The coastal zone color scanner (CZCS) that operated aboard the Nimbus 7 satellite provided extensive coverage of phytoplankton pigment concentrations in the surface waters of the eastern tropical Atlantic (ETA) from March 1979 to February 1980 and coincided with four major research cruises to this region. Total primary production within the ETA (5°N–10°S, 25°W–10°E) was determined from CZCS pigment estimates and an empirical algorithm derived from concurrent in situ data taken along 4°W that relates near-surface chlorophyll concentration and integrated primary production. We estimated an average annual production for the ETA of 2.3 Gt C yr−1 with an associated 3.5-fold seasonal variation in the magnitude of this production. We describe the principal physical mechanisms controlling seasonal phytoplankton dynamics within the ETA and propose that in addition to seasonal change in the thermocline depth, one must also consider changes in the depth of the equatorial undercurrent. An extensive validation effort indicates that the standard CZCS global products are a conservative estimate of pigment concentrations in ETA surface waters. Significant underestimates by the CZCS global products were observed in June and July which we attributed, in part, to aerosol correction errors and, more importantly, to errors caused by a significant reduction in the concentration of near-surface dissolved organic matter that resulted from strong equatorial upwelling.