Expedition research in Indonesia


The beginnings

Ever since I can remember I have been both an obsessive naturalist and outdoorsman. As a tiny boy I read tales of exploration, flicked through atlases and field guides of natural history and ogled at maps of thousands of islands puncturing the Pacific, vast tracts of virgin rainforest in the neotropics and the seldom-trodden trails across the American West. All the time I held a romantic notion that one day I could be the one who would visit these places and explore the natural history that exists there. Born into a family of outdoor lovers, I spent the holidays of my youth hiking, always hiking. In howling gales and snowstorms, I walked peaks in the remote western highlands at an age that would provoke fits in this age of health and safety, and trail-blazed in the stifling heat of summer in the Sierras. But it was an opportunity to see some of the natural world's most fantastic sights: Otters in the Hebrides, Wolves howling in gathering alpenglow in Yellowstone and tens of thousands of Gannets wheeling around an offshore colony in Ireland to name but a few — the sort of things a young boy such as myself dreams of. I feel extremely fortunate that this early interest still burns as brightly as ever and at 21 years old, having recently graduated and studied a degree that supported my ideas, I am now in the position of turning the romantic ideal into an ever-more-realistic prospect.

Thus, in the middle of winter in my final year, as icy winds whipped the south coast and my social life was put on hold with ominous deadlines looming, I jumped at the opportunity to spend four summer weeks with a research expedition in Indonesia, on the tropical island archipelago of the Wakatobi Islands, southeast of Sulawesi. As a lifelong naturalist, and particularly ornithologist, I had had the good fortune to work on several interesting projects in the UK; but this had another edge to it, a buzz that I soon realised was the same I had felt years before poring over pictures in books.

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Into Indonesia

In early July I headed off on my huge adventure. I travelled for three days to get to the research base, having taken five flights and three boat journeys from Heathrow (with a stop off for a few days of respite in Bali!). During the journey I began to appreciate the true size of this country: myriads of islands and reefs surrounded by water as blue as the sky above, coupled with vast areas of lush tropical forest. Indonesia is made up of some 17,500 islands; as I flew over and sailed past islands, the Maori name for the Pacific, Moana-nui-a-Kiwa ('The great ocean of the blue sky'), and Paul Theroux's symbolism of the Pacific as a universe and the islands like stars, seemed equally applicable further west.

Islands and reefs in the Banda Sea (photo: Sam Jones).

On Bali, with my focus away from ornithology, early sightings included Long-tailed Shrike, Linchi Swiftlet, Pacific Swallow, Scaly-breasted Munia, Oriental White-eye, Sooty-headed Bulbul, Pacific Reef Egret and the obligatory Spotted Doves. However, it wasn't until flying to Sulawesi after a quick turnaround that I started to appreciate the diversity of life in these sunny islands. A one-night stopover in Kendari was spent in a hotel room overlooking a small marsh by the roadside, and within minutes in the gathering gloom I saw White-browed Crake, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Black Bittern, Chestnut Munia, Sacred Kingfisher, White-breasted Waterhen, Golden-bellied Gerygone, Asian Palm-Swiftlet, and the first endemic in the shape of a showy Crimson-crowned Flowerpecker. Several large monitor lizards also prowled the edges of the pool under a heavy sky that promised a tropical downpour.

Leaving Sulawesi for the Tukangbesi islands involved three long boat journeys taking over 20 hours. Although tiring, it provided a wonderful opportunity to appreciate again the sheer size of this place. Lush green islands protruded out of the deep-water channels and distant reefs, glazed in sunshine amidst gathering storm clouds. Shoals of flying fish sprayed out of the wake and glided impossible distances before liquidising back into the sea. Given the intense diversity of the marine environment in this area, I was surprised by the lack of seabirds: a number of small groups of Great Frigatebirds winged over and several Little Terns passed close by, along with tantalising views of a possible Bridled Tern. However, the highlight was undoubtedly a White-bellied Sea-Eagle effortlessly soaring above the boat. As dusk began to gather near the end of a long day on board, a call from the upper deck alerted us to a small pod of Spinner Dolphins characteristically hurling themselves out of the water. In the evening light, the sea was as flat as a millpond and reflected the peach-coloured glow of a tropical sky wisped with high cirrus, and the dolphins leapt seemingly for the pure pleasure of residing in such surroundings. It conjured something that the stereotypical view of a tropical paradise plastered across postcards and guidebooks simply can't, and I started to feel truly lucky to be in such a place.

After another long day on the water, we eventually reached the research base at Hoga island, a tiny satellite island situated off the eastern shore of Kaledupa (the second northernmost island in the Wakatobi archipelago). Shortly after arriving, I was told that we were to be in bed early for a 4am start on another boat to be taken to the next research island! Well before dawn, a dark and cool 'morning' met me as I trudged a sodden path through the forest still dripping from overnight rainfall. The forest floor glistened with the tiny iridescent eyes of spiders in the beam of my headlamp as I scanned the path ahead, not wanting to tread on any of the venomous Banded Sea Kraits that are abundant here. Deeper into the undergrowth I could hear the peculiar bubbling and squealing of Orange-footed Scrubfowl in classic megapode fashion. I met the rest of the team on the main jetty; as we crossed towards the main boat by tender we left a glowing trail of bioluminescence in our wake under a sky alive with stars. Later in the morning, not far from the island of Tomia, a pod of Spinner Dolphins performed acrobatics for us again, whilst feeding on a large bait ball along with a steady stream of Red-footed Boobies. As we crossed the reef on our approach to the island, several Little Black Cormorants watched us like gargoyles from their perches on staked-out fishing nets.

The approach to Hoga island research base after several long boat journeys (photo: Sam Jones).

The welcoming nature of the people of these islands, still virtually untouched by tourism, became immediately apparent as we entered the village where we would be staying with a local family. We were greeted every few yards by grinning children and parents alike with cries of "Hello Mr!". Our first afternoon was spent scouting out appropriate mist-netting sites, and nets were subsequently positioned for the following morning. A large band of children followed us to the netting sites and this became a trend even as we ventured further and further afield. With our broken Indonesian and our excellent Indonesian guide Udin, we explained what it was we were doing, and more importantly, why we were doing it.

As any naturalist will know, Indonesia has some of the highest rates of endemism in the world; in ornithological terms, it has the highest number of known avian endemics on the planet — some 383 species. With so many islands and isolated habitats, speciation regularly occurs. Our work was to assess the extent of speciation and biogeographical variation of birds of the region, particularly among common species such as Lemon bellied White-eye, Olive-backed Sunbird and Grey-sided Flowerpecker, over the Wakatobi (Tukangbesi) archipelago. This programme has been run for a number of years as part of the Operation Wallacea project.

Mist-netting took place initially in sites close to the village in old cassava plantations, but got gradually further afield as areas closer by were covered. Catches consisted of large numbers of the expected Lemon-bellied White-eyes and Olive-backed Sunbirds, but Island Monarch, Grey-sided Flowerpecker, Emerald Dove, Glossy Swiftlet, Black-faced Munia, Pied Chat and Collared Kingfisher all also graced the nets. As well as taking the obvious biometric data, each individual was photographed, had feathers taken for DNA analysis and was fitted with an island-specific colour-ring to assess whether any movement was occurring between islands.

One of the first netting sites in an old cassava plantation (photo: Sam Jones).

Processing birds while teaching the local children what we were doing (photo: Sam Jones).

Lemon-bellied White-eye (photo: Sam Jones).

Olive-backed Sunbird (photo: Sam Jones).

Island Monarch (photo: Sam Jones).

Black-faced Munia (photo: Sam Jones).

Collared Kingfisher (photo: Sam Jones).

Aside from mist-netted birds, within the first few days we saw around the net sites the island's commoner residents, species such as Pacific Swallow, White-bellied Wood Swallow, Black-naped Oriole, Great-billed Heron, Asian Palm-swift, Tree Sparrow, Rainbow Bee-eater, Sacred Kingfisher, Slender-billed Cuckoo-dove, Zitting Cisticola, Plaintive Cuckoo, Slender-billed Crow, Brown Goshawk and Black-naped Fruit Dove. It was not until we got further into the island, however, that more elusive species began to show. Excited squeals one afternoon of "Elang! Elang!" (Indonesian for eagle) from the dedicated band of children that followed us daily alerted us to a Spotted Harrier quartering an area of grassland. The same day we also saw Spotted (Mollucan) Kestrel and Mollucan Swiftlet, both endemics.

After an intense period of daily netting, a rest from early-morning data collection gave us the opportunity to explore some of the more densely forested areas of the island and this brought a whole host of new sights. One afternoon we set off on a short journey by truck along a series of tracks to a much wilder part of the island, where we unloaded and walked into the forest to an open area surrounded by trees smothered with epiphytes. Several Great-billed Parrots squawked in the treetops and large fruit bats clattered about in an ungainly fashion as the early evening sun dipped below the treeline. Huge columns of insects rising from the sun-baked vegetation in the clearing attracted an equally large number of swifts of at least three species, which in turn briefly attracted a small powerful falcon, a probable Oriental Hobby. Nearby, a large stand of bamboo held a 'roost' of several thousand Pyrochroa-type beetles (similar to our Cardinal Beetles) and as evening descended, the forest began to sing with the trill of cicadas. On the walk back to the truck, the smaller adjacent islands afforded beautiful views in the pastel-orange-smeared sky and fireflies danced in the cool of evening as the last light faded.

A handful of the thousands of 'roosting' beetles (photo: Sam Jones).

Despite resting from data collection, the new dawn was spent back in the denser forest of the island, and vocal but secretive species such as Lesser Coucal, Barred Rail and Hair-crested Drongo were finally pinned down. Excellent views of the extremely elegant Grey-cheeked Green Pigeon were had on our return, along with a rather scruffy-looking Osprey in heavy wing-moult and a flyover White-headed Stilt.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, came on our arrival back at the village. A procession of confused but excited locals led us to a large shape lying on the shore. There, beached and helpless, was an Ocean Sunfish, or 'Mola mola' as it is known across much of the region — synonymous with the species' scientific name. Having seen these strange creatures off the coasts of Cornwall before, it was fascinating but saddening to see it almost dead and beyond our help. This individual, at least a metre in diameter, was relatively small: some can reportedly reach diameters of over five metres. We concluded it must have been a juvenile that unfortunately became trapped inside the reef in shallow water as the tide receded. The demise of this poor creature sparked interest that spread rapidly through the whole community, and within minutes a large crowd had gathered. Most stared on from a distance, but more curious individuals tentatively prodded around with an outstretched leg as the fish stared back powerlessly through an enormous disk of an eye.

The helpless Ocean Sunfish beached by the tide (photo: Sam Jones).

Several days later, routine net preparation for the morning's ringing above the village produced nothing out of the ordinary until a binocular scan over the shoreline revealed large numbers of dolphins breaching just off the reefline. Although we were positioned on a hillside about a mile away, they could be seen clearly in a small area. After finishing the nets, I rushed down to the shoreline by the village and found a large pod of Spinner Dolphins still feeding just beyond the reef. As I watched, children gathered around me and began pointing and shouting excitedly "Lumba Lumba!" (Indonesian for dolphin) as at least 50 individuals continued to perform offshore. I passed my binoculars around to the children, who shyly but eagerly accepted them after I had shown them how to use them. I found instances like this particularly rewarding: regardless of a language barrier, it was simple to help them see the spectacle closer than they may have ever done before and the delight on their faces was obvious as a result. It is in these tiny moments that an interest is sparked, and it was something not too dissimilar happening to a small, grubby, blond-haired boy many years ago that led to me standing sun-drenched on an Indonesian beach this August afternoon.

One of the children trying out her newly learned optics skills (photo: Sam Jones).

Possibly one of the most enjoyable aspects of this research was to engage and involve the local people, and we made every effort to do this. In the developing world, however, a certain cultural sensitivity and understanding has to be adopted. With all environmental issues, educating and involving the public of their importance and context remains vital.


Having never visited the tropics before, something that became apparent over any other was the sheer vibrancy and abundance of life. The pristine beaches crawled with tiny hermit crabs, coral reefs were alive with fish, hundreds of geckos called after dark in the forests, and every bush and flower harboured praying mantises. Meanwhile processions of ants coursed every available walkway through the leaf litter and bird life I had previously only dreamt of squealed and shouted at dawn. Before I wet off, I was fully aware of the vast biodiversity in this region but being amongst it was something quite different and I took every opportunity to explore it on land and in the water.

The coral reefs were vibrant with life, with a huge number of fish such as Blue Spotted Stingrays and Moorish idols. (Photo: Sam Jones.)

It's a shame that I was only able to join the team for a short period and to work for the majority of the time on just one island. But aside from the invaluable scientific lessons I learned, the experience of living with a local family in a small village on an island far from the reaches of tourism was truly profound. In few places I've visited have I experienced such unadulterated generosity, friendliness and overall happiness. Children playing with home-made toys such as tyres and sticks, and kites made of leaves, made it easy to see how the people grew up to lead a relaxed and seemingly carefree lifestyle. It was not the ease of happiness that struck me most, though, it was simply the contentedness of it, and in their happiness seemed an easier way of life.

Children happily playing on the beach with a kite made of a leaf (photo: Sam Jones).

A view over the village on another sunny day (photo: Sam Jones).

I have thought about the islands many times since my return; everyone can take something from the pace of life and welcoming nature of the people, and I am truly grateful for the opportunity to have visited and worked in such a place.

Written by: Sam Jones