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ATN: Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea

Caldera Expedition 2006
Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea

Submitted by Heidi A. Rader
Arcadia University, USA
2006 Caldera Expedition Participant

3 Weeks

11 Species of primates

4 Species of nesting sea turtles

13 Hours by plane from the United States

3 Days journey overland from the nearest traffic light

1 Unspoiled virgin wilderness

The Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program (BBPP) is an academic partnership between Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania, USA and the National University of Equatorial Guinea (UNGE) in Malabo. Each year the BBPP conducts a three week research expedition in January to Bioko Island’s remote, rarely visited, Gran Caldera de Luba and Southern Highlands Scientific Reserve to census endangered primates and nesting sea turtles. Approximately ten volunteer research assistants take part in two main activities: counting diurnal primates in the rainforest in the Caldera and census and tagging of sea turtles on the black sand beaches of the southern coast of Bioko Island. The expedition is a valuable source of field experience for those studying conservation biology, ecology, primatology or anthropology.

This year’s adventure began in the early hours of the morning, January 2, 2006, at the airport in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea. For most it was a long, tiresome trip from their homes, from all parts of the world. Once through customs, we headed to the Exxon-Mobil compound (MEGI). The kind folks at the MEGI compound welcomed us and provided space to camp for the night, along with our last hot shower and meal for the next three weeks. On the morning of January 4th, with gear packed, along with students and professors from UNGE, we boarded a cargo boat and headed into the open waters with the course set for Moraka Playa. Transportation to and from the southern beaches of Bioko is always a challenge, so needless to say, we were grateful to be the “guest cargo” of Hess Oil on the Seabulk St. Andrew.

After about three hours on the water, the Sea Bulk St. Andrew anchored just off the coast of Moraka Playa.

We were met by the villagers of Ureca, who brought us ashore in a large dugout wooden canoe called a cayuco. As luck would have it, when my group climbed over the side into the cayuco, the gray clouds turned to black and with a mighty clap of thunder, and a flash of lightening, the skies parted and let loose with wind driven rain As I sat in a giant puddle on the floor of the cayuco, wedged between two benches, clutching the satellite phone to my chest, I squeezed my eyes shut, silently thanking my parents for providing me with swimming lessons in my younger years, and waited for the next wave to crash on my head. The crew maneuvered the cayuco through the choppy waters and delivered us safely to the shore. That part of the adventure behind us, with all accounted for and feet planted firmly on the black sand beach, we set about the task of setting of Beach Camp.

Beach Camp is the main camp of the expedition with the other three camps placed strategically along the trail up and into the Caldera. Approximately two weeks is spent inside the Caldera itself, a natural refuge with spectacular gorges and steep walls.

Few people have ever been in this area because it is accessible only during the dry season (December through February) and then, only after considerable effort. Although my main reason for participating in the expedition was to census sea turtles, this being my first trip to Bioko Island, I was not about to miss out on anything so the following morning I joined the first group and hiked into the Caldera to help with the monkey census for a few days.

The two-day hike into the Caldera began pleasantly enough with a mile walk along the black sand beach, and across the swift moving waters of the river bed to the beginning of the trail that gently rises through the forest. After an hour or so on the trail, things got a bit tougher. I am a personal trainer and fitness consultant by profession and despite the fact that I trained in the gym for the better part of six months and participated in a few running road races to prepare myself for the physical part of the expedition, I found myself gasping from the heat and humidity as the trail began to rise in elevation. I needed to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t hiking a trail in the mountains back home in Pennsylvania, but I was embedded in a dense forest in Africa a few degrees from the equator. Not about to give up and turn around or be left behind, I continued on, trekking over twisted, knotted roots, scooting around massive tree trunks and crouching under vines and limbs. The forest here is dark and wet. The foliage is dense, and a sweet, earthy smell seems to surround us as we make our final decent into the Caldera. As we stop to catch our breath at the bottom of the waterfall, I marvel at the majesty of the forest and the adventures that wait ahead.

The majority of the primate census takes place in the Caldera. At Main Camp, mornings and afternoons are spent walking in small teams headed by a local guide, surveying the marked trails, listening for vocals, foliage snapping, leaves tearing, bushes moving and the occasional tree branch springing back into place signaling the presence of monkeys and small mammals.

The encounters are carefully recorded and compared each night by the campfire. For me, this was my first time camping in the bush, and exploring a remote area. My days spent in the Caldera were amazing, but I was here for the turtles. It was time for me to make the journey back down to Beach Camp. Three of us made the trip back to the beach early the following morning. The weather was unsettled and wisps of low-lying clouds heavy with the threat of rain hung around us as we climbed back up the steep cliff and out of the Caldera. The hike back down to the beach was much easier than the hike up the trail. It afforded me the time to take better notice of my surroundings. Somewhere along the trail a black colobus monkey decided to keep us company swinging from branch to branch as we made our way down the trail. Soon the sights and sounds of the forest were replaced by the distant roar of the sea. As we crossed the river bed and set foot once again on the black sand, I left one adventure behind and a new one was about to begin.

Four species of sea turtles nest on Bioko Island; the leatherback, green, Olive ridley and hawksbill. I have been working with the Bioko sea turtle data for a year or so now as a graduate student at Arcadia University, but had never actually seen one of my research subjects; so needless to say, I was excited at the prospect of actually coming face to face with any of the four species that nest on Bioko’s black sand beaches. Exhausted from the long trip from Main Camp to Beach Camp, I bathed in the lagoon, had a meal of rice and beans, and crawled into my tent for a rest as I planned on joining one of the turtle census teams that night.

BBPP first started studying sea turtles on Bioko Island in November of 2000. Locals from the nearby village of Ureca were hired to patrol five beaches nightly from approximately 10PM to 5AM for the entire nesting season from October to April. Accompanied by the trained local guides, expedition participants at Beach Camp are part of one of two data collecting teams that walk Beach A and Beach B in each during our 3 week stay on the island, in search of nesting sea turtles.

My first night out on turtle patrol, I was assigned to Beach A. A few minutes past 10PM our group started out. The sea was calm, the moon was full, the night sky full of stars; a perfect night for nesting sea turtles. We walked slowly with our guide leading the way. Two of us walked just beyond the waters edge, as the others searched mid-beach and along the vegetation at the edge of the forest. Our first encounter was a green turtle. She had nested among the vegetation and was headed back to the water. Disappointed that we had missed the actual nesting process, but elated with seeing our first turtle, we pushed on in search of more. As we walked along, a ghost crab scuttled over the top of my shoe and startled me. Another grabbed onto my pant leg. They seem to be everywhere running in every direction over the surface of the sand, so it was no surprise that we almost missed the leatherback hatchlings mixed in the “crab frenzy”. We froze in our steps as the parade of hatchlings made their way over our feet and around and through our legs, stumbling over everything in their path on their way to the sea. Again, we stood transfixed, watching. When the last hatchling disappeared into the surf, we made our way back to camp excitedly recalling the events of the night.

The next night, with flashlights in hand, we set off down the beach. We picked our way over the black volcanic rocks that litter the beach on Bioko and waded across the mouth of the lagoon. Just on the other side of the lagoon we spotted a turtle clearing the surf and pulling itself up onto the beach. The turtle’s leathery ridged back was illuminated by the light of the moon as she pulled her enormous weight along the sand. She groaned and lumbered past. We stood in silence as she went through the nesting process. The job complete, with a great sigh, the mother leatherback began crawling back in the direction of the sea. And so it continued, the cycle of life, night after night. As with the monkeys, careful records are also kept of the turtle activity on the island. Each evening, by the light of the campfire, the census teams compare the data collected from the previous night. By the end of the expedition I had logged in my notebook three of the four turtle species on Bioko. Only the hawksbill had eluded me. There is always next year!

Our time on Bioko Island went by much too quickly. Each day a new group emerged from the forest and soon we were all together again at Beach Camp. Our last night was spent singing and dancing around the bonfire with the Urecan villagers. Although many of us did not speak the same language, it was understood that our three weeks together had created a universal bond. The next morning we exchanged good-byes with promises to return next year and together in one more collective effort, pushed the cayuco into the water and in the direction of the Sea Bulk St. Andrew which was waiting for us off shore.

The next few days were spent back on the MEGI compound. After warm showers and a hot meal, we started on the huge task of cleaning our expedition gear. That complete, UNGE students and professors along with Arcadia expedition participants met at the university in Malabo to compare the turtle, monkey and small mammal data and enter the information into Excel files.

A small seminar presenting the data, along with a photo presentation of our three weeks in the Caldera was held at the university for all interested students and professors. Academics complete, our final day was spent exploring Malabo before boarding a late night flight bound for home.

A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about Bioko Island. My three weeks spent on Bioko Island became more than an opportunity to work with sea turtles and explore the rainforest. It wasn’t about the turtles. It wasn’t about the monkeys. It was all about the people. It was about trust and respect for those people. It was about two very different cultures working together to preserve a small piece of the world. It was about my discovering that there are many lessons yet to be learned, that there is much more to this world, and myself, than I ever knew.

Bioko Logo1.gif
Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program
Please Visit Our Website at: www.bioko.org

Contact Us:

Gail W. Hearn, Ph.D.
Department of Biology, Arcadia University
450 S. Easton Road, Glenside, PA 19038-3295 USA
Phone: (215) 572-2991
Fax: (215) 881-8758
E-mail: hearn@arcadia.edu

Wayne A. Morra, Ph.D.
Department of Business Administration & Economics Arcadia University
450 S. Easton Road, Glenside, PA 19038-3295 USA
Phone: (215)572-2125
E-mail: morra@arcadia.edu