IN THE SOUTH SEAS
Gary Yeo taught at Acadia from 1988 to 1991. After a brief period at St. F.X. University, he and Kate Grapes went to Fiji where Gary is involved with the establishment of an Earth Science program at the University of the South Pacific. He regularly e-mailed to us from under the palm trees.
In August of 1991 I got a very long distance phone call asking if I was interested in coming to the University of South Pacific to teach and develop an Earth Science program. I had sent out so many applications over the previous months, that I had almost forgotten this one. Images of crashing surf, long white beaches, and swaying coconut palms leaped to mind. So did the suspicion that this was too good to be true. No, they didn't want a carbonate sedimentologist or a volcanologist or any other kind of specialist; they wanted a generalist who would have to teach a little of everything. Anyway, there wasn't any Geology Department, I would be part of Marine Studies, directed by a marine biologist, but based in the Chemistry Department. Still suspicious, I said I would think about it and call back. After checking that Fiji didn't have malaria, crocodiles, or even cannibals any more, and learning from friends who had been there that it was generally wonderful I accepted. But as I had already agreed to teach for a year at St. F.X., I couldn't come until the following June. We've been here almost three years now.
It is wonderful, although not quite the postcard paradise we pictured. Suva does have swaying coconut palms and surf crashing on the barrier reef, but no beaches. We're on the windward side of the island so it rains a lot. Its very hot (>25øC) most of the time. The potholes in the roads are almost the size of the sinkholes at Windsor. And the drivers are worse than the ones in Montreal. But where else can you take a class out to a reef in the morning and spend the afternoon looking at contorted Miocene greenschists, most imaginable kinds of volcanic rocks, some still with the pointy shapes they originally piled up in, or 500 m down in a gold mine at the edge of a Pliocene caldera 14 km across.
I've just come from USP's graduation ceremony. In some ways it
one at Acadia. The university officers, academics, and students
in brown gowns instead of black. We had the standard three
hours of graduates parading up to shake hands with the chancellor as
names were called. A lot of them have long names too! Other things were
very different. Booming lali (slit log) drums and triton shell horn
opened and closed the event. The singing of Pacific islanders is very
Most people here love to sing. Nearly all the graduates wore elaborate
garlands of flowers, green leaves, bark-cloth, and ribbons over their
The families and friends who came were very colourful too. Not many
shirts and ties in this part of the world.
USP is unusual in many ways. This is a regional university, like the University of the West Indies, for 12 small Pacific island countries. Hence, the students have an incredible range of cultural backgrounds. Their level of high school preparation varies a lot too. English is a second or third language for most of them. With only 2600 or so full time students here in Suva, its even smaller than Acadia, but there are over 7000 extension students. In addition to the Suva campus, developed on what was once a WWII NZ Air Force flying boat base (my office is in a two-story shed of corrugated iron and white ant nests, all that's left of the main hanger down by the breakwater), we have a network of university centres in each member country. Some departments or programmes are scattered through these as well. Agriculture is in Western Samoa, Law is in Vanuatu, and parts of Marine Studies, the Atoll Research Programme and the Institute of Marine Resources are in Kiribati and Solomon Islands respectively. With good satellite communications the distances aren't that much of a problem.
You'll need a good atlas to find some of these places. Little itty bitty islands in a great big ocean. The combined EEZs of the USP member countries total about 13 million square kilometres, 30% bigger than Canada, but the land area, roughly the same as Ireland, is only 0.5% of the ocean area.
One of the things you need to unlearn here is the continental point of view. On a global scale its land that is anomalous. Over the Earth's surface the dominant igneous rock type by far is pillowy mid-ocean ridge basalt. Differentiated rocks, andesites and granites and such are mere local details. Forget about alluvial fan gravels and glacial till. The dominant sediment is gooey glorious mud. True, this attitude would get me in big trouble on an exam. It's a cultural viewpoint as well. Our European ancestors saw the ocean as a big scary empty space full with monsters, but the ancestors of my students here saw it as a sea of friendly islands full of good things to eat. The view perpetrated first by the European explorers and missionaries and more recently by writers like James Michener and Paul Theroux that Pacific island cultures are unsophisticated is another myth. When our ancestors were timidly voyaging around the coasts of Europe in unseaworthy tubs, theirs were confidently navigating by stars, wave patterns, currents, and clouds across thousands of kilometres of empty ocean in sailing canoes that were faster than any of the ships before the late nineteenth century.
I've needed to unlearn some geological misconceptions as well. The textbook sequence of volcanics in an arc: tholeiites, followed by calc-alkalic rocks; then alkaline rocks turns out to be the exception, rather than the rule in the Melanesian arcs. And the "arcs" here aren't arcuate, they're straight! I thought that most of the deformation and metamorphism of Appalachian and Shield volcanic-arc rocks had occurred at the time they were accreted to the continent. I didn't realize that much of it must have occurred long before the final crash (e.g., some rocks in Guadalcanal show evidence for four phases of folding). Ultramafic volcanic rocks are not peculiar to the Precambrian. They're just called picrites instead of komatiites. Many reefs aren't really coral reefs. Corals are an only minor components of many modern reefs (e.g., Tarawa atoll). Calcareous red algae are very important, but they get ignored because they aren't so conspicuous and are much harder to study. There are a lot of species of brachiopods still around besides Lingula (which happens to be very common along the shore here). The list is long and embarrassing.
As with units everywhere these days it's not all roses (sorry, frangipani) at USP. Along with the global funding squeeze we've now got our share of ethnic intolerance. Most of the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu students were ordered to pack and come home by their governments when a drinking party turned into a brawl between Fijians and Solomon Islanders one night this term. USP had to send several lecturers (me too) out to run classes in Honiara and Port Vila. In an effort to promote better relations among students from different backgrounds, the Students Association has announced that it will no longer fund the various cultural groups which have been the main student clubs until now. The Administration has increased the number of security patrols. A less serious problem is the chronic disagreement between those who feel the USP should offer courses and programs interchangeable with those at overseas universities and those who argue that we should cater to the needs and priorities of small island countries. I sometimes think of this as trying to decide between being Xerox U and Basketweavers Anon. Obviously, if you're going to be the chief government geologist in Kiribati, where the only rock type is limestone and a one metre rise in sea level would flood half the country, you don't need to know much advanced structural geology or metamorphic petrology. On the other hand, if you're working for an exploration company in Solomon Islands you do. In this geologically young and active region, a good understanding of geological processes is more important than interpreting ancient processes from their geological products - the continental bias again.
In spite of being small, we actually run two completely separate Earth Science programs. One is a 3-year B.Sc. with 6 or 7 majors already, although the program just started this year. There are about 5 times as many Environmental Science and Geography majors in my courses. The other is a 1.5 year Certificate program for Geotechnical trainees, with about 25 this year. I teach introductory geology, petrology, marine geology, sedimentology, and economic geology in both programs plus a block of lectures in Ocean Resource Management (missionary work among the social sciences students!) and co-ordinate the Marine Science extension course. Other courses in the B.Sc. program include geochemistry, soil science, and four physical geography courses. I've also had three students doing field projects this year, two working on sediment transport across the Suva reef flat and one studying beach processes on Vava'u in northern Tonga. Beach studies really aren't as glamorous as they might seem. There aren't many grad students here. We encourage our graduates to go overseas for that. I've only had one, who has just completed a study of suspended sediment and nutrient transport in Fiji's largest river system. Tuition fees for non-residents are very high. The only sensible way for a Canadian to be a graduate student here is to register at a Canadian university and come here to do field work. We have one geology student here now from U. of Otago and three from Braunschweig University just went home.
My first project here was a study of a submerged relict beach deposit in Tonga, which may become the country's main aggregate source. At the present rate of beach mining there won't be any beaches left on the main island in a few years. I've done two studies of sediment movement problems at existing and proposed causeway sites between atoll islands in Kiribati. This has got me interested in the problem of how atoll islands form. This is an important question if the highest point in your country is about two metres about sea level and global warming is taking place. The formation of atolls themselves is well understood. Darwin was right. The islands on the atolls are sand and gravel build-ups, not part of the reef, since the upward growth of a reef is limited by sea level. Their development shows a definite progression. In the early stages, sediment is all reef derived and transport is across the reef. Storm ridges develop parallel to the flow. As beach deposits accumulate against these the passages that separate the growing inlets become restricted and they begin to coalesce. At this stage reef-parallel, longshore transport and accumulation of lagoon sediment becomes important. The inlets grow laterally by spit and beach progradation to form chains of long narrow islands. I've also been involved with biologists from ORSTOM, a French research agency, in a study of Fijian lagoon productivity and sediment-organism relationships. We plan a similar project in Kiribati next year.
Kate and the boys are doing well here. Colin, the youngest, probably knows as much Fijian as English. He is very cheeky. Alex starts Grade 1 next term. He is a fountain of amazing knowledge. He was explaining to a Fijian friend recently how to make snow. "First you take paper and cut it up into a pail. Then you pour it on the ground." Uh, oh. Kate gets frustrated at times that women are relatively repressed in Fiji ("Does your husband know you're making a bank deposit?") and that she can't get a work permit. She's studying French and has just sold about $6000 of UNICEF cards for the UN Womens' Group.
I'd better shuffle off to the beer store. We're expecting Matt Leybourne, another ex-Acadian, to arrive today for a visit on his way to New Zealand. No worries. For a visitor we can always find a beach.