Coastal waters support approximately 90 per cent of global fisheries and are therefore an important food reserve for our planet. Eutrophication of these waters, due to human activity, leads to severe oxygen depletion and the episodic occurrence of hydrogen sulphide-toxic to multi-cellular life-with disastrous consequences for coastal ecosytems. Here we show that an area of approximately 7,000 km(2) of African shelf, covered by sulphidic water, was detoxified by blooming bacteria that oxidized the biologically harmful sulphide to environmentally harmless colloidal sulphur and sulphate. Combined chemical analyses, stoichiometric modelling, isotopic incubations, comparative 16S ribosomal RNA, functional gene sequence analyses and fluorescence in situ hybridization indicate that the detoxification proceeded by chemolithotrophic oxidation of sulphide with nitrate and was mainly catalysed by two discrete populations of gamma- and epsilon-proteobacteria. Chemolithotrophic bacteria, accounting for approximately 20 per cent of the bacterioplankton in sulphidic waters, created a buffer zone between the toxic sulphidic subsurface waters and the oxic surface waters, where fish and other nekton live. This is the first time that large-scale detoxification of sulphidic waters by chemolithotrophs has been observed in an open-ocean system. The data suggest that sulphide can be completely consumed by bacteria in the subsurface waters and, thus, can be overlooked by remote sensing or monitoring of shallow coastal waters. Consequently, sulphidic bottom waters on continental shelves may be more common than previously believed, and could therefore have an important but as yet neglected effect on benthic communities.