October 1, 2010

“Volunteer” Documentary to Feature Reef Check Fiji Experience


By Mariah Wilson

Fiji is renowned for being the “soft coral capital of the world,” but even its reefs are showing signs of the disastrous effects of environmental change. Reef Check has been operating in Fiji since 1997. The Fiji Diving and Volunteer Conservation (FDVC) project is conducting baseline Reef Check surveys throughout the island nation, gathering scientific data about the reefs in an effort to monitor the health of these delicate ecosystems. The data gathered in this project is used by Fiji and Reef Check to study the impacts of everything from global warming to overfishing on our planet’s oceans and reefs.

In September of 2009 I went to Fiji to volunteer for two weeks with FDVC, and to film my experience for a feature length documentary I’m making about environmental volunteering. FDVC volunteers live with a family in a very remote Fijian village, seemingly a relic of another time. In between rounds of the mild narcotic drink kava with my host family, I was trained by Johnny Singh – resident marine biologist at the Vanua Levu Cousteau Resort – on how to perform Reef Check underwater diving surveys to assess the health and biodiversity of Fiji’s coral reefs.
The way Reef Check works is that first the volunteer(s) and instructor have to lay a 100 meter transect line, which is essentially a waterproof measuring tape along which you’ll do your fish count, invertebrate count (sea cucumbers, lobster, etc) and substrate ID (coral, rock, sand, silt, etc). After laying the transect, volunteers swim along the transect 3 times… one time for recording the fish species they see, and how many of each, then the same for invertebrates. The third time, volunteers record substrate types every half meter by dropping a small weight and writing what type it lands on. 

Despite being a fairly seasoned scuba diver, I quickly discovered that surveying these exotic waters wasn’t nearly as easy at it seemed. The fish identification was by far the most complex. Identifying the myriad of fish species of Fiji on paper is one thing, but when they’re darting and moving quickly underwater, it gets a lot tougher to identify them. And especially when starting out, doing a Reef Check survey requires time to do it properly.  Johnny and I had to change tanks before we did the substrate count because the fish and invertebrate ID took us so long. To be fair, part of that was because I was juggling both the survey and the steep learning curve of mastering underwater video shooting… it’s not as easy as I thought to dive with a buoyant pocket of air encasing a camera! But with Johnny’s patience and excellent instruction, I eventually got the hang of doing Reef Check and filming the process, too. Affixing two 2 kg weights to the camera housing itself did the trick, in terms of regaining neutral buoyancy underwater. 

Now that my time in Fiji is over, I’m working on putting together my film ‘Volunteer’ in an attempt to educate others who might be interested in taking their own cross-continental conservation journey. If this story has inspired you, please consider eco-volunteering in your itinerary for your next vacation. It’s an incredibly fulfilling experience!

For more about ‘Volunteer’, please check out our Kickstarter page: http://kck.st/a3lNKr