I shivered when the breeze blew across. It was our first day of field volunteering at Fitzroy Island, where we would do our first snorkelling surveys. I wasn’t looking forward to the water’s morning temperature. Although it was December – almost the Australian summer in tropical Cairns – I was still glad I packed my 1mm long-sleeved shortie.

It’s not for long. The water would warm up soon enough, just as it would back home.

Not that we weren’t also issued full-body stinger suits, mind you. They seem to come standard in Cairns. I wondered at the sight when I first saw it. It brought to mind the last place I went to a beach in Australia for water-related activities, which was Sydney.

The sea was way warmer in Cairns than in Sydney, and yet it’s in Cairns that people swim fully clothed. People here simply took it for granted that you’d be wearing stinger suits when you go in the water, in the same way as sunscreen was everywhere and it was assumed that you’d be applying them liberally through the day. And that’s because of the presence of jellyfish.

You wouldn’t induce any drama if you came to swim in Cairns in a burkini – at least, not when there’s jellyfish around.

On the beach, I watched two young Arab tourists playing at capsizing in their kayak. A trio of girls, American from the accent but African and Arab by ethnicity, humourously called for a taxi as they snorkelled. The Arab dudes responded, paddling over in their kayak and pretending to be an uber.

Oceans2Earth volunteering program at the Great Barrier Reef

The volunteer co-ordinator, Cassie, had to cross out parts of the welcome letter waiting for me at the YHA lobby. I got the sense that most volunteers arrive in Cairns just before their volunteering stint and immediately get into it.

But I had come early to spend my birthday on the reef. By then I had gone on a liveaboard trip, taken a day trip to a different part of the Great Barrier Reef, and looked around Cairns a little.

However, the volunteering was something I particularly wanted to do, given that I was in the Great Barrier Reef. I still think of myself as a marine ecologist despite never practicing my degree. At the time of my visit, the Great Barrier Reef had recently undergone successive mass bleaching events that damaged much of it. Indeed, this year UNESCO had proposed to classify it as a World Heritage Site at risk, and only a massive lobbying effort by the Australian government avoided it.

It wasn’t that I believed I would contribute much with my volunteering stint. Had that been the only intention, it wouldn’t have been worth the airplane emissions.

Rather, I wanted to get a sense for how citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, as well as those working to conserve it, felt about it. How apparent was the conservation sentiment, and what kind of conservation attitude did the people have? Is it collaborative? Divisive? Militant? Pragmatic?

Volunteering survey days at Fitzroy Island

After a day of classroom induction, where we were taught how to conduct the ‘Eye on the Reef’ surveys, we set off on our first survey snorkel at Fitzroy Island. The early start was not so bad in the summer, even for a non-lark like me, as the early sunrise made the walk to the Reef Fleet Terminal feel later to me than it really was.

Fitzroy Island is one of the nearest Great Barrier Reef islands to Cairns. Located just around the Yarrabah peninsula, it is a popular tourist spot, and it has one resort. You don’t have to stay in the resort to enjoy the island, though. It can be visited as a day trip from Cairns, via the flyer ferries from the Reef Fleet Terminal. Similar ferries are available for Green Island as well, another tourist island within day trip distance.

Due to its relatively stressed condition as a highly touristed island, it’s not surprising that Oceans2Earth chose to regularly survey sites here.

View of the main beach of Fitzroy Island resort and other islands beyond from the island jetty. The island rises steeply on the left, covered by green foliage. There is a tourist boat and a floating inflatable platform in the water on the right.

Snorkelling surveys

I don’t remember everything about how to do the surveys, now. But I remember there were a few different surveys.

I remember that the Rapid Monitoring survey is very similar to Reef Check’s survey, but not the same. At the time, I had just passed the pool screening to qualify for Reef Check’s EcoDiver program, and had looked up the survey training ahead of the island certification. (And then, of course, Covid19 messed up that schedule; although miraculously I did get certified in 2020!)

The Eye on the Reef survey is about logging indicator species within 10 minutes, looking for sea cucumber, popular aquarium fish like butterflyfish and anemonefish, grazing herbivores, high economic value fish like cods and groupers, giant clams, and your usual megafauna (turtles and sharks). While similar, Reef Check’s survey looks for slightly different things.

There was also a coral colour chart, with a shade gradient. We had to pick 20 random coral samples and match their colours to the chart. My best guess is that this was more about monitoring zooxanthellae density in the coral. Maybe the colour has a relationship to stress level, as corals expel their zooxanthellae symbiotes when they’re not well.

I felt the survey was easy enough to do, although admittedly my in-water technique could use some work. But then Kay told us she couldn’t work out which reef forms were even coral. Now, marine life identification can get tricky, but I realised then that I could instinctively pick out at least yes/no for the basic coral forms. But I didn’t know why.

I mean, how do I know foliose coral isn’t a seaweed? … I just do.

Cluster of brown cabbage-like foliosa coral surrounded by degraded Acropora branching coral reef

The opposing priorities of a resort in a Marine Park

The survey locations were further along the beach than the main beach of the resort. We changed into survey gear in one of the resort’s changing rooms that were open to the beachfront. I thought it was cool that the resort was so supportive of the work, until staff came over to ask us to justify ourselves even though we wearing volunteer T-shirts.

Considering that the resort hosts the island’s Turtle Rehabilitation Centre, which is also run by Oceans2Earth volunteers, I thought it was really odd. I wonder if some less progressive resort guests had complained; perhaps they felt we reduced the exclusivity of the resort. After all, volunteers tend to be on the young side, usually aiming for budget travel.

Resort staff understandably have to respond to what their guests ask for. But people often forget that penniless young people today are future people with money. And sometimes, even those formerly-young people with money still choose to volunteer even though they can afford a resort stay. Just sayin’.

Indeed, I rarely choose high-end resorts nowadays. Which is interesting, because that’s the kind of tourism I’ve done more in my life. Pre-Covid, this was my family’s travel style. I’m certainly not avoiding it because I’m not used to that kind of travel.

I mean, I’d still go if I’m invited by family, or if you literally pay me to do it (i.e. business travel). If you asked me why, I think one of the reasons is that I simply like people who choose other travel styles more. They leave you with the sense that the world is friendly, though bigger than you know. They would be the kind of people who would be excited to meet reef volunteers. I’d rather position myself to make those acquaintances instead.

Fitzroy Island’s Turtle Rehabilitation Centre

The Turtle Rehabilitation Centre was not open at the time. I suppose under normal conditions, we would be changing there instead of at the resort.

Usually you have turtle hatcheries in marine parks, at least in my region. The intention is to improve the odds that the eggs all hatch, so that there would be more hatchlings that get in the water. But this was not a hatchery. It was effectively a veterinary centre, for turtles.

You could encounter turtles while snorkelling off of this beach. Indeed, on my last snorkel there, when the day was overcast and the water murky, I saw several large turtles in the more degraded parts of the reef. Unsurprisingly, they also nest on the beach. Cassie pointed out bite marks on the trees that marked the end of the upper shore. The turtles came right up to the underbrush to dig their nests. I thought that was odd. Wouldn’t it be inconvenient to dig sand nests with the roots in the way?

On the flyer ferry, we met some of the volunteers with the turtle rescue programme. Some were actually vets-in-training, and all of them seemed like they belonged in House Hufflepuff (which is the best Hogwarts House, sorry not sorry). I guess wildlife rescue attracts a particular personality type.

Downtime at Fitzroy Island

Conservation volunteering programmes usually give you a bit of time in the schedule to enjoy the place. The Oceans2Earth programme is no exception. We’d do a couple of snorkel surveys and then have a few free hours on the island until the return ferry. In that time, you could explore the island or arrange for water activities from the resort dive centre.

Over three survey days, I managed to see quite a bit of the island.

Bird calls on Fitzroy Island

Nobody’s nude at Nudey Beach

Fitzroy Island has another good beach aside from the ones flanking the jetty. It takes a short hike through a jungle path to get to it. The hike wasn’t too difficult overall, but there were some steep sections. It’s worth it, though. The sand is finer and it’s just more pleasant overall. However, it’s just a beach. There aren’t any amenities here.

I fell behind relative my co-volunteers for reasons of photography, and reading the path’s information placards. Turns out that the surrounding sea had been land 8,000 years ago, which was when the sea rose and Fitzroy Island became an island. The local Gurubana-Gunggandji Aboriginal people have stories from before that time.

Along the way, the path rises high enough that you could spy upon the beach from a height through the openings of the jungle. The beach is called Nudey beach, but it is not a nudist beach. I don’t know why it’s called that; maybe it’s because you can see nudibranchs here.

Brilliant cerulean and turquoise blue waters on a sunny day at Nudey Beach on Fitzroy Island, Cairns. A few tourists are in the water and there is a yacht with its sails furled in deeper water. Buried boulders emerge slightly above the fine white sand in the foreground.

Fitzroy Island lighthouse hike

The reason why I did this hike was because I couldn’t dive. I was still recovering from the lingering effects of an illness; my out-of-balance thyroid levels made it unsafe for me to scuba dive. So, as my co-volunteers checked out the diving options, I went inland and upward.

There are two options for the lighthouse hike. The shorter route is to go right up to the lighthouse, and skip the summit lookout. This route is not as steep, so you could go faster. Or you could hike a ring route, picking up the summit first and continue on to the lighthouse, returning with the lowland lighthouse route. I was worried I’d miss the ferry, so I took the first option.

Along the way there were many bush turkey encounters. Where the hike passed through thick jungle, you’d be able to hear birds calling. As you get higher, however, the trees thin out to low shrub and a sparse rocky landscape.

The lighthouse itself isn’t particularly photogenic. But back in the day, its light shone out for 22 nautical miles, guiding wartime shipping into Cairns.

Signage pointing to the way to the lighthouse and the opposite way to Fitzroy Island Resort near the island summit. The top of the island is mostly shrub and grass with little cover from the hot sun. The hiking trail leads to the lighthouse which can be seen in the far distance beyond a slight rise.

Joining a beach cleanup in Yarrabah

We switched from our snorkel surveys to a beach cleanup on our second day. Parley Australia had organised a cleanup in Yarrabah Shire which we would join.

We drove out of Cairns towards Yarrabah. I found the approach interesting, as the Aboriginal flag was painted on boulders with the word ‘TREATY’ on at least one point along the route. From the signs informing access restrictions, and that alcohol restrictions applied, I inferred that the local Aboriginal community self-govern here.

But we had permission, and we continued on.

At the beach, we joined up with Parley’s volunteers. They were diverse, and generally local to Queensland, although none were local to Yarrabah. I met an old Caucasian lady who had been to Malaysia 5 times. She was an archaeologist, and she told me that her father was a Second World War veteran who was wounded in Parit Sulong. Indeed, at that time, the Australians were sent in to succour us in Malaya. It’s really a shame that neither side remembers these days.

Volunteering for a beach cleanup with the local Parley chapter on a beach in Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire. The volunteers are carrying gunny sacks for the plastic litter. Rising above the water as a long line parallel to the horizon is a corroded, dilapidated boat wreck; nothing much is left of it but it makes an interesting accent to the beach scene.

Crusading vs Parley

The beach cleanup began with a briefing about marine plastic pollution and Parley’s work related to that. I was familiar with the topic already; but I figured that if I wasn’t, it was a good scene setting. Parley didn’t mince words, or soften the blow. They weren’t partial either; they had the data to show that this wasn’t just an Asia problem. Australia has a local plastic problem too.

The interesting thing about Parley, in my opinion, is their range. Their activism extended to practical dealmaking, including with governments and companies. Organisations with similar positions to them on issues, similar to Greenpeace, typically do not.

I suppose that’s the point of the name Parley. It brings up Pirates of the Caribbean images, for sure. But, it also literally means to discuss terms – especially with the enemy. From their Adidas X Parley initiative, to the working relationship with the government of the Maldives, and numerous other partnerships, to me it demonstrates the insight that you don’t need the other party to agree on everything you believe in to collaborate. You just need to be people of range.

And that very concept is what makes me think (as an Asian) that they make a lot of sense.

Sure, the various Parley initiatives probably aren’t going to solve the problem completely, and like the majority of initiatives, they all have a limit beyond which it can do no more. But you see, initiatives are as much about people as about things. Increasing initiatives increase trust and number of relationships between people, which will remain even if the initiatives didn’t fully succeed. And trust is what will unlock the better solutions that will really solve the problem.

I mean you do need some Greenpeace now and then. But after a point, without the Parleys, you just lose more and more relationships, damage more and more trust, and come up with none of the solutions.

Close-up of the remnants of a white plastic net bag lying amongst leaf litter in the upper shore of Yarrabah beach.

Post-volunteering anecdotes

I moved to an Airbnb after my volunteering stint. It was a renovated Queenslander house. The guest quarters were in the new ground floor, while the caretaker lived above in the original living space.

It was nice to have a place to myself, after weeks of rooming with others on a liveaboard and a YHA. I came really close to my limit as an introvert.

Asian volunteers abroad

I can’t remember why I met up with Cassie afterwards, but we had a conversation about Asian volunteers in the Great Barrier Reef. My Japanese co-volunteer Amy was spending additional time with Oceans2Earth, and proved herself to be adept and a quick study.

There weren’t too many Asians volunteering in the Great Barrier Reef, Cassie confided. She thought it might be because Asians are less likely to afford it. I confirmed that.

But sometimes they get Chinese volunteers, typically students who needed to show extra-curricular activity. And she asked me if it was normal for Asians of that age to have to be told to do everything. Which was the opposite of independent Amy. And me, for that matter.

I thought back to my own childhood.

Now I could only guess, of course. But if an Asian student can afford to volunteer with Oceans2Earth just to round up their university submission, they’re from well-off families. My personal experience may be a little outdated, but it’s probably reasonable to guess that they are likely to have been very sheltered. Helicopter parenting is common in Asia, especially if the family is affluent. And yes, that would be the result.

Amy was, of course, an outlier. She would have to be, as a Japanese who decided to do marine biology instead of a degree that wouldn’t involve so much time in the sun. And I reminded Cassie that though I look 20, I was 40. I’ve had plenty of time to make up the lag.

Volunteering travel and when it makes sense

I enjoyed more downtime than I thought I wanted at the Airbnb. So I came across Art the caretaker more often than guests normally would. He did the tidying in the afternoons, when he came back from his job at a bakery. A migrant to Australia, he was also a friend to the house owners, who were away living somewhere else.

Art was a Filipino, and was immediately interested to make the acquaintance of a Malaysian, entering easily into ‘we’ when speaking about himself, including another Southeast Asian in the experience as Filipinos would. He told me about the hard hours of bakery work. They wake at 11pm so that the bread would be done fresh every morning. It was hard to get time off. Few people wanted to be a baker, so they were always shorthanded.

But life was still harder in the Philippines, he reflected stoically. His family was with him, and he was working to qualify for citizenship. So it was worth it.

I would like to travel like you, he said. And he asked me what I did in Cairns. I found it impossible to explain volunteering travel to him. That I came to do conservation work in the Great Barrier Reef, and I paid to do it. It just didn’t register to him.

The exchange reminded me that first, you need to have enough yourself. And then, when you have more than enough, you might begin to contribute to a worthy cause.

But only when you have much more than enough, can it make sense to pay to ‘work’.

Green turtle grazing on coral overgrown with algae. The visibility is poor, and the reef is mostly comprised of debris.

Carbon offsetting information to Cairns, Australia

A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Cairns via Singapore produces carbon emissions of approximately 4,383 lbs CO2e. It costs about $22 to offset this. 


Have you ever considered volunteering travel? Why or why not?

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