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Bit of Fiji

ISSUE 11 ARCHIVE - VOLUNTEERING IN FIJI

Jim McNish

A pod of spinner dolphins burst through the gin-clear water and as they leapt in front of the boat, my heart leapt with them. It was our first full day on Leleuvia and we were on our way to a coral farm, a short twenty minute hop away from the island, for a fun afternoon of snorkeling and fish spotting. Eleven volunteers and myself, from three different countries had begun our fish identification training with lectures and snorkeling trips to the reef to study the way fish species move (when we can find them).
Nautilus Lifeline
Lionfish The marine biologists, Tristan and Ruth, will run through the list of targeted fish or invertebrate species that we will be surveying during our dives. With presentations and workshops in a converted classroom on the island they run through the distinguishing characteristics such as body shape, markings and the typical environment in which they are found.

In the middle of our first week, we'd been told that we were to be honoured to meet Ratu Epenisa Cakobau, the great grandson of the King of Fiji and one of the three Paramount Chiefs in the country. This was incredibly exciting news, comparable, perhaps, to arriving on a backpacking tour of the UK only to be informed that you had been invited to Buckingham Palace for tea with the Queen. Ratu Epenisa had invited South Pacific Projects to set up their research and conservation site on Leleuvia, which is only a forty minute boat ride from his home island of Bau, and he had thrown his formidable weight and influence behind the project that would benefit his people. This was not only big news for us, but was news for the whole of Fiji, as foreigners are never invited to Bau. We were to be accompanied by Professor Randy Thaman from the University of the South Pacific with some of his marine biology students and representatives from the Department of Fisheries.
Map We are getting into a routine of island life now. Each evening we are briefed on the following day's activities and divided into relevant groups either PADI student or qualified divers, or all of us in the classroom studying fish, corals or invertebrates. Lectures take place at different times each day and are interspersed with diving and snorkeling. One volunteer is designated as boat marshal for the day and one as the shore marshall, keeping in contact by mobile phone and ensuring the safety of everyone in the water. Divers assemble at the dive centre half an hour before any scheduled dive, to give us time to kit up, check our tanks, regulators and gauges, load up the boat with research kit and get underway.

The diving itself is awesome and I mean that not in the way our American compatriots describe everything from the blood red sunsets here to a cold beer, but in the literal sense of inspiring awe. Table corals several metres in diameter teeming with life, coral walls and drop offs where turtles and sharks loom out of the blue, bumphead parrotfish and huge schools of red snapper fighting the unceasing battle for survival, while thirty or more species of butterflyfish flitter in and out of the fingers of the fire corals and anemone clown fish give you the skunk eye as you drift by.
The Underwater Channel
Dolphins, plotting terrorism Here I am now on Sunday morning, trying to piece together the remnants of memories of last night's 'Dress as Your Favourite Nudibranch' party. I am proud, I think, to have been voted the most ridiculously dressed person thanks to the benefit of a gaudy beach towel and several strategically placed party balloons, although both Tristan (who was in full drag) and Howard (who I think misread the brief and came as a character from the Rocky Horror Show) came a close second. The folk who had just finished their Advanced Open Water Diver training were given a 'treat' sculling a can of Fiji Bitter through a snorkel to get the party started and it was all downhill from there.
Sunset Everyone is one big happy family now, although we all need a bit of 'me time' every now and again. For me, it was Wednesday evening of this week when I wandered alone to 'Sunset beach' and sat for an hour or so watching the sky change from light blue to dark and the clouds reflecting the light of the setting sun, changing slowly from light yellow right through the spectrum to a dusky orange, then to rich vermilion, cherry and ruby reds before finally it was night and the brilliant half-moon cast shadows on the beach as I walked slowly back to join the rest of the crew.

Of the Fijian island staff, there is Lena, the matriarch who cooks, cleans, washes and keeps us all in line. Working with her are Buna and Vuta, two lovely Fijian ladies who dish up the food and, unbelievably, make our beds and change our sheets for us this is a luxury we weren't expecting on a conservation expedition. Then there's Lele who also cooks, tends the bar and occasionally pole dances whenever someone plays the Black Eyed Peas on their iPod speakers. Unfortunately, Lele is a man. Jone is the boat driver Captain Cool who says very little but always has a wry grin and Gordy is the general maintenance man who keeps the generator running and sometimes spears fish for our dinner. Gordy's wife is Elenor who, we have just learned, is a trained masseuse so she is helping to get the knots and strains out of our aching muscles.
London School Of Diving
It's not a bad life out here in paradise, where the biggest danger is getting bopped on the bonce by a falling coconut. It has, in reality, been a fairly hectic couple of weeks as we have been to visit Daku village on the neighbouring island of Moturiki for another Sevusevu (kava drinking ceremony) and to meet the locals who treated us like royalty. It is hard to explain the overwhelming poverty in which many Fijians live, working as subsistence farmers and fishermen and living in tin roofed plywood houses where many people do not even own a pair of shoes. However, the ladies of the village had baked a mountain of cakes and the men pounded and mixed a huge bowl of kava, a traditional and slightly narcotic drink which is hugely important in Fijian village life.
We were given a guided tour of the tiny pre-school classroom, and got to have a look around a traditional village. They were genuinely happy to see us and sad to see us leave, but after the tour we climbed back aboard our boats and the women came to the shore to wave us off with a song of farewell which slowly faded as we pulled away from the island. It sounds corny, but there was a rainbow over the sea as we set off back to Leleuvia.

We also went to the main village of Moturiki to meet with the Chief of the island. The South Pacific Projects staff had met with his brother several months ago, but he unfortunately passed away and so it was fitting that the volunteers went to pay their respects to the new Chief as the data we are gathering during our dives helps empower his community to make better decisions about managing their marine resources and fishery. Once again we were greeted with a Sevusevu ceremony, but this was an even more formal affair than our meeting with Ratu Epenisa a few weeks earlier. All the village elders were present while Howard (the project Director) offered our assistance in providing information and resources whether that is conservation work, working in the local school, or helping them to set up alternative income streams from, for example, seaweed or sea cucumber farming.

Much serious discussion in Fijian took place, with each of the senior men voicing their opinions while a local translator interpreted. They were, quite rightly, wondering what was going to be in it for them and seemed satisfied with the responses they received as Howard told them of South Pacific Projects' plans to offer diving and marine science scholarships to locals, as well as students from the University of the South Pacific. After another short tour of the surrounding areas, we returned to the meeting house where a representative of the Chief offered a prayer for our safety and that of our families which, even for a cynical heathen like me, was very moving.

Back on Leleuvia, Craig had been out laying fishing nets with boat captain Jone the night before. With the catch we decided to create a fantastic (if I say so myself) fish stew for everyone. The guys who had been fishing cleaned and filleted their catch and I used the fish bones to make a good stock. Tristan and I scouted around for a few fallen coconuts and got a quick lesson in how to husk and split them from Gordy. Fresh coconut water was added to the stock, along with garlic, chillies, onions, carrots and a very extravagant half bottle of wine. Including the volunteers, the Fijian island staff and a visiting Fijian building crew, there were forty mouths to feed. We were all proud of our efforts and the Fijians were overwhelmed as they were unused to visitors doing things like cooking for them.

This week six of us have been taking our PADI Rescue Diver Course. It genuinely is hard work, with lots of practical skills in the shallows just off the island, learning how to rescue an unresponsive diver at depth and get them back to shore whilst administering rescue breathing and removing their excess kit at the same time. This is supplemented by classroom work, videos and homework with a few of us working past midnight some nights and getting up for a survey dive at 07:30 the next morning. I won't go into detail as I don't want to spoil the fun for any future candidates who may come out here to do it, but it is really worthwhile and very satisfying.
Ocean Visions
Our last Saturday night on the island approaches and I need to be fit for the 'cannibal party' suggested by Lena. We are promised a big bonfire, hermit crab racing, costumes made solely from what we can find on the island and who knows, we may have to cull someone and eat 'em for dinner...

Nearest chamber:
Colonial War Memoriam Hospital
120 Amy St Toorak
Suva. Tel: 679 313 444
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