Robin Gauff - Plan A...Plan B...Plan C? How fieldwork becomes a tourist trip.
There is one thing that every scientist working in the field can assure you. It will NEVER go according to plan A! As a field scientist, you need to be very flexible to do the best with what you have and with the challenges that will meet you.
The plan A:
Our work with the Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Ecology focused on two axes. I studied the influence of predation risk on the behaviour of coral-dwelling damselfish. The second study, conducted by my girlfriend and colleague, focused on herbivorous fish behaviour. We wanted to conduct fieldwork in an isolated national park called Wakatobi. These islands were perfect due to their remote nature and lots of space for our work. Conducting a mission in a foreign country requires you to obtain a research permit and a specific visa. The first step is often what takes very long, fortunately for us, it was validated within 14 days, thanks to our Indonesian partners. The visa would be sent to us automatically and we had still 3 months to prepare.
One day before the flight to Indonesia. Everything is prepared. Diving stuff, check. Experimental material, check. Cameras, check. Visa??? We went to Indonesia anyway, could be only a matter of days, right? Wrong! We had the luck that as Europeans we could obtain a tourist visa without problem upon arrival. So we went into the country as tourists and tried to keep the administration moving over there. Days and days of administration. We went to the Indonesian Research Authority, to the police department, to Immigration, back to the authority, to Immigration and then had to wait… What do you do in Indonesia while waiting? A lot. We had the most interesting travel of our life. The way of life in Indonesia, the people, the food, everything is incredible in Jakarta. We really loved this city and visited every cultural facility present. But we didn’t stop there, we took a short distance flight to Yogyakarta and visited the Prambanan and Borobodur temple which were simply amazing. After our tourist activities, we were ordered to Singapore (to obtain a visa you have to leave the country so you can come back again). The closest country was Singapore, so we took our flight and upon arriving there…visa for everyone on my team, except me…So I had to stay an additional day in Singapore and guess what I did? Tourism. I visited everything that has to be visited in Singapore until I got my visa. Finally, I could meet my partners in Indonesia again.
And the plan B?
Originally we had a bit less than 2 months for this field mission and we just “wasted” most of this time with tourism and administration. We had 12 days left, but Wakatobi was so remote that we would need 3 days to get there. We had to find an alternative that was easy and quick to access. Plan B, Thousand Islands just north of Jakarta. This is far from being optimal for our research and we had only 10 days left. But it was a good plan B. We had to do a months work in 10 days. Arrived on the field we saw that this archipelago deserved its name. Thousands of small islands ranging from 20m diameter to 2km max. Our fieldwork was hard but it was worth it. We did not find what we expected but accidentally discovered that damselfish protect each other and have sentinels just like suricates. This is sensational and the first time coordinated vigilance was observed for fish. If we did not have all of these problems before we would maybe never have discovered this. Read the article here. My girlfriend unfortunately was less lucky. Since we had nearly no time left, her fieldwork project had to be scrapped and she used data from previous observations. It was, however, she who came up with Plan C. She was the one who first has the idea of the sentinel behaviour for our damselfish.
So whats the point of the whole story? Sometimes it is with the greatest struggle, that you can have the best travels and find the most interesting results. So never give up if things do not work as planned!