It was one of the toughest, yet best three weeks of Jade Fredericks’ life.
In the first year of her Southern Cross University Master of Marine Science and Management and aided by a New Colombo Plan scholarship, Jade left the comforts of Coffs Harbour to travel to the remote Indonesian island of Arborek in Raja Ampat, home to just 150 local villagers.
Her mission was multifaceted – marine surveys, debris collection and teaching English.
After three flights and more than a day in transit she reached Sorong.
“I spent four days in a local village, hearing the daily Mosque chanting, being shown around the village by the children and teaching them the game of memory with a deck of cards. Life is simple, pleasures are simple,” Jade said.
She later made the two-hour ferry trip, then a two-hour small boat ride out to Arborek Island, which measures just 1km by 500 metres with no fresh water.
“It was torrential rain and the boat was simple, a cover over half of the boat and the rest to the elements,” Jade said.
“A simple tarp covered our belongings. Everything got soaked, we were soaked, we couldn’t see where we were going and at one point when the boat stopped to change petrol tanks, I thought the waves were going to take us over.
“We made it though, and thanks to the warmth of the rain and water we were not too cold.”
Despite a few hairy experiences, Jade said it wasn’t long before she felt at home in the beach hut and began her training with The Great Project conservation coordinators.
“The hut we stayed in was right by the ocean, which was beautiful and mostly pristine. The island however is becoming impacted by overfishing and tourism. Evidence shown in coral rubble near the shore and jetty areas a reduction in top predators and increase in the abundance of herbivorous species surrounding the island,” she said.
“The project involved habitat mapping, fish surveys, and benthic surveys, which would be used to influence decision making on marine park zoning.
“As well as diving in one of the most biodiverse places in the world, beach debris clean-up and community education activities were also a big part of the project – my interest in marine-protected areas and biodiversity was the main reason I pursued that project.”
Jade was supported to apply for the grant with guidance from Associate Professor Symon Dworjanyn from the National Marine Science Centre (NMSC), who helped her secure the $3000 scholarship which provides Masters students with the opportunity to support conservation work in Indonesia while developing skills and life experience.
“A typical day on the conservation project involved teaching English to the children and adults three times per week, at one of the three Islands early in the morning,” she said.
“A lot of the children’s education happened through games and singing with an emphasis on marine conservation and marine debris clean up. Activities included education on recycling garbage and keeping the beach clean to reduce marine animals ingesting plastics.
“This was followed by lunch and a dive at 1pm and another at 3pm. In between activities, lectures were available on local coral reef and fish species as well as survey methodology.”
After learning the coral and fish, and passing an identification test, Jade said the dives were used to point out species and verify identification of species. 50-metre transects or timed surveys were then captured as data for reef-health monitoring.
“Not only did the scholarship benefit Indonesian conservation work, it provided me with skills in diving and scientific research, enabling me to progress towards a scientific diver qualification,” Jade said.
“After university I’m interested in pursuing projects that integrate Aboriginal knowledge and management with biodiversity conservation practices.”
What did you do in Raja Ampat?
The first half of the time was spent training, going on dives with scientific divers who go around and show you the corals to help you identify them using a dive slate.
You have to get 90 per cent accuracy before you can conduct your own survey, so it’s pretty rigorous testing, then you go into doing transects, where you identify the change in sand or coral every few centimetres. The idea is to do 50 metres in every 50-minute dive to record coral change, any dead coral and reef health to contribute to survey data collection.
I was also able to complete some reef fish identification lectures and dives and two Nudibranch (colourful molluscs) surveys. This involved a team of three surveyors, one recording depth, substratum, length, one taking a picture of each individual, and another spotting.
Megafauna were also recorded daily, including grey reef shark, black tip reef shark, white tip reef shark, hawksbill turtle, green turtle, manta, and bumphead parrotfish. Other interesting inhabitats included butterfly fish, angelfish, anenome fish, baracuda, tuna, Spanish mackerel, giant clams, cuttlefish, moray eel, and an array of symbiotic shrimp species.
Raja Ampat has the world record for the most fish species identified in a 50 metre transect, with 284 species, and every dive opened her eyes to more species, coral, symbiotic relationships and more research questions.
I want to know more about Manta breeding and feeding sites, mollusc distribution patterns, shrimp interactions, tourism and sewage impacts, and the rate of bleaching.
There were small patches of bleaching evident as the water temperature had risen to 32 degrees this year, the highest recorded – there is usually a fairly constant a water temp of 27-30 degrees.
Raja Ampat has been declared a Marine Protected Area as well as a Shark Sanctuary Zone and therefore fishing techniques have been restricted to line and spear fishing, however past net and dynamite methods are still being felt. Table fish are smaller and turtle for ceremony are rare.
Would you go back?
Although the living was very simple, the training was extensive, with fantastic opportunities for research due to abundance and diversity around Arborek Island. The Great Project is also very keen to collaborate with Masters and PhD projects in the future.
There are also the moments in time that I will never forget. The experience of floating along a wall at 25 metres, getting wrapped up in looking into sea anemone and at iridescent shrimp, which makes you feel like you’re in a dream, or looking around for parrotfish pluming coral debris but when you are actually being spawned on by a massive orange sponge. It is always on a trip like this that I am reinvigorated and inspired to continue study in a quest for conservation of marine life for the future.
The facilities on the island were very basic with everything run on generators. The island has no fresh water. There is a small desalination plant however it ran only sporadically, so water is usually brought in on small boats, or collected from neighbouring islands. Washing water is therefore rationed daily. We had three litres of water to wash with a day which I found pretty intense but we had comfortable bunk-bed style accommodation in a nice little beach hut.
I arrived back home and am feeling grateful for my three weeks in the wondrous Raja Ampat, but also with a new appreciation for the daily infrastructure we have at home and creature comforts we take for granted.