Alumni Spotlight: Emma Westlake

Emma Westlake is 25 years old and, although from Melbourne, she has been living in Townsville, Queensland for the past 3 years studying a Bachelor or Marine Science, majoring in Marine Biology at James Cook University while working as a Lifeguard and Swimming Instructor. She travelled to the Seychelles from Feb 8 – March 14, 2012, to undertake a short-term marine internship with GVI for 4 weeks on the beautiful Curieuse Island – a small tropical island that she found herself in love with and wanting desperately to return to!

shallow waters of the beaches in the Seychelles

Why did you decide to volunteer with GVI in the Seychelles?

Emma: I studied Marine Science (Marine Biology) at James Cook University in Townsville and was informed of funding grants offered for internships and further study in the Marine Science field. I was originally after funding for another internship, but as a result of complications with this (a blessing in disguise), I went in search of another organisation that offered a similar internship.

Googling “marine conservation internships” responded with Global Vision International and their various expeditions and projects around the world. The one that captured my attention was a short-term marine expedition in the Seychelles on the beautiful Curieuse Island. GVI and this project in particular was very fitting for me, offering me the chance to contribute to very significant data collection which is utilised by many organisations, expand on my marine and diving knowledge and experience, immerse myself in a foreign culture, and have a great time do so!

As a graduate in Marine Science, GVIs aims really related to my interest in marine conservation. This expedition was established with the aim of aiding the ongoing marine research currently undertaken by their partners within the inner islands. Their main partner SNPA, the Seychelles National Parks Authority, which also incorporates SCMRT-MPA, Seychelles Centre for Marine Research & Technology, is an organisation responsible for carrying out marine research in the Seychelles and protecting the existing marine parks. Their other major partners include the SFA, Seychelles Fishing Authority, a governmental organisation which regulates the artisanal and commercial fisheries, and finally MCSS, the Marine Conservation Society Seychelles, a local NGO concentrating on turtle, whale shark and cetacean conservation, research and ecotourism. This means that any data collected is very valuable and makes a significant contribution to marine conservation in the Seychelles.

Describe your day to day activities as a volunteer.

Emma: The best way to answer this is to give a little bit of background on Curieuse Island and the conditions on a beautiful tropical island, home to 18 GVI volunteers and staff, one indigenous family, a few Rangers, the endemic Coco de Mer palms (found on Curieuse and Praslin Islands – the only places in the world) and the prehistoric looking giant tortoise. Curieuse Island is one of over 100 islands making up the Seychelles, located a boat ride from the island of Praslin, in the middle of a marine park in the Indian Ocean. There is no roads, no vehicles, and only a handful of paths to get around the island. Base is located at the site of a leper colony, used up until around the 1960s. Four cement buildings have been converted into two living huts with three sets of bunks in each, the third into a kitchen aptly named “Curieuse Cafe”, and the last into the “Divers Den” housing all dive gear and equipment.

The final building on base is home to the staff – a welcoming sight when returning from a day of diving. The communal area is furnished with tables and chairs constructed of wooden slats, while the cold shower – used every other day, is a pipe extending from a wall surrounded by sheets for privacy. There is no electricity and the toilet bucket-flush filled from the ocean. Basic? Yes. But would you really want it any other way, when you can feel the sand between your toes as you sit around with 17 others for meals, can watch the sun setting over the Indian Ocean from the tree house extending over the turquoise water below, or can stand in a refreshing shower admiring uninterrupted the blanket of stars above, or can fall asleep to the sound of the ocean literally lapping at your doorstep? But this is only the tip of the iceberg.

A regular day on Curieuse starts with a 6:30am wakeup, as sleep is wiped away from groggy eyes and bodies untangled from mosquito nets. 6:45am sees the commencement of daily duties – either grounds duties, including raking base to minimise sandflies, sweeping and cleaning the dive shed, weeding, emptying rubbish, and tidying the communal area, or kitchen duties which involve preparing and cooking meals for the day. Duty groups are allocated based on living huts and alternate each day.

The day is usually broken up into lectures on coral, fish and invertebrate species that are to be learned thoroughly for surveying, surveying methods, threats to the marine environment, and most importantly, coconut husking and bread making – two very important skills to master for island life! Flashcard studies, identification dives and exams ensure species identification is up to scratch before the commencement of surveying. And then starts the real fun! Survey dives are scheduled for either once or twice each day allowing for the very important monitoring and collection of abundance and biodiversity data.

In addition, many other activities are available including team leader and first aid courses, the chance to gain diving certifications, compressor and tank-filling experience, and mentor programs. The generator is switched on between 5:30-9:30pm, seeing the day’s end at lights out. Although there is plenty of work to be done, there is also a lot of down time that allows volunteers to chill out on the beach, enjoy snorkelling, explore the island, and visit the giant tortoises. The working week runs from Sunday through to Thursday (Thursday night sees social night which allows volunteers and staff alike to let down their hair), with weekends (Friday and Saturday) allowing volunteers to explore neighbouring islands, use internet, visit the local dive centre for extra dives, enjoy a pizza, or simply to catch up on laundry or read a book.

What made this volunteer experience unique and special?

Emma: I think the uniqueness of this expedition is a result of not only the amazing location and interesting living conditions, nor the wonderful people with whom shared this experience, but also knowing that all activities are leading towards a bigger picture, that everything – from ensuring volunteer enjoyment to thorough teaching of species identification and survey methodology, is done for a reason and that is to contribute to worthwhile and significant marine research. The marine environment is being exploited at such a rapid rate, that research like this being conducted by GVI alongside local organisations is not only vital for the direct protection of marine species, but also indirectly through the education of the public and people of all walks of life.

How has this experience helped you grow personally and professionally?

Emma: This short-term internship offered by GVI has allowed me to further gain experience in the field I wish to pursue professionally, giving me the necessary volunteer and practical experience required for obtaining such a career. It has given me the opportunity to expand my knowledge on all things marine and really has ignited the fire, so to speak. It has allowed me to develop skills that will be useful not only professionally, but also in my everyday life, and on a personal level has added to my desire to protect and conserve something that has always been so important to me, the ocean. Looking at a can of tuna has become a thing of the past, while diving has become an obsession. This experience has led to my need to continue diving, and since returning from the Seychelles I have commenced my Dive Master – something that seemed such a distant dream beforehand.