The sea slug ball

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When it is dark it is very, very dark, like being stuck in a sack in a coal cellar, while wearing sunglasses. Here I am again, Sunday morning, trying to piece together the remnants of memories of last night’s “Dress as Your Favourite Nudibranch” party. Ruth and Howard provided lots of bright fabric and ribbons and make-up bought on their last fuel run to Levuka. I am proud, I think, to have been voted most ridiculously dressed person thanks to the benefit of a gaudy beach towel and several strategically placed party balloons, although both Tristan (who was in full drag) and Howard (who I think misread the brief and came as a character from the Rocky Horror Show) came a close second.

It’s not all party-party though – there is always work to be done and we had spent Saturday afternoon working on general maintenance of the island. Some of the crew walked the perimeter doing a litter pick – three tyres and a fridge have washed up over the last week along with the usual plastic bottles and other detritus that comes with the storms – while others raked the fallen leaves and coconuts or cleaned the dive shack. Sirelli, the big kahuna on the island, found a beaten up old wind surfer somewhere, so a few people renovated that with high hopes of getting it out on the water today, although there has not been much sign of that so far. Working through the heat of the afternoon is tough, but when you are on a tiny island in the middle of the South pacific with blue skies and bluer sea all around you it is hard to feel badly done by. (I can just imagine the tears of sympathy you are shedding for us as I write).

We have also made inroads into mapping the coast line of Leleuvia this week. Working in teams of five, one person swims out fifty metres from shore holding a tape measure, another holds the end at the tide line, then two people swim out on either side of the tape looking for marine life – bottom dwelling invertebrates as well as schools of fish, eels and the like. The fifth person follows behind making a note of the substrate – coral, algae, sand and so on. We then move ten metres round and do it again, while the shore-bound team member writes up what has been recorded on our dive slates. We hope that by the time we leave we will have competed a circuit of the island and managed to paint up a board with a large map to help future visitors to the island. When we have completed the map of Leleuvia the plan is, I believe, for later sets of volunteers to complete maps of neighbouring Caqalai and other nearby islands, to give the Department of Fisheries a strong indication of what sorts of creatures can be found in and around this area.

Part of the fun of being on the first expedition to Fiji is helping the BV staff to work out the best way to schedule the day and to build up the lists and photo bank of species of fish to be monitored. We have recently changed the pattern of diving from half the group going out in the morning and half in the afternoon to both dives leaving early. The first bunch are on the new boat (which Tristan picked up from Suva last week, along with a brand new 60hp outboard) at 7:30, returning around 9. The second set then leave around 9:45 and return in time for lunch, leaving the afternoons free for lectures, first aid training, studying fish books or other productive work, such as studying the insides of your eyelids from the comfort of a hammock.

Everyone is, for the most part, one big happy family now, although we all need a bit of “me time” every now and again. For me, it was Wednesday evening of this week when I wandered alone to sunset beach and sat for an hour or so watching the sky change from light blue to dark and the clouds reflecting the light of the setting sun, changing slowly from light yellow right through the spectrum to a dusky orange, then to rich vermillion, cherry and ruby reds before finally it was night and the brilliant half-moon cast shadows on the beach as I walked slowly back to join the rest of the crew, who had been sitting at the bar drinking fruit smoothies before dinner. As I sat alone, sipping a chilled beer and taking far too many photographs, my thoughts turned to home and my beautiful wife, who I miss terribly. We have not been apart for so long since we were married and it is difficult for both of us, but particularly, I think, for her as she is still going through the day to day routine of working in England in a cold and icy March, while my biggest worry is whether I will be able to get someone to rub some after-sun on my back.

So, speaking of the team, here is a brief run through of who’s who in the zoo. There are four full time BV staff. Howard, the project director, is a very cool bloke with a wicked sense of humour who delights in winding up the younger and more gullible members of the team. He doesn’t need any excuse to whip his shirt off to show off his pecs, abs and bingo wings. Ruthless Ruth was, I thought, the sanest member of the team. She also has a nice way of keeping a straight face while telling outrageous lies to the easily convinced. Flame-haired vixen Helen leaves everyone with eyes wide and mouths agape when she shakes her booty on the dance floor, but less from looks of admiration than looks of sheer terror. Tristan, the bronzed Adonis, curly-haired blonde, former crocodile wrestler and spider wrangler has the muscles of a young Sly Stallone and the hair of Marilyn Monroe. He looks a little too comfortable in a skirt for my liking, but he is a proper Aussie bloke who is a big fan of AC/DC, shooting pool and drinking beer, which is alright by me.

Of the island staff, there is Lena the matriarch who cooks, cleans, washes and keeps us all in line. Under her there is Buna and Vuta, two lovely Fijian ladies who dish up the food and, unbelievably, make our beds and change our sheets for us – this is a luxury we weren’t expecting – and Lele who also cooks, tends bar and occasionally pole dances whenever someone plays the Black Eyed Peas on their iPod speakers. Unfortunately Lele is a man. Jone is the boat driver – captain cool who says very little but always has a wry grin – and Gordy is the general maintenance man who keeps the generator running and sometimes spears fish for dinner. Gody’s wife is Elenor who, we have just learned, is a trained masseuse so she is helping to get the knots and strains out of our aching muscles, although I have yet to partake due to my severe sunburn. Do not go snorkeling without a t-shirt or rash vest on out here, you will fry. Gordy and Elenor live with their two children Meimei, a very cute two year old girl and Miri a very happy and innocent mischievous eight year old and her friend Bruce, an eight year old semi-adopted son (they look after him and help with his school work during the week) who all depart on a boat to school each morning. It’s not a bad life out here, where the biggest danger is getting bopped on the bonce by a falling coconut (there are a few stingey, bitey things around, but so long as you keep your eyes peeled for cone shells as you wade into the shallows it is not a problem, and most things are fairly benign).