Our friends over at Epicocity Project — an awesome group of exploratory kayakers and media extraordinaires — just published an excellent article on Smithsonian.com about their Congo River expedition and their interesting scientific findings.
We’re in Central Africa, 90 miles west of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital of Kinshasa and about 100 miles east of where the river drains into the Atlantic Ocean, ending its 3,000-mile run across equatorial Africa. A series of grassy hills called the Crystal Mountains rise subtly behind us. Gardiner and John Shelton, a hydrologist from the United States Geologic Survey, are plotting how water moves in such a massive flow. To do this, they brought along an instrument that floats alongside a boat in an orange, plastic vessel about the size of an elementary-school desk. The instrument maps water movement and measures the river’s depth. Gardiner tried to accomplish the same thing last year with a device designed for rivers. “The signal petered out well before the bottom,” he explains, his hand skimming the river’s surface. “So we bought one for oceans.”
We’re midstream, heading from the north bank to the south, on a course directly perpendicular to the current. If we manage to keep the instrument from being swallowed by one of the 40-foot-wide whirlpools studding the flow, Shelton and Gardiner’s work will produce a digital cross section of the river’s currents and depth.
The Congo’s power—its depth, speed and turbulence—is of particular interest to ichthyologist Melanie Stiassny of the American Museum of Natural History, one of the scientists in our expedition. She studies fish on the lower Congo and over the past decade has discovered six new species (she’s working on identifying three more). The number of species known to live in the lower Congo now exceeds 300 and the river contains one of the highest concentrations of “endemism,” or species found nowhere else in the world. Stiassny thinks the river’s power is shaping evolution in the Congo.