Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Fiji: A Peace Corps Volunteer's Perspective

For the past several years, the New England Aquarium has participated in a joint expedition to Fiji, along with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and other conservation-minded groups and individuals. The last expedition took place in October and November 2010. Stay tuned to this blog to follow the team as they dive to collect data on the health of the coral reefs, pick up trash where they find it, check in with the villagers to see how some conservation initiatives are faring and further develop connections with the people that live on these beautiful Pacific islands. 

Today's post and pictures come from Christine San Antonio. She has been a volunteer, a summer intern in the Giant Ocean Tank and later a temporary aquarist, and you may also have seen her around the building helping visitors and answering questions.
Christine has been a member of the Aquarium family for years!

So introductions first! My name is Christine and I am currently serving as a Peace Corps volunteer right here in Fiji! I’ve managed to be in and out at the New England Aquarium a fair amount over the past few years as a staffer/volunteer, and when Bailey contacted me about meeting up for the Fiji Joint Aquarium Expedition onboard NAI’A, I felt the time was ripe to leave the lap of luxury (that comes with living in a small rural village in the middle of the jungle) and brave the waters of the South Pacific.

Not that I haven’t managed to push into the big blue prior to this little rendezvous, but my past experiences have been with the village and they usually involve two dozen men, women and children carting spears, bins, pots, cooking oils, a radio and a coconut husk that is lit on fire (this would serve as a match for when we managed to dock on a small island and needed to start a fire to boil all the fish we would catch). Did I mention that the boat is made of wood? It’s only about 12 by 3 feet and at least 20 years old, yet we all manage to fit somewhat comfortably. You might think that doing such a thing is dangerous or at least reckless…yes, well, when the boat sank in a torrential downpour with all of the above on board and we were still a mile and a half off from shore no one was concerned. After all, this is Fiji and such an occasion qualifies as a normal day.

Life on the NAI’A is far from the Fijian norm that I have become accustomed to. For one thing the food is amazing! Not that Fijian food isn’t amazing in its own right, but my jaw dropped and remained hanging when I discovered that we would be given french toast with blueberries one morning for breakfast. Blueberries! There’s AC in the sleeping quarters! And hot water! Did I mention that they have a cappuccino machine?! The crew is fantastic, always solving problems and keeping Bailey on his toes with their clever remarks (often involving some ridiculous behavior they just witnessed him doing such as sticking a wet-vac hose into a toilet in an attempt to rescue an 8 GB memory card before it makes it all the way to the septic tank). The spirit of all on board is full of warmth and humor and I’ve shockingly had very little difficulty in adjusting from the rigors of village life.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, my job is to help the village help themselves. The idea is that I provide education, information and resources so that the local community can formulate their own development plans and have them be sustainable (a.k.a. – they won’t fall to pieces once I leave). Our first project is establishing a marine protected area (MPA) within the village-owned waters. 
Accomplishing this is very simple on paper and very difficult in practice, mostly due to the existence of “Fiji time,” wherein project work is squeezed in around rugby games, kava drinking sessions, spear fishing, church, school, plus any number of activities, or just simply taking a cegu mada (a rest, usually for tea). However, given all this, my MPA committee has been chugging along well and right in the midst of planning and developing our would-be bylaws, I suddenly find myself onboard the NAI’A with a bunch of marine ecology geeks, some incredibly gifted underwater photographers, and Dr. Stacy Jupiter herself. Hello fate!

While onboard, I have been able to share my experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer, what our purpose is, what I’ve been doing, all about the village life and about how closely related our interests in the environment are. In return, I have been privy to village visits where Dr. Jupiter has been working with WCS on marine protected area development, personal visits to the best kept reefs in Fiji (and photos of these to bring back to the village to show what the future might bring for our village MPA), presentations on establishing these protected areas at the village level, lessons in the biology of various marine fauna (eloquently presented by Dr. Steve Webster) and a visit to a fisheries project on Makogai island where they are growing corals and giant clams to transplant onto the reef once mature enough. Oh…and of course there’s all the diving!

Being a part of this voyage has been a fantasy come true. Two incredibly influential and meaningful aspects of my own personal life have been brought together – the world of Boston and the New England Aquarium, the non-profit that I have such love and support for has become intertwined with my life in Fiji with the Peace Corps; the benefits from this collision are hugely significant for my village, our project development and for my own life. Not to mention of course all the fun I’ve had discovering how very much my hair resembles sinularid octocoral; who knew I had built in reef camo!

-Christine San Antonio

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