Critter getaway in Bangka

Mangrove view

Mangroves at Bangka Island

At the moment I am back in Lembeh Strait for what will be the last visit to Indonesia during my PhD. So I am making the most of it, enjoying every moment and taking time to visit friends spread out across the archipelago. A few days ago I went to Bangka Island to visit Sophie and Simon, who own Nomad Divers, a very pleasant small dive resort. I wrote about Bangka before, so check it out here if you want to know what the island is all about.

I enjoyed a few very relaxed days, playing (and losing ) board games, teaching their kids how to behave badly and philosophising about science while enjoying gin-tonics. But I also got to appreciate the abundant critters that live in the mangroves and jungle of Bangka Island. Those few days of not working (not a single dive done and no computer in sight), and just enjoying nature reminded me why I fell in love with the tropics in the first place. The beauty of Indonesia (and much of the tropics by extension) is that there is so much wildlife all around you, as long as you just keep your eyes open…or just get plain lucky.


Tarsier in the ceiling! I never realised how long their tails were…

On my first night, while we were catching up and sharing stories about science hobbits, a small tarsier decided to have his dinner in the restaurant. These small primates are rare and vulnerable to extinction, they are only active at night and are usually very shy. If you want to see them in the wild, your best bet is to find yourself a good guide who knows where they roost during the day, so you can see them waking up and moving out to hunt when night falls. Just seeing one is great, having one sitting just above you, while eating a gecko is dumb luck and freaking amazing. For Sophie and Simon, this was a first in 4 years on Bangka!


Nomnomnom. Tarsier (Tarsius Tarsier) eating a gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus) in Bangka Island

There was plenty to see by day as well. I had a great time wandering through the mangroves, looking around for interesting crittersAs you may or may not know, mangroves are important nursery areas for all kind of fish, so it was no surprise to see lots of baby snappers, damsels and other small fish darting around in the shallows. But there was a lot more, loads of mudskippers (skipping around in the mud, as they do), kingfishers in the trees, and the always busy fiddler crabs in the intertidal zone.


Two male fiddler crabs facing off

Fiddler crabs are colourful little crabs, and are named for the males’ disproportionally large claw. One claw is small and used like any other crab uses its claws, the huge claw is used to show off (what did you expect?). The males wave their big claw around to get the attention of females, and to ward of other males encroaching on their territory. If you  ever find yourself in a mangrove with plenty of time on your hands, I can highly advise watching these little guys at work for a while, it’s pretty captivating and highly entertaining.

While I didn’t go into the jungle, there were plenty of little lizards to spot while strolling along the beach or heading to my room. Apparently, there are quite a few snakes to find in the jungle, and legend has it there’s even deer around, maybe I’ll have to bring shoes next time and go have a look.  If mangroves or jungle or jungle trekking aren’t your thing, you can always just chill out, have a beer and watch the geckos on the wall eating bugs or fighting each other. The tropics really are accommodating for any life style 😉


Sophie and Max enjoying the ocean view

Who pays for science?

I frequently talk to divers who are very enthusiastic about marine life and want to learn more about their favourite critters. It often comes as a surprise to these critter-lovers that hardly any research is done on most of the animals they’ve just seen. There are quite a few reasons for this, but one of them is: Science is Bloody Expensive! There might be many people out there wanting to do research on your favourite fish, coral, bird, tree, … But more often than not, the reason they’re not doing that research is lack of money to pay for it. When I say paying for research, I mean paying for all research costs and those often run very high, very quickly.  

In my case, the most obvious cost might be fieldwork, but that includes more than just boat hire, accommodation and food. Fieldwork also means flights, visas, permits, insurance, specialised equipment, other transport costs,… Not just for me, but also for any volunteers or supervisors that come out to help. As much as I am passionate about what I do, I also need to live, so I need to be paid a salary. When I am not doing fieldwork, I need an office, desk, computer, specialised software, access to scientific journals, equipment to do analyses, etc. Again, I don’t work alone but get help from supervisors, administrative staff at the university, etc. all of which need to get paid as well. It’s not hard to see how this can get expensive, but even I was surprised to learn that the global cost for all research is estimated to be as high as 1 trillion dollar!!!

PhD Grant

So who pays for all of this? Where does the money come from to develop a cure for cancer, send people to space or let me look at weird fish? As you might expect, it’s complicated. A lot of it is funded by governments, so actually by yourself through paying taxes (Thanks!). Applied research such as engineering or chemistry is often partially funded by industry partners to find direct solutions to problems. Then there is a part of funding that comes through NGOs, rich benefactors, etc.

The next question is, who decides which research gets money? The most common way is through the process of scientific grants. The baseline of grants is: you write a proposal of the research you want to do, submit it to the agency who gives the grants (can be any of the funding bodies mentioned earlier) and they decide which project deserves the money most. As you might imagine, this process is VERY competitive and success rates tend to be relatively low. There are many different types of grants (lots of money, little bit of money, small projects, long-term projects,…) and in general a higher value means more competition and lower success rates. Having to apply for grants and the insecurity of continued funding is often cited as one of the most stressful things about scientific research.

Genie grantsIn case you were wondering, my research funding is a merry mix of all of the above. The biggest part is paid by a scholarship I got from Curtin University (so indirectly the Australian government). Most of my fieldwork  is funded through the lab  of my supervisors (which itself is funded by a variety of grants), or by in kind donations from the divecentres I do fieldwork with. Recently I was also awarded a grant from the Society of Conservation Biology. The grant I received was to assess the population status of pygmy seahorses in Bangka Island in North-Sulawesi, Indonesia. This island is under threat from mining, but turns out to be rather rich in pygmy seahorses. I am currently preparing a publication on this research, so I should be able to tell you more about it in the near future.


Moving on

It has been a while since the last blog, mostly since we’ve spent the last week in places with very limited internet access. Here’s what we’ve been up to…

We left Lembeh last week.  Having done 5 weeks worth of research in a muck divers’ paradise, it was to move on. During our time in Lembeh we spent more than 100 hours under water, collected nearly 100 sediment samples, did 70 transects, built a coral nursery, wrote a small fish-ID guide, took well over 2000 photos, collected dozens of surveys, talked to divers and diveguides and had an ab-so-lutely amazing time! You would think that after all of that diving over sand we might have been ready for a break. So the first thing we did when we left Critters@Lembeh, was head straight to another island for some more diving.

Part of the team in Critters@Lembeh

Part of the team in Critters@Lembeh

As it happens, good friends of Luke (Sophie and Simon) own Nomad Divers, a small dive resort on Bangka Island. Bangka is a 3 hour boatride away from Lembeh, and is a relatively un-explored dive destination. It is close to both Lembeh Strait and Bunaken, two of the world’s most renowned dive destinations, but it can hold its own between those bigshots. With loads of pygmy seahorses, great reefs, access to muck dive sites and even the occasional dugong, it’s not a bad place to dive 😉

Sophie, Luke, Max, Simon and me

Sophie, Luke, Max, Simon and me

Pygmy Seahorse

Pygmy Seahorse (Hippocampus bargibanti)

You might have heard about Bangka recently, as it has been in dive and conservation-news a fair bit. A tin mine had been built illegally on the island a few years ago, and multiple NGO’s and divecentres have been fighting a long legal battle to close it down. With success, as last week the mining company lost the court case, effectively shutting down further mining. Which made our dives there even more enjoyable. Besides pygmy seahorses, we obviously had to check out the muck dives Bangka had to offer. We weren’t disappointed, as we found some beautiful little critters, some of which we hadn’t even seen in Lembeh.

Tarsier (or a Gremlin, not entirely sure)

Tarsier (or a Gremlin, I’m not entirely sure)

We said goodbye to Sophie, Simon and their (very cute) 3-months old son Max yesterday. Since we can’t dive before flying, we made decided to make the most of our forced terrestrial time, by visiting the Tangkoko National Park. The park is home to Crested macaques (endemic to Sulawesi!), Tarsiers and apparently a lot of birds as well. Which we only noticed by the swarms of bird watchers in the guesthouse where we were staying. If you think I am going overboard in my passion for marine critters, I invite you to come to Tangkoko and have a look at these bird-people, it’s rather entertaining really (and something of a terrestrial mirror for me as well). In any case, I guess we were not sophisticated enough for the bird watchers, but Luke and me did have a great time watching a large troop of macaques and 4 tiny little tarsiers.

Luke and black crested macaques

Luke and black crested macaques

The next stop is Bali, where more critters are waiting to be surveyed. We will also be deploying SMURFs in the water, more about them in a next blog!