Mark McMillan - Shark Conservation in Fiji
Why I decided to volunteer in Fiji
I decided to join the Shark Conservation Project in Fiji because of my love for sharks and marine conservation. I find sharks a truly fascinating group of animals, and I have always been keen to study them. Although a lot of people are scared of sharks, most people do not realise the vital role that they play in keeping our oceans healthy.
This is because, as apex predators, sharks are right at the top of the ocean food-chain, and keep populations of other marine species in check. This in turn, keeps our oceans healthy. Although sharks have been around for well over 400 million years, many species now face extinction as a result of human activities. Therefore, as a recently graduated Marine Biologist, and someone who is passionate about marine conservation, I decided to join the Shark Conservation project in Fiji to do my bit to help save sharks.
At the end of April 2014, I left England and stayed in Fiji for a period of 3 weeks. After nearly 2 days of travelling, as the plane was ready to land in Fiji, I remember looking out of the aeroplane window, and seeing what I could only describe as a scene from the film Jurassic Park. Fiji was incredible. An array of islands covered in lush tropical foliage, with the sun beating down on clear blue waters. All that was missing was the dinosaurs!
Once in Fiji, I was met at Nadi International Airport by a Projects Abroad staff member who placed me on a bus to Pacific Harbour – the base-camp for the Shark Conservation project. This journey took about 3 hours, and allowed me to take in the amazing scenery Fiji had to offer. Once in Pacific Harbour, I was taken to my accommodation and was introduced to the staff and other volunteers on the project.
The accommodation was great; it was basically a large villa with 4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a large kitchen and garden, plus a TV and WiFi. This was also the place where all our meals were provided. As I arrived on a Friday, the weekend had only just begun, so that night I went out with other volunteers to a local beach resort for a few drinks. It was definitely a bit different to my local pub back home in England!
The overall aim of the Fiji shark conservation project is to gather as much information as possible on the shark species found in Fiji, so that eventually we can set up and expand Marine Protected Areas to conserve these sharks, as well as other marine species. During my time in Fiji, I worked alongside shark experts on a variety of individual research projects, including shark surveying, shark tagging, and mangrove forest restoration work.
The normal working week in Fiji starts on a Sunday, and it was then that I began my diver training. I had done some diving in the past, but over the next 3 days I would attain my PADI Open Water qualification. Once I had this, I was then able to participate in shark survey dives, which we did several times a week.
Tasks on the projects
On the shark survey dives, we surveyed various reefs around the Fijian islands, and our aim was simply to record all shark, ray and turtle species seen, the sex of each animal, as well as to make notes on the overall health of the reefs. These dives were incredible! This was the first time I had ever dived on a tropical coral reef, and I was most certainly not disappointed.
The reefs were ripe with fish, home to thousands of different species, all living within the delicate coral structures. Then came the sharks! I still remember to this day, my first shark encounter with a white tip reef shark, a species recognised by the white tip on its dorsal fin. This was only the beginning, and as the project went on, I spent time in the company of other species, including black tip reef sharks, tawny nurse sharks, and the famous bull sharks. For me this was mind-blowing.
I have previously worked with sharks in an aquarium, but this was nothing compared to diving with them in the wild and seeing them in their natural habitat.
I was also lucky enough to participate in one of the famous shark feeding dives that are carried out by the guys from Beqa Adventure Divers. On these dives, the feeding is done by professionals, and I was allowed to go along and watch. This dive is one that I will remember for the rest of my life, as for much of this dive, I was completely surrounded by 40 or more, big 3 metre bull sharks happily taking fish from the diver’s hands.
Other parts of the project were quite different. For example, I also helped out on the shark tagging programme. This involved us going out on various rivers in Fiji and attempting to catch and tag juvenile bull sharks. This species is famous for its ability to survive in fresh water, and we wanted to determine which rivers in Fiji the sharks use, and roughly how many are actually in the rivers. This kind of information is crucial if we are to determine which areas of river we need to protect for these sharks.
We also worked on a mangrove forest restoration project. Mangrove forests are extremely important ecosystems for many aquatic species, which may use them as nursery or feeding grounds. We would go into local Fijian villages, and working with the Fijian people, we set up mangrove tree nurseries. To do this, we obtained mangrove tree propagules, planted them in plastic bottles and then allowed the plants to grow.
After about one month the mangrove plants could then be planted in the wild. This project was a great way of getting the local Fijian people involved in conservation, and it allowed us to educate them about the importance of mangrove ecosystems. Also, all of the plastic bottles used had been collected from beaches and from the sea, so this also operated as a marine clean-up project as well!
After an amazing three weeks working on this project, I had to leave Fiji and return home. As my flight was in the early morning, I had to leave Pacific Harbour the night before and spend a night with a host family in Nadi. This was all very well organised, and the host family were such friendly and kind people. Then, after a 30 hour or so journey, I arrived home.
Although I only spent a short while out in Fiji, working on this project was a truly great experience for me. Having the opportunity to work alongside shark experts was incredible, and I met some great people. I would certainly recommend this project to anyone who is interested in, and cares about sharks. I hope that one day I will be able to return myself.