Volunteering for Operation Wallacea

In the Summers of 2015 and 2018 I volunteered with Operation Wallacea in Cuba and Indonesia as a research assistant and Divemaster trainee. I then returned to Their Site in Wakatobi, Indonesia in 2019 as a contracted Divemaster. I really credit OpWall with allowing me to pursue my passion for the underwater world and would wholeheartedly encourage anyone interested in field ecology or conservation to check them out. They can be found at:

http://www.opwall.com

They can also be found on social medias by searching Operation Wallacea. There you can find information about the recent publications they contribute to and how to get involved!

Cuba

In 2015 I spent 2 weeks on a trip to Isla de la Juventud off the South Coast of Cuba to help collect data and learn about coral reef ecosystems. We stayed at Hotel el Colony, which had been repurposed as a Marine research centre in conjunction with the University of Havana. Unfortunately, the OpWall site has since moved out of Cuba after a dispute with the government. Since I was already a rescue diver at this point, I didn’t have to complete any dive training and jumped straight into Coral Reef Ecology (CRE) Courses and data collection. The CRE is OpWall’s version of a high school level reef ecology course and provides a good overview of the ecology, community structure and function of coral reefs an the associated ecosystems. Other than this classroom based course, we completed data collection dives learning basic coral reef surveying techniques such as belt transects, stereo-video transects and point line intersect transects. In addition, there was a project running using ultrasound to locate Manatees in the wetlands to the South-West of the site, however in the two days I spent helping out we didn’t manage to locate any. Perhaps the best bit of this trip was spending some nights on the University of Havana’s research vessel, the Felipe Poey. We conducted lion fish biopsies following collection with Hawaiian sling spears, finding that lionfish will eat pretty much anything… We also set some long lines out to tag sharks for an ongoing research project into the shark population of the local area, however we didn’t catch anything in the two nights on the boat. We did, however, get an amazing show of lightning while sleeping on the deck at night, definitely something that I’ll remember for a long time to come! This trip was really my first insight into the scientific world of diving, having previously only dived recreationally, and really set the ball rolling for my later adventures.

Indonesia – 2018

Indonesia was my next big adventure straight after completing my degree in 2018. After studying Molecular Biology at University College London, I knew I loved science, but while the virology, immunology and cancer biology that I focused on in my final year was incredibly interesting, I still felt there was something missing. I missed that sense of adventure that being in the field gave me, so when I met Tim Coles, CEO of OpWall at a presentation at UCL earlier that year, I jumped on the opportunity he put forward of completing my PADI Divemaster training and working as a research assistant again for OpWall. This time I would travel to a dream dive destination of mine, Indonesia. The site is on an island called Hoga in Wakatobi National Park, South-East of Sulawesi, shown on the map above. For my sins, it took 5 flights and a ferry ride to get there from London but the journey was definitely worth it.

The first 4 weeks of this two month expedition were spent completing the PADI Divemaster training. This has to be the most fun diving qualification I’ve completed to date. It involves a mix of theory, fitness tests and practical diving and leadership skills to qualify you on the first rung of PADI’s professional scuba program. If there is the interest I can put up a more detailed post on the ins and outs of the Divemaster qualification, but if you’re at all considering it I would go for it! For me, it was four weeks of full time diving and teaching and I loved every minute.

The next half of the expedition were spent completing the Reef Survey Techniques (RST) course and helping out as a research assistant on site. RST is basically OpWall’s university level of the CRE course, offering a more in depth look at reef ecology and practical in-water techniques. As one of the more qualified research assistants from a diving point of view, I was Assigned into the reef monitoring team following the RST week. This team is a semi-autonomous group of scientific divers who visit specified sites around the island and conduct methodical data collection on fish, macroinvertebrate and benthic community structure. This was definitely my favourite part of the trip and a big part of why I would return. I learnt so much about the realities of in-water data collection as well as a host of techniques for analysing data back in the lab, which we would spend hours each afternoon doing.

Each of 9 dive sites was split into 3 zones: reef flat, reef crest and reef slope. These zones were then subsequently split into 3 transects each, making for 9 transects per dive site and a total of 81 transects. Along each 50m transect we rolled a measuring tape between pre defined pegs installed as un-obtrusively as possible in the reef. The first job was to conduct a fish survey using a stereo-video transect to be later analysed in the lab. This was conducted with two GoPros mounted on a pole, about a meter apart to obtain stereoscopic vision, like human eyesight. This enabled us to calculate the biomass and identify to species level every fish seen in the video, using software called EventMeasure which I won’t get into too much here. Next was a macroinvertebrate survey conducted by two divers swimming in a belt 5m wide centred on the transect tape. Here we conducted a tally of key pre-determined species such as feather stars, nudibranchs and sea urchins, tallied on a dive slate. We weren’t too specific with identification for the sake of brevity, aside from a few key species that were identified by their binomial nomenclature such as: Linkia laeviga – blue sea stars, Acanthaster plankii – Crown of Thorn Sea stars and Thelanota anax – a species of sea cucumber to name a few. Finally we would conduct a benthic survey using an action camera following the tape,, stopping every 25cm to show the substrate beneath. This footage was then analysed in the lab after each set of dives and substrate was identified to genus level generally (IDing coral to species level is hard enough for most genera without grainy footage). All this collated data for each two month season goes into a large data set that’s used to inform scientists on the long-term health and community structure of reefs in the local area.

Aside from the science, this was the first dive trip I made where I forayed into Underwater Photography, albeit in a pretty basic sense. I had recently been given a Weefine Smart- Housing Pro for my 21st birthday and was really excited to try it out. While basic, this allowed for the addition of wet lenses, both wide angle and macro. The images I got were…. OK, but of course I thought that with a bit of post processing they were some of the most incredible pics I’d ever taken! I’ll share a few here and while they don’t really stack up to my current standards, you have to start somewhere! As I didn’t have any form of lighting at the time, I used the app Dive+, which generally did a pretty good job of correcting colours. This genuinely blew my mind then, as I was so used to seeing the usual washed out blue tones of underwater pictures. This trip was really what started the underwater photography obsession for me and I couldn’t wait to return with more gear and more experience.

Indonesia 2019

The next year I returned to Hoga as a contracted Divemaster and with a whole new set of gear to try out. In the interim period I’d worked a few jobs including a ski season in the French Alps and had managed to save enough to buy a new camera and housing. My weapon of choice was a Canon G7XII, a Fantasea FG7XII housing and a single Sea&Sea YS-03 strobe on ball arm. I loved this camera and still do, as the manual settings and access to lighting really allowed me to push my creative boundaries… once I learned how to use it. I had a decent amount of experience with cameras, but nothing could have prepared me for adjusting all of that while maintaining neutral buoyancy, especially the lighting. It genuinely took me weeks to get the hang of strobe positioning, constantly getting massively over or under exposed images or just crazy backscatter. After playing for a while, however, I started getting shots I was happy with and so I moved onwards from there.

My role on site this time was a little different, having moved into a staff position. Time was split between helping with dive training, from Open Water students up to other Divemaster Trainees and helping on science dives; the latter of which I tried to jump on whenever possible. On the science side of things, I was mainly supervising divers collecting data for undergraduate and masters dissertations. Although I did get to help out in a few cool projects, such as collecting behavioural data on the butterfly fish Chaetodon lunulatus for Rachel Gunn’s PhD project. This involved filming pairs of territorial butterfly fish and determining their habitat range using markers, as well as determining how they responded to novel objects (a big red Lego cube) in their habitat. As well as assisting with data collection for qualified divers, I was involved with the teaching of both the CRE and RST courses. While my role was primarily assisting with in-water activities, I actually became the CRE lecturer for a brief period, notably over an interesting period where the site was targeted by immigration officials. I also spent a few weeks with the monitoring team again, collecting similar data to the previous year and helping in the lab with mostly benthic transect analysis as well as identification of settlement tiles. These tiles are ceramic plates nailed to the reef at assigned depths and locations which are later removed an assessed for coral recruitment. It was really interesting to see which corals were most prevalent on a ‘na├»ve’ section of reef: it was mostly Turbinaria with their distinct cone shaped polyps, but Porites, Acropora and a few Pocillopora made appearances too.

Finally and perhaps most excitingly there was a new project running on site this year, as part of the site manager, Rowan’s PhD project at the University Hassanudin, Makassar. A previously established coral rope tower nursery had been running for a few years just off the drop off at our training site, assessing how various species of Acropora (stag horn and elk horn corals) grew in various light conditions. However, the new addition this year was the introduction of a ‘reef star’ nursery built on the reef crest over a large rubble patch. A few years previously the area had experienced a large Acropora die off for some reason, leaving large rubble patches with comparatively lower biodiversity. This project aimed to regenerate these reefs and also assess the viability of this reef regeneration methodology. The concept follows the MARRS (Mars Assisted Reef Restoration System) methodology, whereby sand coated steel structures are secured to the substrate and coral fragments are attached, raising them off the unstable substrate and providing a secure surface for them to grow on to. During the 2 month season, we collected thousands of previously broken Acropora fragments from 3 species that grew nearby and attached them to over 150 reef stars. The eventual plan is to have over 3000 reef stars off Pulau Hoga, allowing for a massive regeneration of the Acropora population.

From a photography point of view, I only got to take my camera out on relatively few dives, as I had a responsibility for the divers I was looking after and their safety. I did, however, get to take the camera out on a few staff dives each week and a couple of dives here and there later on in the season when it was a bit quieter. As I mentioned previously, it took quite a while to get used to the camera set up, and quite a few imaged were hilariously awful to begin with. After a while though, I started getting pics I was happy with and things just started rolling from there. The first picture I got that made me think: ‘Yeah this is pretty decent’, was of a Chromodoris wallani nudibranch, shown below. This gave me confidence that I could take the photos I’d imagined and only made me want to practice more.

Chromodoris wallani

Over the course of the trip my photography improved massively. I’ll leave a gallery of pictures from the waters around Hoga below to try and show some of the amazing wildlife we found there. This would only be the start of my adventure in Indonesia that year, however, so over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing accounts of the rest of the diving I got up to in the archipelago and how it advanced my photography and skills as a diver. For now though, thanks for reading this long post if you’ve made it this far and I hope you continue to enjoy my photos!