipment was being tested, excitement was spreading among us. A tingling sensation reminded me that I was about to be witness something special, something people seldom have an opportunity to witness in Equatorial Guinea, Costa Rica or, for that matter, anywhere in the world.
We headed out to the nesting beach at around 9pm, mostly in the dark, sometimes using red light. Marine turtles are sensitive to white light, it may scare them off back into the ocean, while red light lies beyond the spectrum they can detect. Soon after we started our expedition a massive silhouette was spotted near the beach break. We all stopped and stood quiet as a massive form slowly moved onto the beach. The shape rocked rhythmically moving forward and backward, inching up the beach. The group moved away and waited for the nesting leatherback to find a sweet spot on the beach, the hardness of the sand and its humidity must be just right to entice the leatherback to lay her eggs. Looking for the perfect site is important because too much humidity may prevent the eggs from developing, or sand that is too hard will make it impossible to build the nest.
Once the female finished digging the nest and started to lay her eggs, we moved in closer. The energy females spend when digging their nests is massive, causing them to enter a trance as they lay their eggs. Females are no longer bothered by white light in this state, allowing the scientists to quickly set up their equipment and prepare to place the satellite transmitter. As the sea turtles leathery back was cleaned to prevent infection and the transmitter placed, I could not take my eyes away from her. The massive body that lied before me was more impressive that I had imagined, her tearful eyes showing the effort she had undertaken, arriving back at the same beach where dozens of years before her mother had dug the nest she emerged from.
To my delight we encountered nesting giants along the beach all night long, quickly losing count of how many. I even came close to stumbling into one, my eyes still unaccustomed to detecting them in the dark. During the three nights I stayed in Moaba, I witnessed dozens of nesting turtles, more than I could have ever imagined. Like the leatherback, I too travelled thousands of miles from my home to witness one of nature’s wonders, the prehistoric giants among us.
Conservation efforts around the world face a diverse range of challenges, one of the most significant being field data collection. High priority conservation areas are usually remote and difficult to reach, making access difficult for park rangers and researchers, adding a degree of difficulty to surveillance efforts and biodiversity monitoring.
WCS has been working with artisanal fisheries in Equatorial Guinea for more than three years, helping promote sustainable fishing practices and helping fishers improve market access for their products. Part of the cooperation project with communities is data collection regarding their catch. We work together with national students from Equatorial Guinean universities who collaborate with communities in different aspects and in return are allowed to record data from their fishing activity like species caught, fishing gear used and fish length.
Managing this amount of information can be difficult, especially when a program carries over several years, with new data collectors each year and paper forms are used to collect data. Hoping to improve the process of data collection, reduce the time spent registering information into the database and simplifying data analysis, WCS Equatorial Guinea reached out to SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Assessment Reporting Tool) a partnership of NGO’s that developed a tool that helps park rangers and researchers collect data.
SMART was developed as a collaborative effort between several organizations, including WCS, covering three areas of development: software, capacity building and site-based protection standards. This tool is open source, non-proprietary and freely available. Dozens of sites in Africa, Asia, Oceania, the Caribbean and Central and South America have already implemented it. Most of the sites are using SMART for land-based conservation efforts, however, there has been a noted increase of sites using it in marine areas, which is how Equatorial Guinea will be implementing it in the near future.
To learn more about SMART please visit http://smartconservationtools.org/. We will keep you updated on the implementation of this tool in Equatorial Guinea in future posts.
As the airplane landed in the middle of the Atlantic at the airport of Annobón Island, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had heard so many things about this small island in the Gulf of Guinea that it had almost acquired mythical properties in my imagination and I was about to clash with reality. Although reality and imagination often are not in the same realm, I was hoping that in this case they would blend into a nice surprise for my senses.
Annobón lies almost 600 km from mainland Equatorial Guinea, a tiny speck of land inhabited by 4,000 people. I am joined by INDEFOR’s park ranger for Annobón’s protected area during this visit, we hope to work together with fishers in order to better understand their livelihoods, a livelihood that is intrinsically linked to the sea.
With the help of local authorities, we meet fishers from all around the island under a small group of trees on a beach that would be the main feature on any tourism brochure: plain yet beautiful. Together, on maps of the island, we draw their main fishing grounds, scribble down the species they catch and register their observations on the visits of humpback whales, orcas, dolphins, tiger and hammerhead sharks, these are just some of the some of the many species that we discussed.
The following day, we arranged a boat ride with several fishers to circle the island. The landscape is breathtaking; it feels like a scene from Jurassic Park, I felt like I was stealing this view from another world. As we move around the various bays and coves, the fishers point out mud flats and reefs hidden beneath the waves where they free dive for conch and octopus, hidden rocks where they fish for wahoo, shallow areas where female humpback whales give birth to their young and secluded beaches where marine turtles lay their eggs. All in all, a paradise that we get to appreciate but need to conserve so others can experience these wonders and the local population can continue to benefit from its resources.
As the sun settles on the horizon, the men gather under the trees of the town’s beach ready to play a round of checkers. They circle the two players, watching as they pound the board when they make their moves, smiling at each other, pointing out which move they would have made instead. Today's winner is the man that told me the legend of the island’s cave a couple of days ago. A small beach on the southern coast hides a cave, a cave said to have a tunnel that goes through the heart of the island, reaching San Antonio de Palé to the North. However, it is forbidden to enter. Someone, no one knows who, laid out a curtain several meters into the cave. No one is sure what would happen if this fragile barrier is breached, perhaps nothing, perhaps a curse would fall on the trespasser. No one knows and no one goes beyond.
The small restaurants in San Antonio de Palé offer the freshest fish, conch and octopus you can imagine. As you walk around the streets, you can see a young man hammering at the shell of the early dawn’s catch of conch, a mother laying small salted pelagic fish to dry under the sun or a fisher walking with his morning prize, a wahoo as large as his leg. As Santos, the owner of one of the establishments in the small town, frequently says “the only problem you will have today, is that you will eat well”.
As our adventure comes to an end and airplane lifts off, I can’t help but compare my experience to those high expectations I had envisioned. My mind flies back to the local cuisine, the lake in the crater of the volcano that created the island, the fish drying along the streets, the lush green forests, the hidden coves, and the awe-inspiring cliffs that are part of the island’s landscape. But most of all, I remember the friendly people of Annobón and how a smile was always ready to great me as I walked around the island. I look forward to visiting again and getting a better idea of the wonders that lie beneath the waves when we return to mythic Annobón with an ROV as part of our crew.
by Erick Ross Salazar, Marine Director at WCS-EG
Equatorial Guinea is located in the heart of the Gulf of Guinea, a biologically rich area of Africa where it’s possible to see an elephant, a humpback whale, and a leatherback sea turtle all in the same day.
WCS have been working in one of the last pristine places on earth, Equatorial Guinea, since 2007. The organization started with the "ambassadors of the sea" sea turtles program, but later has gone on to work with whales, fishes, habitats, birds and more creatures that you can imagine. Equatorial Guinea is 92% water thanks to the oceanic territory granted by the islands of Bioko, Annobon and Corisco in the Gulf of Guinea. What do you do in a country that is 92% water? Explore, explore, explore! Since 2014 WCS has been undergoing research to get as much information as possible to inform a Marine Spatial Planning process. We want to use the latest science available, which includes sea exploration! Another thing that makes Equatorial Guinea unique is the fact that it is the only Spanish-speaking country on the African continent. This creates an opportunity for collaboration with scientists and managers from Latin America with experience in conservation who have share the same language.
Contribute to this expedition
Thank You for Your Contribution!