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Biodiversity Blog

 

PART 1: Reflections on Isolation from the Middle of the Pacific Ocean

by Ryan Rash

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View of Johnston as we were first arriving. 

I was a volunteer and then research assistant at the Biodiversity Center’s Ichthyology Collection for a couple years, but moved to the Central Pacific to work and live for 6 months on Johnston Atoll, a one-square-mile island National Wildlife Refuge with a total human population of 5. I never imagined being forced into quarantine when I returned, however, my island experience provided me with a bit of insight into the life of isolation we’re all currently living in.

Isolation is an absolute trial, both mentally and physically, as I’m sure you’re all perfectly aware at this point. We thankfully were in quarantine at our place of employment so we could still go to work everyday with no issue. We’d wake up before the sun, and at daybreak start with whatever survey we had to do that day whether ant, bird, or fish related. We usually worked a few hours after lunch either continuing the surveys we started before or on vegetation management around the island, however, once our work was done for the day we had to keep ourselves preoccupied in our isolation. It helped that we had a square mile to roam around, the ability to snorkel, and were always surrounded by many amazing species to observe. Despite that, it was easy to get bored and sit around reading or watching TV or movies. Not that it’s a bad thing, as that’s exactly what I’m doing right now, though I haven’t been nearly as active as I was on Johnston.

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 Green sea turtle heading back to the water after napping on the beach.

Creating projects and working to see a change in your environment, or having something to show for at the end of your time in quarantine, makes you feel much more accomplished and purposeful. My crew members looked at me like I was crazy some days after coming home covered in leaves after working 6 hours on opening up a wider path through one of my survey routes, but it felt like a massive accomplishment. These particular routes have been used for years, but the vegetation on Johnston is so prolific that a path can be covered in a matter of days if it rains enough, and most certainly after a few weeks in most areas.

Another project I undertook, and actually told myself I’d like to do even before I was sure I had the position, was to log every species that I could, and preferably document each with a photograph for a verifiable ID. I did this not only for the fishes that I fell in love with while working for UT’s ichthyology collection, but also for the birds, mammals, herps, plants, and invertebrates that call the island home. I eventually managed to produce four easily perused presentations, complete with photographs by me and my crew members. 

While you may have all of your projects and activities in order to keep yourself busy, you may be struggling with the people you’re in quarantine with, or the lack thereof. When you’re stuck in quarantine all alone, you may be lonely and bored, but that may be easier than dealing with housemates that you’re not normally around all of the time (however that’s coming from an introvert, so sorry to all of the extroverts out there). That being said, a 6-month-long isolation with 4 people that you’d only just met a month prior allows for countless issues to arise. This, coupled with the inability to easily reach out to family or friends, whether to vent or just converse, can be rather difficult at times. Johnston has extremely limited internet and the hotspot is located about a mile from camp. There were those days I was just too tired to deal with it, so instead found other ways to handle my emotions.

I found that the feelings of isolation can be mediated by keeping a level head and understanding that the person next to you is likely having very similar feelings. On the island, that may have been homesickness, missing fresh fruit (or fresh anything for that matter other than a few types of vegetables), or even normal human contact. In our current isolation, that may be missing out on going out to eat, or listening to live music, or having in-person communication with loved ones. Whether you’re social distancing with family or roommates, or you’re all alone, we just need to understand that even though it’s easy to lash out and be insensitive or mean to those we’re stuck inside with, the future is uncertain, and we have to stick with it no matter how annoying or uncomfortable it becomes. This isolation is for the safety of those around us.

In Part 2, Ryan writes more about the island's history and his work there. Click here to read Part 2.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Ryan graduated from Tarleton State University with a B.S. in Wildlife, Sustainability & Ecosystem Science in 2017. He volunteered and worked in the Biodiversity Center's Ichthyology Collection from 2017 to 2019 assisting with fish surveys and curatorial work. He loves field biology and everything that comes with it, and looks forward to his next position, wherever it may be, after the lockdown.

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