I spent a few days on Lizard Island working on a series of stories and videos for Oregon State, as well as shooting a trailer for our next documentary: the very sad and sobering story of the decline of our coral reefs around the world.
There are only a few moments when you can step back and say, “I’m pretty damn lucky.” Being sent to a remote island seventy miles off the eastern coast of tropical Australia could be defined as one of those. Despite the dark undercurrent of the subject matter, plus the long days of solo shooting, interviewing and late nights backing up data, it’s pretty thrilling to visit places few others get a chance to see, and to gain a glimpse of lifestyles and occupations so different from your own.
Premier research stations like the one Lizard Island usually don’t admit English majors. Admittance is only granted to award-winning researchers vying for competitive fellowships or grant funding. They’re the best in their fields, at the top of their games, and almost certainly have eclipsed my barely passing scores in college algebra and bio 101.
Most of the researchers at the station when I was there were studying fish behavior. Some of them ran experiments on the impacts of climate change-induced ocean acidification on fish, and the results are startling. Some fish are attracted to, rather than frightened by their predators in waters with greater acidity. The changes humans are imposing on the natural world are having disastrous effects. Other researchers were studying corals and the diseases and microbes they interact with. Diseases, induced by agricultural runoff and weakening of the reef habitats, are a growing threat. 40% of the world’s reefs are gone. We’re likely lose the rest in our lifetimes. When you’re able to witness firsthand, as I was, the glorious world of a pristine reef, that thought is crushing. But some of the scientists are fighters. And that gives me hope.
The station campus is a collection of buildings connected by breezeways only steps from soft corals sand beaches and a vast expanse of deep turquoise water dotted with reefs. Tee shirt, shorts, and bare feet comprise the dress code. Office and bedroom doors are left open to admit the tropical trade winds at all hours.
It may sound like an easy assignment for these researchers, but despite conditions that closely resemble anyone’s dream vacation, the hours are long, the pay often paltry, and months away from family are part of the routine. Experiments can fail spectacularly, forcing you to scrounge for new materials or an entire new research plan so as not to waste the precious little time you fought so hard to acquire on the island. Stress levels can run high. The small scientific community on the otherwise empty island can become confining.
I couldn’t help but notice, however, how something relived the stress and produced a sense of normalcy: food and alcohol. Sharing beers at sunset was a nightly ritual. Scientists emerged from their labs and spreadsheets just as the sun was about to slip over the horizon. They toasted a days work and shared casual conversation. You could sense bonds forming around the brown bottles.
A weekly barbecue created an instant sense of community on my first night there. I sampled broiled kangaroo and a vegetarian scientist grilled me chicken tandoori so that I didn’t have to tap into the lonely, single-portion meal I’d had delivered by barge the week prior to my arrival. Later on, a potluck dinner held to honor the birthday of one of the station directors held a surprisingly variety for a remote tropical island that was a small plane flight and hundreds of miles from the nearest grocery store. The scientists proved to be innovative cooks and their tastes eclectic. The Australians cooked lasagne, an American-Swiss team made a quiche and the Brazilians prepared Indian. Not only were they better at algebra, they were also more nimble cooks. I scrounged a humble cheese and chorizo plate, which I tucked embarrassedly behind their more substantial fare.
The scientific community, like the rest of humanity, communes around the table. Ideas are exchanged. Friends made. Epiphanies reached. Biologists who focus on the tropics, you might think, are of one tribe, but not so. I heard two taxonomists, one who specializes in corals and another who studies echinoderms in the very same habitat talk as if they were speaking totally different languages. And they were brought together by the table and a shared meal.
If the coral reefs are to survive, it’s going to require this cross-pollination. Scientists are going to have to work with one another to reach breakthroughs that lead to better policy, greater awareness, deeper understanding, and hopefully a path to sustainable reef ecosystems. And maybe having an English major along to help tell the story might help a little bit, too.