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Fiji Expedition

Fiji Expedition

Author: Paul Jennison
Author Role: Science Teacher

CHAC Biology Expedition to Fiji

CHAC students continued to build their excellent relationship with Operation Wallacea during the June/July school holidays. Operation Wallacea is a conservation research organisation that is funded by teams of student volunteers who join expeditions and work on real-world research programs alongside academic researchers. During the College's very first expedition in 2017, former CHAC student Tom Warren took a photo of a previously unknown species of butterfly. This has now been classified as described as Papilio natewa, the Natewa Swallowtail.

This year, 25 students accompanied by Mrs Rutter, Ms Stephens and myself departed for Vanua Levu, the second major island in the Fiji archipelago. Transported out to the Natewa Peninsula, we undertook marine and terrestrial ecology for two weeks.

Initially, we were based in the Marine Camp where students either chose to learn how to scuba dive, snorkel the coral reefs or, if previously qualified, dove on the reefs. Students eagerly approached the dive course and we were thrilled that so many are now qualified Open Water Divers (to a depth of 18 metres). The snorkellers and qualified divers participated in the Allen Coral Atlas where students were connected to a GPS and took regular photos of the reef. This will, in time, produce a 3-D map of coral reefs all around the world. The qualified divers also took stereoscopic footage of benthic fish to help identify and count fish species in Natewa Bay. A great example of citizen science in action.

For the second week of our expedition, we spent time in the Forest Camp as well as in the beautiful village of Dakuniba. There, in small groups, students gathered data on insects, including the Natewa Swallowtail, birds, spiders as well as measuring the carbon in the forest. Students enjoyed mist-netting, getting up at the crack of dawn to recognise bird calls, spider-catching and the endless walks down transects to count and measure trees.

Some of the key terrestrial ecological moments were capturing the elusive Swallowtail – colloquially known as the CHAC Swallowtail; finding endless specimens of spiders – we are likely to have found several new species here, and measuring the carbon. By identifying how much carbon is locked in trees on the Natewa Peninsula, the UN will provide funds for the Fijian People to preserve the forest. This will also hopefully fund the erection of a Predator-Proof fence which will help to eradicate the introduced Indian Mongoose and allow native herpetofauna (lizards) to reestablish themselves.

Our students developed excellent relationships with the Operation Wallacea staff and the local villagers. Culturally the expedition was a success as well with many games of volleyball, campfires complete with marshmallows, social chats, climaxing with a traditional Lovo feast on our last evening. The students shed tears as they prepared to travel home after the amazing experience.

The words here do not capture the special moments experienced by every participant. Special memories and bonds were forged in Fiji and it was a privilege to share it with such a fine group of students and my fellow staff.

Mr Paul Jennison- Tour Leader

Student reflections on Fiji trip 

"Upon arriving in Fiji and making our way to Natewa Bay on the east coast of Vanua Levu, many of us commenced a PADI diving course on the beautiful and exclusive Natewa reef. The course went for one week and included a mix of lectures to learn the theory of diving, and practical dives to gain experience. The divers were split among multiple small groups with a trained diving instructor, and an average day consisted of one theory lesson and two dives. Over the duration of the week, we learnt how to cope with various potential problems that may occur underwater and practiced these at gradually increasing depths. Unlike many dive courses that last for only a few days, this course is thorough and allows for a slow and comfortable transition into the underwater world, with plenty of opportunities to take in the surroundings. At the end of the week, we came away with an open water recreational dive license allowing the diver freedom within 18 meters of water. I would fully recommend this experience to anyone and everyone, since it opened my eyes to a completely new world, and allowed me to witness the amazing, untouched waters surrounding Vanua Levus’ east coast." Jonah Leighton

"During the first week of our stay in Fiji, I along with 4 other peers had the opportunity to snorkel in Natewa Bay. Over the course of our stay, we visited 3 separate sites to investigate and explore the different marine ecosystems. The first site we visited was a personal favourite as it had the greatest biodiversity and gave me the opportunity to see a shark for the first time. After identifying different species of fish and corals, we were offered to map the ocean floor using go-pros and lines. This, in particular, was a unique experience for everyone involved. In doing this survey, we are helping understand a greater amount of the Fijis oceans. The water was extremely clear the whole week we were there, allowing us to see around 15m below us with clarity. Overall, snorkelling was a very engaging activity that saw many of us students learning more about different parts of the marine ecosystem of Fiji." Dana Drought

"Prior to the Fiji expedition, seven students at CHAC, including myself, had successfully completed their open water diving course, therefore obtaining their diving licence to a maximum of 18 metres underwater. This meant that for the tour, as a group we could immediately start gearing up to explore the gorgeous reefs and the vibrant hard and soft corals situated in Natewa Bay.

"Both in the mornings and afternoons, the qualified divers were driven on boat by Georgie to visit the diving locations in the bay such as Dolo Dolo, Vasewa and Wai-Levu. With crystal clear waters attaining amazing visibility range and a myriad of living creatures scattered throughout the reefs, the diving unequivocally became a memorable feature of the tour for every student. Although no shark sightings were made on this particular trip, angelfish, lionfish, clownfish, starfish, turtles and plenty more were all observed on many of our dives.

"Each night at the marine camp, both students and teachers were given the privilege to listen to the multiple lectures given by the staff at the bay, regarding the significance of preserving the beautiful wildlife at Natewa Bay and throughout the world. Additionally, some lectures focused on the corals, fish, invertebrates and plant life located in the bay, taught with the corresponding hand signals to indicate the discovery of these underwater. This educational knowledge strengthened the awareness of these topics for all of us, and enabled the qualified divers to acquire a deeper understanding of the specific roles these elements perform in the bay. The staff at Natewa Bay remains very passionate about the preservation of the fragile island and informed us as a collective group on how to appropriately behave towards the animal and plant life underwater and how to adopt these measures in our everyday lives in the future.  

"Ultimately, the diving certainly served for all students as a prominent highlight of the trip. Achieving our licence in advance facilitated this process as we were able to directly transfer into the water, discovering the stunning nature of Natewa Bay." Matilda O’Neil

"While counting trees may not have been the most thrilling activity on the Biology tour, it was by far the most important. If you were rostered on for habitat, this is the kind of day you could expect. You start with a hike up the steep hill to the designated area. Your team would set up 4 square quadrats, each ten metres across. Then, you would break up into three groups, two for counting trees, poles and saplings, and one for measuring the light penetrating the canopy. Then, pack up, hike to your next location, and repeat. Now, this doesn’t sound like the most riveting of activities when there are spiders or butterflies you could be catching, but I assure you, it is the most important.

"From the data we collected, the average amount of carbon stored in the forest can be calculated, and this can, in turn, be ‘traded’ for carbon credits. Essentially, the big companies pay the respective country to maintain their forests, therefore keeping the carbon contained in plants, and not in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. This way the businesses can continue to release CO2 into the atmosphere, with its effects being offset by the area of forest being maintained. This may sound like wishful thinking, but this method was vouched for by all of the people in Operation Wallacea. After all, this was the overall goal of the operation. To get the Natewa Peninsula National Park status, the best option was to give the landowners a reason to not use deforest the peninsula. The money gained through carbon credits would hopefully be able to offset the loss in farming and foresting ground. Additionally, it could be used towards starting up ecotourism in the area, which would create a much more stable income, and provide further incentive for the protection of this unique and fragile ecosystem." Lewis Eales

"Our time in the Opwall forest camp and village exposed us to the process of scientific fieldwork. We were fortunate enough to work alongside professional scientists and assist in the data collecting for their research projects, one of which specialised in spiders. Filippo was a PhD student who had travelled from Italy to the Natewa Peninsula to document the unstudied spider populations in the region. He shared his passion for evolutionary biology and arachnids with us all and impressed many with his ability to identify the family of a spider on first viewing. Much to the fears of several people, we were tasked to scrounge around in leaf litter, bat trees and seek out webs to find as many 8-legged creatures as we could. It certainly was not comforting when he replied to our incessant question about whether the spiders were venomous with “yes, almost all spiders are venomous.” Our surveys were very successful with a number of spiders identified by Filippo as being the first sighting of that species on the peninsular. Ultimately, being able to trek through Fijian rainforest and make a contribution to a real-life scientific project will be an experience we will all treasure well into the future." Emma Cooney

"The Biology Tour of 2019 saw 22 CHAC students embark on a journey to Fiji in the hopes to provide valuable ecological data to Operation Wallacea (OpWall). The tour introduced fantastic new experiences, friendships and achievements to the biology students, each of us taking away memories that will remain with us forever.

"From day one, we were all immersed in the amazing culture of Fiji. Locals smiled and waved each day as we began our journey through the diverse ecosystems of the country. Our first location was Natewa Bay, where students either learned to dive, snorkelled or participated in underwater ecological surveys with their existing dive licenses. Snorkelers were in the water each day, learning how to identify species of fish and coral as well as surveying the reef and its wildlife with specialist marine equipment. Others worked to receive their recreational open water license, with almost all being successful in achieving this by the end of the quick-moving week. The qualified divers and snorkelers gave detailed and interesting presentations at the conclusion of the stay at the bay, showing their findings and giving everyone valuable insight to any ecological issues or findings in Fiji. It was amazing to be a part of such an important and engaging development, truly opening up my eyes to the importance of marine ecology and wildlife studies.

"The flora and fauna explored in the terrestrial sites were unique and fantastic to witness, with many of us being lucky enough endemic species. In particular, one group were lucky to find the famous species of Swallowtail butterfly that was discovered by one of CHAC’s students in the previous Biology Tour: quite an exciting moment for all expeditioners! When the weather was clear, we had the opportunity to attempt to spot the endemic species of birds that are situated around the terrestrial site and Dakuniba (the village where we spent the last few days of the trip). In addition to birds, many of us had the opportunity to collect and survey spiders and their habitats, providing OpWall with data. Using strategies such as sweep netting, point counting and smacking a tree with a large stick with a net underneath, many were able to find new species to Fiji.

"Fiji is a wonderfully social and amazing place, and each place we visited we were met with warm and welcoming faces and helpful local guides. At Dakuniba village, the life of the village new and exciting for all and was overall an incredible experience. The different way of living and native language provided us with a valuable understanding of the connection shared between Fijians and their land and made the work that we were eagerly assisting with important and valuable for both our knowledge and theirs. It was truly a memorable experience, and all of us took away fantastic memories and friendships after such an impactful two weeks of ecology." Matthew Hutchens

"Bula! During the winter holidays this year I was lucky enough to go on the CHAC Biology Tour. I spent an amazing two weeks escaping the cold Brisbane weather in the beautiful tropics of Fiji. During this life-changing exhibition, I got to participate in many eye-opening experiences such as taking my first breathe underwater, assisting scientists in meaningful research projects and getting to witness the awe-inspiring landscapes of Fiji while travelling in an open-aired lorry laughing, talking and singing with the rest of the tour group. Throughout the trip, I formed closer connections with the grade 11s and many new friendships with the grade 12s, whether it be because we were learning to dive together, hiking up the untrekked forest together or just playing one of the many new card games we taught each other on the trip.

"One of the highlights for me was the village stay. To end the trip, we stayed in the village of Dakuniba. Most of our days consisted of continuing our research in the forest and around the village through the investigation of Fijian spiders, early mornings listening to birds and the completion of carbon and habitat surveys. In the late afternoon, we got free time; I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to play my favourite sport – volleyball – with the locals, while others played touch football or watched the sunset over the bay. The Fijians of the village were so accommodating, letting us use their facilities and preparing delicious meals that sustained us for long days. During our time in the village, we learnt more about the Fijian culture and spent our evenings roasting marshmallows on the bonfire and dancing with the Fijian children. Overall, it was an incredible expedition that I will remember forever." Yasmin Ward

"During our stay at the forest and village, we collected spiders. Big spiders, little spiders, jumping spiders and more. Before you become alarmed, although almost all spiders are venomous, none of the Fijian spiders were harmful to humans. Led by our enthusiastic researcher Filippo, we caught spiders with nets and jars. To catch the spiders, we had to trek into the forest, which was very muddy. Then we had to shake, bash or net spiders out of the trees. Most of the spiders were small and some even looked like ants.

"We searched for spiders for almost three hours at a time. We would scour a 10 x 10 m square shaking and bashing all the trees we could. We did these 6 times and the total number of spiders we caught would have had to be over 100. The spiders we caught were used to as a part of Filippo’s PhD which is about spiders living in termite nests. The collecting we did was also some of the first spider surveys in the Natewa Peninsula meaning that our data was also used to create guides about the spiders found in Fiji. Spider searching in Fiji was a hit, we found so many creepy crawlies and even the people that weren’t big spider fans had fun!" Julia Hona