Operation Wallacea

Sixty-three hours after leaving London we arrived on the beach at Hoga Island, South East Sulawesi, Indonesia.
We were there as part of a group of volunteers to assist Operation Wallacea gather photographic and scientific data on the reefs around Hoga Island, part of the Tukangbesi island group known locally as 'Wakatobi'. Operation Wallacea was established in 1995 to map the wildlife in 7500 km square of remote rainforest and also to survey the coral and fish in 600km of reefs in this remote and least-visited province of Indonesia.

The base on Hoga was a large wooden house originally built by the Japanese, left to decay, then refurbished and turned into living quarters, a dive centre and laboratory by Wallacea personnel.

The site was managed by Wallacea staff and local Indonesians performed the cooking, tank filling, boat handling etc. The marine scientific work was supervised by marine biologist Monica Sullivan with support from professional photographer Adam Powell who processed films and copied slides for both their and the volunteers databases. Other volunteers, on longer stays, assisted with the diving and surveying as part of their dive master training which was an additional benefit for those wishing to upgrade their PADI qualifications. We were there for two weeks, giving us ten days diving, three boat dives a day on the reefs, pinnacles, and ridges around Hoga.

The plan was to dive with a purpose on two of the dives, then dive the third as we wished. In practice this was far less formal because on most dives we were free to photograph as we pleased.

The daily diving was punctuated by informal lectures on the subjects we were there to photograph and detail on the log sheets provided. The main thrust of the work was tunicates (sea squirts), sponges and most fish with particular emphasis on butterflyfish - luckily my favourite! We were also keeping an eye out for nudibranches, which varied in size from 5mm to 150mm in length.

At least one nudibranch found during our stay was a newly discovered species awaiting verification at time of writing. We also discovered a starfish which could not be identified on site.

The lectures were presented by Monica Sullivan, on secondment from Sligo University, Ireland. Monica had an infectious enthusiasm for all marine life with a gift for imparting knowledge. The lectures opened our eyes to the enormous quantity and variety of creatures (and their interrelationships) on the reefs, enabling us to identify a wide variety of subjects for our photography and data collection.


Sea snakes were an occasional surprise to us all. This poor-sighted creature, or so we were told, had a bite which would kill - this made us treat their presence with some care. Sometimes they would appear around your legs or over your shoulder and make you draw a sharp breath on your DV as they glided by.

The main reef was a steep wall extending for about a mile from our base along the side of the island, although only about a quarter of the reef had been dived to any extent. Being vertical it was in pristine condition with hardly a place to put a 'steadying' finger if you wanted a closer look. Pinnacles and ridges extended from 5 to 40m covered with gorgonians, barrel sponges, massive, sub-massive and branching corals, with folios and encrusting corals providing an infinite variety of wide-angle photographic subjects.

The weather was not so kind to us, with warm rain every day at a time when it should have been the dry season. Who said El Nino? The weather did have some effect on our choice of lenses because of the lack of sunlight on most dives, but the reefs were packed with macro subjects and there was always an endless selection from which to choose.

Adam Powell, the resident photographer, was a delight to dive with because of his knowledge of the reef creatures to be found amongst the coral, sponges and tunicates, many of which we had never seen before. The water temperature was 30 degrees with an occasional colder upwelling, but a Lycra or a 3 mm neoprene wetsuit was adequate protection.

The group of sixteen volunteers was made up from five of our club members (four photographers and one videographer), with the balance of divers as data collectors. We all filled in subject survey forms and provided photos and samples of selected subjects collected during the day for logging and scrutiny under the microscope. Live subjects were returned to the sea on a subsequent dive. Most of the survey work took about half a dive, leaving us free to carry on taking pictures for the rest of the dive, but there was no pressure to surface if you still had air and film left.

The food, accommodation, timing and travel was Indonesian style, so there was a larger than usual culture shock once we reached Singapore and faced our first (six hour) flight delay - but that's half the fun of going a third of the way around the planet to join the mosquitoes in a strange land!

Go to their web site which is full of information on their worldwide activities including detailed plans for the current year. There are also some great pictures and dive site descriptions. www opwall.com


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