IGS Internships

Reef Study & Cultural Immersion

DATES: JUNE 27 - AUGUST 8 (2-7 participants)
or individual placements year-round / any date

The Project

Travel to the islands of Fiji to learn about coral reefs, island customs, and the cultural ecology that links them together. This six-week program provides interns an up close and personal immersion into the Fijian life-way and marine ecosystems.


Training for the project takes place in the capital city of Suva on Viti Levu. Here you will meet with world-renowned reef ecologist Helen Sykes to complete your training. Specifically, Helen will teach you how to lie transects and how to observe and record key indicator species that you will encounter on the reefs. You will stay at the South Seas Hostel and commute a short distance to your training site. This is also a great time to explore the Capital City and visit botanical gardens and cultural museums.

Once you have been through training, you will depart for one of our chosen research locations. Currently we are conducting surveys on the island of Taveuni and the island of Beqa.

Course Description

Interns will live one or two per Fijian family but will have their own private room. Several of the following may be program highlights. The time of year you travel will determine which options are available:


Perhaps the highlight of your stay will be the opportunity to live with a Fijian family. Regarded by many as a "transformative experience," the home stay provides insight into Fijian culture in a way that books cannot render. What makes the immersion special is that the villagers retain a uniquely Fijian perspective and practice many of the subsistence patterns of their ancestors. As English language is the primary language of instruction used in the schools (a "gift" of British colonization) most villagers can converse to you in your native tongue. The result is an unparalleled opportunity to discuss cultural practices with your hosts without relying on an interpreter.

The villagers live in primarily cement-walled houses with metal roofs. They are not luxurious by any means. So, you should expect to live as the majority of Fijians do. This may be a challenge depending on your experience in Third World countries. But, it will hopefully be worthwhile and eye opening. Testimonials Payment


The locale is unique for a number of reasons. Most importantly, you have the opportunity to contribute data to Fijian villagers and the government about the current MPA (Marine Protected Area). Marine Protected Areas are a modern form of a "no fishing or gathering zone." These "taboo" areas were commonplace in ancient Fiji but that tradition has been compromised in modern times. The government and local villages are implementing MPA's to encourage reef growth and the return of reef fishes.

You have the wonderful opportunity to stay amidst the Fijian people and conduct reef surveys both in and outside of the MPA's. By comparing the data you gather, you will be able to help villagers and government officials alike make better decisions on how to best utilize their resources. If your data demonstrates that fish populations are noticeably greater within MPA's, then villagers may decide to designate more protected areas. This is an unknown. We need to find out for ourselves whether the hypothesis that MPA's result in greater diversity is in fact true.


Interns will snap on snorkels and masks to conduct an underwater survey of a nearby reef ecosystem. Your research will allow for comparative data analysis, and will contribute to a database on the status of Fiji's reefs, and how they experience different levels of human contact. While mapping the reef, interns will collect data on coral species abundance, diversity, and richness. Interns will obtain baseline data which will contribute to establishing a long-term coral reef monitoring program at these sites. The village's livelihood and sustainability could be affected by changes to reef health. As such, your research is timely and important to the long-term survival of the very people you will stay with. You will be taught coral species identification, quadrant surveying techniques for coral reef environments, and data analysis.


Interns will contribute to a long-term project assessing the fish populations off the coast of the village. The coastal villages rely heavily on subsistence offshore reef fishing. As reef fish is a staple of the traditional Fijian diet significant decrease in various reef fish populations have triggered concern in the community. Consequentially, various research projects are taking place to investigate the most sustainable way to approach coastal reef fishing. Interns will learn fish species identification, data collection and analysis.


Throughout your stay you have the opportunity to go on fieldtrips to locations of ecological or cultural significance. Interns can learn fishing, cooking skills, as well as participate in reforestation projects, rainforest trekking, and cultural lessons.


Under the guidance of reef ecologist Helen Sykes, students learn how to build and lay transects to measure fish and coral diversity.

Fish houses are constructed by students out of dead coral reef. They are cemented together and then planted with corals.

Completed fish houses encourage reef growth and provide new habitat for fish. On damaged reefs, they help to bring back biodiversity. IGS students hitting the books to learn the indicator species in Fijian reef environments. Usually 3-5 students are present during the ongoing study.

Students have the opportunity to live with a Fijian family. Close contact with the Fijian community is essential.

More Information

Locations have changed from previous classes. Currently we are doing the training in Suva and village stays on Taveuni and Beqa Islands. Some of the below reports may be from different sites.

  1. International Reef Check Mission Statement
  2. IGS Student Research Results Beqa Island
  3. IGS Student Research Results Crusoe Island
  4. IGS Student Research Results Coral Coast


My Fijian Voyage by Jack Miller

Upon my completion of high school, I reflected on what I had achieved in those four long years. It was then that I finally realized that I had never taken a chance, had never done something different, something that would set me apart from the rest of my class. I realized that I had not given myself the chance to enrich my character and grow mentally. It was time for me to take a chance and leave my circle of comfort for the first time; I applied for an internship in Fiji.

Interning through the Institute of Cultural Ecology and U.C. Santa Barbara allowed me the ultimate opportunity to be what it was to be an independent person. It taught me how to fend for myself and helped me to understand the world in which we live in. This was my first taste of the outside world. My internship was a reef study, but the true personal development occurred in my home stay in Votua Village and my interaction with its citizens.

The villagers were just beginning to come to grips with the world around them. They were learning about the new technologies and the every day current events in the outside world. They followed the carry-carry system of borrowing without the need for repayment. I realized that in order to survive in the world mentally and physically, I needed to take action for myself rather than to allow people to step in for me. I learned to support myself and to find ways, while involving the people around me, to get the necessary tasks done that better the group as a whole. I learned how to be a “team player.”

The villagers treated me like a long lost family member that had just returned home. They taught me the valuable skills that were needed to survive in their environment and at the end of my journey, I could spear fish enough to provide food for three families and at the end of my journey, I could use bamboo to build huts and other structures. And at the end of my stay I had helped a man in the village build his hut. At the end of my journey, I was able to travel with the men to the jungle to find herbs for their many natural medicines. They transformed me in to an efficient worker that could survive on his own.

The reef study was another wonderful experience. I got to see the largest variety of fish that I have ever seen in my entire life. From the crown of thorns starfish, to the French angelfish, I saw them all. My partner Eric and I decided taught a member of the village how to do the line-transect survey that we had been using to continue our research.

When I was doing my internship, the state of the Marine Preserve was improving. We were beginning to see more and more indicator species turn up on our surveys. We sighted a bump-head parrotfish. This species, especially in the area of study, is a very rare sight. When this species is sighted it is an indicator of improving reef health. The quality of the marine environment was stellar in comparison to the reefs that I had viewed in previous dives in Mexico and Puerto Rico. The experience in the marine protected area just outside of Votua Village was the best diving I have ever seen.

Coral diversity was evident everywhere. From massive field of fire coral to the many different types of Gorgonian soft corals, nearly every major species of coral is represented in that area. Inside those corals live some of the most vibrant parrotfish variations, the strange lionfish, and the imposing white tip shark. It is a complete ecosystem that is one of the most diverse in the world.

After seeing the types of cultures and landscapes that existed on the other side of the world in Fiji I gained a sense of myself. I was no longer the big child that I had been my whole life. I was now a thinker, a dreamer that was able to accomplish goals and to realize where people were coming from.

Excerpts from Eric Brandt’s Journey

When I told all my friends that I would be going to Fiji for six weeks they said I was the luckiest guy in the world… they were right. I had no idea what to expect. I mean I’ve heard that once you go to Fiji you will never want to return. Before I left for my excursion I did a little reading into how the Fijians live, what they eat, and what customs they have.

I have never really traveled alone, especially for six weeks. All I knew is that I was going to be in one of the most beautiful places in the world, living with complete strangers, and living a different life. After an hour and half drive I finally made it to my destination. A little place called Votua Village, which lies right in the middle of the coral coast. The driver pulls up to this little house and I said to me, “Wow this place is small.” It was nothing what I had expected. I walked inside and this wonderful family greeted me with firm handshakes and open arms. I set all my bags in my own room and right when I was finished the family offered me food.

The food was set out on the floor on a cloth that was handmade. As a matter of fact the entire floor was made from tree stems and it was all handmade. After swallowing down a bit of food the family I was introduced to Blue, Albert, Pita, Junior, Wiley, Smelly, and JQ who were all workers. They all spoke very good English but of course they had the native Fijian dialect. The first thing they said was, “Would you like a cup of tea?” So we all sat down and I enjoyed the absolute best tea ever and the reason for that was Fiji is a main exporter of brown sugar.

While we were drinking tea, Pita who is the dive master and he pretty much runs the shop, explained to me what I would be doing. He said I would be doing MPA (Marine Protected Area) surveys, working on a new type of surveying in the ocean, and just any work around the shop. I was looking forward to this. Because the village is right on the ocean, they catch most of their food themselves. Now to do this they have to walk on top of the corals, which end up dying, in order to spear the fish so they can feed their family. When the villagers walk on top of the corals they crush them and they just die. They also use a special root that stuns the fish but little do they know it also kills the coral. The MPA was designed to show the villagers that if you leave it alone the corals will live and more fish will start coming around. The MPA was about half mile walk from the village and was marked off with buoys. Nobody is allowed to walk inside of it whatsoever.

Our job was to survey the MPA area calculating the percent of live coral and dead coral and also some indicator species and then compare that to areas on both side of the MPA, which were not protected. With the girls previous work and the work I did along with my friend Jack (another intern) we showed that the MPA had anywhere from 10 to 20 times more corals, fish, and invertebrates. We put all of our information together and introduced it to the village in hopes to get the MPA extended bit by bit so that soon the MPA will be much larger and even the villagers could enjoy the amazing life under the water.

When I wasn’t doing MPA work I would spend a lot of time with my Fijian brother Cheetah, whom I lived with in the village. I never thought I could grow so close to someone in such a short amount of time. He taught me the Fijian way of life, introduced me to their customs, taught me how to climb 40-foot coconut trees, grow crops, and even build a burred (a Fijian house). The first night I was in Fiji they had a Kava ceremony. Kava is a very sacred root that they grow, pull it out, and grind it up to make a drink. The ground up Kava root is mixed with water in a giant bowl and is then served to all that is around. It is custom to clap once before accepting the bowl, say bula, and then clap twice after you drink it. It is not the best taste in the world so many villagers have a little piece of candy to put in their mouth afterwards. The Kava makes your tongue and lips go numb for a little bit and if you have enough of it you can get drunk. Life in the village was completely different from that at home. Everyone is very nice and they will always greet you with a smile.

As I would walk from house to house they would all be yelling “Bula Eric”, which means hello and all the little kids would come running out to play. The village was not very big with only about 300 people living there and most of the running water came from a little stream nearby. The showers were very cold with no heat and not much pressure so on cold days you had to suck it up and hold your breath. But the weather wasn’t too bad at all. For the first three weeks I was there it had rained non-stop and when it rains the entire village stays inside because they don’t enjoy the rain too much. I found out that when it is summer in the states it is winter in Fiji and visa versa but the rainy season is their summer. After the rain had stopped the weather was absolutely amazing.

The biggest sport in Fiji by far is rugby. Every single day the villagers would set up games in the middle of the village and play for a couple hours. After I learned the rules I was playing right along with them. But for them this was only practice because the villagers had a league team, which was very good. I had the chance to watch them play and I thought they were good in the village, but they were even better when it came down to the real thing. Their game field was about 3 miles from the village and all the villagers would walk to watch them play. You get used to walking everywhere because even though transportation is cheap it gets expensive after a while. You could hitch a ride from practically anyone with a car but the main source of transportation was mini vans that would drive up and down all day long and you could pay them 50 cents to go 20 miles. Many things in Fiji were much cheaper which made it very nice to buy things.

I made so many friends in Fiji and I know I will have them for the rest of my life. I want to talk to them but I know I can’t because they don’t own phones and very few of them have a post box. But the one thing they said to me is, “Eric whenever you want to come back, you just come straight to the village because this is your home.” So now whenever I want to go to Fiji I have a place to live because not only have I made so many friends…I’ve become family.