Tag Archives: graduate student

Getting to know Tarawa

It was exciting to finally step foot in Tarawa, the capital of the Republic of Kiribati, after hearing about it for so long — my advisor has worked here for a decade or so, and I’ve spent my last three years as his student hearing about his work and its accompanying adventures. I’ve also spoken with other folks who have worked and visited Tarawa, and I’m sorry to say that I’ve read Maartin J. Troost’s, The Sex Lives of Cannibals (I could write a whole blog post about why this is not a good book, but its exploitative and he is neither fair nor charitable with his descriptions of life here). All that goes to say that I had very clear images of what Kiribati would be like, both for better and for worse, before stepping off the plane on Thursday.

To be fair, you won’t be greeted at the Kiribati airport with a lei like in some of the more touristy destinations of the Pacific. The beaches have white sand and turquoise water, but are often littered with both trash and the relics left behind by the bloody battles that took place here during World War II. It’s stunningly beautiful, but it’s not exactly paradise the way it would be defined in romanticized Western narratives (although I don’t think such a place really exists).

Having context is paramount to understanding what the Pacific Islands are like. The same countries that tend to judge Kiribati harshly have caused the problems facing the people here (such as climate change and the poverty that was left in the wake of colonization). It is unfair for westerners to criticize Kiribati for the ways they’re using their limited resources to surviving challenges that were forced upon them through no fault of their own.

The people in Kiribati are nothing if not resilient. We had a lot of logistics to organize when we first arrived, which meant that we spent most of our first day driving up and down the one paved road connecting the islands in South Tarawa. It’s immediately evident, even from the plane, that Tarawa is battling against climate change; land is limited, sand bags and sea walls line the coastlines, and road construction projects to fortify the main road have been happening for years. We also saw the products of a mangrove planting project, which will help to protect the coastline from erosion caused by rising sea levels and waves. There is even a recycling program in Tarawa, no small feat for a small island that has to ship their trash elsewhere, and Erietera, who works for Kiribati’s fisheries program and is joining us on our dives, told us about an initiative in his village to ban all plastics. I’ve not heard of any programs like this elsewhere in the Pacific, and the Kiribati people are rightfully proud of their hard work.

IMG_0577

Young mangroves growing near the airport in Tarawa. These will help to protect the shoreline from erosion.

My advisor is fond of talking about how much people in Kiribati love to laugh, and I’ve found that to be true in the most delightful ways. As a woman, it can be challenging to do fieldwork in the Pacific Islands, some of which are very conservative (here, we need to keep our legs covered above the knees and have to wear shirts that cover our shoulders, even while on the boat and in the water). While it doesn’t erase or minimize the difficulties, being able to joke with the people we are working with (all of whom are men, although there have been women doing diving work for the fisheries department in the past) helps to break the ice.

 

IMG_0602

A sleeping hut on the ocean side of South Tarawa. The ocean breeze keeps it cool and also discourages mosquitos.

 

I’ve only been here for a few days and I’m still getting my bearings, but it’s been a lot of fun so far. We did our first day of diving yesterday, and it went relatively smoothly, despite a few minor mishaps (but it always takes a day or two to get the swing of things). I’ll post more about the science we’re doing soon, if you’re curious — there’s a lot more going on this trip than what we did in the Marshall Islands, and I’m pretty excited about what we’ll learn. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the opportunity to explore and get to know Tarawa and all the wonderful people we’re having the chance to meet!

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Kiribati

Counting down to fieldwork in the Gilbert Islands

In just over a month, I’ll be boarding a plane and heading to Tarawa, an atoll in the Gilbert Islands of Kiribati. I’ll be staying in Tarawa and the nearby Abaiang Atoll for about a month to conduct the first stage of my Ph.D. fieldwork. It’s been a long, dark, rainy winter in Vancouver and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to getting to spend some time in the tropics, although I expect that my lack of exposure to light means I will be especially susceptible to sunburn.

Tarawa is far away — about 8,000 kilometers — and it takes quite a bit of travel to get there. My advisor, a fellow graduate student, Heather, and I will all fly from Vancouver to Los Angeles to Nadi, Fiji and from there, finally, to Tarawa. While I’ve spent some time in other places in the Pacific (specifically Yap, FSM and the Marshall Islands), this will be my first time in the southern hemisphere. I guess I will finally have the opportunity to test whether the toilet flushes in the opposite direction on the other side of the equator!

The Gilbert Islands are just south of the Marshall Islands and north of Tuvalu. Map via http://www.geographicguide.com/oceania-maps.

I’ll be doing similar work to what I was doing in the Marshall Islands for my MSc (which I finally finished in August 2017!). Tarawa, like Majuro, is more developed and has a large population, while Abaiang is more similar to Arno and is less populated. We will use the data we collect to test the hypothesis that past sea surface temperatures may influence how likely corals are to bleach when temperatures are high. In the Gilbert Islands, the reefs experience a lot of temperature variability because of El Niño and La Niña events, so corals there may have had a chance to adapt to temperature fluctuations. Corals in other places with more stable sea surface temperatures, like the Marshalls, could be more likely to bleach when temperatures are warm because they haven’t been exposed before. I’m also going to be using a fancy contraption called a diving PAM (a pulse-amplitude modulated fluorometer that can be used underwater) to measure photosynthetic rates of corals, which is a way to get an idea of how healthy the corals are at different sites. (This is not the same one that we have, but it will give you an idea of what it does and what it looks like.) Meanwhile, Heather, a MSc student in my lab, will be doing a really cool project to map the complexity of the reefs.

Preparing for this trip looks very much like my prep two years ago for my trip to the Marshalls, except I am leaving immediately after the semester ends so time is a bit more limited. I am in the process of renewing my Dive Accident Network first-aid and oxygen administration training, as well as doing check-out dives with UBC’s Dive Safety Officer (we have to do all of this, plus the full dive physical, every two years). I also need to get my dive gear serviced and do a bit of shopping to get appropriate clothing — in Kiribati, women generally keep their shoulders and their legs above the knees covered. Because there isn’t a lot of soil on low-lying atolls like Tarawa, fresh fruit and vegetables are limited, so we also need to bring things like dried fruits and electrolyte powders to supplement our meals. And, my advisor got dengue fever on a previous trip to Kiribati, so we will need to be extra careful to avoid mosquito bites as much as possible (I, unfortunately, am usually a mosquito magnet), which means buying a mosquito net and lots and lots of bug spray.

I’m also doing coursework at the moment and am working as a teaching assistant for two undergrad geography classes. In addition to finishing my assignments and the piles of marking I have to do before I go, probably the largest thing on my to-do list is to get comfortable with the diving PAM and to make sure I know exactly what we need to bring with us to use it. We think we will likely take small coral samples from each site and will then conduct measurements on shore, so we’ll need to bring whatever we need to collect samples and to keep them alive in a hot boat that’s sitting in the equatorial sun all day (although fortunately, the boat is partially covered so we will have some shade). This means a fair amount of research on my end as all of this is new to me — I’ve never collected samples of live corals or used a diving PAM before. I’ll be doing some practice with the PAM here in Vancouver to make sure I’m comfortable taking measurements with it, but of course I won’t be able to test this with corals until we’re in the field, where we likely won’t have access to a lot of materials.

I will be keeping the blog up-to-date during our fieldwork, so stay tuned for updates once we make it to Kiribati in April!

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Kiribati