Operation Wallacea: An experience of a lifetime

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Andrew Agius and Katya Dingli were two students, undergraduate and post-graduate respectively, that ended up changing their lives forever after reading a University News e-mail that spoke about voluntary work in the name of environment conservation. This is how they found out about Operation Wallacea (Opwall), a conservation research organisation that is entirely dependent on student volunteers from Sixth Forms, Undergraduate course and Postgraduate courses all over the world. Opwall boasts just shy of 300 scientific publications as a result of this research and has actually led to discovering 37 new species which have now all been officially documented.

Andrew Agius

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Andrew Agius

How did you hear about Operation Wallacea?

I actually got to hear about it through an email from University, the sort of news updates that you get every so often. There was one that was titled “voluntary work bla bla bla” and I was at the end of my degree so I was looking for something to do of that sort. The idea was to either spend a year abroad, or go on some sort of trip far away. I thought I’d check it out, I read the description, and I was hooked. They had a lot of stuff on Marine Research, which is what I would like to get into, I mean my BSc thesis was about Marine Biology so it fit the bill.

What was the thing, or who was the person, that finally pushed you into taking the plunge?

I was pretty convinced that I wanted to go for it but I obviously had to find out more information and Nathan Adams, who is the Operation Wallacea representative who takes care of the Maltese contingent was extremely helpful and got stuff sorted out and gave me all the information immediately and he was also very encouraging about it. He went on a couple of expeditions himself so he was quite a big encouragement.

What did you do while there?

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I was on one of their marine sites in Honduras, on one of the islands called Utila, and they also offer to do your diving certification so I also did my dive master course while I was over there. During my dive master course, which was my focus, I was able to assist on pretty much all the scientific dives. If you go up as a research assistant, you’re usually assigned to a project for a couple of weeks and then maybe move on to another project for the next two weeks. What I was doing probably wasn’t as in depth as the research assistants, but I was basically helping out with the research dives for every single project there was. Whether it was about sea urchins, or damsel fish territorial behaviour, or cleaning stations, lion fish as an invasive species, that sort of thing. Meanwhile, Opwall also have terrestrial sites where they do canopy access in the rainforests and research about bats and different animals.

Is there something you’re sure will stick in your memory for years to come?

One of the things that will remain with me is just the sheer amount of marine life that there is. They’re spoilt in the sense that you just jump into the sea and a couple of metres out there’s a coral reef which is really shallow and you can just snorkel out and see absolutely everything there. Fish, stingrays, eagle rays, colours, it’s just amazing.

What was the biggest hardship you faced while on this trip?

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I would say waking up at 6am every day, being in the water at 7am and not getting out until 5:30pm, and the food. The food is good, they have some very good food, but they mostly serve very typical dishes so it was a lot of rice. Rice and beans twice a day five times a week, more or less. Perhaps it’s a bit of an exaggeration but it’s close enough. I didn’t even want to look at rice for a couple of months when I came back.

What would you tell students who are on the fence about going on an expedition?

I would say go for it, basically. Obviously check finances because they are on the pricier side, but if your finances allow it, then definitely go for it. Apart from the fact that you travel to some pretty awesome places like Guyana, Honduras, Cuba, Mexico, Croatia; you get to meet and share your experiences with people from all over the world. I was with a Scottish guy and a Canadian guy as my roommates until a guy from Dorset showed up. There are also a lot of people from the US there, and you get to mix with them and the locals on the site who run the resort or centre for accommodation. You are also exposed to a lot of science. I was with people who were doing dissertations from the University of Oxford, McMaster University in Canada and the University of Southampton in the UK, all of which very highly rated institutions. So you also get a glimpse at what the lecturers at these Universities expect and the research that goes into the work.

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Katya Dingli

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Katya Dingli

How did you hear about Operation Wallacea?

Last year I was reading for an MA with the University of Malta and just a few months before finishing, I received an email promoting Operation Wallacea. I opened the email and disregarded it thinking it was for a few chosen ones and thinking it would be impossible for me to get free time off work and my other projects. Luckily my curiosity always takes over and I contacted Nathan Adams, who is the representative of Opwall in Malta. His enthusiasm immediately rubbed off on me and I started to really consider doing an expedition as a research assistant. It didn’t take long for my brain to start day dreaming about being in the jungle, seeing all the beautiful animals and working for such a good cause with a serious organisation.

What was the thing, or who was the person, that finally pushed you into taking the plunge?

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Nathan Adams really helped, but there were a series of things that led to this decision. My first degree is a BA (Hons) in Geography and working away from one of my favourite subjects for almost 7 years led me into craving using the knowledge I had acquired, and missed other subjects for which I’m passionate, such as Biology which I studied at A-level. Although I have a very successful career in managing EU projects, I always wondered if I could have made different choices. I finally took one year off my very demanding work to follow bigger dreams and volunteering through Operation Wallacea seemed like the perfect stepping stone to kick start this year.

What did you do while there?

I have now completed 4 weeks of terrestrial expedition in Cusuco National Park of Honduras, followed by a 3-week marine expedition in the beautiful tiny Caribbean island of Utila.

Is there something you’re sure will stick in your memory for years to come?

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There are many moments that will always be engraved in my memory, some extremely beautiful and some extremely challenging. One of the most magical moments was in Al Danto, one of the wettest and in my opinion most challenging satellite camps I worked in, rightly nicknamed Al Dampo. I was having an extremely difficult time accepting that we were constantly living in mud and wearing dirty wet clothes which at best were dry but smelling of damp and smoke. I went to take a shower near the river with the ice-cold water -which was strangely enough my favourite luxury at the camp- when a few sets of blue damselflies surrounded me and sat on me like they were just chilling on my wet shoulders and head. I had never seen a group together and certainly never dreamt of having them sitting on me. It was magical and definitely changed my mood for the rest of the muddy expedition.

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Another unforgettable but chilling moment was in Cortecito satellite camp when we walked to one of the transects and saw a huge clearance of deforested area. I had seen many pictures and documentaries in my various studies but there’s nothing like seeing things in person. We were all moved and shaken by what we saw and emotion was visible in everyone’s eyes. It was harder to see the faces of the scientists who had seen it and worked in it when it was still a lush jungle. The contrast of the burnt wooden area against the green background was heartbreaking and the fog in the early morning playing around the now-dead once-majestic trees seemed like a scene from a horror movie. Every time we walked near these sites and took data in them, we were reminded of why we were there, what we were fighting for and why we could not give up.

What would you tell students who are on the fence about going on an expedition?

If it’s a dream that scares you, then it’s big enough to follow. This experience not only gives you the opportunity to see things you wouldn’t dream of, but it also sets a standard of who you want to be, what principles you want to live by, what people inspire you and want around you and it definitely sets a standard of how passionate you want to be in whatever career you choose. The hardest part is fundraising. After that, it’s a beautiful, challenging and life changing experience shared with amazing like-minded people.

For more information regarding Operation Wallacea contact: Nathan Adams B.Sc. (Hons) (Melit.), M.Env.Sc., LEED GA, EPt, AMIEnvSc Operation Wallacea - Malta Office Manager Email: nathan.adams@opwall.com Skype: NathanAdamsMalta Website: www.opwall.com

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Written by

Mathias Mallia

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