Terima Kasih Barefoot Conservation – I had the time of my life!
” When you walk with naked feet, how can you forget the earth ” – Carl Jung
My Raja Ampat experience started long before I arrived at Arborek Island – long before I even booked the project. I work in a dive centre in Greece and for all the time I have been there we have had only one Indonesian client, but his stories and passion about West Papua and the Raja Ampat area were contagious. He was telling me all these stories about these insanely beautiful dives with 7-8 meter oceanic mantas, turtles greeting you every time you go in the water (note: I love turtles so this was a very big selling point!) and also this incredible biodiversity still pristine and untouched as Raja Ampat is still far off the dive travel maps (not for long unfortunately). I still keep a map of all the areas our Indonesian friend recommended for diving – who knew that less than a year later I will be diving them? 😊
I also work in the field of organising events, which is a particularly stressful field – if you don’t believe me have a look at the Forbes most stressful jobs for 2017! There was a point in which I just wanted to escape from everything and find time for myself and … of course go diving! I have been thinking about volunteer experience for a year by this point but it never occurred to me that I can maximize the opportunity by volunteering in a project with diving. I started researching and there were 4 destinations I considered – Indonesia, Fiji, Thailand and Philippines. I did my homework and spoke with the various volunteer organisations for the locations – I also thought hard about what I wanted to get out of the experience. For me the most important aspects were:-
- To improve my diving and learn more about diving in various diving conditions (currents specifically). Diving twice a day was a must!
- To improve (actually develop!) my fish identification knowledge and get to understand the oceans and the eco system better
- Following on from the two above I also wanted to actually understand how marine conservation works, what are the steps we need to take to be able to save our oceans and also how I can create divers who are conscious about conservation and protection
- To dive in a place where very few people have visited and is still not “a hot destination” – that way I could have my own experience which no one else had!!!
- To live remotely – somewhere where there is no internet connection – they call it escapism and burn out from work, I call it opportunity to reconnect with nature and build relationships with live human beings!
- To live in a close community – I always believed I would love to live on a remote beach with very few people around me, but until I experienced it how could I be sure that this is the life for me? 😊
- To actually be able to afford it without having to starve for 6 months
And by this point I thought – there is no way such project exists!
Luckily, I found the Great Projects and it turned out there was such project! I have to admit I was a bit sceptical at the beginning because I could not believe that the Raja Ampat Barefoot Conservation Project was exactly what I wanted! The expectations I had created in my head about the project were so high by this point that I was worried to not get disappointed. Not only did I not get disappointed, but my experience at Barefoot camp far exceeded my expectations.
If I did not get you excited until now I will start with why I loved the experience so much – the order is a bit chaotic as I would want to put everything at the top!: –
I never thoughts I can see 10 mantas on one dive, followed by eagle ray, black tip reef shark, turtles, oh wait did I forget that very loud Bumphead Parrotfish and all the million scads and jack fish.. a and the blue ringed octopus and..
I couldn’t just say I loved the diving, because there was so much more to diving than I imagined! Every day was different, every day we saw the most amazing creatures, we learned to identify them and we even had our very own Barramundi Cod called Britney living under the Barefoot jetty.
Top left – I named a manta! Meet Snow White!
Top right – the tasselled wobbegong who kindly stayed for a week under Arborek main jetty to make sure we all take good pictures of him
Bottom left – it is busy underwater 😊
Bottom right – again Arborek main jetty.. the most stunning collection of colours and creatures. And the amount of tiny cool nudis you can find!! Just be careful with the scorpionfish and stone fish hiding just under you – we found 7 on one dive in area of 10sqm – and my buddy only saw 1 !
Okay, lets try to put diving into perspective of activities:
Pointy dives (part of science) – i.e. the leader points at a fish, then everyone “hunts” to see it for about couple of minutes and then we point at the name of the fish written on a dive slate. I had to lead a couple of pointy dives and I can’t tell you how much fun it is to try to not look crazy as you point at the empty water column which only a second ago had a massive coral grouper. Or alternatively try to point out this single Pyramid Butterfly fish which you have not seen until now and it is surrounded by another 20 Butterfly fish of all sorts and no one can understand what you are pointing at. Ah and be very careful if you go on a pointy in current, hydroids can be quite tricky as you are trying to maintain buoyancy, see the fish hidden in between the tight space of rocks and not hit the other 4 people on the head or take their regulator out as they are trying to do the exactly same thing ha ha! Eventually on day 2 or 3 you learn how to cope with all these tasks and also correctly identify the fish!
Transect dives (part of science) – also called “count the fish”
We did a science research on 5 different pre-selected locations – and all data collected was neatly input in the Barefoot science database. The aim is to monitor changes in the ecosystem and use this data in order to reduce any negative impact and allow to the ecosystem to restore itself. It was really interesting learning more about how all underwater creatures interact and see it myself. Plus the moment in which you are “aha ! I know who you are!” to a fish is pretty amusing 😊
Left – research dive for identifying a new transect location
Right – our favourite Blue Girdled Angelfish!
Manta dives – also called “make sure you get that manta belly shot!”
I cannot describe the feeling when you see your first ever manta.. nor can I describe the feeling of every time you see a manta after! Mantas are these gorgeous mesmerizing creatures which make you feel hypnotised and although on every dive briefing you hear: “don’t touch the mantas, chase the mantas or ride the mantas” you still kinda want to run a palm on their belly just out of curiosity.
Barefoot have a Manta Scientist who was working on the Barefoot Mantas database which gets shared with Manta Trust for the purposes of tracing the individual mantas, understanding their patterns of movement and behaviours and also making sure to protect individual mantas.
Our aim on manta dives is not only to enjoy the dive with these amazing creatures but also take the so-called belly shots for identification. The spots on the belly of the manta are the way to define the individuals – and then each individual gets a name if he/she is not already on the database. How exciting it was when I named my first manta!
As we were going to the cleaning stations for the mantas – Manta Sandy and RSB as the dive spots are called – we always needed to make sure to be respectful of the mantas and not “invade”. One tip – mantas are where current is so make sure you get a reef hook!
Fun dives are once a week on Saturday and are great way to finish the diving week. They are also a topic which will be welcomed with a lot of laughter from some of the volunteers who I was with. The reason is that we experienced almost every possible weather condition in existence during these dives – from cancelled dive due to massive thunderstorm to glorious superhot sunshine and in some ways, it was always quite entertaining due to the shared experience.
Top left – singing in the rain after a fun dive to Pianemo
Bottom left – sun after storm dive at Melissa’s garden – by far the most favourite dive spot of everyone in camp
Right – long way from home at Pianemo (don’t mind the United Stated sign 😊)
On fun dives days we were going to dive spots which are about hour to hour and a half away which meant conditions could change a few times by the time we arrive.
My favourite dives were Melissa’s Garden (everyone who went there nominated the spot number 1 – the coral and fish diversity is insane and as you are going around a little island the view of the water breaking above you makes it really mysterious – op and there is a black tip in front of you!), Mike’s Point (totally for you if you love topography) and Blue Magic (indescribable with words you simply have to experience of trying to keep up with the barracudas to the left, the turtle to the right, the two oceanic mantas in front of you, the black tip below you and the white tip just slightly to the side 😊).
Night dives were also once a week – normally on Monday or Tuesday which makes 3 dives on these days so make sure you eat well and don’t skip that additional glass of water!
Diving from the jetties (both Barefoot and Arborek) at night proved to be as exciting as daytime but with variety of creatures we did not see in daytime. My favourite were the walking sharks – so totally worth it seeing them “run” as it makes you giggle underwater. It is full of decorative crabs, little lionfish and if you look carefully you will also see that cute cuttlefish who is pretending to be a coral. Make sure you take your torch as there are no torches in Barefoot and you don’t want to sit out the night dive because you don’t have a torch.
The way of living & the people in the Barefoot camp
If you are a complete germophobic then probably you will need to try to adapt to the idea that you can only have 3l of fresh (rain) water a day and that there is a chicken running in the kitchen ready to jump on the stove. But this is what makes it interesting – after couple of weeks of simple living you start realising how little you need to actually have a happy life and how adaptable our immune systems are.
As life on Arborek means you are on an island which takes about 10 minutes to walk around that also means you have no place to escape – this is where community living at its finest comes in! You are with people at all times, private conversations are a challenge as they very easily progress in group conversations (people just join from nowhere)! … but if you are prepared for this you soon adapt and you get used to the group dynamics of crazy topics conversations. There are moments you feel like you are part of a social experiment, but then yet again if you learn to live in such a close community then you can live anywhere! And you always find some way to escape even for a bit.. dancing in the rain is one way (as everyone hides in main camp) or alternatively go to sunset point on the other side of the island and hide away with a book in one of the hammocks at Manta Homestay.
Best part of the community living were the Barefoot dinners and after dinner time. 7pm dinner starts and everyone is at the dinner, 7:20pm we get to hear “Selamat malam” from the Expedition leader to which the response was “Malaaaaam” from all of us and the community catch up started. We covered the following:
- Community – the community officer updates everyone on what we have done for the communities that day – school, etc – and what was the plan for the next day
- Science – what has been covered as lectures / research that day and what was the plan for the next day
- Diving – what diving took place that day – science or training dives, fun dives, what people had seen in the dives – and what was the plan for the next day
- Stories – any fun stories from camp that day
- Fish of the day – everyone can nominate a fish / other creature they had seen that day and we all voted. Fish of the day included: blue ringed octopus (cephalopods win by default), marble rays, crocodile fish.. you get the idea! Among the more bizarre ones rainbow pygmy seahorse (which by the way was only seen in the dream of one of the volunteers ha ha)
- Fact of the day / embarrassing story – one gets nominated to say a fact (it can be anything) and if anyone else on the table knows it – well you are busted. Time for an embarrassing story!
- Large Flagship Species – during science training you learn to identify the large flagship species and then all these are noted with their sizes in a database for research purposes.
And then jetty time! Grab that Bintang 😊
Top left – the most awesome bunch! Really enjoyed sharing the experience with these guys
Top right – the “kitchen” and time to wash the dishes “That looks clean enough haha”
Bottom left – best spot for sunset dance, Florence and the Machine is a suitable choice 😊
Bottom right – breath-taking sunsets from sunset point
The Barefoot jetty
Sounds so simple and yet for the people who have experienced it – it means a lot!
I don’t think there has been a single person who has not had this on top of his list. Picture this (pun from camp intended ha ha) – long day diving, school, lectures – as like in a movie the day finishes with a cold Bintang (don’t be surprised there is beer on the island – demand from volunteers is quite high haha), stunning sunset and night at the jetty with cool chats, a bit of singing and lots of stars (possibly lightning and storm on the way too 😊)
Nothing better than sleeping on a bean bag on the jetty! Ah and this girl you really like – make sure you reserve a spot on the steps of the jetty on a stormy night – from experience I can tell it is quite awesome.
The sun storm experience
Nothing better than a storm after a hot day and sun during the storm! And you will be surprised how robust these palm leaves houses are!
The children at Arborek
“What is your name?” is a question you hear a lot over the first few days.. then you start hearing your name being called from far away and children gathering around you and trying to speak to you in Bahasa Indonesian. The children on the island came often to camp – so one day we could be dancing Macarena, the next we could be playing volleyball or teaching them English, the day after showing them Coralwatch surveys and teaching them more about marine life and how to protect it or having a beach clean up.
The girls loved to pose and we loved to take pictures of them
The School Experience
Going to school was such a bizarre experience. And by bizarre, I mean a mixture of feelings flows in when I think about school. The classes are separated class 1-3 and class 4-6 for the time we teach so it is very likely that in the same class there are children from age 4 to age 9 or from age 10 to age 15. This makes it really challenging as apart from the communication barrier for volunteers (they don’t speak English, we don’t speak Bahasa) there is an additional barrier of the genuine difference between the abilities and the understanding of the children within the same group. And sometimes there were up to 40 children!
We taught them some little songs “this is big and this is small, I can be big like a bear, I can be small like a ball” with a lot of dancing and gesturing. Another good one was “what is your hobby” song in which we gestured “play volleyball, play football, cooking, singing, dancing” – you can guess that at the part of dancing children laughed a lot!
There were kids who were genuinely interested in understanding what they were taught and there were kids who kept running around and leaving the classroom just to return 5 minutes later with a bunch of plastic bands (they used them to play a lot). Until here – sounds like a normal school. The part which was really difficult to overcome was that there were children who only recited by memory – even in Bahasa! It is something that kept me thinking of way to improve the lessons and we ended up drawing with a bunch of little girls – mantas, sharks, boats, everything they see in their day and they like – suddenly their understood what they were saying! I still have a little heart drawn in my notepad from one of the little girls.
Ringo & Thunder
Not to miss to mention these two buddies – everyone in camp loved them and cared for them so much!
Now let’s put all these pieces together in how a day at Arborek looks like:–
Or in other words:-
A day in camp
6:30 wake up on the jetty after a beautiful night under the stars & see the bunch of other enthusiasts still sleeping on bean bags / mattresses around you
The view when you wake up:
4:30 wake up on the jetty with the sound of the glorious thunderstorm coming, grab your bean bag / mattress and try to run down the jetty without falling / pushing anyone off the jetty. Then get in bed (hopefully without Ginger, a funny looking ginger cat which loved to stay on the top bunk beds, waiting for you there) and again wake up in time for breakfast
7:00 Breakfast – you better like fried bananas – they are a classic!
At this point there are two options for your day:
8:00 Science lectures / dive training lectures – which means you will have two dives that day and some rest / study time
9:00 School (school is only in the morning) – which means you will have one dive before lunch and one dive after lunch or 2 dives straight after lunch
12:00 Lunch – rice, anyone?
13:00-18:00 Diving and science
19:00 Dinner – time to spice it up with a bit of Sambal
20:00 Jetty & Bintang time – can you count all the stars?
Sundays were slightly different as 1. it was our day off from diving and 2. volunteers had to cook. The latter was a lot of fun especially for people who do not enjoy or even don’t know how to cook. Here I refer to myself! I remember the horror when we were told that we can’t skip it so we need to join one of the four teams- breakfast, lunch, cake or dinner. As a future owner of a cupcake shop (or at least in hopes of being) I got inspired to join the cake team (although I had not made a cake in the last 10 years) and it was great! The following week I willingly volunteered for cake team again and the cake was a huge success! Since I am back now I bake almost every week!
The time in Barefoot provided me with a lot of new insights and knowledge, variety of emotions and thoughts and it also gave me the right frame of mind to reconcile how amazing our world is. Not to mention that it introduced me to amazing underwater world, stunning people, some of who became good friends, and unforgettable experiences.
Life is about experiences and the life at the camp was an experience of a lifetime for me! Terima Kasih Barefoot Conservation!
Barefoot camp – happy days!
p.s. This was the shortest version of the story I could come up with, but if you want to hear more I am more than happy to share!