last summer I took part in GreenFORCEs’ project in Fiji collecting data to help the locals sustainably fish and protect their amazing reef environments. It has been an incredible 10 weeks from which I have learnt a great deal and have taken away memories to last a lifetime. But I also feel I can say that I have given my share back to the Kumbalau district in Fiji.
So what have I been doing during this time???
I arrived in Fiji on the 6th of July from which I had 4 days before the project started. I spent this time on the main land of Fiji, Viti Levu, here I did a few activities to keep me busy and see a bit of Fiji. I arrived on the Friday evening and I had prior arranged to do the world famous Beqa shark dive! So early on the Saturday morning I dragged my jet lagged self at 6am out the door to meet my pick up. The shark dive helps to protect the local shark populations as they are more valuable to the economy as a tourist attraction than the short term fix that the shark finning trade would supply (much to my relief). What can I say it exceeded expectations!!
It is something incredible to be able to witness these awesome creatures at such proximity. I feel it is needless to say that such creatures should be protected and not become someone’s dinner just to demonstrate status! The dive was run completely by Fijians and for first impressions of the people of Fiji it was great to see that they shared my enthusiasm to conserve; something I would come to find was true in many areas of Fiji.
Any likeminded divers heading that way round the world I can highly recommend this dive!
My next little adventure was to head inland slightly and take a trip down one of Fiji’s beautiful rivers! The stunning gorges, rock features and landscape that I got to see during this experience made it worthwhile! It was a long day, again I was out of the door for 6am and didn’t return until 6pm, but it was beautiful!
A little pricey but I used money I received for my 21st (which was during my time away) to fund the trip and again I do not regret it. It was another fine example of how the Fijian government and districts have used eco-tourism to protect some of their most environmentally rich areas. Creating reserves and parks from the influx of money through such activities, it’s a win win scenario.
To the project
After my few days spent in pacific harbour I then needed to meet the team in Savusavu. So on the 10th of july (2012) I took the local bus into Suva, the capital of Fiji, during which I made so many friends and talked to so many different people on all the different connecting buses to the airport. Initially the friendliness of the Fijians is a little overwhelming, the generosity and genuine kindness is unlike any other culture I have ever experienced, something unique and very special.
From Nasouri Airport, Suva I flew into Lambassa, which is on Vanua Levu (the second biggest island within Fiji). From there I was picked up by Rahj my taxi driver, who took me to Savusavu ,which took about 2.5 hours.
Finally I was there! All the months of planning and saving paid off!
The first two days consisted of getting gear to take to camp. So off I trundled with my two new Greenforce buddies, Eleni from Greece, who is studying Biology in Southampton, and Amanda from California, down the one and only high street to get my goodies! This consisted of one 3 inch foam mattress ($49), one box mosquito net (at a crazy price of less than $10 which is like £3.00….madness), my beautiful bright orange Bula dress to be worn at church alongside my sulu (like a sarong) to be worn when in the village. We also bought the pharmacy out (almost) with paractamol, ibruprophin, fungal foot powder, tropical strength mosquito repellent, hydrogen peroxide (for cuts), iodine (for cuts)… the list went on! All of which I ended up being very thankful for!
The last night before we travelled out to our island where the project is based (Nasonisoni) we all enjoyed large pizzas and a few cold beers whilst getting to know each other, both the cold beers and cheese we would be without for the next two and half months.
In the Greenforce group there were 6 volunteers, two from America, one Australian, two from the U.K and one from Greece, only 3 were there for the full 10 week duration. Alongside us and staying with us on camp were a fair sized group of medical students on their medical electives.
The truck ride to camp was highly amusing due to the road being more like muddy stone trail meant for… well not trucks with very little suspension for 3 hours.
To say I couldn’t feel my bum may be an understatement.
Everybody’s gear and camp supplies then had to be transported to camp which took a few runs by our little dive boat. Once on camp we chose our homes for the next ten weeks and began to clean up and set up camp (somehow Amanda and I got designated the first toilet clean… not my favourite memory!).
I chose one of the traditional Bures (Figure 6) which I shared with Eleni and Amanda, well Amanda for the first week until she got nibbled by a rat… thank you box mosquito net for not allowing them to get me!
As we arrived on the Thursday late in the evening there was still much cleaning to be done on the Friday including the building of a new toilet and tables to eat from, raking and re-sanding the paths, cleaning of the kitchen etc.
On Saturday some of the already qualified divers went for a fun dive just on the house reef which set expectations high due to the sighting of a white tip reef shark.
On Sunday we had our welcoming ceremony in the village, we were designated to our families during our period of stay and then proceeded to be introduced to kava. Kava (otherwise known as grog) is the traditional Fijian drink and is had regularly particularly at village celebrations and ceremonies. The drink itself is made from the root of a plant which is bashed down and the mixed with water to produce a chalky muddy water tasting liquid. Along with its interesting taste it also has mild anaesthetic qualities leaving your lips tongue and mouth numb and after a few you will need to pee…frequently. Thus making it a delight which you usually get treated to 10-15+ cups throughout the evening.
Each Sunday from then on we would go to our families and share breakfast with them then get dressed into our Sunday best and go to church. Church usually lasted for around 2 hours during which there was a lot of beautiful singing from the choir, but on occasion there would be different groups of people or the children of the village. It also consisted of some very eccentric preaching, all of which was in Fijian, but it was great to be so welcomed fully into their community.
After church we went and had lunch with our families, which often consisted of some fish and cassava, which is a root veg and quite starchy. The food was simple and eaten sat on the floor usually with hands or a spoon. My family always gave me the best of their food, to which it would be rude not to accept, I would always be served first and fed the most with constant reminders to “kanna vakka levu, mor levu levu” (spelt very incorrectly) which means “thank you eat more, eat more”. After our almighty feedings your families would ask you to rest, often giving you the best bed in the house again it would be rude to decline. After few hours kip lemon leaf tea was served with cake like snacks and then my ‘tata Nimi’ (dad) would take me to join the kava circle in the community hall for the next few hours until we would return to camp ‘grogged up’.
Lectures and Learning
As of Monday we got stuck in. This consisted of roughly 2 lectures a day initially many of which were based on identification. The first group we tackled was primarily distinguishing between Acropora and non-acropora hard coral and their life forms. Not only were we learning identification but actually went into more depth about the hard corals biology and structure which as interesting. This was done via slideshows, presentations, tests and in-water pointing dives with the onsite marine scientist.
In the water initially matt (the marine scientist) would point to an organism and write out what it was, which would then develop into us telling him what organism he was pointing at. This method was applied to most of our identification dives which we were eventually tested on.
The Acropora hard coral group has a huge number of species each of which are hard to individually identify past their life forms however non-acropora hard corals can be identified down to species level. Thus we learnt 30 species of non-acropora coral down to their Latin names…quite a challenge!
In conjunction with the learning of the corals we started on the 21 species of fish which were either targeted as a food source or classed as indicators. The list was as follows:
Bleekers Parrot fish
Bullet head Parrot fish
Bi-colour Parrot fish
Bumper head Parrot fish
Blue stripped Snapper
Long faced Emperor
Barred Rabbit fish
Gold spotted Rabbit fish
Dot-dash Goat fish
Blue fin Trevally
Orange socket Surgeon fish
Hump nose big-eyed Bream
Blue Spined Unicorn fish
By week 4 we were starting to learn to identify invertebrates and fish families which would also make up part of our surveys. The invertebrates covered soft corals, bi-valves, echinoderms, crustaceans etc. Some organisms we learnt down to species level, particularly sea cucumbers as they are targeted quite heavily for exportation. Other organisms’ were only down to family level such as Nudibranchs.
The identification of fish families is quite a tricky thing to grasp and record accurately as I came to find. It is sometimes only tiny indicators you are looking for which will determine what category it would fall in. This I found came with lots of practice (which we did) with varying slide shows. Sometimes the pictures that were used to teach were obscure, which is often in reality how you see them in the water as a diver. Being able to determine at distance what type of fish you can see, sometimes in less than ideal visibility is quite a skill… and sometimes simply impossible! We learnt to look for features shapes and colourings for example the scalpel found on the caudal peduncle on surgeon fish or rabbit fish which have a narrow caudal peduncle. Thus we also learnt much of fish morphology and applied these features to identification whether it was tail shapes, singular or two dorsal fins, visible lateral lines or just markings. All was useful in the survey process but took much testing with flash cards and ‘pointy dives’ to become astute at it.
Week 5 and 6
It has to happen once in a while in a country with completely different weather, diet and living conditions… I got ill! Unfortunately for me it wasn’t the 24hour illness it was a really bad sinus infection which made me feel really rough and unable to dive.
Quite a few days left me in bed just trying to sleep it off and not doing a great deal with myself at this point I got antibiotics which slowly help me shift it, however I was out of the water for about 12 days. Towards the end it was mainly due to the fact I simply could not equalize not because I felt particularly ill so during this time I revised quite a lot with flash cards and then completed all my written tests (which I am pleased to say I passed). We also started learning and practising surveying (on land), undoubtedly this must have looked highly entertaining from and outside prospective, as we navigated the volley ball court full of ‘marine obstacles’ with our slates, reel, fake surface marker buoy whilst marking down imaginary fish. WE workerd as a team and throughout the different surveys we would rotate roles so as we were all comfortable with the different survey techniques.
I missed out on the initial in water practice surveys and the in water ID test due to my cold however I soon caught up as soon as I could equalise. Towards the end of week six I was back in the water and with all the chance I’d had to revise I soon passed my in water tests and was ready to survey!
The surveys themselves took place at 12m and 6m and stretched over a 50m reel. When the weather was at its best we would try to survey the site at 12m and 6m within one dive. The weather had to be pretty good as it usually meant we would be in the water for over an hour at which point the cold became a bit of a problem. If it wasn’t ideal we tended to split the surveys up and so them individually.
During the surveys each diver would be given a role before the dive and they would be responsible for organising what equipment they needed on the boat and with enough survey slates to record the necessary data. Diver A would be on Fish species thus recording any of the 21 target species seen during the dive within a 5m2 radius of the reel they would also be estimating the size of each fish. Diver B would be recording in exactly the same way but for fish families. It was important that these were the two surveys done first as at this point the fish are less disturbed.
As divers A/B were leading they would set the initial pace (very slow).Whilst diver A and B were recording diver C would be laying the reel out behind them and in control of depth and thus direction, as the survey was commanded by depth. For example if there was a large coral bommy in the path of the survey it would be diver C’s decision which would be the most appropriate route around the obstacle whiles sticking within a one meter margins of either 6 or 12m (depending on the survey depth). For this reason the pace had to be slow so communication between the divers was easier. Diver D initial job was holding the surface marker buoy (SMB) and noting sight data e.g. Water temp, currents, any other points of interest aka turtles, sharks etc.
At the 50m cut of point Diver C would tug either A or B’s fin to indicate the end of the fish surveys at which point the roles reversed C passing A the Reel and D passing B the SMB. D would be surveying invertebrates thus starting first as this took the longest. The invertebrate survey was done via a U shaped pattern straying approximately 2.5m either side of the reel, sticking as close as possible to the benthos so even small inverts could be spotted and noted with size estimation. Diver C would follow shortly after with the substrate survey which was taken every 50cm along the reel whether it be Acropora branching coral, soft coral, dead coral with algae, rubble etc. if there was concavity in substrate a weight on a 0.5m line would be lowered from the reel to determine what was exactly at this point, in the case the dip was over 0.5m it would be noted as water. Divers A and would follow diver B with A collecting in the reel and B staying in close contact.
It roughly took us 40 minutes to conduct one survey although this sometimes varying depending on the biomass. At which point we would try to conduct a survey at 6m if required and weather permitting.
(figure 10 is a map of the area in which we were surveying, Navatu is the island where we were staying (actually called Nasonisoni island Navatu is the village there). Our surveys ranged within the inner reef and outer reef ranging roughly within the blue box. In total there was around 20 site specific survey sites within the area all of which needed three 12m and three 6m surveys. Some of these surveys had been done a recorded this year via previous phases it was our job to get them all finished. We tried to get two surveys (two 12m and two 6m) completed a day during the week however this was all weather dependent.
Figure 10 – Map of the Kubalbu district
In the weeks that followed we had some cracking winds which made surge a huge problem particularly at 6m but also diver safety getting back on to the boat and actually on the boat. The winds also made you absolutely freezing after being in the water a long time and then with a 30 minute trip back to camp… quite uncomfortable. Thus occasionally we restricted to one survey a day or even none during bad storms. When this occurred we concentrated on getting our data into spread sheets. Alongside our data we had to reformat last phases data who had only recorded theirs on paper (due to a different lead scientist) quite a laborious process but an important one to ensure what we were doing was accessible in all formats.
With all the surveys we had to do we were kept very busy throughout the last 4 weeks, during which we kept up lectures on different subjects such as marine protected areas (MPA’s) and the different levels of protection to identification of turtles. Camp life was very busy with early rises and early evenings to bed as everyone was tired.
Alongside the surveys we had our camp duties (throughout the 10 weeks) which ensured the camp stayed clean and tidy, raking the paths to keep them clear and occasionally re-sanding particularly after rain. There was a chore rota for breakfast, which usually consisted of porridge, then lunch and dinner when you had the opportunity to get creative in the kitchen. Most days we had some form of fresh bread cooked in our oven which eventually led to pizzas, minus the cheese due to the lack of a fridge. Food was quite basic with a lot of tinned food on camp as nothing could be kept cold. Meals included rice, noodles and potatoes as filler but generally we had a combination of warm generic mush ….Yummy!
Life on camp made you bond with people extremely quickly as we were sharing such a close proximity to each other with little place to escape for a while. Thus the friends I have made are also friends for life, all of which I hope to stay in contact with. On camp there was a volley ball net which we often set games up on or occasional used as the sun bathing patch (when the sun was shining), I discovered Volley ball is not my forte but good for a giggle. The snorkelling was also pretty great, if you could brave the sea after being in it already that day for a long time.
Friday nights were our party night (the only day we could have a drink) if we had a few we didn’t dive on the Saturday, which was sometimes nice as it allowed you to do other things. On Fridays we often had fancy dress themes such as ‘Sophisticated Vs. Savage’ or ‘Super Hero’s’ which we then had
to make our out fits from anything we could gather around camp….highly entertaining! Drinks on offer were the local beer-warm of course or the local rum, Bounty at 68% it was like petrol, after one night needless to say I stuck to the beer! We would relax around the dinner tables or out on the deck where on a clear night the stars were just fantastic!
Figure 11 – ‘The Spit’
We did quite a few different things on Saturdays, there was a beautiful walk around the coast of the island which on low tide took you to a place we called the spit which was the personification of paradise (figure 11) where the snorkelling was fab we even took a cricket set down to have a play, it was beautiful!
I also got the opportunity to visit my family’s farm on the island where they grew there vegetables such as aubergines, the root veg casava, types of pumpkin, Dalu leef (large green leaf similar to spinach), papaya, mango’s and of course the root used to make grog! It was quite far inland and I managed to get eaten alive by mosquitos but it was interesting to see. After visiting the farm we took their boat out, which consisted of the hull and a pole to push us along, and we went fishing! It was incredible to see I lent my ‘tata’ some fins and a mask and snorkel and I took mine, his daughter Va stayed on the boat whilst we duck dived to spear fish. However this isn’t the traditional spear fishing, it consisted of a slightly pointed metal rod and a small strip of elastic. But the accuracy and the precision was just incredible to see I couldn’t believe it. In about an hour and a half we had caught maybe six fish, some parrot fish and some bristle tooth which are common on their reefs each were put in a split plastic barrel which was tied to him with a length of rope. My tata explained to me that the area we were fishing in wasn’t used very often and only for special occasions (this one being more villagers from the surrounding area coming to Novatu on Sunday for a big church service). Even when they did fish in this area their fishing techniques are really sustainable, such as the spear fishing, the nets they used were large and they didn’t take loads of juveniles etc.
The locals in the district were using our data which was both processed via our marine scientist but also sent to the local Wild life conservation society (WCS) based in Savusavu. The WCS completely run by Fijians who then they fed the information to the Kumbalabu marine conservation comity who held regular meetings in Namalata. Working together they have created areas that are no fish zones and MPAs’ but also Tambu areas which are no fish zones for a period of time then rotate to other areas, giving them a chance to recuperate.
I feel very lucky to have been given this opportunity, it has been an incredible experience from which I have learnt a alot and gained a great deal of insight to the field in which I intend to make my career. Not only have I been integrated into an amazing culture and found that Fijians are just as enthusiastic at protecting their local marine environments as I. On top of that I have also learnt fist hand what it is to be the one gathering the raw data.
There is so much more to it than I anticipated which you can just continue to expand. So many things are required when a project is in such a remote location with such limited resources: the organisation behind the projects, the team work, consideration of weather, the motivation, safety and so much more, particularly when your living in a completely different environment with little contact with the outside world. It’s the small things such as foot care or a warm cup or tea after a dive when it’s raining outside and cold that keep moral up, or considering some others maybe feeling homesick. All these things are important to make you a good team, make good group of friends and life on camp happy. Which it definitely was!
Have I gained from it?
Would I recommend it?
Without a doubt!
Would I do it again?
I’m itching to get back!
I don’t think this blog/report does it justice, what I can say it has been incredible! I feel I have given something back to the local community from which has given me so much in just allowing the GreenFORCE to be there. The things I have learnt not just by doing (aka the surveys) but also observing, say if I were the marine scientist on such an expedition in the future what I would or would not change.
A thanks also goes out to the GreenFORCE scholarship which is awarded to somebody studying in the relevant discipline, I count myself very lucky as i was offered a 20% deduction, which without I doubt I would have been able to afford to go. So thank you very much!
^^^ note there were pictures with my initial report so it might not all make sense with them missing --- sorry :)