After the party given in their honor by the villagers of Keoa, campers play with the local children.
In June, 16 students from Mountain View and St. Francis high schools and nine adults embarked for Fiji, a nation of more than 300 secluded islands in the South Pacific. There, in the sparkling ocean, on the white sands and in the emerald rainforests, the group set up Fiji BioCamp 2005 and surveyed the surrounding reef systems for the better part of two weeks.
Living in tents on a beach on Vanua Levu, near the island of Taveuni, the students roughed it, learning to weave palm-frond screens for their outdoor shower. Biology teachers Roberta Chisam of St. Francis and Teri Faught of Mountain View High and Dr. Kent Smith, a physician and avid astronomer whose sons attend Mountain View High, helped to provide the campers a hands-on educational experience.
The teens spent five hours a day observing and identifying coral types, fish species, shells, invertebrates and other marine life for Reef Watch, an international organization that monitors and works to preserve the world's coral reefs. The data the students collected will help to monitor the long-term health of the Fijian reef systems.
The reefs the campers studied had never been surveyed before, so their work established a baseline of the current health of the reef. They attached a nylon rope 100 meters in length along the reef underwater. The rope was color-coded in three-foot sections. The campers snorkeled above the rope and wrote down on a card everything they saw to the left and the right of it.
In their morning habitat class, students learned about what they would be looking for: hard coral, soft coral, fish, algae, sponges.
As they surveyed the reef, campers saw tropical aquarium-worthy specimens, reef sharks and other sharks, dolphins, large game fish such as wahlu, commercial fish, moray eels, stingrays and manta rays.
"We were interested in the little ones by the reef - the feeder fish - because without them, there won't be bigger fish," said Bill Maston, father of Nicole, the St. Francis student who as a junior came up with the idea of a biodiversity camp in Fiji.
"When we take the class back next year, we'll be able to count it over again and over a two- or three-year period establish whether the reef is growing or dying," Maston said. Because of the diversity the group found, the teachers who participated think the reef is growing. The surveyors found five or six types of hard coral and as many of soft coral, and a wide variety of "indicator fish."
This unique experience was one of the highlights of the trip for Kristine Lesyna, a senior at Mountain View, who said she "loved to be able to interact directly with the reefs and experience (them) firsthand."
When not swimming among the coral, the campers hiked the islands and studied the exotic flora and fauna. Taveuni, seven miles away, is called the Garden Island of Fiji. Hikers in the rainforest saw beautiful waterfalls and rivers, hanging vines, ferns and 100-foot-tall trees.
Campers even had the opportunity to visit a local village for an eye-opening cultural exchange. The villagers of Keoa, on the nearby island of that name, held a "meke" - a party - for the group. The villagers dressed in ceremonial costume. Students and teachers alike said that spending time with the villagers made them realize how few material things one actually needs.
Adult chaperon Bill Maston described Fijians as "the most loving people I ever met. They're extremely kindhearted people, and they love to sing. You can hear people singing while you're hiking through the rain forest because they sing while they work."
After their daily activities, the campers relaxed on the beach or played volleyball with the locals, picking up Fijian catchphrases such as "bula," which means "greetings."
It was winter in the South Pacific, and daytime temperatures reached 78 degrees. At night, the air cooled to 68 degrees, and the group gathered for warm, hearty meals in an open-air dining hall called a valevale. Currents blowing up from Antarctica keep the Fiji Islands more temperate than islands nearer the equator.
The few generator-powered lights in sight went out at 8 p.m., making the islands perfect for stargazing. The Milky Way, which is much more prominent in the southern hemisphere than in the northern skies, took center stage. Using telescopes, binoculars and star maps, Smith pointed out other novelties, such as the Southern Cross and Jupiter, with its four visible moons. He also provided explanations about the galaxies, stars and planets that the group was observing.
The biology camp was a great success. Teachers Chisam and Faught will use the data that was collected, along with their photographs, in the classroom this year. For the students, Fiji BioCamp was much more than a highlight on their college resumes - it was an experience that they will treasure for the rest of their lives.
Siena Kramer, a senior at Mountain View High School, helped survey the Fijian coral reef this summer.