Horizon at Sandy Point

Thursday, July 5, 2012

No man is an island

Would you choose to live on an island so small that you could walk around it in a couple hours? 

Two young women join the growing band of scientists investigating the life of coral reefs. They are stationed on tiny Heron Island in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Their work will be added to the body of knowledge about coral systems; and if there were social scientists interested, their stay on a small island might be a source for studying scientists in symbiotic relationships!

Amanda Ford is a student from England attending the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Anjani Ganase from Trinidad and Tobago did her first degree in marine biology at the Florida Institute of Technology, and then chose the University of Amsterdam for a master’s. They met at the Carmabi Institute in Curacao where they were working on individual research projects.

On Heron Island at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, they are a buddy group – eligibility included coming with another student - but each continues to follow her own research path.

Amanda is observing the combined effects of ocean acidification (more CO2) and rising temperatures on one species of coral, and whether there are differences in the ability to adapt within the one species.

Anjani has been collecting “coral babies” to see whether coral larvae from different locations actively choose where they settle based on cues found at different depths. She’s also figuring out whether extreme temperatures can affect traits such as active sediment rejection mechanisms in certain coral species, piggybacking on the work of their supervisor who also lives on the island. Dr Pim Bongaerts of the University of Queensland already has some impressive findings published. Use this link to find an article on Dr Bongaerts’ work on-line:

Since March this year, Amanda and Anjani are adapting to their new environment. They walk or swim everywhere. Fresh water is precious and made by desalinating sea water. Food must be ordered in bulk one or two weeks supply at a time. It is delivered to the small island by boat from the “mainland.” And entertainment? They are fortunate in having computers and wifi. This is indeed the best age for exploration! For the past weeks, they have quickly slipped into a different routine. You can visit them by viewing the impressions and photos on their on-line blog:

The work of these young women may seem far removed from the day to day challenges of living in the world with traffic and taxes, political intrigues and business going bust. But it puts a spotlight on a different reality. Families and friends in their spheres of influence far around the other side of the world now have a connection in the Pacific. What do you know about the Pacific? Do you know that it occupies an area more than all the landmass on earth? That it now features a couple of the biggest garbage patches in the world, splintering down plastics to particles fine enough to pass for fish food – causing sea creatures to starve with their bellies full.

Through this tiny peephole to the Pacific, we enter the world of manta rays, sea turtles, sharks, clownfish and coral. Their study is another window to what exists beyond human society. Tiny coral animals do build extensive systems and create new islands. And the proliferation of humans on the generally stable and forgiving earth is also subject to cycles of growth and decay.

In the face of climate change and altered ecological systems, the challenge to bring our species in harmony with the resources of a finite earth becomes a personal task, for each of us to live with what we need rather than what we want. The risk – if we do not adjust greedy human habits – is that our species may be adjusted in radical ways or perish forever like others that outgrew their time and space. The key is an understanding of who we are on the planet and an appreciation of the value of all nature.

John Donne said it most succinctly in his immortal prose:
"No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were. As well as if a manor of thine own or of thine friend's were. Each man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee."  (1624: Meditation 17, from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions)

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