Stephanie Bruckl - Shark Conservation in Fiji
After graduating from university, I wanted to participate in a Shark Conservation Project. I typed those three words into my loyal friend Google and the first result was Projects Abroad, I was immediately interested and the fact that it was in Fiji sealed the deal for me.
That night, I sat down with my family and told them that I was going to apply for the project and raise the money for it. After a few hours of convincing my mother it was 100% safe and I was not going to get eaten by a shark, I received their seal of approval and embarked on the first part of my incredible journey.
After taking up a weekend job, setting up a fundraising page and sharing it with every social network page I have, organising two big fundraising events and some donations from friends and family, I managed to raise the money for the project in five months. Next thing I knew, I was on a plane from London to Fiji!
First impressions of Fiji
My plane arrived late at night so I didn’t get to see much of Fiji and after spending my first night with a friendly host family I woke up to a beautiful Fijian sunrise (the first of many) to catch the early bus from Nadi to Pacific Harbour. After little sleep, I planned to catch a nap on the three-hour bus journey, but I just couldn’t keep my eyes closed! The scenery was so beautiful; it was like something out of a movie.
The Shark Conservation Project
After arriving in Arts Village in Pacific Harbour, I was greeted by the friendly locals and went to my accommodation. The volunteer villas were very pretty and as soon as I walked through the door the friendly volunteers greeted me. My new roommates showed me our room, which was clean and had everything I needed, including a bathroom.
The food was delicious, home cooked Fijian meals. Some nights we had curry, pasta, roast chicken with potatoes, pizza and there was always a veggie option available. Volunteers were also able to cook for everyone, which was always exciting. We were provided breakfast, lunch and dinner every day without fail, with plenty of snacks available and, if you wanted to eat out, there were a few great restaurants and a supermarket nearby.
After completing and passing my PADI Open Water dive course within three days, I was ready to get stuck into the projects. We worked on the following projects from Sundays to Thursdays:
Survey Dives - Survey dives were twice a week, Sundays and Wednesdays where we did two dives each day. Before the dive we are briefed by our lead dive coordinator, Josh who outlines our dive plan, places us in our buddy teams and assigns each of us a task and responsibility for equipment or recording data. We carry equipment onto the boat including the BRUV, which we drop in a Marine Protected Area where it records footage for over 90 minutes.
For diving we had slates where we recorded data on any sharks and indicator species we saw. I saw some incredible stuff, white tips, black tips, grey reef, bull sharks, leopard sharks, rays, jellyfish, turtles and some sensational corals too. Once we got back on the boat we went over our data and filled out the paperwork. We also collect data for e-shark and the Great Fiji Shark Count.
Tagging - Tagging is carried out on Mondays and Tuesdays and lead by Diego or Keira. We went out to the river mouth to catch baby Bull sharks and tag these sharks. Tagging can start in the wee hours from 5am to 10am depending on the tide. We baited hooks, set up a mooring line and it’s just a waiting game from there on! Sometimes we catch something, sometimes we don't! But we spend most of our time talking, checking the lines and enjoying the incredible view.
Mangroves - Mangroves are pretty underestimated; they are very impressive species of plants. They grow in salt water, reduce flooding in villages and provide habitats for a ton of species, including baby sharks, which is why they are a key part of our project.
We planted propagules in recycled plastic bottles allowed them to grow roots and leaves over a few weeks. When they were ready we planted them on the beach. The work is pretty dirty and its physical labour but someone’s got to do it! I remember one time I was knee deep in sandy mud planting mangroves but I was pretty happy with the end result and if you're lucky you will be rewarded with fresh coconuts!
Community day - Thursdays were village days! We spent the whole day in a local village, usually with the children, educating them about the ocean and sharks. It's important to educate children of the future generations on how vital sharks are to the marine ecosystem and why we should protect them.
Paper debate - Every Sunday, we read scientific papers on a topic or a study on shark behaviour and discussed our views on it after. We did a really interesting debate on the shark culling in West Australia and had to argue from viewpoints of different figures, such as the government and surfers.
Land based - During land based duties, volunteers would work on the mangroves, prepare the projects for the community day or watch the BRUV footage (yes, the whole 90 minutes) where they would identify and record data on sharks and indicator species like groupers, snappers, rays and turtles.
Shark dive - Every volunteer, got to do a shark dive at least once when on the project. I was fortunate enough to do two shark dives during my time on the project. Words really can’t justify how incredible it is to be in the water with over 50 Bull sharks feeding on giant Tuna heads! You really see why you are on the project and appreciate what you are doing.
Most importantly, let’s not forget to mention incredible staff and volunteers on the project. From day one, I felt welcomed and all members of staff were so friendly towards me. All the volunteers got along and the nightlife was awesome too, especially when all the volunteers were out together.
On weekends we would always have a night out or do a fun activity like hiking to a waterfall, shopping in Suva or visiting an incredible beach nearby. Some nights we would have dinner out and watch some movies together. We were like one big shark-loving family.
My overall thoughts
This project was so incredibly fulfilling. I had the best time of my life and met so many people from different walks of life. I now have friends from countries all over the world and my memories of Fiji will stay with me forever. This project not only deserves its great reviews and recognition for its effective conservation efforts by huge NGOs, but it should also be recognised by everyone as a life changing and an extremely rewarding project. I will definitely be returning to Fiji.