Volunteering in Fiji

Six Week Shark Conservation Volunteer Programme, Fiji

Elephants in Sri Lanka or Shark conservation in Fiji? That was the question. A friend had told me about Project’s Abroad which she had previously done some volunteering with.  I went on to their website and those were the two projects that stood out to me. I wasn’t sure which one to pick.  Elephants are one of my favourite animals, and I loved Sri Lanka since backpacking with friends there a few years earlier. But, I have always loved sharks and had never been to Fiji.  I made my decision, swayed by the fact that I would get to actually dive with sharks, pretty cool! Sharks have held a fascination with me ever since I was a child, I could not pass up the opportunity to actually swim with them and learn more about them.  

The local village

I was extremely nervous at the thought of doing any diving. I had, several years before done a DSD (discover scuba dive) while in New Zealand. I don’t remember anything about it other than the absolute fear I experienced at having do the skills they make you do before they take you for the dive, notably taking the mouthpiece out and replacing it underwater.  I was so afraid of being too nervous on the project that I got in the bath with my mums dive equipment and practiced taking the regulator in and out of my mouth under the water!

It was not the first time I had travelled alone.  My parents had lived in New Zealand from when I was 19 through to when I was 28.  I would often travel over to spend Christmas with them and had become confident at navigating myself through airports alone. However, this was the first time I was to “travel” by myself with no idea what to expect and no sense of how it would influence and bring a whole new meaning to my life.  I love everything about travelling, from the ridiculous early morning flights, the excitement of the unknown, watching the little plane on the monitor making its way to your destination, the crappy movies, the free booze, the fact that no matter what time it is, it’s always beer o’clock – all of it.

The flip flop tree

I would definitely never describe myself as a “people person” and was in fact painfully shy as a child.  My time spent studying performing Arts in Chichester had helped develop my confidence; it made me more assured and much more able to talk to and meet new people.  It is through travelling and meeting people of all groups, however, that has made me not only willing and able to but also thoroughly enjoy meeting and interacting with new people. 

I remember being still quite nervous on this flight though.  I enjoyed the alone time that only seems possible on a plane.  I watched the movies and drank free gin and tonic hoping that what was ahead of me would be a positive experience. On arriving in Fiji, after picking up my bags I headed to the airport exit.  It seemed most of the people arriving were staying at fancy hotels and each holiday maker was greeted by a hotel representative with a flower lei, whisked into fancy cars to be driven to their fancy hotels.  Amongst all the excitement I managed to find the taxi driver who was booked to take me to my accommodation on the project camp.  I chatted to him happily and got in his van.  As we drove out of Nadi airport and through Fiji, I watched the world pass me by.  I remember seeing a dead dog at the side of the road.  Hopefully not an omen of things to come… a lovely welcome to Fiji I thought!  The van pulled into a small “village” and the taxi driver told me that I was to be picked up by another man from here, who would take me to the building where I was to stay.  Somewhat confused I got out the car and sure enough there was a beaten up old car on the side of the road waiting.   The driver got out, introduced himself and called for me to get in. With slight trepidation I got in the car and off we went. It was only another 2-3km down the road before we turned into a run down slightly strange looking building.  We drove down the driveway passing a statue made out of flip-flops by the entrance, all stacked up resembling a Christmas tree and swimming pool to the other side.

Enjoying a night out

The ground floor of the building was split into 4 flats each one named after a shark.  I was shown to the flat in which I was to stay.  In each flat was a main room split in half with a basic kitchen to one side and to other a sitting area with a couple of sofas.  There were two bedrooms off the main room.  Each bedroom had 2 bunk beds and an en-suite.  The room I was shown had 4 beds, 2 of which were taken by other volunteers, who I had been told were on holiday for a couple more days, the other bed was empty.  I unpacked my things and waited for the other volunteers to get back from their day at work. 

There were volunteers of all ages, nationalities and walks of life.  We would eat together in the evenings and go out to the local village for entertainment.  Most of us were there for around 4  to 6 weeks, with two of the volunteers staying for an entire year to gain their divemaster qualification.  Of course diving was the fundamental aspect of the project so my open water course started the next day.  The course was amazing and I managed to complete all the necessary skills with the help of my awesome instructor.  On one of the training dives I remember seeing a beautiful 2 meter silver tip shark swim past so closely.  I remember turning to my instructor barely able to keep myself from spitting my regulator out in excitement and he was there cool as a cucumber. 

On our Open Water course

I continued and completed the advanced open water course, which was fairly standard procedure for volunteers on this project.  A prerequisite to take part in the survey dives, apart from having completed the open water course was to pass the fish ID test.  This was no mean feat.  We had to learn over 50 different species of fish, shark, rays and turtles and take an exam passing with 100%.  Every time there was a new batch of volunteers, the flash cards would come out and we would help each other learn… the one spot snapper which may or may not have a spot, the red snapper which will not be red at depth, and differentiating between the coral grouper or leopard coral grouper which are identical except for a small ring around the eye!

Before long I had passed my fish ID test and was able to take part in the survey dives with the project and epic shark dives with the BAD boys.  We would do 4 dives per week surveying the waters for marine life, recording sizes and number and species we saw.  Our days were filled with activities, we would watch the underwater baited cameras and recording the sightings, we would cultivate and plant mangroves and once a week would venture into the villages to help where needed.  The weekends were our own.  One of our favourite places to go was a resort style hostel a small drive away.  We would sit on the beach drinking from coconuts and play around in the sea.  On one weekend we ventured all the way to the capital, Suva and went skydiving – I think one of the greatest experiences of my life so far, and still to this day, watching the video can bring tears of joy to my eyes.  Back on the project we did shark workshops, talks, more community sessions and shark tagging trips. 

The Fiji shark dive was of course the highlight of the programme and occurred once a week.  Run as a conservation venture and located at the Shark reef Marine Reserve near Pacific Harbour. It has done and continues to conduct important research and build comprehensive database on the sharks and marine life in Fiji.  We would go to the dive shop in the morning and take the boat out to the marine park. Once in the water it was a quick descent down to the reef ledge at 30 meters.  We would be lined up along an underwater wall and wait while the staff prepared the large green bins of bait.  Kneeling on the reef ledge, hearing only the sound of your bubbles as you exhale and surrounded by hundreds of Fiji’s most beautiful fish. My first experience, at 30 meters from the surface, I remember feeling more excited and anxious than I had ever felt.  Slowly, shadows started to emerge through the water, becoming closer and larger, until enormous bull sharks were swimming within touching distance.  My first sight of the bull shark brought a magical sense of calm over me. I had imagined I would be more frightened but I was so in awe of these magical creatures that any fear was immediately dissipated and replaced with pure wonder. 

Making our own cava cups

The goodbyes were always sad.  The nature of the project was such that there was always someone leaving but, therefore always a new face joining.  At the end of six weeks, it was my time to leave and I was of course very sad to say goodbye.  I had met some of my most favourite people, all of whom will stay in my heart, and thanks to them I was energised with a new passion for diving, the marine world and life in general.  Now, even many years later, we are still in contact and I hope we will all remain so long into the future.  My Fiji family are important to me and all of them are a part of the transition I underwent. They showed me how to be a happy person again who could embrace life and admire the wonders it holds, and indeed they helped shape my life as I know it now, and for that I will be forever grateful.

The team planting mangroves