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Highlights from the past week

There’s way too much to describe, so I’m just going to give a few highlights from each day.

Tuesday:
– For our first morning out, we headed north to 2 lakes off the lagoon well-known for manatee sightings: Lac Sounga and Lac Simba. Each time I come to Gabon I have this secret fear that after all the preparations and time and money to get here, I won’t be able to find any manatees! So there, the secret’s out. But the good news is that we had 3 sightings the first morning! One of the sightings was 2 individuals, the others were single animals and as usual my pictures are all mud swirls and “footprints” on the water. But that ties my only other sighting of 4 animals in a single day almost exactly a year ago at Iguela (next lagoon to the north). So, a good beginning.

– We also saw a mother hippo taking her calf into the lagoon, and a large group of black mangebeys (monkeys) eating in the trees over a quiet cove.

Fleeing manatees…
Black Mangabey in the leaves
Wednesday:
– Today we went south in the lagoon to the nearby village of Pitonga. I had heard stories about a man (a Shell employee from Gamba) who has a weekend house there and claims he sees manatees feeding in front of the house all the time. We went to the house and talked to the caretaker who told us yes, manatees are there feeding on the aquatic plants all the time, but only at high tide and mostly in the dry season. Of course it was low tide and there were no manatees, but I jumped in the water and dug up some of the plants from the sandy bottom. Now I just need to figure out what it is! Any of you aquatic vegetation people out there who might know, please feel free to post a comment or email me.

– Just after I got out of the water, Alain pointed out a snake swimming right next to the boat. It was about 1.5 feet long and seemed intent on avoiding us, but still, you don’t hear much about NON-poisonous snakes here!

– After Pitonga we searched some nearby coves and had a manatee sighting in one. Interestingly, about 100 yards from the manatee there was a hippo in the water. I wonder how those two species interact when they cross paths underwater.
– This afternoon after entering data from the survey, I went down to the beach for a swim. The surf is really strong here so I didn’t go out far, but it felt great after all the sticky humidity and blazing sun in the boat. Didn’t get to surf with a hippo this time, but I found buffalo, hippo and monitor lizard tracks on the beach (to see pictures of surfing hippos at this very beach, click here). There’s also a very old graveyard with gravestones going back to the 1880’s. I was trying to imagine what it must’ve been like just to travel here back then.

The beach here has this feeling of incredible wildness. Almost no human footprints, but plenty of animal tracks.

Thursday:
– We returned to a series of mangrove fringed lakes and channels south of Sette Cama and near Pitonga this morning. I had my best single day of manatee sightings in Gabon so far- at least 5 animals in 3 different sightings. One group literally erupted in the water as we came around a corner, but with all the mud swirls it was hard to tell how many were there (3 for sure, I would bet there were more but I always have to go with the most conservative number).
– We watched 3 hippos swimming around in the lagoon and they watched us back! We also saw 2 water monitor lizards out swimming.
Water Monitor Lizard (Varans ornatus) swimming.
– In the afternoon we went to a small museum that the Department of Water and Forests has set up here. They have a partial manatee skeleton and nice educational displays about protecting wildlife against poaching, sea turtle facts and lots of other skulls and bones (whale, hippo, gorilla, etc.).

They had the vertebrae upside-down and backwards on this display, so I fixed them!

Friday:
– Today we explored a large part of the northern end of the lagoon. The water is much deeper there. We didn’t see any manatees, although they have been seen there in the past. We don’t get lucky everyday, especially in a lagoon as huge as this (it’s about the size of Delaware).

– While we were stopped to look at a map, a large group of monkeys came out of the trees above us. There were 3 species all together: red-capped mangabeys, black mangabeys and putty-nosed monkeys. They seemed unconcerned with our presence and were neat to watch.

Putty-nosed MonkeyThe forest here is absolutely fantastic. You wouldn’t believe all the diversity and beautiful shades of green. Manatees rest close to shore under the overhanging boughs.

Saturday:
– For the last day of surveys we headed up the lagoon (which narrows to a channel about a mile wide for 10km or so) to the embrochure (inlet) where it drains into the ocean. The salinity was very low all the way to the mouth and there is lots of good manatee habitat, but there are also more fishermen around than in other parts of the lagoon and we didn’t see any.
– At the mouth of the inlet we saw a sea turtle swimming out from the lagoon! It was small, so it was likely an Olive Ridley.
– On the north side of the inlet is probably the most famous place in West Africa for viewing wildlife on the beach. So Alain took me on a short hike to see some of it. Of course the first corner we came around, we found a large stinking mass of what appeared to be formerly a whale, bobbing in the surf. Don’t ask me how I always manage to find the dead stuff.
– We climbed a bluff covered with beautiful trees and a view of rolling green hillsides bordering the beach. At the top we looked out and saw 2 forest buffalo walking down the beach in the surf. We hid behind a bush and watched them walk right past us. We also saw another one on the hill near us.


– On the walk back we found a fresh Ridley sea turtle nest, saw a Marsh Mongoose and then walked through forest where we saw some monkeys and a rather large forest cobra (at least 4 foot long and as wide as my arm, I was not sorry to see it slither away from us!). So the walk definitely made up for the lack of manatees!

– Here’s a very quick map of the northern half of N’dogo Lagoon, to give you an idea of where I just did surveys. Different colored track lines indicate different survey days. Note manatee sightings (red stars) were localized to 2 areas. The pink star at Pitonga is a previous sighting at the home of the man who sees them feeding in front of his house.
3 Comments
  • Anonymous

    October 8, 2007 at 9:17 am Reply

    Hey Lucy,
    Congratulations on an incredible week! You’ve really gone into the wild this time!! I am so glad you saw manatees and have been able to get such wonderful help from the local people. Keep the photos and updates coming. You can count on me for a donation. I think your research is more than great.
    Penny

  • Anonymous

    October 8, 2007 at 10:52 am Reply

    So . . . make me happy and say ‘yes of course I sampled the dead whale . . . ‘

    A GREAT week Lucy

    Tim

  • Anonymous

    October 12, 2007 at 9:25 am Reply

    Hi Lucy,
    Glad to hear you’re getting good data so far and that you had an exciting and successful trip to Setta Cama, it’s definitely an amazing place, even for Gabon. I was also excited to see you had a chance to survey the Rembo Bongo, it’s one of the most hauntingly beautiful places I ever had the chance to visit and it was great to see your photos. Thanks for all your great work to protect the manatees of Gabon, best of luck and keep in touch.
    Ariel

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