Sailing across the nutrient rich waters of the West African Atlantic Ocean these past two months, I have been lucky enough to see an incredible array of wildlife. Whales, dolphins and pelicans, I have met them all in this trip. And I was just as thrilled to encounter smaller animals like flying fish and gannets, and to witness the magic of the seawater that lights up a brilliant blue at night as dinoflagellates – tiny plankton – emit light as the Greenpeace ship ploughs through the waves.

I am aboard the Greenpeace Esperanza, on a mission to investigate the poor regulations and overfishing of the area by industrial fishing vessels. I have seen awful things. But I have also been overwhelmed by the beauty of these oceans.

© Pierre Gleizes / Greenpeace

Dolphins swimming in Guinean EEZ. Greenpeace is on tour in West African waters to address the problem of overfishing in the region. © Pierre Gleizes / Greenpeace

The current mission has brought us to the region for two and a half months, bringing us from the deep waters of the islands of Cabo Verde in the north west, to the desert of Mauritania, to the tropics of Guinea Bissau and Sierra Leone in the south. And it has been amazing.

In the colourful coral reefs in the deep waters of Cabo Verde we saw quantities of moray eels, spiny lobsters, soldier fish and more. Off the coast of Mauritania, the whales I had seen in a previous trip still swim here and the dolphins that love to play at the bow of the ship seem to have multiplied in number – we have seen thousands so far in this trip.

All of this life is fed by a process called upwelling, where the cool, nutrient-rich waters of the 4000 meter deep ocean are pumped up to the surface. That is what makes West Africa’s oceans so full of life.

Turtle Islands in Sierra Leone © Pierre Gleizes / Greenpeace

Village on beach in Turtle Islands. © Pierre Gleizes / Greenpeace

We also saw the beauty of the land, especially around the remote island communities of the Bijagos archipelago in Guinea Bissau and the Turtle islands in Sierra Leone. They are flanked by mangroves and pearly white beaches and are so remote that the people still live in symbiosis with nature. They are also places where special animals like the small marine hippo and the manatee, also known as the ‘sea cow’, can still find a refuge.

The mangroves are dense forests that grow in salt water and, as major carbon sinks, are an important ally in our fight against climate change. It is important that they are protected and flourish.

The white beaches in this area are not only postcard-idyllic, they are also the most important breeding grounds in all of Africa for the green sea turtle, an endangered species.

All this natural beauty lives alongside the colourful bustle of West African life, where the people dress in lively patterned clothes and fish in brightly decorated canoe-like vessels known as pirogues. Towns and settlements here are alive with the sound of the fabulous local music and the laughs and smiles of local residents, in spite of the many adversities they face.

For me and the crew of the Esperanza it has been a great honour to be able to visit these amazing places. It has been a welcome break after spending weeks on the seas chasing the numerous illegal fishing vessels that exploit these fertile waters.

These were experiences which gave me enormous hope. While witnessing the ugliest sides of industrial fishing, and the devastation it leaves behind, I have also seen signs of hope. The extraordinary beauty of nature here, and the lifestyle of respect for nature that still exists in some of these remote places, strengthens my commitment to help save these places, and strengthens my resolve that we can save them.

MY Esperanza in Mauritania

The Greenpeace ship Esperanza, inflatable and sunset in Mauritanian EEZ. Greenpeace is on tour in West African waters to address the problem of overfishing in the region.

Act now to protect this unique beauty. Sign our petition to demand an efficient and sustainable regional management of fisheries in West Africa.

Pavel Klinckhamers is an Oceans campaigner with Greenpeace Netherlands onboard the Esperanza

(Originally published by Greenpeace Africa on April 27, 2017)