A day in the life of an ALMP volunteer

Today’s post is a guest post by Jess Trewin! Jess has a master’s in marine biology and has been volunteering with PICI while also obtaining her dive-master certification in Rarotonga. Here she is describing what it’s actually like to be part of the Aitutaki Lagoon Monitoring Project…

Jess and Mareike enjoying a warm snorkel trip!

At around 6 am, the chickens start to crow (by the third week, you don’t notice it anymore), and it begins to get light outside …breakfast time! We meet up as a team around 7 am for breakfast. I loved the abundance of paw paw trees growing out the back of our lodge. You can add paw paw to just about anything, and for breakfast, that meant adding it to a bowl of porridge, which is surprisingly tasty!

It’s already getting hot!

After breakfast, we pack the boat for the day, loading all the dive gear, snorkels and survey equipment needed for the day. Dive kit, cameras, YSI, Secchi disk, multiple giant quadrats (which are extremely annoying to store), dive slates and measuring transects. Most importantly, the chilly bin, with our lunch! We aim to leave each day by 8 am to start surveys.

Jess with a survey quadrat and transect line on a coral bommie.

Once the anchor has been untied from the palm tree, Shaun, our expedition leader, drives us to our first dive survey site chosen by the lead scientist Dr. Sudek. Keep a look out for the eagle rays and turtles you often see on the way to dive sites! One of my favourite sites was inside a Ra’ui in the SW corner of the lagoon, called the Clam Hatchery, a 10 minute boat ride away through a complete maze of coral bommies that take some skilled navigation to avoid! Our tasks are explained in a dive briefing; everyone knows their role in surveying of this area.  Fish counts, invertebrate surveys and benthic cover measurements are divided between us depending on preference and the ability to classify groups of benthic cover, fish and ‘invert’ species.

Jess and a giant clam!

Everyone kits up in their dive gear with the help of Shaun (handing out all the ‘nerd’ equipment to us from the boat with huge amusement).  Mareike gets in first and lays out 3 transects on different coral bommies in the area to survey, then we all get in with our gear and start the surveying. Each survey takes around 45 minutes to complete.  At the end of the survey, we set up a permanent quadrat marked by small floats with cable ties and a GPS position in the hope that the next participants will relocate it and be able to detect changes (hopefully coral growth). We also take a water visibility measurement using a Secchi disk rolled out horizontally along the lagoon floor and a water quality measurement using a YSI. If we have time before lunch and people are feeling up to it, a second site is surveyed on SCUBA.

We then look for the best motu to explore and have our lunch on. By this time, the heat is pretty intense, such a perfect place to stop for lunch, there is also time for a quick powernap/sunbathe! We were joined by a couple of pigs one lunch time on the island used in the TV show Survivor.

In the afternoon, we drive to shallower site to do a snorkel survey. These are fun; it’s normally hot so no need for a wetsuit. Free diving around in your togs in crystal clear 29 degree water is pretty awesome! Sometimes there’s such a strong thermocline in the water column that diving down into the deeper cool water makes the top layer feel like a bath.

In the evening, we head back to Akaiami, our motu or base camp.  Sometimes we are back by mid-afternoon, which gives you the freedom to explore or relax on the island in the remainder of the sun.

A sunset game of Frisbee in the lagoon in front of the lodge.

Whoever’s on dinner duty starts to prep dinner, and we all get together to eat dinner around 7 pm, enjoy maybe a couple of beers and an intensely competitive game of Pictionary or cards!

Jess at the head of the table with one of the dinners she prepared.

It’s surprising, but after a day in the heat and surveying, which is pretty much a full day in the water, you get pretty exhausted, and by 9 pm, I’m usually pretty much ready for bed!  The generator is switched off around 10 pm, and we hit the hay!

Bringing a head torch is handy, especially since the expedition leader is likely to waiting in the dark in the bathrooms to scare you…

A group photo on Honeymoon Island, an uninhabited motu perfect for a lunch stop.

Thanks, Jess, and thanks to all of our volunteers!

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