A Day in the Life of a Volunteer
The water is warm against my skin. The sun pierces through, shimmering. Bubbles rise to the surface 12 metres above. A peacock grouper eyes me suspiciously before making a dash for better cover. I kick my fins and glide along the 10 metres of tape before me, determining with great detail what lies directly under it. I scribble on my diving slate. 3.20-3.27m Acropora, Acroporiddae, tabulate on rock. 3.27-3.45m Porites, Poritiidae boulder on rock. I sway in the surge as I float vertically, upside down, my head inches from the reef, recording every organism: coral, algae, and what it's living on: sand, rock, dead coral.
I'm in the Seychelles, a small collection of islands some 1,500 kilometres off the eastern coast of mainland Africa, and I'm volunteering with Global Vision International (GVI).
Caring for the coast
After 35 minutes I've completed the transect and Oliver, my sweet English dive buddy, has recorded all the invertebrates 2.5 metres either side of the tape. 'OK?' We ask each other with hand gestures. 'OK'. We signal back. We spend the last 10 minutes of our dive exploring. We are in the Cap Ternay Bay, a protected area of the Mahe coastline, the largest island in the Seychelles archipelago. The coral here is rich and lush. Eagle rays glide past us on the outer boundary of the reef.
Today we spot a juvenile green turtle as it speeds away, cautious and quick. Time works differently underwater as we drift over the reef. The fish flicker between the rocks, hiding from invisible predators. It's a neverending quest to eat, but not be eaten. Another 45 minutes and its time. I smile, making my mask leak water. 'OK,' I signal with a thumbs up, 'let's ascend'. And slowly we drift to the surface of the water, to be met by the warm sunshine and the familiar sound of waves.
To our left Manta, the GVI diving boat, powers towards us. I can hear chatter from the other divers. Shouts about a sea turtle, a ray, a rare coral, carry over the sound of the sea. In minutes I'm passing my kit up and pulling myself onto the boat. Ro, the always-friendly captain and base manager, smiles as we drive back to base. The wind blows through my salty hair as I record my diving details in the boat log. The water is clear and the sand gives way to sea grass as we inch toward shore. The tide is high as we anchor and pass our diving kit out of the boat and walk it onto the van and head back to base.
I came to the Seychelles to dive, to learn and to experience life by the sea. I arrived with minimal diving experience, a curiosity for coral and a pair of cheap fins. For 12 weeks I woke each day on the GVI base surrounded by palm trees to the backdrop of granite boulders and lush green vegetation. With fellow volunteers from around the world I studied and learnt to identify 50 different genii of coral and almost every day I dived among the colourful fish, on the rich reef that surrounds the island.
GVI works in partnership with the Seychelles Ministry of Environment and other local NGOs to help assess the health of the reef. In 1998 reefs across the world experienced a phenomenal bleaching event, whereby the sea temperatures rose to the point where many corals were compromised. Coral's life is an amazing relationship between tiny little algae called zooxanthellae and the coral itself. In exchange for some sugar the coral builds an amazingly hard skeleton to house and protect the zooxanthellae. This is what reefs are built out of.
This partnership is essential for the corals survival and when it gets too hot, or too cold, the mobile zooxanthellae just up and leave. This is called bleaching and, depending on the coral, it can live without its algae partner for up to 3 weeks, but if the conditions don't return to normal bringing the zooxanthellae back, the coral is irreversibly damaged and will die. In 1998, global water temperatures were so high for so long many corals perished, and the Seychelles was no exception.
Conserving coral reefs worldwide
The world was shocked. So much depends on coral. A healthy reef means healthy fish stocks. Healthy fish stocks mean healthy people and a healthy economy for island nations. As a result many research projects were launched to better understand coral, where it lives, what conditions it likes and its distribution should another great bleaching event occur. GVI's diving project is one such project, and since 2004 the project has been accepting volunteers, training them and collecting data on the health of the reef. It's an amazing concept: anyone can get on a plane, arrive in paradise and be trained to conduct essential research on the wellbeing of one of the world's most delicate and important ecosystems.
From policemen to statisticians, from Austrians to Australians, the project attracts an array of volunteers, and each day varies just as much. Depending on the tides, weather patterns, dive site and time of day you can surface singing of great visibility and sightings of endangered fish, and other days come to the surface with a headache from being swept around in the surge in poor visibility.
Life on the reef
My favourite sites were in the bay itself, where the reef is protected and healthy. I'd lose count of the genii of coral I'd recognise in a dive and be dazzled by the variety of fish species, juvenile and adult, as they darted past me as prey or predator. Every once in a while, as a treat, we'd get a 'fun dive'. No data collection, no tapes, just you, your buddy and the magnificent reef.
Emmalee, a tall, pretty American volunteer, and I signal at the surface, smiling with our thumbs down and descend. That irreplaceable calm settles over my mind as my ears pass underwater. The sun dances with the water, glistening as it hits the sand below. Emmalee and I are on the edge of the reef. At 14 metres we level and kick our fins rhythmically and head south. As we move up and down the water column my ears pop, a reminder that I don't belong in this underwater world.
She waves at me and I kick hard to pull up next to her. She makes bunny ears with her hand and points. A nudibranch, a more beautiful marine version of a slug, sits atop a coral, a flash of orange, white and black. We move on. And so our dive passes. We each float in our own thoughts, among the colourful fish, breathing methodically, gliding over this almost alien world.
And eventually it's time to ascend. We signal, smile, letting water into our masks and as we gently rise to the surface I can't help but hear Sebastian, the crab from Disney's The Little Mermaid, as he bellows: "Everything's better! Down where its wetter! Under the sea!"
And take it from me. The crab's right.
To continue Tina's series 'the day in the life of a volunteer' then read about her experiences when she volunteered with elephants in Thailand.
Also, you should read our article on choosing a volunteering placement - after all, there's a lot of things to take into consideration!
And finally, if you really want to talk about volunteering on your gap year then get chatting to your fellow gappers on the message boards!
About the Author: Tina Thorburn
Tina came into contact with gapyear.com after winning Global Vision International's worldwide "Are you the difference?" competition in 2010. Having taken two gap years, one straight out of school to move to Australia, and more recently after finishing her undergraduate studies to volunteer for a year with GVI. From scuba diving off the Seychelles coast to teaching kids in Peru, Tina has been lucky enough to travel, live in and soak up many different cultures. Gapyear.com has been a great place to share her stories and experiences (and photographs), and for that she loves it.