Our first stop is the Sine Saloum Mangrove Delta. The warm tidal currents and small fishing communities will serve as our landing pad – a place to acclimate and recover from the journey. Here’s an outline of the place:
The Sine—Saloum is a region of Senegal that is north of the Gambia River and south of the Petite Côte. The region is known for its ever—changing sand dunes, acres of disappearing mangrove swamps, beaches, its system of islands and astounding diversity of wild and plant life.
It’s a surprisingly diverse and isolated landscape with a staggering number of species. It’s tough to get to the Sine—Saloum and, therefore, many of the villages have retained their traditions despite the rest of Senegal’s globalization. There are over six hundred species of birds, over two hundred species of fish and an incredible number of mammals and other land creatures. It’s the second major stop after the Sahara Desert for many migratory birds and the first ideal habitat for resting and breeding. At certain times of year it’s a bird watcher’s dream! Jackals are regularly seen, as are turtles and rays.
The Sine—Saloum estuarine system is one hundred kilometers south of Dakar and, though that distance isn’t a vast one, the two places seem like entirely different worlds. It was long considered an enigma to the Europeans who colonized the Petite Côte because navigating its marshes and over two hundred islands was tricky.
Today it’s deemed a UNESCO world heritage site because it’s a rich example of human settlement along the western coast of Africa; there are 218 manmade shellfish mounds around the delta. This points not only to humans living along the coast but also to their strong connection (and reverence) to the water for survival.
The area is still financially sustained by its connection to the water; fishing and salt production are two major economic boons to the region. Women make money collecting oysters and other shellfish to sell in markets. Men fish around the mangroves for a myriad of fish species and make livings carving out and maintaining pirogues, or the traditionally small wooden boats that they navigate through the labyrinth of islands and delta and marsh of the Sine—Saloum. Salt is farmed by inhabitants of this region through the sequestering of water into pools for evaporation using solar energy. Senegal is the largest salt producer in West Africa.
The area currently deals with the issues of deforestation and overfishing. The mangroves desalinate the water, allowing freshwater fish to come into the channels that compose the delta. With their disappearance comes more brackish water and, of course, the decreased occurrence of freshwater fish—not to mention the decreased amount of potable water. This affects the diets and livelihoods of those in the Sine—Saloum. Overfishing is very much the same story; without sustainable fishing practices the artisanal fishermen of the area cannot catch enough to make a living. Reforestation and fishing regulations are now underway to correct these issues.