Week 4 with Opwall
01.08.2013 - 07.08.2013
So, my third and final week on Hoga was much like the previous two. Life had a certain chilled-out island rhythm – it was easy to get up for 6 am breakfast most days. Putting together and taking apart my dive gear, as well as pulling on and off my wetsuit about 3 times a day had become the norm. Walking barefoot everywhere, apart from back to my hut, and frequently forgetting where I’d left my flip-flops (I never told you about the time I couldn’t find mine anywhere and wondered who on earth could have mistaken theirs for mine, only to discover that it was in fact me who had mistaken someone else’s for mine, and mine were back where I’d left them a couple of hours earlier, did I?!), making hot chocolate after the morning dive, mandiing before the sun set, mozzying up (the new verb to describe putting on mosquito repellent) first thing in the morning and directly after a mandi and wandering home thro’ the jungle by torchlight became a way of life that I had quickly grown accustomed to and grown to like. It seemed far too soon to be thinking about leaving already, after just 3 weeks.
During this final week I was again on science, as I had been my first week on Hoga. I had some fab dives at buoy 3 – I think this was my favourite science dive site. There was a turtle hanging about there that week, as well as a lone tuna and, of course, my favourite bat fish – I’m so disappointed that I never got a chance to fun dive with those guys – they’re so tame that on a couple of occasions they came up to me and sucked on my finger lol! My sucking my finger first didn’t do anything to increase the chances of them approaching me, despite what the German would have you believe . I don’t think I got the chance to go fun-diving during the week as I was mostly on the 9 and 1 dives, which left no time for fun-diving. But I had a fun snorkel one day with Magda, Catherine and the girls. Snorkeling in 5 mm with just 1 kg can be difficult – or rather, duck-diving can be. But it was beautiful and I managed to get some lovely photos nonetheless – my free-diving training came in useful for once All of us staff who were leaving at the end of week 7 (this was the 7th week of the full 9 week Indonesian season on Hoga even tho’ it was just my 3rd) got to do a fun dive on the last day. Edd, our trusty dive leader, recommended we do a drift dive along the ridge to buoy 1. We all agreed that this sounded pretty good – the tides were such that we should have had a decent current. If any of us had over-profiled, there wasn’t much anyone could have done as we were all leaving the following morning. But the opportunity for over-profiling was certainly expected to be present. As it turns out, I’m not sure if it’s where we got dropped in, or just a lack of current overall (I think it was a mixture of both), we ended up doing a shallow (average 10 m) dive in no current at all. The beginning was pretty boring but as we got closer to buoy 1, it got better. I had had to convince myself to get in that afternoon as it left no time for gear to dry out before travelling, but I was convinced I’d miss something really good if I didn’t go – I probably would have too had I not gone!
As the end of week 7 marked the first of the big exoduses for the dive staff, we went out for dinner together one evening that week. Apart from the Opwall set-up, there is in fact a resort for tourists to stay at on Hoga. That’s where we went to eat chicken and chips and other “delicacies” that aren’t available at Opwall. It was a fun evening down our end of the table. For what was my final party night, the theme was evolution. We learned some dance routine (can’t remember what the link was), that we were supposed to do flash mob style during the meal – it kinda worked. But nothing ever came close to the Alice in Wonderland night. I managed to double my regular party night Bintang intake that week, and I stayed out til after 2 I think.. This was pretty good going for me, especially as I’d to be up for my boat at 6 the following morning!
And so, having spent 3 weeks on Hoga with Opwall, would I do it again? Do I believe they do what they say on the box? Well, honestly, the jury is still out on that. I’d probably go back, but I’d rather it be for a longer time and from closer to the beginning. Honestly the dive staff, lovely as they all were, were full of cliques: those that knew each other from last year and previous years, those that were there from week 1 this year etc etc.. Each new set that arrived with each week that passed became the outer layer on the clique. Having said that, all of them were lovely when you made the effort – but you had to make the effort. Not with all of them of course, but with a fair few. On the contrary, the science staff were immediately friendly and there were no cliques whatsoever. I felt like I got on much more easily with them and had more in common with them than I did with maybe half of the dive staff. But I guess the simple fact is that I have worked for far longer as a scientist than as a divemaster, so maybe it’s not so surprising. That said, as the weeks progressed, social integration into the dive staff did too. But it would be easier to have arrived earlier and have been staying longer.. However, important and all as having a social life anywhere is, the bigger and more important question is do I think Opwall are worth my giving up my freetime and skills for at no cost.
Well, I’d have to say yes and no. Ultimately they say they’re all for marine conservation, but as they have no power within the Indonesian government, what they do can only be theoretical to a degree. They certainly do a lot of really good scientific research that gets published in peer-reviewed journals. And I imagine (altho’ I haven’t read any of the papers), that a fair amount of this work can help those who care learn and understand a lot about the degradation of tropical coral reefs (because those around Hoga show degradation since Opwall began monitoring them over 10 years ago) and so, by default, could be used to help manage marine conservation elsewhere (and there if they had any political power), but, as I said, not from a practical point of view. I found that a lot of the undergrads who were diving to gather data for dissertation projects were also doing interesting and fairly robust work – not all of them of course – some didn’t give a shite about what they were at, despite paying STG 3000 to spend 6 weeks there and paying all the travel costs on top of that – spoilt little rich kids I guess. Fortunately they were in the minority, and the majority of them were very serious about their work and their data. Some of them weren’t the best with their buoyancy however, and I wondered from time to time how much damage they did to the reefs while laying transects and using quadrats and was it worth it from the point of view of the reef for the data they got from it. I don’t think I’m in a position to answer that question however, not without seeing their results and what they do with them.
One thing that did rather bother me was the fact that one day at low tide I went walking along the beach towards the other resort. At a couple of points along the way the stench of human waste was very strong. It would seem that all the sewage from all 200+ westerners plus 100+ locals goes directly into the sea here. I’m sure there’s plenty of current running to dilute it sufficiently, but I do wonder did there really need to be that many people on the station. Those whose presence I would really question are the second level students, as I believe they get the least out of being at a working marine research station than the rest of us. They come to spend one week in the jungle, followed by one week at the marine site. The vast majority of them have no diving qualification, and so they spend most of their week at the marine site being trained to dive. The few who can already dive spend the week doing the coral reef ecology course. Sure, it’s an amazing experience for them all, and they’re seeing a living tropical coral reef, but I don’t think they’re aware of or exposed to much of the research that’s going on. I should point up that they maybe make up 20% of the westerners on the island each week, at a maximum. But I guess I question whether they really need to go there to do what they do – they can definitely do it all at Baubau. I’m going to repeat rumours now, which I probably shouldn’t do publicly online, but I will. At a staff meeting just before the busiest week we were told that it wasn’t even sure that there was enough accommodation for everybody that was going to be there (fact, not rumour). I believe (hearsay) that the push for extra people comes from the UK office, and that the powers that be on Hoga inform head office that there’s not enough space for all the extra second level students, but they get ignored.. I’m guessing dollar signs in someone’s eyes in the UK are the primary reason, or not wanting to disappoint/let down posh rich secondary schools (because it is certainly not your inner city school that can afford to do a 2 week biology field trip to Indonesia) that all of these schools come. Hoga wasn’t set up to cater for second level students, it’s happened as part of Opwall’s growth and development. I also don’t believe it happens at all of Opwalls sites, but Hoga is its flagship site, certainly in Asia, but also in the world I think, and so it’s the biggest. Some of the dive staff had worked with Opwall in Honduras last year and said the whole set-up is much smaller out there. Anyways, whatever the reason, I feel like Hoga was past its maximum capacity if it wants to its conservation name to be respected, certainly the stench from the sewage was a sign to me that there were too many people on the island. But, this is the first time I’ve ever done work like this – so I’d really have to go on expeditions with some other organizations before I could really draw any firm conclusions. In the meantime, the jury is certainly out whether or not I’d go back there. But I will definitely try to do more work like that with similar organizations in the future.. I have 9 months to do the research, and I now have some friends who have a lot more experience and contacts in the marine conservation world that I can get advice from. I think a potentially very interesting future would be to do volunteer (or paid in the ideal situation, but that would require a fair bit of voluntary work first I imagine) marine conservation work, preferably with a scientific side (if I went back to Hoga, I’d def like to be involved with the science as well as the diving side of things) as well as a diving side, and to use English teaching to make money in between conservation expeditions… Sound exciting??? I think so And SE Asia is definitely where I would head first.. So those of you who enjoy having me in western Europe, you should make the most of it over the next academic year, cos who knows where I’ll head when my contract in La Rochelle is up – and I will, of course, make the most of my proximity to you too x
And so Hoga came to an end, and 3 weeks of travelling with my dear Cushie Wushie began… But that’s for the next installment!