Let’s find out what makes this place so special — and how we can get the oil companies to leave it in peace.
1. It’s in one of the most beautiful regions on Earth
Ok, let’s get our bearings. The River Amazon meets the Atlantic Ocean in northern Brazil, in the state of Amapá. It’s a pretty nice neighbourhood.
Photo: NASA / public domain
The Amazon Reef itself is like a gateway to the river mouth, running parallel to the coast for hundreds of miles. The nearest sections are about 70 miles offshore.
The Amazon River mouth area is huge, and it’s not all rainforest. As it nears the sea, the river fragments into a glorious mess of lakes, channels and islands where you’ll find savannah, wetlands, and the longest uninterrupted mangrove forest in the world.
Fun fact: mangroves play a key role in fighting climate change, as they capture and store carbon from the air. Photos: Rogério Reis
The distinction between water and land isn’t always obvious, but these badass horses don’t seem to mind much either way.
You’re going the wrong way, bird. Photo: Victor Moriyama
This landscape supports some incredible wildlife. Inland from the reef, watchful jaguars rest on low branches, tiny fish spawn among tangled mangroves, and flocks of scarlet birds splash colour across the sky.
Photos: José Caldas, Rogério Reis
And most importantly, it’s home to this guy, who should come with some kind of health warning. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Silky Anteater.
Photo: Quinten Questel (CC-SA)
We’ll never know why he chose to perch on the end of this stick. We can only be thankful for a chance to share in this moment.
2. It’s not all wilderness
But this isn’t some untouched nature reserve — it’s dotted with towns and villages where people swim and play football and build their livelihoods around the tourist resorts and acai plantations.
Photo: Daniel Beltra
And along the coast, traditional fishing communities (some founded by people who escaped the slave trade) depend on the clean, thriving environment to feed their families.
Everyday life on the Amazon Reef coast. Photos: Rogério Reis
3. The Reef “could rewrite the ecology of the whole Amazon”
Researchers and local fishers have speculated about the possibility of a reef here for decades, but when they sampled the seabed in 2014, the impressive specimens that turned up in their nets suggested something more complex than they’d expected.
So we went to investigate, taking a posse of scientists and a shiny red submarine to see the Amazon Reef underwater for the first time ever.
Here’s what we saw when they reached the bottom.
Where they’d predicted an ‘impoverished’ habitat, the scientists found a vibrant ecosystem of pink corals, sunset-coloured fish and giant sea sponges, where crabs and starfish patrol the sea floor and manta rays glide serenely overhead.
Interviewed in the Guardian, Paraíba University ecologist Ronaldo Francini-Filho, said:
In just one dive we counted double the number of species that we thought were here. I have dived 6,000 times and I have never seen anything like this. This could rewrite the ecology of the whole Amazon.
This video captures the excitement of those early dives — and explains how some of the Reef’s fish are ‘growing their own food’.
For ocean scientists, the Amazon Reef is a fascinating puzzle, full of new discoveries and surprising twists.
In just a few days, researchers think they found three potential new fish species — plus dozens more that had never been seen in this area — and saw large numbers of critically endangered fish.
Needless to say, this expedition only covered a tiny fraction of this new natural wonder. With most of the reef still unmapped, all the biggest discoveries are likely still to come.
4. This place is…not ideal for oil drilling
A group of oil companies — including BP and Total — are planning to drill along a 170-mile stretch of seabed just above the Reef’s north end. Total want to start drilling this year, and BP are close behind, aiming to get underway in 2018.
Planned oil drilling near the Amazon Reef. Total and BP’s drilling blocks are shown in red and dark blue.
Even before the Reef’s discovery was confirmed, this would have been an awful idea — every new fossil fuel project makes it harder to hold onto the benign, stable climate that our civilisation relies on.
But now we know there’s a unique new reef habitat near the potential drill sites, there’s all the more reason to put a stop to this.
But the damage from a spill wouldn’t necessarily be limited to the local area.
Remember that giant carbon-capturing mangrove forest along the coast? It could be within range of a potential spill, and nobody’s found a way to clean up oil-soaked mangroves yet. Maybe we should save ourselves the trouble?
Scrubbing oil off these would not be fun at all. Photo: Daniel Beltra
Deepwater Horizon-scale oil disasters (thankfully) don’t happen that often. But the Amazon River Mouth area is a really dangerous place to drill.
Parts of the potential drilling area are under two kilometers of murky water, and the area is notorious for its strong currents. And just to make things more exciting, the seabed is unstable and prone to landslides.
Oil companies have been trying to exploit this area since the 1960s, and their track record doesn’t inspire much confidence. The last drilling attempt was in 2011, when a Petrobras drillship tilted and went adrift in the strong current before they could complete the operation.
Drilling here isn’t just risky. It’s reckless.
5. There’s still time to stop this — but it won’t be easy
What makes us think we can persuade a giant oil company to abandon a shiny new project?
Simple: we’ve done it before.
After Shell pulled out of the Arctic, we delved into the five ways that public pressure made a difference. But in a nutshell, we made the whole thing more trouble than it was worth.
Oil companies care about their reputations — that’s why they love sponsoring sports and cultural events, and spend huge amounts of money promoting these sponsorships.
So with a bit of pressure, we can turn the Amazon Reef into a huge liability for BP and Total. These ‘frontier’ projects are already so risky and expensive, the oil companies much prefer to do them on the quiet. Once a project starts attracting attention, investors get nervous, and regulators know they have to be extra careful to avoid embarrassing slip-ups.
This week, Greenpeace activists blocked Total HQ in Paris with a simulated oil spill. Photos: Simon Lambert
But this takes time, so we’ll be keeping up the pressure over the next few months to make sure BP and Total’s execs know they won’t get an easy ride.
If you’re on board, make sure you join the campaign — we’ll keep you posted with new ways to get involved.