After visiting the Raja Ampat Diving Project, Eva was bursting to tell us all about her time spent volunteering. Read her awesome account and recap of her time on the project!
'My Raja Ampat experience started long before I arrived at Arborek Island – long before I even booked the project. I work in a dive centre in Greece, and for all the time I have been there we have had only one Indonesian client, but his stories and passion about West Papua and the Raja Ampat area were contagious. He was telling me all these stories about these insanely beautiful dives with 7-8 meter oceanic mantas, turtles greeting you every time you go in the water (note: I love turtles, so this was a very big selling point!) and pristine biodiversity, as Raja Ampat is still far off the dive travel maps. I still keep a map of all the areas our Indonesian friend recommended for diving – who knew that less than a year later I will be visiting them myself?
I also work in the field of organising events, which is a particularly stressful field – if you don’t believe me have a look at the Forbes most stressful jobs for 2017! There was a point in which I just wanted to escape from everything and find time for myself…and, of course, go diving! I have been thinking about volunteer experiences for a year by this point, but it never occurred to me that I could maximise the opportunity by volunteering in a project with diving. I started researching and there were 4 destinations I considered: Indonesia, Fiji, Thailand and Philippines. I did my homework and spoke with the various volunteer organisations for the locations – I also thought hard about what I wanted to get out of the experience. For me the most important aspects were:
And by this point I thought: there is no way such a project exists!
Luckily, I found the Great Projects and it turned out there was such a project! I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical at the beginning because I could not believe that the Raja Ampat Conservation Project was exactly what I wanted! The expectations I had created in my head about the project were so high by this point that I was worried about being disappointed. Not only did I not get disappointed, but my experience far exceeded my expectations. Here's what I thought about my time away.
I never thought I would see 10 mantas on one dive, followed by eagle ray, black tip reef shark, turtles…oh wait, did I forget that very loud Bumphead Parrotfish and all the million scads and jack fish? And the blue ringed octopus, and…you get the picture.
I couldn’t just say I loved the diving, because there was so much more to diving than I imagined! Every day was different, every day we saw the most amazing creatures, we learned to identify them and we even had our very own Barramundi Cod called Britney living under the jetty.
The leader points at a fish, then everyone “hunts” to see it for about couple of minutes and then we point at the name of the fish written on a dive slate. I had to lead a couple of pointy dives and I can’t tell you how much fun it is to try to not look crazy as you point at the empty water column which only a second ago had a massive coral grouper. Or, alternatively, try to point out this single Pyramid Butterfly fish which you have not seen until now and it is surrounded by another 20 Butterfly fish of all sorts and no one can understand what you are pointing at. Eventually on day 2 or 3, you learn how to cope with all these tasks…and also how to correctly identify the fish!
Transect Dives (Also Called “Count The Fish”)
We did science research on 5 different pre-selected locations, and all data collected was neatly input in the project’s science database. The aim is to monitor changes in the ecosystem and use this data in order to reduce any negative impact, allowing the ecosystem to restore itself. It was really interesting to learn more about how all underwater creatures interact, and to see it for myself. Plus, the moment in which you can say,“aha ! I know who you are!” to a fish is pretty amusing!
Manta Dives (Also Called “Make Sure You Get That Manta Belly Shot!”)
I cannot describe the feeling when you see your first ever manta; nor can I describe the feeling of every time you see a manta after! Mantas are these gorgeous, mesmerising creatures which make you feel hypnotised, and although on every dive briefing you hear: “don’t touch the mantas, chase the mantas or ride the mantas”, you still kinda want to run a palm on their belly just out of curiosity. (None of us did, of course.)
The project has a Manta Scientist who was working on database, which gets shared with the Manta Trust for the purposes of tracing the individual mantas, understanding their patterns of movement and behaviours, and also making sure to protect individual mantas.
Our aim on manta dives is not only to enjoy the dive with these amazing creatures, but also take the so-called belly shots for identification. The spots on the belly of the manta are the way to define the individuals – and then each individual gets a name if he/she is not already on the database. How exciting it was when I named my first manta!
As we were going to the cleaning stations for the mantas – Manta Sandy and RSB as the dive spots are called – we always needed to make sure to be respectful of the mantas and not “invade”. One tip: mantas go where the current goes, so make sure you get a reef hook!
Fun dives are once a week on Saturday, and are great way to finish the diving week. They are also a topic which will be welcomed with a lot of laughter from some of the volunteers who I was with. The reason is that we experienced almost every possible weather condition in existence during these dives – from a cancelled dive due to massive thunderstorm, to glorious superhot sunshine and, in some ways, it was always quite entertaining due to the shared experience.
On fun dives days, we were going to dive spots which are about an hour away, which meant conditions could change a few times by the time we arrive.
My favourite dives were Melissa’s Garden (everyone who went there nominated the spot number 1 – the coral and fish diversity is insane, and as you are going around a little island the view of the water breaking above you makes it really mysterious) Mike’s Point (totally for you if you love topography) and Blue Magic. The latter is just indescribable: you simply have to experience trying to keep up with the barracudas to the left, the turtle to the right, the two oceanic mantas in front of you, the black tip below you and the white tip just slightly to the side of you!
Night dives were also once a week – normally on Monday or Tuesday which makes 3 dives on these days, so make sure you eat well and don’t skip that additional glass of water!
Diving from the jetties at night proved to be as exciting as in the daytime, but with variety of creatures we did not see previously. My favourites were the walking sharks – it is so totally worth seeing them “run,” as it makes you giggle underwater. It is full of decorative crabs, little lionfish and, if you look carefully, you will also see that cute cuttlefish who is pretending to be a coral. Just don’t forget to take your torch!
The Way Of Life And The People Of The Camp
After a couple of weeks of simple living, you start realising how little you need to actually have a happy life. Spending time on Arborek means you are on an island which takes about 10 minutes to walk around, which that also means you have no place to escape – this is where community living comes in! You are with people at all times; private conversations are a challenge as they very easily progress in group conversations (people just join from nowhere); but if you are prepared for this, you soon adapt and get used to the group dynamics. If you can learn to live in such a close community, then you can live anywhere! And you always find some way to escape even for a bit: dancing in the rain is one way (as everyone hides in main camp) or alternatively, go to sunset point on the other side of the island and hide away with a book in one of the hammocks at the Manta Homestay.
The best parts of community living were the the dinners and after-dinner times, where the community catch ups happened. We covered the following:
I don’t think there has been a single person who has not had this on top of his list. Picture this: after long day of diving, school, and lectures, the day finishes with a cold Bintang (beer), while watching a stunning sunset. We would spend the night at the jetty with cool chats, a bit of singing and general fun under the stars. Just like in the movies!
The Children at Arborek
“What is your name?” is a question you hear a lot over the first few days…then you start hearing your name being called from far away, and children gathering around you while trying to speak to you in Bahasa Indonesian. The children on the island came often to camp – so one day we could be dancing Macarena, the next we could be playing volleyball or teaching them English, the day after showing them Coralwatch surveys and teaching them more about marine life and how to protect it, or even having a beach clean-up.
The School Experience
Going to school was such a bizarre experience. And by bizarre, I mean a mixture of feelings flow in when I think about school. It’s not unusual for there to be classes mixed with children from age 4 to age 9, or from age 10 to age 15. This makes it really challenging as, apart from the communication barrier for volunteers (they don’t speak English, we don’t speak Bahasa), there is an additional barrier of the genuine difference between the abilities and the understanding of the children within the same group. And sometimes there were up to 40 children in a class at once!
We taught them some little songs “this is big and this is small, I can be big like a bear, I can be small like a ball” with a lot of dancing and gesturing. Another good one was “what is your hobby” song in which we gestured “play volleyball, play football, cooking, singing, dancing” – you can guess that at the part of dancing children laughed a lot!
There were kids who were genuinely interested in understanding what they were taught, and there were kids who kept running around and leaving the classroom just to return 5 minutes later. Up until this point, it sounds like a normal school experience. The part which was difficult to overcome was that there were children who only recited by memory – even in Bahasa! It is something that kept me thinking of ways to improve the lessons, and we ended up drawing with a bunch of little girls – mantas, sharks, boats, everything they see in their day and the animals they love the most – and suddenly with this method, they understood! I still have a little heart drawn in my notepad from one of the little girls.
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Come face to face with one of the world’s most misunderstood predators whilst aiding great white shark conservation. As a volunteer, not only will you get the incredible opportunity to dive with sharks, but you will also assist the team in raising awareness of the great white as you work alongside tourists and local school children to provide them with knowledge of the local environment and the importance of living in harmony with South Africa’s marine life.
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