A Judgment Call
by Caroline Wiernicki -- August 16th, 2016
Something cold and wet falls on my face, and I bolt up with a start. There is a hush across the beach, but before I can yawn again something wet falls on the bridge of my nose. Oh. I glance up—our moon is gone—and my upturned face is met by a rain like a cold, upended bucket. The park’s sea turtle intern and the VIERS manager—hi Catie and Rob!—are already up, under a nearby tree, and I scramble from the sand to meet them. I ask the time—12:30AM—and Catie informs us that we will wait the rain out until 1; if it doesn’t let up—which is didn’t—we will call it a night early—which we did.
Earlier that week, we learned of the presence of two turtle nests at Salt Pond beach. Catie, as the aforementioned intern for the USVI National Park’s sea turtle program, has been spending the past few weeks conducting beach checks, or nights of monitoring the shoreline for turtle activity from 10PM to 2AM. St. John is home to two species of turtle, green (Chelonia mydas) and hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), with only the latter recorded as actually nesting on the island; furthermore, as I quickly learned, as far as we now know it, there are not a lot of hawksbills nesting on St. John. After three uneventful—rather damp—nights, Catie poses a question that no one really wants to hear: were these actual nests, or misidentified “false nests”—such as the ever-cautious hawksbill mothers have been known to dig in attempt to mislead predators and preserve their eggs. Catie tenses. How to check the nest for eggs? She crouches down, the red glow of her headlamp cast over a faint impression in the sand and pauses for a minute. Then, slowly, she begins to push away sand from the center of the depression, using the flat of her hand; she stops every few inches, resting her palm against the bottom of her steadily growing ditch, checking for warmth or movement. Once the first hatchling breaks the surface, she explains, the rest of the nest will begin to move, regardless of how far along the other baby turtles might be. Her concern, she continues, is depriving those hatchlings who might need a little more time to develop; “two hundred babies of an endangered species.” Rob and I crouch behind her, watching for any movement. No one speaks.
There were no eggs in the “nest” at Salt Pond. Catie dug and probed until she was a foot down and then stepped away, her shoulders relaxed. We were all a little disappointed, but no one was complaining. Yes, two hundred babies of an endangered species were not there that night at Salt Pond, but two hundred babies of an endangered species were also not prematurely prompted to hatch. Catie had a judgment call to make. Her research is the first of its kind done on St. John since the eighties. She is pioneering our understanding of hawksbills on the island, and her work is driven by her passion for the animals and their conservation. She’s not spending hours on wet, dark beaches for kicks. She is out there for the turtles. Which is why, then, the decision to excavate the nest that evening on Salt Pond was made all the more difficult. When one is so deeply invested in the long-term benefit of a species, questions arise and decisions must be made in the field, more often than not on the spot. Am I, by my interference, doing the right thing? Catie confronted this question that evening. Another researcher—specializing in local bats—faced it one evening at VIERS while mist-netting: despite her years of experience and extreme caution, one bat was exhausted in the net and unable to fly off after release. The researcher was devastated. She has been coming to St. John for years and years to work with the species she loves, and her passion for the bats shows in her devotion to her research and her joy in teaching others why these animals are so wonderful. After recovering the injured bat, she spent the following day transporting him to a nearby colony and the next monitoring his health and activity.
While I have not yet had my motivation and devotion to a species or place tested in the field—my projects with the seagrass are not the most intrusive—witnessing the responses and reactions of my peers when faced with these difficult decisions has given me a fair bit to think about. The struggle in making those judgment calls about just what should be done in the moment stems from the personal investment in the animal or place on the line; it is difficult because the researcher clearly cares so much for the species, that there is no simplicity in treatment of any single individual. While the turtle and bat researchers are ultimately contributing their work for the overall benefit of their respective species, finding that “greater good” boundary does not come easy. Is that not why they are in the field in the first place? For the love of the turtle and the bat. As of now I only wonder: when I am confronted with one tough judgment call, and when I must ask myself what is the best I can do—did I do everything I could—will I draw back to that initial question of why I am there? For whom or what am I there? I hope so.