This evening marks the end of my third full day at the Virgin Islands Environmental Resource Station (VIERS) in St. John, USVI. The past few days have seen a fine coating of fiberglass, millipedes launched from leaf-packed rain gutters, and the dropped rock faces of a dry waterfall—the latter paired well with a barefoot climb up (and down) an equally sheer tangle of vines and clay. Always bring the appropriate footwear; read: flip-flops are not suitable for even the most spontaneous of hikes.
The last time I visited VIERS—the January of 2015—I was part of a travel course through Duke’s Marine Lab. It was my first time seeing St. John, and the first time I was quiet before its mountains, pinballed around the hairpin turns of its roads, and breathless in the presence of its explosion of flora and fauna—both above and below the waterline. My mind was blown. At the end of day three, a year-and-a-half later, it still is. Though, I realize, not necessarily in the same way. In these newer days, I have seen the same mountains, flown down the same roads; I trailed the same kinds of turtles, and marveled at the same remaining live elkhorn coral, while still mourning those corals who have long-since succumbed to competition and disease. And, yes. It all still very much has the ability to leave me quiet, to rob me of my words. I had questions then, and I have questions now. Yet, I must admit, those questions I ask today are not the same as those I pondered a year and a half ago.
This summer I visit VIERS not as a student, but as a volunteer. In the hours when I am not working on my research project—which will be described in further detail later, though spoiler alert: we set up our first experiment next week!—or assisting as a counselor in the summer camps—starting in July—I will be helping the station run. It’s only been three days, but I am already filled with respect for the men and women who work throughout the year—some as volunteers, others full-time—to maintain this place and keep operating at top form. During my stay as a student, I appreciated the station, but I do not believe I understood the total number of hours that went into (sometimes easily overlooked) upkeep—such as the cleaning of gutters home to a host of black millipedes, thick as my index finger and with a penchant for projectile motion, as I found yesterday. As a guest, I marveled at the brilliant array of tropical fish and corals in Greater Lameshur Bay, and I dove into the analyses of fish habitat use and seagrass distribution; yet I took for granted the clear paths and fully functional lab where I did the calculations for my project. Back then, the mongoose roaming the island were noted as an impressive invasive, and that was about it; this summer, I can look forward to—and, truthfully, grapple with—the reality that, as a VIERS volunteer, I will eventually have to physically eliminate these animals, given the destruction the species reaps on local bird populations.
Mind, this is not a rant on (my) taking for granted the necessary degrees of consideration and labor that a research station such as VIERS needs in order to operate for the benefit of students such as my year-and-a-half-ago self. (Okay, perhaps it is, a tiny bit.) Still, we are only past Day Three. I am well aware that there will be many more boats to sand, decks to rebuild, and, oh my, there will be more gutters to clean. I must admit, though, I am looking forward to this part of the trip. This second, very different glimpse of VIERS has so far revealed—in just the slimmest glance three days can offer—just how much effort from so many people goes into creating an impact. There are seven of us here now, and in the past few days not only have I seen how much just seven dedicated people can do, but I have seen how much work remains to keep this station afloat; I am only beginning to imagine how much more of however many goes into running the summer camps, come July—a time when children from around St. John and St. Thomas have the opportunity to explore, learn, and understand the intrinsic value of the vibrant ecosystems that surround them. And, for all of this effort, the children are coming back. This summer, we are expecting one camper to return for his ninth summer; he began to attend at the age of seven and is still returning, now at sixteen. On an island whose people have traditionally feared the water, the VIERS summer camps have seen many a camper work up the courage to jump into the ocean for the first time, a plunge followed by his first snorkel, her first encounter with the sea creatures that make their home so rich in biodiversity and marine life.
This type of effort and result I have glimpsed at VIERS in these past few days reminds me of the degree of effort—often large and sometimes figuratively or literally excruciating—and results—often at first sight, underwhelming—that are at play in conservation across the biosphere, particularly in marine conservation. Often times, for the quantity of effort poured into an issue, at first the ensuing achievements can seem minimal, even trivial: why can we not do more? Why, after years of study and legal action, are the precious few vaquita in the Gulf of California becoming fewer still? Despite the years of research and management, why are we witnessing a global coral bleaching event that threatens the Great Barrier Reef? How can there still be a market for bluefin tuna and other commercially viable species that we have nearly fished into the ground? Enormous efforts have gone into these issues, and at times the presented results seem insufficient, even catastrophic. Yet, while there is still so much to be done, for results that may not seem like much, who knows where the occasional “little victory” may lead?
I cannot speak for the future of the vaquita, or the Great Barrier Reef, or the Bluefin; I’m not going to try. But, say after four weeks of “gutter cleaning”, a child summoning the courage to jump into the ocean for the very first time. Perhaps something about the complexity and diversity of life around him or her will strike a chord; perhaps he or she will then come back next year; perhaps he or she will even look back upon his or her experiences at the eco-camps one day and act as an advocate in marine conservation (maybe even focusing in coral reefs) —who knows? While it can be so easy at times to become frustrated—regarding the daily grind and effort put in the world of VIERS and perhaps even that of conservation at large—in the long run, and upon further examination, are the occasional little victories so small?
I don’t have the answers. As of now, what I do know is that the campers don’t get in until July. While I cannot wait to meet them, I also know there will be more than enough to do until then to ready the station for their stay, and there will be plenty of projects that need a second look.