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- 24 August 2018 - Travel Scholarship

In the summer of 2018, I signed up to a project named ‘Marine and Reef conservation’ (set up by the charity Frontier), because of my interest in preserving fragile ecosystems.  My volunteering project was situated on Beqa Island, within the Fijian archipelago. The island, which is inhabited by only seven villages (total population of 3000) and has no access to phone service or internet, provided me with a summer of total immersion in the traditional Fijian culture and its vibrant marine ecosystem. 

The project is run in association with the University of the South Pacific and entailed a concentrated and intense study of both the geology of the lagoon circling Beqa, and the marine communities living within it.  The studies included carrying out coherent and accurate dive surveys around the lagoon in order to collect reliable data that could be sent to the university. The data was then processed to find patterns, allowing scientists to better understand the changing marine environment around Fiji. Our data was also sent to local stakeholders, research organisations and government bodies to help the future protection of Fiji’s marine ecosystem.

The dive surveys were carried out in teams of three, with each person collecting data on one of three areas: benthic; invertebrates; or fish. A 50m reel was reeled out in a specific direction, to be used as a base line along the reef. We would then go individually along the base line collecting data on our underwater slates for our area of interest. 

While helping the marine ecosystem was always in the foreground of every dive, I found myself being occasionally distracted by the vivid and rich marine spectacle in front of me. During my dives I witnessed a range of marine life from bull sharks to hawksbill sea turtles and even a rare sighting of the giant grouper (estimated length of 2.1m).

While my diving experience can only be described as spectacular, the same cannot be said for the bamboo and corrugated iron shack I was staying in. Life on Beqa is very basic, with no access to electricity, and I began to realise the basic necessities of modern day life I had taken for granted. Without a fridge on camp, I was subjected to a vegetarian diet for a month, as meat would not keep without a fridge and eating fish from the ecosystem we were trying to conserve would likely be quite counterproductive! Our water source came straight from a spring on the island via a pipeline constructed of plastic poles and duct tape. This supplied the camp with drinking water and freezing cold water for the camp shower.

During my time on Beqa, I also helped out with the land-based ‘Mangrove conservation’ project, which aims to educate local villagers, helping them to understand the importance of mangroves in counteracting the large amount of soil and beach erosion currently taking place. To help the sustainability of this project, I socialised and talked to villagers from the village of Nasoso, where I was invited to try the island’s home-brewed alcohol called Kava (Beqa, being Methodist, was a dry island). Kava is a drink made up from the dried roots of the plant kava, mixed with water. A noticeable side effect of kava was the numbing of the tongue, which the volunteers and I soon found out, bringing a rather amusing end to my trip!

This trip has been one of the best experiences of my life so far. I raised the money to pay for it by working endless hours at my local pub, but it would not have happened without the generous contribution provided by the MPW Travel Scholarship, for which I’m extremely grateful and which, I’m sure, the Fijian government’s environmental department are grateful for also!

Jack Taylor