Julia Bahlsen - Shark Conservation in Fiji
I was originally supposed to get my induction into the project Thursday in the morning, but instead I went and dived into community day straight away. The day was quite special, because the local news were coming to film us and interview various people for that day’s evening news, which is why my induction was pushed to the afternoon. We went to Pacific Harbour Multicultural School and helped the kids take the mangrove propagules from the mangrove nursery into our wheelbarrows.
Beginning the diving project
Sunday was my start into diving, after not having done any since April 2012. During the weekend everybody was discussing buoyancy, shark species and general dive technicalities, and although I felt quite confident in my skills, I got a little worried about what it would be like to be under water again. In the morning half the group had a debate about the shark cull in Western Australia that was introduced this year.
About 5 min into the dive we saw three or four bull sharks below us! It was so incredibly cool to see these sharks on my first dive, especially as I later realised that they are the main focus species of the project. After maybe 10min Josh let me know that I passed all of his ‘tests’ and for the rest of the dives I simply watched my surroundings and enjoyed the dive. In addition to the bull sharks we also saw a turtle and a White Tip Shark, and I must say that I was super lucky for it being my first dive in Fiji!
On Monday it was my first tagging trip day, and because I was in the afternoon group, we worked on the mangrove nursery in Vunibau village in the morning. After lunch we hopped on the bus with Diego and Kira to go to Navua River, about 15 min drives from our villas. There we divided us between two boats and each set out one line with baited hooks on them and buoys at regular intervals.
All of this was for the purpose of catching juvenile bull sharks, so that we can weigh, measure and name them, and then tag them, so that we can learn more about the bull sharks behaviour in the future using our tags. Although we didn’t catch a shark (like the morning group had), we tied the boats together in the middle of the river, listened to music and did a lot of bonding. The afternoon was very calm and warm, followed by a beautiful sunset, which, of course, led me to take thousands of photos
Usually on a Tuesday we’d work on the mangrove project and go to Navua River for the bull shark tagging, but once a month it’s Dirty Day, when Projects Abroad asks the local community what they need done most, and we do it. This time we went to Vunibau and did two things: one group was going to clean the kindergarten completely and put in new floor covering, while the other group was going to build a new bridge across a stream in the village.
I was part of the bridge building group, so I started the day with pushing a wheelbarrow with 150kg of dry cement powder half way from the village hall to the bridge – nice workout and all! Since the original cement was still there, our plan was to put wooden boards on the sides, fill up the dips in the bridge with lose rocks and then finish it with cement.
The beginning was the slowest part of the day, Josh and Diego were working on putting their ideas into practice, but once everyone started and got in a roll, things started to speed up. The villagers had prepared an amazing lunch in the village hall, and after indulging on the local cuisine we returned to the bridge to finish our work. This time I helped mix the cement and it was surprisingly fun.
The end result of the bridge was decorated with an inscription and we were super lucky that the entire day had been dry and sunny, otherwise the cement wouldn’t have stayed in place, nor would it have dried. When we returned to the village a few days later it felt so satisfying to walk over the bridge that I helped to build.
Wednesday we went diving again, and because I was on the shark-feeding dive the next day, I was part of the morning group. We set off in the morning, did two amazing dives, followed by the obligatory (and really not great tasting) potato wraps for lunch. In the afternoon all of us who would go on our first shark dive on Thursday did the Project AWARE Shark Conservation Diver Specialty course with Ingrid.
The week followed the usual pattern of tagging on Monday and Tuesday and diving on Wednesday. Sadly we didn’t catch any baby bull sharks during tagging and the weather wasn’t amazing either, so although I took my camera, there was no opportunity for some good shots.
Wednesday was Sophie, Antonia and Katrine’s last survey dive and Betten’s last dive as a volunteer. The afternoon was amazing, because the weather was incredible and we only had six volunteers, so a nice small group. We did one dive at E.T. with a beautiful swim-through, and then dropped down at a patchy coral reef, where we swam from one coral formation to the next.
The current was quite strong at that point, and we had the camera under water, so the dive ended up not being counted as a survey dive because too many pictures were taken and we didn’t actively look for elasmobranchs or indicator species. Obviously that wasn’t the purpose of the dive, but it was so much fun anyway and a perfect ending to the Wednesday.
The dive wasn’t an active dive as such, more of a sink, meaning that we all got ‘overweighted’, so that we could sit comfortably once we were down there. With a pumped up BCD, it was a giant stride entry and once all of us were floating close together, we descended. I used to have such big problems with my ears and diving, and suddenly I managed to go down 30m in just 2min without any problems!
This was the first dive and followed by a short surface interval with the usual cookies, tea and a lot of laughs with the dive masters. The second dive was at 15m for 35min, and this time we were lying on our stomachs, and the bull sharks were hand-fed tuna heads. The main feeder went to the feeding box (which had the tuna heads in it) with two dive masters with sticks to protect his sides.
Coming up from that dive all of us were beaming with happiness and we basically were on a shark dive high. It is the most incredible feeling to be down there with these huge but agile and majestic sharks; those are the animals that most people are scared of and would never think to dive with them in such close proximity or at all. After lunch, we reviewed the shark diving experience and thereby officially acquired the Padi Project AWARE Shark Conservation Diver Specialty (and with that I’m getting another diving certification card with a very, very unattractive photo of me…). The volunteer meeting at 3pm was a review of the week for the whole group, and then we were officially free for the weekend.
The week started with a lot more mangrove planting and tagging on Monday, but also a lot of grey skies. Although it was supposed to be the dry season by now and with that a lot less clouds looming over us, this was not the case, so waking up in the morning to a steel coloured sky wasn’t too uncommon in my last week in Fiji.
All in all my month in Fiji was unforgettable. Within one week on the island I told my parents on the phone that I wanted to stay for longer, but that was never an option because I had to be home for my dad’s 65th birthday celebrations in mid-June. I met people from literally all over the world (pretty much every continent, minus Antarctica and Africa) and from so many different walks of life. Yet, the common project and love for sharks and the communities around Pacific Harbour pulled us all together and made us friends.
Although I’m not skyping and writing with everyone all of the time since then, I know that those are friends that I cannot compare to people I spent years with. After only a month of such close living, it gives you a different kind of bond. When I visited London in July I met up with Steph and Maya, and we were so happy to see each other again! It was a completely different setting to Fiji, of course, but that didn’t matter.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you have the chance to do something like what I did in Fiji, or even if you are considering going to Fiji with Projects Abroad to work on the Shark Conservation project, go do it! Stop thinking! Yes, it’s a lot of money, but trust me, the money is put in the right places and it’s worth every penny. After the debate we all filed into the minibus and headed off to the dive shop. All of our dives were with Beqa Adventure Divers (short BAD), which is famous for its shark dive, and the team there is absolutely exceptional.