Diary of a Field Scientist

The life of a field biologist, trekking through the wilderness collecting data and taking photographs may sound like a dream job for many of you, well I’m not going to lie, it is for me too! I love being in the field, the basic lifestyle, the remoteness, the shear beauty of everything around you. Well here I’m going to give you the lowdown on what a field season entails, from idealistic beaches, to no showers for months on end!

My main field site is the idyllic island of Hoga in South East Sulawesi. This island is part of the Wakatobi marine national park island chain just of the island of Kaladupa. This part of the world lies between the Wallace lines, this is an area of important diversity and where there is a slight difference in the animal hierarchy compared to other land masses such as India and Africa. Here the land is dominated by reptiles, rather than mammals, giant lizards rein over the islands in this archipelago chain, and snakes fill every nook and cranny from the dense jungles to the coral reefs. Not to put you off, the lizards are mostly very skittish and snakes are very hard to find, even when your looking for them, keeping to themselves and actually benefiting humans by keeping tabs on the rat population, although I wouldn’t like to come face to face with the king of lizards, the Komodo Dragon which can also be found on a small number of islands here. Hoga has a large population of water monitor lizards which can grow to 10.5 feet! There has also been over 25 species of snake identified on the island with possibly more! There are also a vast number of other animals such as tropical birds, butterflies, geckos, turtles, whales, dolphins and even the occasional shark or eagle ray. There are a number of species that are of a great interest to science such as the yellow lipped sea krait, one of the most deadly snakes in the world, and the crab eating frog, the only species of marine frog! Along with these the island is coated in a hugely diverse coral reef which is the reason I go there to study!

The island is basic! No running water, little electricity, even littler internet access, no shops, no fast food, no washing machine, no hot water, you get the jist, there are a lot of amenities lacking! I have a little hut on stilts, a basic bed with a mattress that is about an inch thick and with retro designs such as care bears! A small mandi (bathroom) with a squat toiled and a barrel with eggy water from a well. The shower consists of this barrel and a small scoop which we are limited to approximately 5 scoops a day for a shower, difficult it you have long hair like me which has been ravaged by salt water all day! The best bit about my hut is the balcony with an incredible view! Every morning when I wake up I sit on my hammock to brush my teeth and marvel at the ocean! Occasionally if I ever get a few moments to myself I watched kingfishers fishing just outside my hut, they even posed for a few photos!

Collard Kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris)

The first few days after arriving on the island apart from recuperating from the crazy journey, is to set up the lab. We basically have to set up the lab from scratch every year, things don’t last so well in the tropics or get pillaged by locals so we have to carry tens of kilos of kit with us and then set up a functioning aquarium and laboratory facilities in a small number of days! This can be difficult as its warm in the tropics causing difficulties for temperature control, also electricity is generator produced and so has fluctuating voltage and frequent power cuts! But once it’s set up we are rearing to go! However a field season doesn’t come for free, with frequent field trips, comes high costs, which often exceed funding; therefore we have to seek other funding via exchanging our services. In the case of Hoga, I serve on the science staff team supervising dissertation projects in my field of study and helping in the general running of the lab and site. This takes up a lot of your time and basically increases your working day to just about every minute your awake! Being on a small island with a limited number of people also means there are very few places to hide from disturbances. But this can also be very rewarding, having people look up to you and generally very interested in what you have to say can actually be quite flattering. You also get to converse with students who have great ideas and may even form collaborations; you could make someone’s career by taking them under your wing and working together. This actually happened to myself as an undergraduate when I collaborated with a PhD student and gained my first publication! So I know exactly what this can do for you.

A typical day for myself in the field goes as follows; 5.30 am! An early wake up if I’m going to beat the sun in order to measure the dark adapted photosynthetic efficiency of my corals. 7am dive time, I normally dive once a day to collect samples or conduct environmental measurements. 8.30 breakfast time, porridge or rice! And maybe a 30 minute chat at the kabana over a cup of tea. 9.30, off to the lab, at these times I must start on the many daily measurements I conduct such as photographing my corals and taking spectrophotomic readings. 1.00 pm lunch time, lunch can be tiresome, usually the same thing sweet corn fritters, boiled veg and plain rice, its ok for about the first week but I have been known to bribe people in to making me a fried egg! After lunch back to work to start data entry, if I have a second dive it would normally happen in the afternoon which would then push my data entry to late at night. Around 4-6 is also the time when I talk to the students a lot, helping them with questions on their methods, writing or statistics. 6.00pm time for my end of the day photosynthesis measurements. 6.30 boat meeting with the rest of the science staff to sort who is on what boats and when for ourselves and the students for the next day. 7.00 dinner time, more boiled veg and rice, occasionally some egg product such as omelette or scrambled eggs. After dinner it either time for scientific talks or back to the lab for more work. I usually work in the lab until around 10pm after this I can either chillout with some reading or helping some of the other scientists who spend the nights catching various animals for studies. One of the projects I helped out most on this year was catching the yellow lipped sea krait which comes on to land at night to mate and is part of a cutaneous respiration project led by Professor Wayne Bennett from the University of West Florida. I then try to go to bed before midnight but often is quite past this, this summer my body functioned on an average of 5.5 hours sleep a night, where as in the UK I need at least 8! So when do I get to see all the wildlife and see the beauty of the island, well a lot of it is literally walking between the lab and the main lodge or my hut. There are two routes one via the white sandy beach and the other through a dense jungle path and I often get glimpses of colourful birds of lizards so I always keep my camera handy! if you want to take a look at some of my photos check out my Flickr site!

Brown Tree Skink (Dasia grisea)

So when do we shut down or have a ‘weekend’ well to be honest you don’t, its only a short period of your life and you have travelled long and far to get there so you need to maximise your time. However there is one ‘weekend’ type of break…degas day! Once a week you need to have a day off diving to allow your body to degas, on the eve of this day is party night where we get a bbq outside which is a great treat, some people also party but the responsible scientist in me soon has me heading for an early night or back to the bed.

And the work on the island isn’t the end of the line once I return home I have endless data entry, more analysis and statistics. Then its preparing for the next trip, which for me is back to Hoga, then to the Seychelles (reek) and then back to Hoga again….. All in the space of 6 months. If you want to check out a little video from the organistaion i work for and a peek at my own work then click here!

All the time away does have impacts on your life however; you have to pay rent on your empty room, or face constant moving, packing and unpacking. You don’t have time to visit all those people you want to, I have friends and family in Germany, Finland, India, America and all over the UK who I cant possibly visit every e=year, in fact I have to pick and choose who to visit several years in advance! It’s hard to hold down team sports, friendships and relationships. I’m really luck I have a great group of friends who I can always catch up with even if it’s been months since we last saw each other or spoke! I have tried with team sports; I played for most of a season of netball last year and luckily following the football season breaks for the summer which is convenient for me. And relationships… yes well that’s a difficult one, some guys cant quite hack a part time girlfriend and if you do meet Mr. Right its sods law that he lives on the other side of the world! However you get to travel to amazing paces in the world where other people just can’t reach, I see amazing things, meet amazing people and it’s really a lot of fun! Although it is possibly the greatest feeling to get a hot shower after 3 months of mandis!

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