Swapping lecture theatres for tropical waters in French Polynesia

Swapping lecture theatres for tropical waters in French Polynesia

I never thought I would be literally diving head first into my third year of studying science at Victoria University. Yet there I was in Trimester One—fins on feet and mask on face, diving into the Moorea Lagoon in French Polynesia to research marine life as part of an undergraduate marine biology course.

An anemone at a popular fish spawning site.

After a five-hour flight to Tahiti, then a ferry to the island of Moorea, my SCIE304 classmates and I were enveloped by warm Tahitian air and eager to delve straight into the field. After only a few hours on the island, we were geared up and heading for the water to identify any species or interactions we might want to research for our different projects. Feeling festive, three of us dedicated our self-motivated group research to Christmas tree worms (Spirobranchus giganteus). We spent the remaining days and nights researching our chosen species, and designing and executing an observational study on these worms and the relationship they share with Vermetid snails (Vermetidae), and the most predominant coral species in the lagoon (Porites lobata).

Preparing for a day of data collection in the water, Moorea Lagoon.

Based amongst a hive of scientific research and activity at the University of California, Berkeley’s Gump Research Station, we got a real taste of what a future of scientific field work could entail. The field was an unpredictable and exciting place to research and learn—you never knew what you might come across. When measuring a coral colony, I noticed a rather large nurse shark tucked between the rocks below me trying to nap. It wasn’t always smooth sailing in the field, with long days and physical work, but with the guidance and support of Professor Jeffrey Shima, our course coordinator, and our post-graduate teaching assistants, we learned to channel these challenges into improving our research methods and experience.

A blacktip reef shark swims nearby—this species is common in the lagoon and helps keep reef populations healthy.

It became obvious that Jeff was part of the furniture in Moorea. He knew the ins and outs of the island and it knew him too. Jeff himself spent time at Gump Research Station as an undergraduate student from Berkeley and wanted to give us the same opportunity he had to experience hands-on, self-motivated research in the marine field, and a taste of the rich and infectious culture of Moorea.

Undergraduate field trip students with Professor Jeffrey Shima (left) and their two post-graduate teaching assistants (right).

When we weren’t immersed in water or research articles we were exploring the island. From historic sacrificial sites to Gump’s Cultural Center, where we were treated to a traditional Tahitian meal and evening with locals, there was no shortage of things to learn during this short and unique field course.

Stingrays are common on the sand flats around Moorea Lagoon.

We arrived back home accompanied by the classic tourist laptop stickers and t-shirts, incomparable memories and experiences, and (after a few big weeks and late nights at the Library) our completed undergraduate marine field research papers.

Maururu (thank you) Jeff, Victoria University and Moorea for the opportunity of a lifetime.

Watch Siobhan’s short video to see a snippet of her class field trip.

Siobhan O’Connor is a third-year science student studying Marine Biology and Environmental Science.

Interested in sharing your experience? Read our submission guidelines and get in touch with your story ideas.