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Sarah-Jane Walsh: Coral Reefs of Wakatobi

Sarah-Jane is a marine ecologist working to study and conserve Indonesia’s remote coral reefs, here she explains life in the field.

Name: Sarah-Jane Walsh

Habitat: Coral Reefs

Location: Wakatobi Marine National Park, Sulawesi

Twitter: @moralcoral

Bio: Sarah-Jane is a Marine Ecologist and Physiologist based within the Coral Reef Research Unit (CRRU), Essex UK. She has worked on expeditions around the world alongside Operation Wallacea and Earthwatch. She collects experimental data on coral reefs, linking environmental tolerance with conservation plans to design more robust management strategies.

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 Research Site:

My main research site is in the remote regions of the largest and most biodiverse island nation in the world – Indonesia. The Wakatobi Marine National Park, is one of the largest and most populated marine reserves in Indonesia. It has recently been awarded UNESO world heritage site status and hosts an abundance of marine life.

Being a very remote island chain there is little or no business other than fishing and small local traders who sell goods such as cakes, sweets and water. Traditionally the area was inhabited by nomadic ‘Bajo’ communities or sea gypsies. These communities had no fixed abode, moving location to where the fish were good. However these communities have now settled and expanded placing huge pressures on local reef systems. They have no other way of making a living than from the sea.

Target Species:

Coral reefs are a vital resource providing resources to half a billion worldwide. Not only a source of food, reefs offer building materials and tourist attractions, providing a much needed source of income and livelihood. Many reefs lie among the world’s poorest communities, isolated from modern conveniences and living well below the poverty line. With populations booming and resources becoming depleted reefs are being exploited well past their limits, struggling to provide for those dependent on them.

However, bigger pressures are looming. Our energy intensive lifestyles are putting thousands of tonnes of greenhouse gasses in to our atmosphere, literally warming us up like a greenhouse. The prospect of our warming planet and therefore warming oceans is a desperate one. If reefs cannot cope with predicted changes, they will not be able to provide for those most at need.

"Many reefs lie among the world’s poorest communities, isolated from modern conveniences and living well below the poverty line."
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The Diving – The trick is to find a job which allows you to do what you love for free! I get to dive all summer long for free in some of the most beautiful locations in the world. I don’t have to battle through crowds of divers to take a photo of a moray eel and my view is not obscured by the bubbles of 40 other divers.

The View – I’m not going to lie, 18 hour days in the field are hard work, getting up at 5am is not my forte. However once I get up, sit on my hammock overlooking over the ocean I soon perk up, the 10 minute walk to the lab across a pristine sandy beach with nothing but me and the lapping waves makes it all worthwhile. Even the walk home in the middle of the night is eased by the bioluminescent plankton trailing across the sand leaving a blue glow in my footsteps.

Photography – It’s much easier to be a good photographer when you have such interesting subjects. Bright flowers, an assortment of birds, snakes, sunsets and that’s just above the water.

The People – I love a bit of local culture, learning about other lifestyles, picking up languages and playing with the kids. You meet some of the poorest people who struggle daily to feed their families and then the billionaires in their super yachts passing by on their worldwide tour. The kids are my favourite, a new generation; they have a chance to make a difference. If you help them set good examples now, teaching them good habits, it will continue through the rest of their lifetime. We help teach the kids English, support local schools and medical centers and teach them to recycle.

"We’ve even seen the locals wearing our temperature loggers, which we left out on the reef, as fashion accessories. Even the ones from 18m!"
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Power Supply – We run our research stations off generators. Due to the islands being uninhabited throughout the rest of the year this means often it takes some time to get things going when we arrive. The generators are also old and overheat regularly. Our experiments need tanks to be heated and aerated throughout the night. Past experiments have failed if the power drops reducing our ‘Thermal conditions’ to a cool chill.

Electrocution – Working with electricity and water is always risky, especially when the electricity is not grounded and suffers from constant power surges or break downs. There is a constant risk of electrocution, static and surges build up in our equipment and you nearly always get shocked, sometimes worse than others. This year we made it a general rule that rubber soled shoes must be worn in the lab, to avoid larger shocks which cause you to throw whatever you are holding, usually a very expensive and highly delicate item. Last year we lost 4 haemocytometers in the space of a week from the microscope!

Baggage allowance – Aside from the 3 day journey to get to Indonesia there is the issue of baggage allowance. Our equipment is heavy, the fluorometer used to measure photosynthesis weighs 13kg, our spectrophotometer is 5kg, then we have to take all the air pumps, heaters, extension cables, adaptors, transects, cameras, dive equipment, plus spares of all the above, so you can see how the weight soon adds up before you’ve even added any personal items. If we are going as a team we split the baggage, this still usually leaves us with between 50-60kg each, well over the airline allowance. Then you have to carry it all. To get to our base in Indonesia I take 4 planes, 2 buses and 2 boats!

Looting – The reason we have to carry so much kit and cannot leave anything on site is due to looters. Our sites are generally uninhabited throughout the rest of the year. We even have to pay a 24 hour guard during our research period to ensure looters don’t get in to our lab during the night. On several occasions buckets and pipes have gone walkabouts. We’ve even seen the locals wearing our temperature loggers, which we left out on the reef, as fashion accessories, even the ones from 18m!

TOP LEFT: Parrotfinch (sega ula) a bird only found in Samoa under threat by forest degradation and invasive species. TOP RIGHT: The Mao (Gymnomyza samoensis) is threatened by habitat destruction and the spread of introduced species such as rats. BOTTOM LEFT: Members of the team survey the forest. BOTTOM RIGHT: The team recording a Samoan Whistler (Pachycephala flavifrons).
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Top Tips for research in this environment:

1) Pack savvy – I justify our need for extra baggage with the fact that there are people on the plane who weigh twice what I do and yet pay the same fare. Therefore I should be allowed to take my equipment without paying the extortionate excess baggage fees. First pick your airline, I always fly emirates, they have a 30kg baggage allowance. Emirates also have 10kg hand luggage where others only give 7Kg. This is then where you need to get savvy… Don’t take a trolley hand luggage, they always weigh them! Take a backpack and put all your heavy items inside, I take all my electronics, camera housing and sometimes a couple of aquarium pumps! Then always take a rain coat, even if you’re going to the sunniest end of the desert. Rain coats have big pockets and they never weigh your coat. Fill it with heavy items, batteries are always a good one, I can get about 7kg of kit in my rain coat!

2) Customs – Never tell the customs that what you have is expensive high tech experimental equipment. They will confiscate it and slap a high release fee on top. My fluorometer is therefore a rather large photography light sensor, and everything else is fishing and dive equipment!

3) Plan ahead – When you work in remote locations it’s not easy to just pop to the shop to pick up batteries, cable ties or duct tape, plus you find they never last as long or are quite as sticky as ours back home. Make a timetable – I plan every day before I leave, this ensures I don’t collect too many samples at the beginning and then don’t have enough time to process them. It’s better to do less work well, than a lot half-assed.

4) DEET and electronics! – Does not mix. DEET actually burns plastic so always wash your hands before touching your laptop if you want it to survive the season!

5) Rehydration sachets – Are your best friend, I find drinking them regularly stops you getting ill. If you run out, a glass of water with two spoons of sugar to one spoon of salt does the same job …. bottoms up!

6) Have a backup plan – Things always go wrong! But don’t see this as the end of the world. Know your equipment, learn basic electronics and cope with whatever comes your way. This summer my flurometer bulb decided it didn’t want to work halfway through my big experiment. I tried everything but in the end realised I could still measure aspects of photosynthesis that would allow me to measure change over time, saving my experiments.

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