The trip was made up of two separate sites; the first week was in the land-based National Park, Krka and the second week was at the marine National park on the island of Miljet. Both weeks had their challenges and were enjoyable in different ways! We were paired up with a second school who had brought five students and one of the enjoyable things about the second week was that we all had more simultaneous free time to get to know them all better.
During the first week we were split into five small groups and each group rotated between different activities. One day was spent doing fish surveys followed by fish dissections, one day doing bird and then bat surveys involving using mist nets, one day involved herpetology walks to find or replace reptiles and amphibians, one day was focussed on a cave survey and lab work to identify species and one day was focussed on large mammal surveys. Every day included morning, afternoon and evening activities with whole group lectures around lunch and dinner time. Timings for the different surveys were varied as it depended on the needs of that survey; because the data we were collecting was real data this had to be the same each day! When that meant being ready to go on survey at 4am and then staying up until midnight it involved lots of strategic naps! We all saw some field survey techniques that were new to us and the scientists were all very friendly and happy to talk about their work and the paths they had taken to get into those roles. Some group highlights include going on some very long walks to find a wolf den that involved using a machete to get through juniper bushes, finding wild tortoises, learning how to set nets for fish surveys, the mist-netting for bats and birds (a favourite for all groups as we saw a lot of creatures up close that we would never normally see) and going into the cave complexes, of which we learnt there were many in that area of Croatia. We also got to go on a long boat trip and walk to the beautiful waterfalls in the more touristic part of the park at the end of the week. We were still on duty and were trying to take as many pictures as possible; this led us to getting some great photos of a rare sub-species of snake in one of the crystal-clear pools in between finding ice-cream.
The social side was also a real highlight for many from the group, as a number of students had never really spent much time with those outside of their own year group before. We had various activities that were run to get staff and students to interact; the most enjoyable being the ‘ninja game’ which involved a challenge to pass a randomly selected item to a randomly selected person during the week (which meant they were then out of the game). The karaoke on the final night provided much laughter as well as the staff team outperformed the students by a long way (the videos are too blurry to send but it involved broomsticks for microphones).
In the second week the physical nature of the expedition changed a lot as hours of walking each day turned into hours of swimming and diving. There were no 4am starts (thankfully) and most groups had their free time all together, so students got to spend time polishing up their card games skills and getting to know those from the other school as well. Most students took the diving option but we had a few who chose to snorkel as they were not as confident underwater. This was added to by a few who struggled to pressurise and therefore could unfortunately not complete their PADI. They did really enjoy the free-diving in particular so no-one felt that they did not enjoy the week and everyone got to see a wide variety of wildlife. The students who had completed the referral course got to join in with the scientists on a number of days with measuring ‘Pina Noblis’ – giant Pen Shells – in the small marine lake nearby. This location may have the greatest density of the shells in the world so what we were doing was really vital. It was also really hard to do as it involved hovering underwater, upside down whilst having a ruler in one hand, a slate and pencil in the other and measuring the shells without kicking them or kicking up silt! We also learnt how to do Posidonia (sea-grass) surveys and did some beach and ocean clean-ups. The shocking thing was how much plastic litter there was in even this area!
During our time in Croatia, we all found out a lot more about what endemic species were and how endangered many of them were in the mainland and in the oceans. The number of invasive fish species in particular was astonishing and so easily preventable. The lectures and films in the marine week in particular really highlighted how bad the ‘plastic plight’ is as we had expected that a national part on a fairly remote island would be fine. We were very wrong. The issues with petrochemicals and the bioaccumulation was also something that we did not realise the scale of; even the teachers were surprised at how bad the reality was. Lots of discussions followed regarding what we buy and use; lots of us are making changes to reduce how much disposable plastic we use. Another animated discussion was what people chose to eat; the proportion of vegans and vegetarians was very high amongst research staff and we had a vegan and two vegetarians amongst the students too. When we had lectures about ethical issues regarding the rights of animals, the use of land and global warming levels so the ‘don’t eat as much meat’ was a really interesting debate that has made a number of us much more aware of the impact of what we are eating.
The primary intention of the grant was to cover the cost of transportation from the school to and from the London airports. All of the internal travel in Croatia was included but the initial part was not, since schools would all be coming from different parts of the UK at different times. We also had different initial and final destinations in Croatia and therefore different airports in the UK for our departure and arrival; we flew out of Heathrow and landed at Gatwick. Our school is in Derby so isn’t particularly close to either of these! Many students were working part time jobs to help with funding but with the majority of participants in Y13 and Y11 they needed to ease off this when it came to exam time; not having to worry about covering travel costs really helped them to be able to do this. The coach ended up costing £750 for the return journey leaving us £250 to put towards other expenses. These were namely the personal identification cards (PICs) for the divers; and to the remaining £90 was used to help complete the funding of three Y11 students who had each really struggled; they were all from families where the money was tight and this allowed them to purchase some of the necessary equipment as it went towards wetsuits or walking boots.
We would all like to thank the Murray Foundation for their generous donation which enabled many of our students to access the trip and eased the pressure off at exam time for many others, which was hugely beneficial considering that the majority of participants were in Y13 or Y11. The trip was a life-changing experience for many and this is not an exaggeration; career paths have been altered, personal lifestyle choices have changed, and we have learnt skills that will stay with us for life.