Loughborough College of Education Commemorative Award

Report from Tristian Thornhill

BULA! I first came to hear about Greenforce at the careers fair in my first year at university. It is a non-profit making organisation who becomes involved when the host government, in this case Fiji, invites them to conduct biodiversity studies. 

At that time, four years ago, I was already an enthusiastic diver used to diving in the freezing waters around Britain. The large poster of a diver wearing just a T-shirt in tropical waters had much appeal. I went to London to find out more and was hooked on the idea of volunteering for their marine expedition to Fiji. I would take part in conducting a long-term survey of the coral reefs surrounding the remote Fijian island of Yaduataba, situated off one of the two main Fijian islands; Vanua Levu. The survey is on behalf of the National Trust for Fiji, who wish to establish the area as Fiji’s first marine reserve and World Heritage Site. Yaduataba has already been set up as a sanctuary for the Crested Iguana. Until recently, it was the only place in the world where these creatures could be found. However, Steve Irwin recently collected some to take back to his zoo in Brisbane, Australia and also to Taronga zoo in Sydney, Australia. Signed photos with the villagers are testament to his visit. 

I soon realised that I wouldn’t be able to go for three more years, so asked to be signed up for their July expedition in 2001. I was told that this was too soon, as I may change my mind during my university years. I didn’t. During the months leading up to my expedition, I was sent several information packs on Fijian culture, what life would be like on a tropical island and had also started to learn some of the fish species common in Fijian waters. I went to London again a few weeks before departure for a training weekend. This was mainly to meet the people I’d end up spending ten weeks with, to summarise what problems we would encounter on the island and to start learning more about the science work that we would be undertaking. Everyone seemed pretty much normal and sane, which was encouraging, so with less than two weeks after completing my university degree I eagerly went off on the biggest adventure of my life.  

I arrived at Nadi international airport a few days earlier than the rest of the volunteers. I had to make my own way to Suva, the capital city of Fiji. This should have been a mere four hours bus ride away along the scenic road between beautiful coastline and lush forest. However, their public transport is not particularly reliable. Two hours after the bus driver had fiddled with the engine we carried on up to the next hill where we promptly broke down again. A passing bus took me the rest of the way to Suva to arrive four hours late. 

I stayed in Suva for several days, meeting the rest of the volunteers and staff, and going to lectures at the National Trust to learn more about what life would be like for us. We were told about Denimanu village on the island and how we should act to fit in with their customs. 

The journey to the island took all day, leaving Suva by bus to catch the ferry to Vanua Levu, followed by a carrier vehicle to reach Boa, the closest village on the mainland to Yadua. Here we met villagers from Denimanu who took us on their fishing boats to Naiwaisevu Bay at the South of the island; our home for the next nine weeks.

It is difficult to convey to people who have not been on similar experiences exactly what life is like living on a tropical island.  There were 13 volunteers and 5 staff members in our camp living in Naiwaisevu Bay. Denimanu village was one and a half hours walk away to the north of the island. We had one spring water tap, two gas stoves and a place for boiling water with the wood we chopped and collected daily. This was one of the chores that had to be done everyday by the volunteers. Other chores involved the three meal duties, collecting seawater for the flushing of the two toilets (two holes in the ground) and filling the drinking water containers, general camp maintenance, dive marshalling duties and science. The showers within the trees had three palm leave walls and logs for a floor. A bucket of cold water with a scoop sufficed for cleaning, which was refreshing in the heat.

We slept in a one-room traditional wooden and straw ‘bure’ hut. We slept on palm fronds and our Karrimats. Within the first couple of days it was already looking like a Chinese laundry, what with all of our mosquito nets hanging down and hammocks holding our food treats to keep the ants and bugs away. We shared our house with a few crabs, rats and plenty of palm sized jumping spiders that waited patiently in the rafters for even larger unsuspecting Hawk moths. The loud thuds when the tangle of spider and moth fell to the ground was a bit disconcerting! 

In the first couple of weeks we were all trained to British Sub-Aqua Club Sports Diver qualification and learned how to conduct survey work underwater. We were tested on size estimation and learnt how to identify fish and coral species. Having this time at the beginning, when we were just learning and snorkelling for fish recognition exercises worked out well in many ways. We couldn’t dive because our air compressor on camp was not working. During the nine weeks on the island there were several problems with the compressor and later on in the phase our main dive boat lost the ability to steer and also sprung a leak. We managed to cope with the leak for a while, but when the hand bilge pump broke, it was definitely going to be out of action for a while.  

Another reason for not diving was from health problems. Due to the hot and humid conditions and being in and out of the water several times every day, any tiny cut, graze or scratched mosquito bite refused to heal. Some of our group had infections from these cuts, which would be insignificant in England. One of the staff members suffered a small coral scratch on her knee. The following morning it had swelled up to the size of a balloon and she couldn’t walk for a week. We all suffered from stomach problems during the phase and if this wasn’t enough one volunteer was afflicted by a stingray sting that went right through his wetsuit boot.  

The daily routine involved getting up at dawn everyday for our porridge, which we had to eat if we were to dive. Monday, Wednesday and Saturday lunchtime was soup with bread that we made in the morning. Tuesday and Friday lunchtime was noodles with Thursday’s special meal treat being bread, eggs and tuna mayonnaise. On Sundays, most of the camp spent time at the village going to Church. Lunchtime was spent with our respective adopted families. These people were one of the most friendly and inviting people that I have ever had the pleasure to meet. They have little material possessions compared with people in the West, yet still have plenty to give. These meals tended to be the most eagerly awaited of the week and were well worth the early Sunday morning walk and hours church service! Evening meals were a constant surprise. The variety of meals we had from rice, beans, potatoes, onions and several herbs was unexpected to say the least. We had corned beef occasionally and fish from what we managed to catch that day, if any. 

The diving was superb. Surrounding the island is about 58 kilometres of reef in excellent condition. From my diving experience around the world, I would agree with others that Fiji is the soft coral capital of the world. It is such a vibrant and beautiful underwater environment, rich in coral diversity and fish life. Only about 300 people at most have dived these waters. I was lucky enough to see turtles, sharks, dolphins and Manta Rays among an enormous amount of other amazing sea creatures. We endeavoured to dive twice a day, six days a week. Monday to Friday was science dives and on Saturday we dived for fun. The survey work encompassed all aspects of the reef system, including the benthic substrate (corals), fish (key indicators and commercially important species), echinoderms, sponges, molluscs and crustaceans. Line intercept transects (descriptions of what is exactly beneath a measuring tape), coral quadrats (types and sizes of corals within a metre square area) and spot dives were both employed. We dived both permanent and random sites, so as to get an idea of any changes that may be occurring to the reef. Towards the end of our phase we started doing site description dives as well. It is hoped that in the future, as the villagers find it increasingly difficult to fish for Beche-de Mere (sea cucumbers), a main source of their income, a sustainable management plan will be introduced. This would probably include fishing reserves within the marine park as well as promoting small scale Eco-tourism, which can be sustained on the island with little or no ill effect on the surrounding reefs.

We all took part in the sevu sevu, an introduction ceremony, in the chief’s bure in Denimanu village. All the important village elders were present and we participated in drinking our first Kava, or grog as the villagers call it. It is produced by straining water through the pounded yaquona root. It is like drinking muddy water and I have been told produces a similar effect to Prozac. It makes the drinker quite lethargic and also has the effect of numbing the mouth and tongue. We were invited to the village for all ceremonies. The first was for the school fundraiser. For a small price we would buy a bilou (polished half coconut shell) of Kava for someone else to drink. This went on all day before they put on some Fijian pop music. If anyone tapped you on the shoulder, male, female or child, you would have to dance with them for the song. They view dance slightly differently than in the West! We also played a couple of games of rugby against the village team, who were massive. As there were not enough Greenforce males to make up an entire team, we thankfully had the help of several Fijians. It only seemed to be us from Greenforce that ended up hobbling off the village green at the end, yet the Fijians were being gentle with us, as they knew we played little rugby! The girls were given their sporting chance to shine in a football game before the rugby, but this seemed more for entertainment value than sporting prowess. All the Fijian women were within three feet of the ball at all times as it was kicked around. We were also involved in the biggest celebration in the history of the village. After help from the British High Commission, Greenforce and a novel solar pump designed by a foreigner for such situations around the world, it was the first time that they would have running fresh water in their village. The two-day party involved much Kava drinking, dancing, traditional spear dancing, a church service and formal ceremony of thanks and a very bizarre race along the village green. The women screamed and waved straw mats and the men, starting further back, tried to reach a sperm whale tooth, the most prized object in their culture.  

We read, talked and created games and competitions in our spare time to make our time on the island something that we would never forget. It was amazing how none of us missed TV, mobile phones, light switches . . . There were no worries on the island. We lived each day as it came, forgetting what day of the week, even which week it was. Communication back home was limited to letters, which would take at least two weeks each way. We became cut off from the rest of the world and totally engrossed with the little world we were living in.       

Leaving the island and the people of Denimanu was sad, but I only have great memories of my time on the island. On reaching Suva, we enjoyed our first proper shower, a burger and chips for dinner and a few pints. Great!

That just leaves me to mention that the trip back to Nadi was only marred by having to sit by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere as I waited for a bus to arrive to take me the rest of the way to the airport. The first bus was on the side of the road next to me with its engine steaming!

I would like to thank the Prizes Committee for their financial support in helping me go on this marine expedition. Thank you very much.

Secretary to Prizes Committee
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