On the morning of 3 December, our team left Gamba and crossed the huge N’dogo Lagoon in 2 boats loaded with all of our gear. It took us just over an hour to reach the Eaux et Forets (Water and Forestry) brigade where we stayed in two houses on the lagoon, thanks to generosity from WWF. After arriving and unpacking all our gear, we scouted locations where manatees had previously been sighted, looked for and found fresh feeding sign (cropped and uprooted grasses along shorelines) and worked on our nets (which needed extra floats attached so we could see them well when something gets caught, and we tied together shorter nets to make 2 longer ones).
Loading gear and fuel into the boats in Gamba…
Anselm, Patrice and Stephane untangled nets and later Stephane and I added floats (old empty soda bottles… a different kind of recycling!)
Tom scans a cove where manatees are often seen feeding. We did see a group of three that day, just off the point of trees in front of Tom. You can see the aquatic plants (dark against the sand) under the water.
Uzoma holding one of the aquatic plants, Crinum natans, a manatee favorite. These are tiny ones, they grow to be the size of a leek.
I had a good team of 6 others with me: Stephane (Gabonese manatee researcher), Uzoma (Nigerian manatee researcher), Ken (WCS veterinarian who has previously worked with manatees in the USA), Patrice (Gabonese veterinarian), Anselm (WWF biologist) and Tom (a photographer from Save Our Seas Foundation, who funded the telemetry equipment, the boat engine and some of the other logistics). We began setting nets for manatees on the 5th. For the first 8 days of setting nets around the clock in 6 different locations (we had 2-4 nets going at once) we did not catch any manatees, despite seeing manatees in close proximity to nets everyday and setting in the same locations used by former hunters. Unfortunately some of the nets were old (they had been confiscated from hunters) and the manatees (or in some cases possibly crocs) broke through at night, leaving large holes for us to find most mornings, a very unpleasant surprise. So we were more than a bit frustrated and very tired.
Anselm casts net into the water during a set at the open cove with the aquatic plants…
Uzoma sets net at one of our mangrove sites…
…and we also set nets along grassy areas where manatees feed. As you might guess, we spent alot of time setting nets, checking nets and re-setting nets. Also second guessing where the manatees would turn up (the answer is, at almost every site, but not in the nets!) Tags were ready to go in the boat in case we caught a manatee. Here we also had the GPS unit and some mangrove samples in theucket. Patice and Uzo waiting in the boat in case a manatee is captured. On this day they had manatees socializing next to the boat and nets for over an hour, but none got caught!
Waiting, waiting and more waiting… Simplice (Gabonese ecoguide who came out with us one day), Anselm and Stephane watch from the mangroves.
Some people passed the time dozing, while others played with their cameras (Ken & Tom). We all fought the tsetse flies!
Anselm displays a large hole in a net made overnight
The biggest surprise for me was how hard the manatees were to catch. They were seen everyday and were definitely near the nets, yet they did not get caught. This gave me flashbacks to the captures we did in Costa Rica in 2005 (and other captures I heard about in Panama), where nets were set for weeks without catching a manatee. Anyone who thinks these elusive beasts aren’t also savvy should think again!!
Here’s the whole team (minus Tom, who took the photo): Patrice, Uzoma, Anselm, Ken, Lucy and Stephane.
I gave the team an A for effort, and could not help but share their disappointment. We all fell into bed exhausted everyday and nothing seemed easy. Patrice and Uzoma had to depart on 10 and 11 December, so we were left with 5 people after that. But then on the 9th (and last) day………