Baby Steps

“I don’t like the grass.” She scrambles a little higher in her friend’s arms, toes drifting at the surface of the water. The taller girl sighs and scoops up the speaker—now clinging to her neck—further up from the water. “I don’t like how it feels on my feet.” It’s swimming time at Ranger Camp, and I am one corner in our square of lifeguards. I lean forward on my red float and scan the water; I rattle off the numbers in my head. Three. Four. Five. Five. Five. A tiny yellow snorkel mask erupts from the water to my left. Thank God, Six. Haven’t lost one yet.
VIERS hosts three different types of summer camp during July: Ranger Camp, Eco Camp, and Science Camp. While each program is geared to a specified agenda—teaching the campers basic National Park Ranger skills, introducing them to the islands ecosystems, etc—the overarching goal of the three is the same: getting the local kids excited by the natural world surrounding them, to provide them with the opportunity to appreciate and to take an active ownership of their island’s biodiversity and natural resources, to get them looking at their home and asking questions and to get them involved.

VIERS volunteers. Photo courtesy of VIERS.
VIERS volunteers. Photo courtesy of VIERS.

In May, when I developed my initial plan for what I hoped this blog would describe, I spoke of a hope to draw connections between different approaches to marine science and conservation. Three posts later, and I’ve touched on the research aspect. Now that the station is well in to the summer camps, I hope to finally begin, here, and start to address some of the questions I first raised.
One of my personal goals in marine science and conservation is to have the opportunity to—and, ideally, to—effect change. I want to do something about the various issues I have come across throughout my studies and experience, as well as those issues that I have yet to encounter. I thoroughly enjoy the creativity and the discovery that accompanies scientific research, and I hope to apply what I learn to current issues in marine ecology and policy. So, what do I do, and how do I go about doing it? From the research-fieldwork perspective, the answer seems simple: ask a question, and go about your best to answer it in a scientific manner; conduct observations in the field; manipulate experiments; draw conclusions from your work. As the primary investigator or researcher of your project—you are in total control of your experiment, of which variables you deem significant, and of how you wish to interpret your results, in a presumably responsible manner. This is not to say that things do not go awry in the field—refer to my previous blog post for that; they definitely do—but in conducting research there seems to be a more direct sense of control. You set the direction of the study; you select the design, and you choose your parameters. This direct connection to the hopeful answering of whichever question you seek out has both its benefits and limitations: one has a handle on the situation, yet it is still only the one researcher. The singular perspective has benefits in the degree of control it allows, but it is also limited in that it is only one person’s power and one person’s perspective.
But what other outlets for science and conservation remain—what else can be done? Instead of teaching ourselves, in the field, what comes of teaching others, on the ground? (When the aforementioned camper scrambles away from seagrass, does she really care whether it is an invasive or not? At first, not quite.) Take the summer camps, for example. As of this post we have begun Science Camp, wherein we will be teaching the campers the importance of healthy reef ecosystems, what indicator species are, and how to conduct reef checks. Compared to the depth and spread of my own research project on seagrass, this method of exploration is significantly more shallow; I do not have any control over what the campers take away with the lessons we are all trying to teach them—I barely have control over them in the breakfast line. Yet, compare the potential impact reach of fifty campers to one lone field technician. Yes, there is much to be said about the quality and the specialization of the knowledge possessed by each group; but in—hopefully—sparking that initial interest, that excitement in a new field, in the local marine food webs, or in how mangroves support reef systems, or what types of fish are keystone species, the potential that those campers carry in adding their own perspectives, ideas, and experiences, and then going out into the world and acting on them grows enormous.
The same camper who dreaded the seagrass during Ranger Camp is back this week for Science Camp. There was an instant in that swimming hour when—with much encouragement from myself and her, still very patient, taller friend—she put her feet down in the grass. Of course, a scream and a laugh later, she was back out of the water. This week, however, I hope she might try and put her feet down again—maybe she’ll even take a few steps of her own.