Alfred Russel Wallace Grants for Outstanding Field Ecologists - Operation Wallacea

Alfred Russel Wallace Grants for Outstanding Field Ecologists

Operation Wallacea had its inception in the central area of Indonesia known as the Wallacea Region. This biodiversity hotspot derives its name from the great Alfred Russel Wallace and the work he did in the region. 2013 marked the centennial year of the passing of this highly influential biologist and field naturalist (see It was a letter from Wallace to Darwin explaining Wallace’s postulate that evolution was occurring through natural selection that caused Darwin to hurriedly publish his seminal work. Although Wallace always admired the detail and thoroughness of Darwin’s work, he was, by far, the better field naturalist and funded his extensive travels in the Amazon and Malay archipelago by collecting and selling specimens to the Natural History Museum in London. As a result of these extensive travels, Wallace began to observe the puzzling distribution of species and developed fundamental theories about what is today known as the study of biogeography.

Wallace had none of the financial advantages that Darwin had, but was driven by a spirit of adventure, a thirst for knowledge, and a determination to act on those attributes. Operation Wallacea has been taking undergraduates from the US and other countries into the field to help a network of more than 200 academics conduct biodiversity surveys in remote parts of the planet since 1995. Initially, these research programs ran only in the Wallacea region because of its long isolation from continental land masses and high levels of endemic species. However, the programs now run at 25 research sites in 11 countries and are entirely funded by the tuition fees paid by more than 2000 students each year.

In order to encourage undergraduates to follow in the footsteps of this great explorer and naturalist, Operation Wallacea is offering Alfred Russel Wallace Grants. There are two forms of grants, both aimed at students looking to join one of the biodiversity teams working in remote parts of the world in the summer of 2018.

The first is for UK undergraduates, and is sponsored by Premier Oil – there are 10 grants of £1000 available to those students booked onto an Opwall 2018 project to Indonesia as either a research assistant or dissertation student, and currently studying at a UK university.

The second is for US undergraduates – there is 1 grant of $1500, 1 grant of $750, and 3 grants of $500 available. This grant is available for any students enrolled as an undergraduate at a US academic institution, and booked on to any Opwall 2018 project.

Please email your application to The text of your email should include your name, contact information, the name of your university and details of your Opwall expedition. Alongside your email, please include the 6 following attachments:

  1. Unofficial transcript from your academic institution (this shows any examination and module results so far)
  2. Full CV showing academic achievements to date, outdoor activities undertaken and future aspirations
  3. Reference letter 1 – From a current or previous teacher who can attest to your academic abilities
  4. Reference letter 2 – From someone in a position of authority who can provide a character reference, for example an employer, guidance counselor, club or society leader
  5. Details of any financial aid that you have secured to complete university (bursaries, scholarships, hardship grants)
  6. A maximum 600 word summary of how, if awarded the grant, the sort of work that you would be doing in the field would mirror the type of field work done by Alfred Russel Wallace (please do your research!)

Applications for the Alfred Russel Wallace Grant 2018 are now open. The deadline to submit the above documents is Wednesday 21st February 2018.

Please note that both successful US and UK applicants are required to write a short ‘post-expedition’ article, accompanied with pictures of your trip. This piece should be no more than two pages, more details will be given upon receiving the grant.

All UK winners will be invited to attend an Operation Wallacea Trust meeting in November 2018 to personally thank the representative from Premier Oil and give a short presentation on your experience. Your short article will also be supplied to Premier Oil for use in their 2018 Corporate Responsibility Report.

The winners of the 2017 US grant were as follows:

1st place ($1500): Eric Wuesthoff
2nd place ($750): Quinn Parker
3rd place ($500): Kelsey Allen
3rd place ($500): Selena Zhao
3rd place ($500): Cortnie Meier

The winners of the 2016 UK grant, each receiving £1000, were as follows:

Alexander Wickenden: University of Exeter
Alexander's Story

In the year leading up to the expedition I applied for a number of grants, and did a few small fundraising events alongside some others at my university for which we sold tickets. In the end I managed to raise £1340 – the lion’s share of course coming from the Alfred Russel Wallace Grant, which I confess I actually enjoyed applying for. Writing and researching an essay was a nice break from the data analysis and graphs which took up the majority of my uni work outside of the labs and lecture halls. It also gave me a reason to read Russel’s book ‘The Malay Archipelago’ which I would highly recommend to anyone even thinking of visiting Indonesia!

Gearing up for my first dive I can’t express how excited I was, but that excitement was tinged with apprehension – what if I’d forgotten all my dive training? What if I humiliated myself? But my fears were unfounded, like riding a bicycle, I hadn’t forgotten a thing. It sounds cliché, but when you descend through the turquoise water, you really do feel like you are entering another world. On that first dive I saw countless species of fish, corals, algae and invertebrates occupying the reef. A banded sea krait snaked through branching fire coral, clownfish peered at us from their anemones and Christmas-tree worms shrunk back into their burrows as they sensed our movement. It was incredible, but it was also daunting, at the time I could name perhaps five, six organisms? Even then, I only knew their common names. By the end of the week, we were expected to be able to name the families of almost anything we’d come across.


That first week was intense, it was exhausting, and I loved every second. Two lectures a day, accompanied by a dive each to practice techniques and identifying organisms, it was tiring but oh-so worth it. For me, the highlight of the entire expedition was the dive after the exam (typical students; the night before the exam had been when we’d really committed the names to memory) – never before in my life had I been in a situation where I was able to identify the scientific families, and in some cases even the species, of everything I could see. With this knowledge, we could finally begin our intended roles as Research Assistants.


As an undergraduate studying Marine Biology, this experience was invaluable to me, my university course largely covered the theory but we never got a chance to implement what we learned in class in the water. As you can imagine, this experience will be a huge asset on my CV when I enter the workplace! The experience also showed me what being a researcher in the field entails, and so I’ve learned about skills I need to work on which I may have not otherwise looked at.

I will never forget my experience in Indonesia, and it has shown me that I made the right choice in the career path I have set myself on. I’d like to thank Operation Wallacea and their staff for granting me this opportunity and helping me to develop countless skills, Travel Nation for being a life-saver when events threw my travel plans into disarray, and Premier Oil, without whose grant of £1000 I would have found the expedition far more difficult to go on. I cannot recommend going on an Opwall expedition highly enough, if you’re thinking of it then just go for it – there is no way you can possibly regret it!


Amy O’Callaghan: Bath Spa University
Amy's Story

“The Bigger Picture”

Travelling to the airport with my parents was daunting; I was so excited yet had so much anxiety about travelling by myself and whether I would meet anyone on the trip before I arrived at my final destination. My biggest anxiety was the changing of flights that I would have to do on my own, until I met someone on my trip.  Little did I know the moment I stepped off my first flight I would meet someone going to the same place with me, and in no time there was a group of 6 of us, all sat at the gate for the next flight, all discussing our stories and excitement for the trip. From then on the trip sailed by and before I knew it I was lying in my assigned house in the village of Labundo Bundo.

I began thinking about my week in the jungle ahead of me: how was I going to make it through a week in the middle of a completely different country, climate, and culture? I tried to put these worries aside and on the first morning I got stuck straight in and went on a bird walk at 5am, and from there on it was one extraordinary thing after the other: seeing what cuscus looked like, spotting the huge, foul-smelling monitor lizards, even cuddling little kittens and putting them in a safe place. The lectures taught me a great deal that was not only useful for the week but would apply to my studies in the UK.


Jungle training started with a lot of anxiety amongst all of us, but group morale kept me distracted, and we sang as we walked. Jungle training was a real eye opening experience and made me push boundaries I had never thought I would be able to pass. My fear of seeing a snake in the wild proved quite unfounded: whilst walking to the second camp our guide spotted a mock viper. My fear of the unknown in the jungle disappeared too, and when we arrived at the second camp we found our traps had managed to catch two civits. They were the most beautiful creatures I had ever seen and very timid. Indeed, as the week went on my boundaries and fears all came tumbling down (a bit like me, many times on my treks through the jungle) and ‘Jungle Amy’ came into her own.


The dreaded terrestrial week had come and gone way too fast and ended with an emotional farewell to all our jungle friends. Locals had orders to take us jungle creatures to Bau Bau marine site, to the land of running water and air conditioning. Once the excitement of a European style toilet and running water had worn off, it was into the sea and lectures. I had been so excited to learn to scuba dive I had forgotten that I hated the sea water and the weird creatures that lived there. Despite this I still managed to complete the PADI course and was awarded my certificate at the end of the week. On the last day at Bau Bau we headed out on a boat trip to do a beach clean-up on Snake Island followed by a fun dive. I never realised at this point all that I had accomplished. It is only on reflection of the week that I realised the enormity of what I had achieved and the extraordinary variety of what life in the wild shows us.  For example, on the fun dive we had five reef sharks swimming around us. I was too excited to think about filming, I just watched. It was the most amazing dive ever. This was my best day in Indonesia.


Arriving safely at home I realised all that I had got myself into: I had been scared of so much in Indonesia, particularly venturing into the jungle and the unknown. By the end of the week I was sliding down mud hills, launching myself into waterfalls, and handling species I had never even heard of. Drifting off to sleep that night I realised how I had changed. The old Amy didn’t like snakes and spiders. She dreaded jungle training, too. By the end of that week ‘Jungle Amy’ emerged and nothing could faze her. It had not only been a journey to a remote part of the planet, but a journey to discover who I can be. I learnt so much about the jungle and I also learned how strong and resilient I am. The trip had shown me how big, how miraculous, how complex, and of course how beautiful the natural world can be.  I found it had made a space inside me that had not been there before.  It was by far the best experience of my life.


Ben Williams: University Of Exeter
Ben's Story

I was able to draw from a few areas to fund my expedition to Indonesia. Savings from working in a lab during my gap, some money from family, and a £150 grant from my university also helped however the Wallace grant was definitely what made the trip possible for me. Thanks to this, In July of 2016 I found myself located in Bau Bau, situated in South Buton, ready to commence four weeks of training and work on coral reefs. My first week compromised of two training dives each day, alongside the essential theory sessions required to become qualified PADI open water divers whilst under the capable hands of our instructor DJ. This was easily one of the most enjoyable skills I’ve ever learned. During the first week we also attended lectures led by the science staff each day on coral reef ecology, learning about the unmatched diversity of species in the coral triangle, how and why this developed, as well as the threats reefs face today.


During week two I was lucky enough to complete my PADI advanced diver course, once again under the instruction of DJ. My favourite memories have to include witnessing a fully grown sea turtle wake as we drifted past – it looked at us then calmly swam away in the other direction; and a night dive where we witnessed a pair of notoriously rare frogfish swimming around on an artificial reef submerged some years ago.


As a qualified diver I was now able to undertake the Reef Survey Techniques course, one of the highlights of the trip for me. This constituted of two lectures a day, each succeeded by a dive, learning to identify any and every organism you might find on the reef from corals, to fish, to invertebrates. We also studied and practiced techniques such as transect laying and surveys used to research the reefs. The course was concluded with an exam incorporating the material we had studied in lectures from the first and second week. My stay in Bau Bau was certainly an intensive two weeks, and was met with the right degree of challenge, leaving me feeling confident my duration here had really added to my skillset and knowledge in marine biology. Above all, it was a hugely enjoyable stay at a site that made every member feel welcome.


Two boat journeys and some time on the road brought us to Hoga Island for the beginning of week 3, a site that ticks all the boxes for an idyllic tropical island with an equally idyllic coral reef. Akin to an underwater cliff face inundated with life, the reef wall was an unforgettable site to behold, an astonishing mix of colours, hundreds of fish drifting by and the enormous ancient corals were just some of the astonishing sites you were guaranteed to see through the crystal clear water every dive. Fish large enough to eclipse their smaller cousins on the Bau Bau site and their sheer abundance were the most immediate indicator of the difference proper conservation of a reef can have on its health and diversity.


During my final week in Indonesia, I progressed to the research assistant pool, aiding dissertation and PhD students in their field work. Each diver is required to be accompanied by a buddy at all times for safety purposes, providing each student conducting research with not just a buddy, but an assistant who could be put to use underwater. A typical dive could involve filming along a transect with one of the teams Go Pro cameras to capture a ‘benthic survey’, a difficult task as you attempt to slowly pass over every 25cm point whilst battling the current and ever changing contours of the reef that could surround you from above and below. Another student’s project was looking into the abundance of coralivorous fish and their effect on corals, with the hope that his research could be published, and contribute to the pool of knowledge being collected on the causes of coral loss and degradation.

My time with Opwall had met my greatest expectations and given me the chance to meet some amazing and inspiring people who already seemed to have travelled the world, as well as others just setting out on their journey into the field. Despite the short duration, the lessons I was able to learn, and experiences I faced, added greatly to my understanding of reef ecosystems and to my capability of working in the discipline. Coming away, what was unavoidably clear from speaking to staff and studying the state of the world’s reefs, is the jeopardy that faces marine ecosystems today. I’m well aware the reefs I saw were a shadow of what they once were, and hope the efforts of conservation organisations, like Opwall, and fresh minds coming through projects such as the one I participated in, can do something to alleviate this disasters progressions.


David Gance: University College London
David's Story

“Hoga Island – Subsistence Fishing Practices & Social Development Implications of Overfishing”

I took part in a 6 week expedition to Hoga, Indonesia to carry out research for my dissertation project. As well as the Alfred Russel Wallace Grant, I did receive other grants in order to fund my study. I was the grateful recipient of the Sir Ivor Cohen academic award as part of the Scientific Instrument Makers livery, as well as from the Jack Petchey foundation.

On site, data collection for the 2016 season was undertaken to evaluate the sustainability of fish fences placed around Kaledupa Island’s coral reel subsistence fishery. This involved monitoring 10 fences over a 4-week period, therefore collecting a significant amount of catch data as well as interacting with the fishermen themselves. The combination of these aspects created a novel approach to the assessment of a subsistence fishery, and this opportunity facilitated significant academic development during my time in Indonesia.

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Discussing through translators the social and environmental consequences of overfishing with a cross-section of local communities was an illuminating experience. Gaining a unique insight into the mind-set of rural island populations that rely on marine environments for both their food and income security. The approach taken and observations made definitely hold me in good stead for future social development and community engagement projects that I hope to participate in.


The proliferation of blast and cyanide fishing that prevails within the Wakatobi Marine National Park despite enforcement agency presence and the illegality of these practices were unearthed during this project. The notion of blast practices destroying large swathes of the coral reef as an ‘open secret’ amongst fishermen has influenced my future academic and career path to gear towards promoting an understanding amongst less economically developed and traditional communities of environmental consequences.

Generally, spending every day amongst the Bajau community of Sampela definitely enhanced my personal outlook regarding the attitude of developing nations. Personally, this is important going forward into professional and potentially academic endeavours. The understanding of community needs with regards to alternative livelihoods, treading cultural boundaries in order for successful community engagement is an important skill learnt during this expedition. Therefore, the trajectory of my future career is indelibly linked with the experience, skills, personal and academic development taken place during my expedition to Indonesia.


On a personal level highlights of the trip included the diverse range of species observed during catch collection that totalled 163 different species identified. The ability to literally grasp and immerse myself within what for many is only theory studied was an invaluable experience that would not have been possible without the generous sponsorship provided by the A.R Wallace grant. The practical experience of community engagement strategies and having discussions with key stakeholders will be significantly important for my career going forward. The overall experience of this summer’s expedition has been entirely positive and truly memorable, and I hope that future students will be lucky enough to be aided towards completing similar endeavours.

Ellen Ward: University of Southampton
Ellen's Story

“Boats, Bintang and Bioluminescence”

Lora Downes: University of Edinburgh
Lora's Story

I was keen to raise as much money to fund my trip to Indonesia as possible. I was lucky enough to receive a £750 travel grant from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, which covered my flights to Indonesia. I received a £500 grant from the Leys School, Cambridge (my high school). I also helped host a charity date auction to raise extra money, where we auctioned off our friends in return for vouchers for date activities, like dinner or trips to the zoo, raising just over £600. The rest of the money was made up by my part time job. These efforts, along with the Alfred Russel Wallace Grant for Outstanding Field Ecologists, enabled me to spend six weeks this summer working as a research assistant in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Indonesia has one of the highest levels of endemism in the world. Not only was there huge opportunity for biological research, but also a fascinating culture to emerse myself in.


The first two weeks of my project were spent in the village of Labundo, amid the jungles of Buton. I worked on surveys studying bats, herpetofauna, birds, megafauna and butterflies. A specific project I assisted in was the 2016 REDD+ application. This involved surveying the jungle to assess its carbon content. The data obtained would be fed back to the government for local communities to receive to preserve the jungle. Logging is a huge problem on the island of Buton. Even local guides we met admitted to logging, as it is their only source of income. We as research assistants worked alongside scientists and Indonesian locals to raise awareness of the affect logging was having. By giving locals an alternative source of income from the REDD+ scheme, a huge amount of the Buton forests may be saved, along with the endemic species it is habitat for.


I spent the following four weeks on Hoga Island in the Wakatobi Marine National Park. Here I obtained my PADI Advanced Open Water Diver qualification, which enabled me to join research teams on the island. I worked on the long-term monitoring project, carrying out invertebrate transects on the reef and analysing stereovideo footage of fish. This information is key for the constant overseeing of Wakatobi’s reefs. Illegal blast fishing is threatening the biodiversity of the reef; this biodiversity loss is not only upsetting for scientists, but also for the fisherman on the nearby island of Sampela a village built on stilts in the sea and home to a few hundred settled sea-gypsies. I was lucky enough to visit Sampela and speak to a couple of locals. The effect blast fishing is having on communities such as those on Sampela is awful. One haul for illegal fisherman is more than one fisherman from Sampela could catch in a lifetime.


I had the opportunity to work alongside some of the top scientists in the world. I attended lectures daily and had the chance to discuss my interests, specifically coral bleaching, with experts in the field. Working with a team of marine biology students of a similar age developed communication, enquiry and efficiency skills. This project has confirmed to me that tropical field work is of interest for my career. I am now considering post-graduate study in marine biology. The project has opened many doors for my career. I have made many professional links in the field, and confirmed my passion for this area of research. I am now working as the Operation Wallacea Team Leader at the University of Edinburgh and intend to revisit Indonesia again next summer to develop my research further.


Luke Meade: University of Birmingham
Luke's Story

“Jungle Mountains to Depths of Reefs”

Grants formed backbone of my fundraising. Without grants, and the Wallace Grant especially, I would not have been able to undertake eight weeks in Indonesia with Operation Wallacea. My summer was divided between a four week rapid biodiversity survey of the NW rainforests of Pulau Buton, and a further four weeks assisting marine research projects at the base on Hoga, in the Wakatobi Islands.

My first week consisted of training in the biology of the region, survey techniques, and jungle living/survival skills, concluding with two nights spent out in the rainforest – nothing compared to what the later expedition would involve. The following three weeks were the expedition itself, an excursion into never before surveyed rainforest. The majority of this was spent living in hammocks in mountainous rainforest. Here a base camp was established from which we surveyed transects through the jungle recording bird, amphibian, reptile, and various megafauna species, and trapping bats after dark. We wanted to determine whether the animals in this higher altitude area of forest differed from the more well studied areas of rainforest that Opwall has been based in for years.


A major attraction of the experience was its nature as a true ‘expedition’. Being able to journey into a genuinely remote area of the world to assist the first ever scientific work done there really excited me. Tropical rainforest is a difficult environment to live in, especially for someone used to a British climate. But here, the rain, mud, bugs, and heat no longer mattered. I was surrounded by strange, fantastical creatures of every size in a superbly adventurous setting.

We were based a couple of hours trek away from a coastal village, where our guides and supplies were from and had the honour of being invited to this village to celebrate the end of Ramadan with the local people. What an experience – food of every variety and the kindest hospitality you could imagine. Spending time in the village we discovered they were surrounded by an astounding range of animals, a range seemingly not present in the dense jungle and certainly more easily seen. It was decided that the last few days of the expedition should be spent in one of these villages, studying the wildlife there, as it had so much to offer.

After a reluctant farewell to the jungle and my expedition friends, I spent a further four weeks at Opwall’s marine research base on Hoga. This tiny 2.5km island is a curious place – a mass of uplifted coral full of large, jagged, water filled holes, populated by an abundant number of rather bulky monitor lizards.


Here I learned to dive, falling in love with the multi-coloured fish, spectacular reefs, and diving itself to such an extent that I opted to undertake a further, more advanced qualification in it. For my second week, the opportunity for a week’s worth of excursions arose to get immersed in the culture of the Wakatobi region, and the island of Kaledupa in particular. It is a place of fantastic diversity. We met Kaledupan royalty, octopus fishermen, seaweed farmers, and were taken to little-known caves and lakes. It was only my final week in Hoga that I spent assisting research. Finally, I got the opportunity to help dissertation students gather a wealth of data on dives for a fantastic array of projects.

The scientific work I conducted both in the jungle and at the Hoga base gave me a great sense of satisfaction and I felt it was a real contribution towards the understanding and the protection of the environment in these areas. The whole experience is a source of great memories. I cannot thank Premier Oil strongly enough for the funds they provided for this grant, without it, none of this would have been possible for me.


Matthew Tosdevin: Keele University
Matthew's Story

I study Environment and Sustainability at Keele university. Presented with a long summer break, I joined Operation Wallacea as a research assistant to turn my summer into something constructive. Not being an experienced traveller, the prospect of journeying into the tropical rainforest not knowing anyone was a daunting one, but almost immediately after landing, I met the first friend of many I would make on my trip. They were easy to spot as an Opwall volunteer; we were the only people in hike boots! (those going straight to Hoga, look out for flip flops).

The first two weeks of expedition were spent on Buton Island, assisting in jungle research. Before journeying into the forest, we had a week of training in Labundo village, staying in local houses hosted by families. We had daily lectures, learning about local species, the ecology of the Wallacea region, and how Opwall works for conservation. Our training went beyond lectures though, and we had many practical tutorials on surveying different species (such as butterflies, birds and bats) as well as habitat. A few days of our training was spent in nearby forest, which we trekked to with cooking equipment and food split between teams. This was the first night I had ever slept in the jungle, and it truly was a night I will never forget. After a night time bath in the warm waters of the nearby stream, I slept soundly with the noise of cicadas on my constructed raised bed made with rice-sacks. The next site was more magnificent still, with a series of waterfalls making the first camp pale in comparison. We returned to Labundo village and had the chance to share in the holy festival, Eid, which was a great insight into local living. After morning prayer, a day a feasting ensues, and we really had a chance to connect with our host family during the celebrations.


After Eid, it was time to journey to central camp to use our skills in the field. Here we could join the transects we were most interested in, and so on the first morning I joined the bird transect. Bird transects are conducted by stopping at 300m intervals, then spending ten minutes listening and recording every bird you hear or see. The bird expert was masterful at identifying bird calls, and her enthusiasm was contagious. I soon learnt the most regularly heard calls, and was inspired to learn more about birds in the UK when I returned. My favourite animal I saw during this time was the knobbed hornbill; a pair were perched on a giant fig tree overlooking the camp, close enough to see clearly.


We departed the jungle in high spirits, looking forward to the white sandy beaches of Hoga island, although knowing we would miss the jungle. We arrived in the dark, and so the beauty of the island was only revealed the next morning. My first week here was spent learning to dive and gaining a PADI open water qualification. Even while doing dive training, the vibrant coral ecosystem became apparent, with wrasse, pufferfish and lion fish being frequent visitors to our training platforms. It became obvious why the reefs here are considered some of the most diverse on the planet. In the second week, we were really able to get into the research around the coral reefs here. We had a week of intense training, giving us the knowledge to be able to assist with researchers projects.


The Alfred Russel Wallace grant enabled me to go to one of the most biologically diverse regions on the planet, which is something I had only dreamed of doing. It has inspired me to look for a career in the conservation sector, and gave me knowledge to put into use for my dissertation and work placements; for this I will be eternally grateful. I look forward to pursuing bird ecology in the future, and plan on taking every opportunity to dive again!


William Macluskie: Lancaster University
Willam's Story

“Weaving Through Buton: The Trip of a Lifetime”

Having never been anywhere as far-flung as Indonesia before, I was naturally faced with a barrage of questions, one of which asked of and often by me, was “What possessed you to suddenly go off to the jungle?” To this day, I have yet to formulate a suitable response, other than to say ‘gut instinct’; however, that very same gut instinct rewarded me with one of the most exhilarating, life-changing trips of my life. With an unerring desire for adventure and a slight hint of naivety, I threw myself head first into one of the most extreme environments in the world!


After stitching together four different flights across the globe to reach Indonesia, on the 22nd of June, I finally touched down in Bau-Bau, a town so called due to its history with the colonial spice trade (Bau-Bau translating literally as ‘Smelly’!). Greeted by the beaming Indonesian sun and the staff of Opwall, we were driven through the town, and after a quick culinary adventure, we arrived in Labundo-bundo, the base for Operation Wallacea’s Indonesian exploits. Here, everyone got to know one another, learn about the taxa on the island, and get an idea of what to expect in terms of surveying for resident species. Of course whilst doing all this, we were struck by the sheer beauty of the surrounding area; plantations of cocoa and coconut nestled amongst gaps in the nearby rainforest a short walk from the main road in the village. We looked out to the azure skies scraped by the emerald canopies of distant forests, hearing the gentle murmuring of the nearby ambience, broken occasionally by a calling Sulawesi Babbler or a woodpecker…there’s nothing like it, and that fails to even begin to describe the village and the people themselves! Armed with a phrasebook and a slightly nervous smile I began delving into the culture and discovered some of the nicest people I have ever met. The language itself only has one tense, which makes learning it much easier than many others; a few words here and there were greatly appreciated, and as a matter of fact I think I actually enjoyed learning it too!


Having grown accustomed to the comforts of the village the largest event to truly test us all was jungle training, which just so happened to encompass every aspect of the jungle, good and bad. The humidity was instantaneously oppressive, standing in the sun was wearying to the point of collapse and eventually dehydration reared its ugly head, but even that was a trifling cost compared to the riches of the rainforest. Throughout jungle training, we were taught about the survival skills needed in the rainforest environment such as the snaring techniques used for catching animals, the identification of edible and water-bearing plants but one of the most important lessons I had was when I was dehydrated, slogging back to the truck to salvation through the heat of day, going insane, when I realised I had carried far too much, with an ill-fitting backpack. The last four-hour hike, at the time, seemed like a gauntlet, yet I now look back upon this as a defining moment of the trip, one that hardened me for the many treks to come, and gave me the knowledge that I could overcome any challenge. I initially doubted myself, but thanks to that trek I remember the moment where the aches and pains just faded into the background, and I began to enjoy everything as it came…it couldn’t have come at a better time, as the ‘Mob’ (our nickname for the mobile team) assembled in Labundo, piled into a train of cars, and headed for the wilderness of the north.


As a media student, it was a unique experience studying the fauna, and it was a marvellous insight learning about the survey techniques, but nothing would ever prepare me for the unique beauty of the rainforest. Butterflies would cascade in clearings, bird calls would craft a majestic natural orchestra, lizards and frogs would delight successful sleuths as they hopped and raced through the forest and snakes would raise gasps of awe, and even greater gasps of excitement when our resident herpetologist successfully wrangled one slithering through the undergrowth, or coiled on a tree-branch! The canopy would glisten with a viridian glow, beams of sunlight would race to the forest floor bathing vines and plants in a golden light or a tempest of rain would cascade earthwards, conjuring a fog to linger in the air… yet at night it becomes another world, with strange cacophonies of nocturnal life calling out into the symphony of the night, a chill hanging in the air as head-torches catch the gleam of a thousand spiders eyes. Here, I would lie suspended in my hammock, and watch the alien constellations of the southern skies trace their way through the gaps in the canopy, wondering what each new day would bring as I filled in my journal.


As an aspiring journalist, I feel this journey into the wilderness has not only given me the courage to want to explore new territory, but has also highlighted the importance of and the difficulties surrounding conservation. In future, I hope that I can use my newfound thirst for adventure to help join the ranks of journalists and other figures in raising awareness about the fragility of our natural environments, and hope to be able to become one of the watchmen, ensuring that no corporation or government abuses it in the name of profit. All I can now say is that each and every moment in the jungle has been a treasure to behold, and I am very grateful not only to Opwall for organising such an expedition and also awarding me with the Wallace grant, but also to all the other members of the ‘Mob’ team, and every local guide who helped make the trip an absolute joy. I will remember it and all the people I met and saw for years to come, and for that, all I can offer is a humble thank you.


Theresa Zeisner: University of Cambridge
Theresa's Story

This summer I had the once in a lifetime opportunity to go on a 4-week expedition to Indonesia, working as a marine research assistant with Operation Wallacea. In order to cover the cost of my expedition, I applied to multiple grants which were available from around my university area and from my hometown. Luckily I was awarded the Alfred Russel Wallace grant and a travel grant from my College. This in total gave me £1400 which helped immensely with my funding. I covered all other expenses with my savings from prize money I won at science competitions and from working as a tutor.

Excited and nervous, I boarded the first plane to the Coral Triangle, the very region in which Alfred Russel Wallace had made many of his invaluable observations. Forty-eight hours and four flights later, I finally arrived on Buton, an island situated in South East Sulawesi. During my first week I undertook an important Reef Survey Technique course. Through three daily lectures, I learned to identify over 200 marine organisms and their attributes in great detail, as well as learning about their habitat, reef ecology and protection mechanisms. Nothing compares to the experience of spotting organisms in their natural habitat during the daily dives; my first sighting of a juvenile pufferfish sleeping on a soft coral was very memorable. These encounters became part of my daily routine and turned every dive into a new adventure. Whilst diving in such a rich and dense marine habitat, I learned various techniques on how to best survey the abundance of organisms underwater. I then went on to join the monitoring team, where I applied my newly acquired skills and knowledge to actively contribute towards Opwall’s conservation efforts. Without Wi-Fi and only weak cellular data arising questions had to be solved the traditional way using reference books or by conferring with the other scientists and staff on site. This probably took longer than simply typing a question into google but often sparked interesting discussions among our group.

Hoga accommodation

Two weeks on South Buton flew by and it was time to head off with a group of students to the second Opwall site in the middle of the night. Two ferries brought us to the astonishingly beautiful Island of Hoga, situated in the Wakatobi National Park. The marine research centre on Hoga is Operation Wallacea’s flagship, with a marine protected area having been established there in 1996. Stripped of all modern conveniences, including running water and air conditioning, I quickly adapted to the new setting and fell in love with the way of life on the remote island: living in a traditional wooden hut on stilts, recycling waste and minimising water consumption in order to protect the beautiful environment. As a research assistant, I helped dissertation students gather data for their different projects ranging from behavioural studies of anemone fish to ecological studies on coral and sponge association. During those dives and snorkels, I was struck by how more abundant the fish and corals where on Hoga than around Buton. This was proof of the positive impact of a marine protected area on the fish and coral population.

triggerfish school

In my final week, I had the opportunity to embrace Indonesian culture and learn about locals’ livelihood, fishing practices and beliefs. A memorable experience was the visit to a fishing village near Hoga where local fishermen had started seaweed farming, which can be used to produce agar and provides an alternative income source to fishing. This was an eye opening experience which made clear to me that there is so much more to conservation than conducting research and introducing fishing quotas.

Fishing Village 2

The expedition was an incredibly rewarding experience, which might never have happened without the generous grant I received from Premier Oil. It left me with an increased breadth of scientific and practical skills, a close insight into field research, a multitude of academic knowledge and an intensified love for the ocean and its inhabitants. The people I met in Indonesia sparked my passion for protecting these unique habitats. I would therefore like to thank Premier Oil for their kind and generous grant!

Hoga Beach