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Operation Wallacea

By Lydia Barsawme

Operation Wallacea is a network of academics from European and North American universities, who design and implement biodiversity and conservation management research programmes. Research is supported by students who join the programme, to strengthen their CV or resume or collect data for a dissertation or thesis. Academics benefit from funding for high quality fieldwork enabling them to publish papers in peer reviewed journals. This model enables the collection of large temporal and spatial datasets used for assessing the effectiveness of conservation management interventions. 

This years group will be part of the research group in South Africa, but first let's take a look back to lasts years trip to Indonesia.

Last summer, 2014, the students of our school had the opportunity of going on a research trip to Indonesia, together with teachers, organised by Operation Wallacea. Opwall is an organisation based in a few different locations around the world, specialising in conservation projects. We ended up as a group of 27 students, a mix of all year groups studying IB and natural science, going together with Mr. Goddard, Dr. Young and Mr. Heffernan. We went as volunteers for three weeks with the purpose of helping opwall collect data that would assist in an application for funding to protect the rainforest on Buton Island. The trip was divided up into two parts, starting in the Lambusango Forest and finishing with a dive week in Hoga island, found in Wakatobi Marine National Park.

Morning of day four, we were still not in the jungle and that was killing us. We had been on four different flights for three days so when we were given a day of relaxation on a beach before starting the tough part, we could not be more frustrated. We arrived at Nirvana Beach, and it was paradise on Earth! We forgot all about the stickiness and sweaty backs - our jaws dropped, literally. We had so much fun, people had underwater cameras and we built human pyramids and. We also got some nice t-shirt tans. I think it is safe to say that in that moment, we could all have stayed there for three weeks instead. We even saw a baby turtle crawl out of its egg and swim into the ocean!

Evening of day four - still not in the jungle. But we had arrived in the village where we would stay for two nights and a day with introductory lectures. The journey to this village was two hours by car on the bumpiest road ever… didn’t help the people who were travel-sick. But we survived! My car had lots of fun with loud music and a fun driver!

In the village, there was a short welcoming speech for us in the lecture/dining hall before we were assigned our temporary homes and host families. We stayed four people to a family and we were all quite nervous. Coming into their homes, we experienced a major culture shock. No shoes allowed indoors, no “real” toilets, curtains instead of doors, and they rarely closed the front door. The family I stayed with had a very low, tiny table in the entrance hall where the father would sit at nights and mornings and pray and he would sing his prayers out loud. The biggest obstacle was the language. When we first met the family, I realised that they did not know a word of English so this would be a challenge. We had a list of useful phrases and words in Indonesian that we tried our best to learn, and after a day I managed to ask them how they were, and say good morning, good evening and good day, which I noticed was very much appreciated.

Finally on day six we got to start our hike into the wild. We were driven on the back of a truck to the entrance of the forest. It was like going to Narnia. A wooden portal, and behind it a completely different world. No sky was seen, birds were singing and sometimes we could hear distant screams from macaque monkeys, though we didn’t know that’s what we heard until after a few days when we’d gained a bit more knowledge. The wow-feeling lasted for the first 20 minutes, because that’s how long it took before our clothes were soaking wet, and of what you might wonder, the crazy high humidity? No, it was sweat. Imagine the smell produced by 30 sweating people all in one group, it was terrible!

But finally, we made it! Fastest school group to complete the hike to the camp. We were shown around the camp, got our things in order, and called dibs on the hammocks we slept in. Oh how we loved those hammocks, I used to rock myself to sleep and it was so peaceful hearing all the night animals as we zoned out, exhausted after the adventures of the each day.

Every day we went on different missions in three groups, we woke up around 6am, ate rice for breakfast (like we did for lunch and dinner) and filled our camel packs with water that tasted like smoke, because it had been boiled over a fire the night before. There was a herpetofauna walk, to check traps together with a scientists, where we saw frogs, lizards and snakes. There was also the megafauna walk to look for tracks of larger animals like anoas and boars.

The hardest day trip was the most important one, where we would actually get to do some work to help the scientists. We put up a 50x50m square, which we divided into 25 subplots. We then paired up to do different tasks, I measured all trees that had a circumference bigger than 35,5cm in every plot, and named them in Indonesian, we had an Indonesian guide with us who could recognise every single tree, who knew not a word of English. Other people counted plants, divided into seedlings and saplings. This took hours and hours to do, and two of the groups came back to the camp after lunch, exhausted and grumpy because they would have to go back and re-do it the day after because of some tiny mistake made along the way. My group succeeded on the first try but it took time and energy, and as it was a randomly chosen area, half our square was steeply uphill. However, it was fun feeling that we actually made a contribution to the research. The data we collected was written down on forms that would be sent to UN, with the goal to get the area included in UN’s REDD-scheme, which means that it would be protected from deforestation.

The happiest part of the jungle was when we could “shower”, by that I mean have a cool, refreshing bath in the river by the camp. The water was crystal clear and there was a tiny cave that we found on the last day. This was the happy hour of the jungle days and afterwards we would sit by the tables while the sun set outside the forest.

On one of the jungle days, my group and one of the other groups finished our hikes early, so our coordinators decided to take us to a waterfall a few kilometers away from the camp, where we could have a swim! We put on our flip flops and started the hike, following the river downstream. Only after 100m or so, it started to rain, just a few drops here and there and we joked about how it would turn into one of those monsoons that you see on documentaries. It took less than a minute before it rained more than I had ever experienced before, we got soaking wet in 10 seconds and we started to regret our choice in shoes. Though we continued, laughing hysterically at how cool this was, while our group leaders were starting to realise that it wouldn’t just last for 10 minutes, and was only getting heavier. When we reached a point where it was only a few hundred meters left, the river had risen 50cm and our local guides said that if we continued, we wouldn’t be able to go back. We turned around and the way back was scary. We had to scream to hear each other and the ground slipped away from under our feet, not to mention the ant bites we had a whole collection of. We had to cross the river at one point, which was a challenge. Our two guides and Dr. Young spread out across the river to help us pass. We couldn’t take one step on our own without falling over by the strength of the water. At least half of the group slipped and fell at some point, it looked hilarious. The whole thing was so surreal, we couldn’t help but keep laughing. Eventually we made it back to the camp just in time to meet the other group coming back from their exhausting day trip. I had mud on my legs for days after this!

When the last day came and we were leaving the jungle, it wasn’t at all what we wanted. Our beloved hammocks were the best beds we’d had yet and we were almost starting to get used to creatures of the jungle. Leaving our local guides was also quite sad, they did after all save us from getting really hurt in the chaotic rainfall and they taught us how to survive in the jungle. The hike back felt much faster than the hike there, since we were now used to the conditions, but the amount of sweat was the same. When we saw the wooden entrance and started to see some sky it was kind of a hallelujah moment and on the ride back on the truck we sang the Swedish graduation song but changed the lyrics to how we had survived the jungle!

I asked some people in the group to help me with describing the jungle experience and some of the words they told me were: happiness, serene, panic, memories, green, challenging and rewarding, and awfully sweaty. It was also a mind-opener that made us appreciate diversity and tranquility on our planet.

After spending one night in the village with our host families it was time to get in our party cars and go back to Bau Bau to begin part two, the dive week. Our last night of the entire trip we spent at a 4-star hotel in Jakarta and at dinner we took a round to say our personal highest point and lowest point of these weeks. Something that came up multiple times as the low point was the boat ride to the dive site, Hoga… That boat was pure evil. We arrived at the port late in the evening, and was told that for our comfort they wouldn’t leave the port until morning, so that we could sleep the night through without the engine heating us up. As we were the largest group on the boat, we got to sleep in the biggest area, right on top of the machinery which, even when turned off, felt like they were burning up. They had laid out cute mattresses with flowers and teddybears and Donald Duck on them for everyone so it looked like a big cozy sleepover party. We also saw some melon-headed whales on the way there! They are apparently rarely seen by humans.

Remember how Nirvana Beach was paradise on Earth? When we started to see our destination, we realised we would be living in paradise for a week, so the boat really was worth it. We dropped our bags off, ate an amazing lunch, got an introductory lesson and then went to our cabins, which we shared two by two. We even had our own mandies! By the way, that means toilet, but was more like a hole, manually flushed with a scoop of water.

The next day the dive training began, we woke at 5.30 am, went straight to the dive sheds like zombies, grabbed a piece of bread on the way, set up our equipment and then it was time. This was my first open water dive so I was so excited. Some people had taken their certificates in Sweden and were all set, some were doing all training there, but most of us had the confined and theory part completed in Sweden and were doing our open water part Indonesia. I was in that group and we had a soft start, starting with some preparation skills and swam out to the buoy, where you usually go by boat. It was scary I must admit, the first breath with nothing under your feet was scary, but also the most amazing thing. We naturally shouldn’t be able to do that, yet we did and I can’t describe that feeling. We were under for about 50 minutes, practicing skills mostly, so we didn’t swim around much, but we were still surrounded by the reefs and they were unbelievably beautiful. Not brightly colorful, but Earthly colors, and a high diversity in different kinds of coral and other organisms living there.

After each morning dive we had about two hours of free time that most of us spent in a cabana on the beach reading, drawing, braiding hair or writing in our diaries, just existing basically. Very peaceful. Then it was vegetarian lunch with delicious ice cold citrus juice before the next dive, as amazing as the first. Every afternoon we had a lecture on coral reef ecology, very interesting but very hard to stay awake after a long day spent in the water, which was exhausting. For dinner we got tuna and rice. Everyday. Very surprising how you can cook tuna in so many different ways, not twice did they serve us the same dish. Later, we heard that the cooks had 20 different recipes.

When we were finally done with the training we had about seven dives or so left, and they were all fun dives, and oh so fun. We got to just swim around, not wherever we wanted but in a line with our instructors, like mama duck and her ducklings. We had already swam by the reefs a bit, but with focus on something else, and now all we needed to do was look and remember to breath. We had learned about different species living there, fish, corals, invertebrates, the sea snake etc., it was a breathtaking experience. Definitely my favorite part of the trip! Got me really into marine biology.

Our last full day on the island we had the opportunity to go to a very small island 15 minutes away, Sampela. Those who live there were once a group of sea gypsies who survived on fish plantations. When told that they had to settle down, they built a floating village upon dead coral, only 2 meters above the ocean surface. Their wooden houses stand on stilts and their way of getting around is either on planks laid out like paths between the houses or by canoes under these planks. There is very limited electricity, no technology, absolutely no direct contact with the outside world. The population consists of about 1200 people, of which 60% are 1-5 years old, but it sure felt like it was 90% children. As soon as they spotted us coming towards them in our boat, they ran to the pier and waved with all their hearts, a very warm welcome. When we climbed up on the coral ground from the boat, the kids grabbed as many hands as they could hold at once, or just any limb, we were completely surrounded with these little rays of sunshine, and they were so eager to touch us and get our attention. What struck me the most was how happy they were, as if life couldn’t possibly get any better. I wrote in my diary that compared to us, they have nothing, yet they seem so incredibly happy, so appreciative of life and zero greediness. We walked around the island, just trying to take everything in, many old people sitting outside their homes, waving and smiling at us.

I didn’t feel it then because the whole atmosphere just made me overjoyed, but later when it all started to sink in, I realised that they do not have a bright future ahead of them, and it is the developed part of world who are responsible, us. Ten percent of the world’s population is dependent upon coral reefs for food, therein the people of Sampela, and half of all reefs that existed in 1950 are now gone. I have never in my life had an eye-opener this strong.

When leaving the island everyone stood on the beach waving goodbye, it was a moment of mixed feelings..

At that table on our last hotel night in Jakarta, we mentioned some things that we had learned, that we would take with us back home. I think it’s safe to say that everybody learned that when it comes to life standards, less is actually more, which was clearly proven on Sampela. The more we have, the more we want, and wanting things and knowing what we don’t have can be very stressful. Also, appreciate what you have, because things could get tough from time to time, no wifi, no toilet paper, no clean clothes to change into when you feel disgusting after a day of crawling up a muddy hill, sweat dripping from your forehead. But still, the simplicity, once we had gotten used to it, was very peaceful and nice. What touched me the most personally, was the damage that has been done to the oceanic life and seeing it with my own eyes. Even if it still looks amazingly beautiful, we learned about the future of the reefs, which is dark. It could all be gone during the course of my life, that is a scary thought considering the amount of life depending on it. To end on a more cheerful note we learned how to dive, which is huge! And since I have a fear of the ocean, that’s something to brag about.


Helene Bohlin, NS3A




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