I have long wanted to visit Gabon, for me it has always been one of those mysterious places that are not en-route to anywhere but always in the back of your mind. Whenever I think of Gabon it conjures up images of exploration and adventure that I read about as a child. Exotic and full of wildlife (we hope). We wanted to take the Research Vessel Odyssey there in 2004 but the economics would not allow that. So here we are over 14 years later about to make that dream a reality. And we are going with an affordable, scalable, replicable research program that will give us more data than the much larger Odyssey expedition would have.
I will say that the road to Gabon has not been easy, Gabon has more wildlife preserves than any country in Africa and they have recently been incorporating their marine resources into the park systems, so when we started applying for a research permit there was some confusion as to whom we should apply to. After two months of trying to get a permit we were advised by one consultant that it would not be possible to get a research permit in 2018. Luckily, we have had great friends in Tim Collins of WCS and Michelle Lee of ANPN who have been very patient guides and have facilitated not only our research permits but also our collaborations with a number of Gabonese institutions.
Because of the remoteness of this location even packing has been a challenge; we can’t take everything, but what will be the crucial item that we will need or might fail in the field? How many batteries, remote controllers, Petri dishes, spare drones & drone parts should we bring? Should we take Malaria tablets or sleep under mosquito nets (it turns out both).
While we have taken SnotBot to three countries already, Gabon is certainly the end of the road less travelled. Logistics has been a nightmare, in part because communications has been nigh on impossible. And as if that was not enough, because our permit came through only a month before the expedition was planned to leave, we did not have all the funds we needed for the expedition just two weeks before we left. Thanks to a great friend of the oceans (and Ocean Alliance), and our partners at Parley for the Oceans the expedition is now fully funded. So, with 12 bags to check in (all carefully packed to the 50-pound maximum) and 8 carry on bags (some of which might have been overweight) we left Boston on Monday night for Gabon.
The Gabonese government have told us that we will be the first research group to work in their newly designated Marine Protected Area, and we have representatives joining us from ANPN, CENAREST and AGEOS. The BBC will also document our work for a couple of days as part of a four-part series they are shooting called The Equator from the Air.
I have an incredible team going with me, (from left) Chris Zadra, robotic coordinator; Andy Rogan, scientific coordinator; and Christian Miller (cinematographer extraordinaire).
But this expedition would not have been possible without the incredible support of Britta Akerley (office and data manager), John Atkinson (logistics coordinator), Mark Hayes (CFO) and of course Ann Cortissoz (social media and communications manager). I, of course, extend my deepest thanks to Amy and Dylan for putting up with me when I repeatedly came home with a new logistical complaint.
Port Gentil, we have been told, does not have many of the basic facilities we have relied on in the past, but we were told just a few days ago that orcas were seen attacking humpback whales. The old commercial whaling pilot charts that we used to guide the Odyssey around the world also show sperm whales in these waters, and because the rainforest runs right down into the sea both hippos and elephants can be seen in the surf. This is why we are here and I can’t wait to share stories of our adventure with you (Sorry but we will not be looking for either elephants or hippos – so please don’t expect those photos!)
We have worked hard for this one, but the biggest surprise to date has been the fact that Port Gentil does not use credit cards – EVERYTHING IS CASH. Excess baggage fee at the airport: CASH. Airport hotel: CASH. The $2,000 deposit on rental car: CASH – since you can only rent a car with CASH. I am one of those people who does not carry much cash; luckily, I got word of this issue in advance, but even being warned about it, experiencing it is quite a shock. Considering that Port Gentil is and oil town and is probably the most expensive town that we have run a Parley SnotBot expedition from, this is quite a contradiction.
Last but not least, we heard today that our friends from Sea Shepherd were in town, so we stopped by to say hi; they are doing amazing work patrolling Gabonese waters with the Navy and fisheries aboard looking for poachers.
With all of that said, I am hoping that this will be one of the most productive locations we have visited. Since there is so little known about the whale populations here, almost any data that we get will be valuable…. but I am hoping that we hit this proverbial ball out of the ballpark.
From the amazing West African nation of Gabon – I wish you fair winds and a following sea (but bring CASH).