My recent photo and film assignment with WWF Pacific was all about turtles: Fiji’s turtle nesting season was in full swing, and the idea was to join several turtle monitoring teams in the field and document their activities in three areas of Fiji: our first stop would be Kavewa Island, a small island with one community north of Vanua Levu, from there we would head to Yadua Island, east of Vanua Levu and the last stop was Dravuni Island, at the northernmost tip of Kadavu.
This was an assignment I was really looking forward to for several reasons: as a marine biologist myself, I am naturally interested in nearly everything involving the oceans; secondly, I had been shooting a lot of tourism-related content lately and was already longing for an environmental/conservation-focussed project again, and thirdly because I knew of Juergen Freund’s work, a photographer I look up to and a fellow member of the International League of Conservation Photographers. He visited some of the same places to shoot for WWF more than ten years ago and created many stellar images still being used today. I see it as an honour to create the ‘next batch’ of images for the WWF, which will be used across many communication and marketing materials in the future.
At WWF Pacific, over 100 WWF volunteers are working on various topics. There is also a number of volunteers that are focused specifically on monitoring turtle nesting sites for one month at a time during the nesting season. In teams of three, they patrol and monitor known nesting sites and document all their observations. The plan was to meet them at the end of their month’s term, photograph and film their work in the field, and then return together to Suva.
Always at my side would be Ravai Vafo’ou, communications officer at WWF Pacific, who would organise all our transport needs (which there were a lot of!), facilitate all necessary cultural obligations and, of course, look after the volunteers. We were about to embark on a spectacular albeit very intense trip!
The assignment started early Monday morning: Ravai picked me up at 5 am to head to the Nausori airport near Suva and catch the early flight to Labasa, a town located in northern Vanua Levu. Here, we connected with Semi Sauliga, WWF Macuata Project Officer stationed at the Labasa office, and Wayne Faukilau, who specialised in supplying biogas units to communities. Both would accompany us on this first leg of the trip. We drove with a pick-up truck for 1.5 hours towards a jetty, from where we switched to a fibreglass boat to complete the last hour of the trip before reaching Kavewa Island.
At the jetty, we were greeted by Emosi Time, WWF’s longest-turtle monitor on duty. In 2010, when the Fiji Government implemented a moratorium on catching and eating turtles, WWF, alongside other partner agencies, trained several dozen turtle monitors across Fiji to monitor turtle-related activities in their respective villages and districts.
After sorting logistics by buying fuel and other supplies, we headed down the beautiful mangrove-fringed river leading towards the open ocean. The weather was perfect, and the sun was blasting in all her strength onto the unprotected fibreglass. The ride was smooth and beautiful. In moments like this, I feel absolutely privileged and lucky to be doing the job I am doing. Before heading to Kavewa, we first planned to visit the volunteers on Katawaqa Island, a small uninhabited island just minutes from Kavewa and their primary field site.
When we reached the picturesque island around lunchtime, Ravai and I had already been travelling for more than six hours. A little bit tired but also looking forward to whatever it was that was waiting for us, I got my gear ready, and we met the three volunteers waiting for us in the shade of the little vegetation on the island.
The team had spent the last month visiting the beaches nearly daily to patrol the coastline to look for new turtle nests and observe the known ones for hatching activity. So far, the team had identified several hawksbill turtle nests on the islands, and after a quick talk through the shoot, Emosi led the team to check the present nests.
For the next few hours, I shot content of the volunteers and Emosi doing their routine, and for some different perspectives, I also took some aerial photographs and videos. In the afternoon, we made the short journey to Kavewa Island, where we relaxed in the typical Fiji style for the rest of the day, talked through the shoot and planned the following day. A large tarp was placed underneath a shade-giving tree right by the ocean, and while some were dozing, others exchanged stories. I browsed through my photos, analysed the content we had shot so far and planned what was needed going ahead.
Our night was spent in the village hall, some families had kindly supplied us with blankets and pillows, and the light breeze flowing through the room from window to window kept the mosquitos away (at least largely). Without internet access (besides a specific spot by the tree where Vodafone could catch) and time which seemingly stood still, village visits always had something about them – especially for me, coming from a completely different cultural background. It always feels a little bit like a digital reset, a time away from the city’s hustle and an opportunity to let the mind wander where it wants to.
As common, we rose early the next morning at 5:30 am. I started preparing my underwater housing for our upcoming trip to Nukuvadra Island, the second nesting site that the volunteers monitored. The team had observed one hatching nest at the end of February, and I wanted to be prepared just in case. And besides the topside and aerial cover of the WWF Turtle Monitoring Project, I wanted to capture underwater images of the small hatchlings when they entered the Pacific Ocean for the first time in their lives.
Before seven, Emosi, the three volunteers, Ravai, and I were on our way to the uninhabited Island. Once we arrived, Ravai and I tended to all my gear, moving it from the boat to a shady spot safe from water and sun, when we already heard a yell: “We have hatchlings here!”.
I took a moment to put my Nikon D850 into the Aquatica Underwater Housing, double-checked the strobes and lights and walked over to the nest. Several hatchlings slowly dug their way out of the 20-30cm deep nest in the sand and started crawling towards the ocean. With my second camera, the D810, I shot a few images before jumping myself into the ocean to place myself near their path, ready to photograph the hatchlings.
It was a hawksbill turtle nest, and over 100 tiny baby turtles emerged. Some of them were slower than others, and Emosi, with his decades of experience, helped the late ones by taking them to the ocean to catch up to the group. The fatality rate among hatchlings is extremely high: only around one out of 100 hundred will make it to adulthood. Their biggest chance is to stay in the group as they enter the water to reduce the risk of being singled out and eaten by larger fish or birds.
Everything went fairly fast, but once the last hatchling had passed me, I realised what an incredible moment I had just been able to capture and witness. An absolute cuteness overload for all the senses!
When we were back in the village, there was one more thing we wanted to do: catch an adult turtle in the waters surrounding Kavewa to conduct some measurements. Emosi delegated a few youngsters to join us on the boat and help us find one. The technique is as simple as difficult: once a turtle is spotted, the “jumper” in front of the boat will guide the captain with commands into the right place to jump head-first in the water, grab the turtle by its carapace and turn it around to hold it securely.
It took us a good 30 minutes until we found a suitable individual after the first attempt had failed due to the unbelievably fast and skilled manoeuvring of the turtle. The second one couldn’t outsmart us: lots of Fijian back-and-forth shouting was exchanged between the jumper and the captain and after a few minutes of “chasing”, our “jumper” dove in the water and surfaced seconds later with the turtle in his hands. Unbelievable skills!
It was a green turtle of a decent size, and we quickly brought it to the beach so Emosi could conduct the measurements of the carapace. This procedure is a little stressful for the turtle, but after a few minutes, the data was recorded, and the turtle was released back into the warm and beautiful waters of the South Pacific.
For us, it meant that our shooting goals were completed here in Kavewa. We were extremely lucky with the weather; not a single raindrop fell during our time here, and we managed to document a hatching nest and the capture and release of an adult turtle!
Happy but exhausted, we said our goodbyes to the wonderful community and returned to the jetty on Vanua Levu, from where we headed back to Labasa to prepare for our next destination: Yadua Island.
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Tom Vierus is an award-winning photographer, filmmaker, and marine biologist based in Suva, Fiji Islands. This blog is dedicated to his assignments and to sharing some behind-the-scenes footage.