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Cap Esterias- Part I

Last Saturday Angela, Andrea, Virginia (sea turtle reseachers) and I took a day trip to Cap Esterias, which is located north of Libreville on a peninsula where the Atlantic Ocean meets Corisco and Mondah Bays. The town sits near the border of Akanda National Park and there are several small islands in the bay.

We took a Taxi Brusse (bush taxi) which is basically the size of an ancient VW bus, crammed with 20 people and their market baskets, for the hour ride up to Cap Esterias. There aren’t many other options for getting there because the road is terrible (more pot holes than actual pavement, although they were repairing it in one area), and although bush taxis aren’t the most comfortable (think sardines), it cost us the equivalent of $1.25 each to get there. Once we arrived we met Innocent, one of Angela’s turtle assistants, who had arranged a boat to take us out on the bay. The day was grey but the water was calm and we went first to Mbanye Island, where there is a small military outpost (because this area is an ambiguous and disputed border with Equatorial Guinea). There is also a turtle hunter on this island. Unfortunately sea turtles other than leatherbacks are not a protected species here (they would be if the Gabon government would finally approve a decree that has been sitting waiting for two years…).

First some of the military guys took us out to a sand spit at one end of the island and showed us 3 Ridley nests and a false crawl (the turtle comes up on the beach but decides not to nest, this can be determined by looking at the tracks). They had taken eggs from one nest but had left the others to hatch. After that they took us to a corral where the hunter had a live adult green sea turtle. She was beautiful and Angela estimated her to be about 30 years old (and still not as large as they can get). I was completely overwhelmed by the fact that they were going to kill her and there was nothing I could do to stop it. They’ll sell her meat in Libreville for the equivalent of $50 US, which is a lot of money here, but seems so little for killing such a long-lived and slow-breeding species. They remarked that 5 other turtles had just gone in a boat to Libreville. I wanted to buy it, but Angela said these turtles are residents here, and it would just go back to the same reef and be re-caught by the same fisherman. It was so hopeless I had to walk away from it all. They allowed Angela to take measurements and a genetic sample, and as she did so she was telling the guys that the turtle was 30 years old and only 1 in 1000 hatchlings survive to adulthood. She later told me that the turtle fishermen are willing to give up hunting if there was another way to make money, but this is something that still needs to happen here.

Angela and Innocent take data on the doomed green sea turtle.

While we were there we also asked the military guys about manatees. They said they never saw them there, but their rotations on the island changed every few weeks. They knew what manatees were and said they were very rare.

After that depressing episode, we left Mbanye and went a short way across the bay to a tiny speck of an island called Cocotier. There are about 3 trees and 500 terns on Cocotier; it is surrounded by rocky ledges and Angela had seen turtles and seagrass there in the past. We snorkeled and I found several patches of Halodule wrightii, a favorite manatee food. Collected samples and photographed them. This is also the only seagrass species recorded for West Africa. I also saw some nice tropical fish, a big sea hare and signs of turtle grazing on algae growing on rocks, but no sign of manatees.

Coctier Island

Halodule from Cocotier. The individual plants were larger here than the ones I found at Iguela last year, but the grass beds were much smaller and patchier here.

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