Exploring coral reefs in Indonesia

Impact: 8
Support: 8
Fun: 7
Value: 8
Safety: 9

This summer I had the once in a lifetime opportunity to go on a 4-week expedition to Indonesia working as a marine research assistant with Operation Wallacea, the very region in which Wallace had made many of his invaluable observations. Having never been in Indonesia beforehand, I was quite nervous when I boarded the first plane to the Coral Triangle. Forty-eight hours and four flights later, I finally arrived in Bau Bau, which is situated on an island in South East Sulawesi. During my first week I undertook an important Reef Survey Technique course. Through the three daily lectures, I learned to identify over 200 marine organisms and their attributes in great detail, as well as learning about their habitat, reef ecology and protection mechanisms. With a persistent jetlag this was a challenging task but most rewarding. Nothing compares to the experience of spotting organisms in their natural habitat during the daily dives. My first sighting of a juvenile pufferfish sleeping on a soft coral was very memorable. These encounters became part of my daily routine and turned every dive into a new adventure. Whilst diving in such a rich and dense marine habitat, I learned various techniques on how to best survey the abundance of organisms underwater. Practical skills which I could have never aquired at Uni.

During my second week in Bau Bau, I joined the monitoring team, where I applied my newly acquired skills and knowledge to actively contribute towards Opwall’s conservation efforts.
The team plays an integral role in collecting the data needed to establish a marine protected area around the Opwall site on Buton. Throughout the week, I learned how to process and analyse the raw data in the dry lab after collecting it during our two daily morning dives. This included several hours of analysing stereo-video data to assess fish abundance. Without Wi-Fi and only weak cellular data arising questions had to be solved the traditional way using reference books or by conferring with the other scientists and staff on site. This probably took longer than simply typing a question into google but often sparked interesting discussions among our group. The evenings were spent playing card games with the Indonesian staff.
This week really showed me how much a scientist can achieve to protect our environment. While an activist can chain himself to a tree and might protect it from being cut down, a team of scientist can protect the whole forest.

The two weeks flew by and it was time to head off with a group of students to the second Opwall site in the middle of the night. Two ferries brought us to the astonishingly beautiful Island of Hoga, situated in the Wakatobi National Park. The marine research centre on Hoga is Operation Wallacea’s flagship, with a marine protected area having been established there in 1996. Stripped of all modern conveniences, including running water and air conditioning, I quickly adapted to the new setting and fell in love with the way of life on the remote island: living in a traditional wooden hut on stilts, recycling waste and minimising water consumption in order to protect the beautiful environment.
As a research assistant, I helped dissertation students gather data for their different projects ranging from behavioural studies of fish to ecological studies on coral and sponge association. During those dives and snorkels, I was struck by how more abundant the fish and corals where on Hoga than around Bau Bau, where we had encountered destructive blast fishing several times. This was proof of the positive impact of a marine protected area on the fish and coral population.

In my final week, I had the opportunity to embrace Indonesian culture and learn about locals’ livelihood, fishing practices and beliefs when I took part in the culture course. A memorable experience was the visit to a fishing village near Hoga where local fishermen had started seaweed farming, which can be used to produce agar and provides an alternative income source to fishing. This was an eye opening experience which made clear to me that there is so much more to conservation than conducting research and introducing fishing quotas. This showed that the protection of the environment can only be successful if scientific research is synchronised with locals’ lives. I would therefore highly recommend the culture course to all students, even if your main focus is the research.

The expedition was an incredibly rewarding experience, and left me with an increased breadth of scientific and practical skills and a close insight into field research. The people I met in Indonesia sparked my passion for protecting these unique habitats. I would therefore recommend this program not only to people who are already studying marine biology, but also to everyone who is up for discovering a new world under water.

Would you recommend this program?
Yes, I would
Year Completed