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Diving the Great Barrier Reef… at the Natural History Museum

I began this blog in 2011, when I was living, working and studying in Australia. I spent 14 months on the other side of the world, working towards my degree at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia.

Great Barrier Reef 1

No trip across Australia would have been complete without visiting the incredibly beautiful Great Barrier Reef, and this was one of the absolute highlights for me (see picture left!).

Incredibly delicate and evidently damaged by climate change and pollution, I chose to snorkel around the reef rather than scuba dive, as this would have been my first time using scuba diving equipment and as an inexperienced diver, I didn’t trust myself to know enough to avoid further damaging the reef.

Nonetheless, the experience was unforgettable. Vivid in colour and full of life, the reef really is quite a spectacle.

This weekend, I visited London’s Natural History Museum to recapture the experience.

Sounds a little odd, doesn’t it? But the Attenborough Studio is offering the chance to take a virtual reality tour of the Great Barrier Reef, with Sir David Attenborough himself.

I’ve never worn a virtual reality headset before and didn’t really know what to expect, but putting on the Samsung VR Gear was the perfect way to brighten a Sunday afternoon with a bit of fun and a bit of wonder!

Admittedly, the visuals in the headset didn’t feel quite ‘real’ but it was a fantastic way to combine technology, education, and immersive documentary film making and to go deep under the water with David Attenborough just over your right shoulder, becoming your tour guide for the journey!

At the end of the 20 minute ‘show’, I was ready to take the gear off and give my neck a bit of a rest – but the feeling of possibility and connection to the location definitely stayed with me for much longer!

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The great power of Great Whites

As my time on exchange in Australia is drawing to a close, there’s one more animal I’d really like to mention, which has a huge presence in Western Australia as well as in South Africa.

The great white shark.

Last year (August-November time) there were, sadly, 3 fatal shark attacks in Perth involving, firstly a 21 year old student killed while body boarding with friends at Bunker Bay, the second involved a 64 year old Perth businessman who disappeared at Cottesloe Beach while taking a morning swim; only his speedos were retrieved. Then the final fatally for that period a 32 year old American citizen was solo diving and spear fishing off a 25m boat when the attack occurred.

More recently the student newspaper I have been working on out here (The Western Independent) covered a story about surf life savers using helicopter monitoring systems to spot sharks off the coastline of Western Australia.

In South Africa last year there were 5 shark attacks and globally there were 75 shark attacks in 2011. Despite their power and ferocity, I couldn’t resist getting up close to these creatures to learn more about them. I journeyed from Shamwari Game Reserve, where I was staying, to Mossel Bay which was about an 8/9 hour drive away to take the rare opportunity to go diving with them.

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Whilst it isn’t always guaranteed that there will be a close shark encounter on the cage dives, I was fortunate enough to go on day where 3 sharks all over 6 foot were in the waters! And they were lured in close enough to be biting at the cage!

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If I’m honest it wasn’t an overly enjoyable experience. I remember at the time feeling completely uneasy and wanting it to be over! It was only afterwards when I was back on shore did the other divers and I reflect on how tremendous and exciting it was! And I certainly left with a new found respect for these beautiful terrifying animals. Needless to say, during my time in Australia I stayed well clear of shark waters – with or without a cage!

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Population monitoring and conservation

Carrying on my, what seems to have become a continuing theme, of comparing my volunteering experiences in Australia to those I partook in whilst in South Africa,  today’s blog (and I apologise  as again times seems to  have slipped away from me and it has been a while since I last blogged) is about counting and controlling population numbers.

Last month I took part in the ‘great cocky count’ in WA. Black cockatoos are currently considered an endangered species.  In an hour-long meeting held by Bird Life Australia a week prior to the count (15 April was count night), we were told all the important things about cockatoos (that they are semi-migratory, they mate for life, give long term parental care, etc.), shown nest boxes, and given a briefing on how to tell black cockatoos apart. There are two types of black cockatoo, ‘red tail’ ones and ‘white tail’ ones, which can be distinguished by colours around their eyes, colours on their tails and wings and crest shape. We were counting white ones.

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The actual process of counting was very simple: people were stationed across Western Australia between the hour of 5.25pm and 6.25pm (around dusk, when the cockatoos return to their roost sites for the night) people at each station count the number of cockatoos as they fly into the trees (deducting any that leave again). We were all given a simple table for tallying sighting and a map and compass to jot down direction of sighting. It is important that everyone counting does it at the same time, and only counts those landing in their area, not just flying by, as this will give the most accurate population numbers.

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Although during my time at the game reserves in South Africa there was no count to this scale, there was a need to monitor game numbers. During the two weeks I spent volunteering at Shamwari’s neighbouring Amakhala Reserve counting game was the task we spent most of our time doing. Amakhala is a relatively new reserve, so monitoring its numbers of game during breeding season are particularly important.

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I was there during September time, which is the lambing season for Thompson’s gazelle, water buck, and other antelope. Counts here consisted of riding around in the land rovers with a pair of binoculars and a tally sheet. People on each side of the vehicle (front, left side, right side) were responsible for their area.

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Conservation vs. Tourism

Tourism.

This is where my mind has wandered to this week. Now, it’s a big debate as to whether tourism helps or hinders wildlife conservation and whilst there’s no doubting that tourism sparks interest in causes, and allows for the education of the masses, it is also evident that it can cause harm too.

The reason this is in the forefront of my mind is due to my recent East Coast of Australia travels; during which I not only volunteered with Conservation Volunteers Australia (C.V.A) , but also visited Australia Zoo in Queensland, formerly owned by the infamous ‘Crocodile Hunter’ Steve Irwin.

Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin

Now, I grew up as a huge Steve Irwin fan – his shows taught me to appreciate not just the cute and fluffy animals of the world, but also showed the value and importance of the ‘uglier’ reptiles and amphibians. I suppose it was this interest he generated in the ‘lesser appreciated’ animals that was Steve’s greatest contribution to the world of conservation. Although I probably should put a mention of his croc research projects in somewhere at this point.

Croc School

I’d never previously doubted his love and passion for conservation and his ‘Wildlife Warrior’ status and even conservation pioneer David Attenborough said; “Steve Irwin spent a lot of his time and money in nature protection and calling people’s attentions to the danger the natural world is in, so all credit to him.” Adding; “He did it in a way that I wouldn’t do it, in fact he did it in a way that I couldn’t do it.”

However, whilst working with C.V.A Queensland the topic of Australia Zoo came up in casual conservation, and the opinion expressed was one that the zoo is “keeping Queensland in the conservation dark ages.”

Some of the C.V.A staff mentioned for example the fact that you can hold a koala there to have your photo taken with it (which I had done a few days previously) – except it turns out this is illegal over the rest of Australia due to the way it disturbs the koala (I wouldn’t have done this if I’d have known the harm it causes).

Holding koalas can be upsetting and disruptive for them

Also, heavily criticized was the way that Steve Irwin always handled and disrupted wild animals – as it is felt that he could be seen to be encouraging others to do this. It is also argued that the concept of the Crocoseum crocodile show reflects how commercial the zoo has become. Now, as a Steve Irwin fan, it was hard for me to admit this, but I do see their point. And of course this battle of tourism vs. conservation is one that takes place the world over.

Australia Zoo’s famous ‘croc show’

At Shamwari there is absolutely no option of guests handling the animals. As a volunteer I was able to get a bit closer to the wild than your regular guest due to helping out the vet and working at the breeding centre. However, any other ‘animal encounters’ occurred at nearby establishments, such as Addo Elephant Park, Daniel Cheetah Breeding Centre and Tenikwa Cat Sanctuary.

Helping the vet at Shamwari

Cheetah walking at Tenikwa Big Cat Sanctuary

Were these experiences ethical? Do we need to get close to animals to appreciate and understand them? Was conservation’s most famous Wildlife Warrior overshadowed by the need for his zoo to make profit? Over to you…

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Conservation Volunteering – The “I’m Back” Blog Post

First of all, I must apologise for the lack of blog posts recently  – for the last eight weeks I have been backpacking up the East coast of Australia with little access to the Internet. As this has been such an interesting experience, and one in which I had the chance to experience the work of conservation volunteers Australia (CVA), I felt it worthy of a blog post.

So, this week I will take a break from talking about South African flora and fauna – albeit to compare the work of CVA with that of companies such as Worldwide Experience, whom I worked with in South Africa.

Working at the SERCUL site


My conservation volunteering in Australia began in August when I signed up to a volunteer group run by my exchange university. My first site was with SERCUL (South East Regional Centre for Urban Landcare) and the project here was to restore the landscape by planting new trees and adding more, richer, soil to what had essentially become a sand bank. Whilst this was an important task, the best part of this experience for me was the opportunity it gave me to make new friends in a country I’d just arrived in – always a good benefit of volunteering, I have found.

I then volunteered with CVA on two occasions during my trip along the East coast. My first CVA experience was in Melbourne, where the work took place at a conservation site belonging to La Trobe University, for the use of its students taking relating subjects such as Environmental Sciences. The work here included rubbish collection (a job I seldom had to do in South Africa due to the reserve being far from any residential areas and only allowing authorised guests and workers through its gates). La Trobe conservation site, on the other hand, is situated close to a housing area, therefore the outskirts of the premises are prone to littering.

Litter collection

The second job of the day was alien plant removal – aka weeding. The aim here is to remove any plant species that are not native to the area and/or country as they are in competition for light, water and soil minerals. This involved walking through much of the site with eager eyes, and during this time I was able to see kangaroos, emu and kookaburra.

Wildlife spotting

This job of alien plant removal was how I spent most of my days at Shamwari – along with removing old wire fencing, creating organic dams to help stop land erosion and planting in areas damaged by humans. It was quite nostalgic to spend my day doing this.

Alien plant removal at Shamwari, South Africa

My second CVA experience was in Queensland, where I took on a slightly different task. Here we worked on a site that had been largely destroyed by the Queensland floods in January 2011. Our job was to replant around the river bank, where most of the foliage had be washed away. This of course has caused the habitats of local wildlife to be destroyed, affecting the whole eco-system there.

Planting along the river

Not only did we have to replant countless new trees, but during the hot Australian summer it was also our duty to water them – which was a hard slog, carrying bucket fulls up from the river.

Water collection

On this project I was working with students studying Land Management, so we had to closely monitor and record the area of land we planted and watered and the types of plants used, which was new to me.

Plant monitoring

I was quite impressed with the organisation and running of CVA, and the training provided. Instantly I felt like I was part of an important team and worthwhile project – and may look to get involved in more CVA initiatives.

See http://www.conservationvolunteers.com.au/