PhDiaries: Settling in and the first fish surveys

One of the species caught in both river and forest. Belontia hasselti or 'Kapar' in the local language.

One of the species caught in both river and forest. Belontia hasselti or ‘Kapar’ in the local language.

I am now going into my third month here in Indonesia – how crazy is that?! It feels as if the weeks are flying by, and I have hardly enough time to keep up with everything (which has become a familiar feeling during this PhD). I am also now officially in my second year as a PhD student…Now that’s a scary and exciting thought.

Life in Indonesia has been good, the people are wonderful and I’m happy with my research assistants. I’m loving being in the forest and living at camp as usual, and it’s also good to have the house in town for checking emails and having much-needed breaks. I have also completed my first month of fish surveys in the Sabangau river and forest.

The forest here has been extremely dry (I am working in a peat-swamp forest, and for the fish sampling I need a minimum of 10cm of water to place the traps). I have never seen it this dry, and we have recently been suffering from many forest and land fires causing heavy smoke haze at camp and in Palangka Raya. I have been told stories of the haze being a lot worse, which is shocking, as to me I have never experienced this level of air pollution before. You feel the smoke in your eyes and lungs, and it makes your clothes smell like you’ve been standing next to a bonfire. Not very pleasant to say the least. I worry about my own health, while there are still children playing in the streets as if this is something normal.

The long period without rain is meaning that even the canals in the forest are drying up. For my fish sampling I plan to use 20 traps in the river and forest, and the past month I could only set out 6 in the forest. I don’t expect to be able to set any this month. The 20 traps in the river however were extremely successful, and we caught over 5,600 fish in 5 days! Even with the 6 traps in the forest we caught 428 fish. My species count is now up to around 30, which is great!

I had never sampled in the river before (let alone seen my sampling locations), so I was very nervous starting off with the river surveys.  I had to make decisions immediately while sampling as the numbers of fish we were catching was too high to be able to measure and weigh them all (I shouldn’t really complain about having too many fish – better than having too few!), so for these measurements a sub-sample was taken instead. I guess it’s always stressful until you get into the routine of your methods.

What I learnt these past months are the following:

– Things will take time to set up and therefore to get your project running. Be aware of this, plan for this, and be patient!

– It’s OK for it all not to go perfectly immediately (something I need to constantly be reminded of…). Remember this is a learning experience.

– Take the time to explain to your research assistants the reasons why you are taking the measurements you are taking.  Explain to them how the equipment works and why the measurements are important for the general research objectives. They will be more motivated to collect data for you if they know why they are doing it! If they speak a different language to you…bring out the dictionary!

– Time flies faster than you think it will!

– Things will always go wrong. Traps will be lost and/or trampled by pigs, you will forget your bait one day and have to go back for it, equipment will malfunction (especially in hot and humid environments) etc. This is all part of  the joys of field work!

I’m sure I will remember plenty more to add to the list in the next coming weeks.

Oh, and I also saw a clouded leopard at camp…Awesome!

Look at all those traps! Loading them onto our 'Lori'; a small 'train' we take between the river and camp.

Look at all those traps! Loading them onto our ‘Lori’; a small ‘train’ we take between the river and camp.

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