Little more than a week since we left the island, and the scent of fennel with a hint of sage is still fresh on my mind (and probably still coming off of my clothes). After this trip in particular, I have been pondering what exactly is so special about it … Not just for me, though it has significantly influenced my life, but for everyone who has the opportunity to participate.
The scenery is beautiful, no doubt, and the friendships that develop or deepen over the shared task of maneuvering through dense brush to survey the island’s plant communities are both important highlights of the program. But more than the people and the setting, what makes the experience a lasting memory is the exposure to a world of opportunity beyond what can be found in a conventional classroom.
Just before I joined this year’s trip as a chaperone, I had been to the Mountain Film Festival in Telluride, Colorado. One of the features that stuck with me was E.O. Wilson: Of Ants and Men, based on the man behind the revolutionary field of Sociobiology that would change our modern understanding of science. When interviewed in the film, the now 87-year-old scientist and author credited key moments from his childhood for inspiring the curiosity that would later develop into his successful career. That’s when I realized, I could relate.
Wilson describes a key moment as a young boy, watching a jelly, fascinated by the mystery of the animal and wanting to know more. The story reminded me of a day on my first trip to Santa Cruz Island in 2007. One of my favorite parts of the class was studying the entire island ecosystem, beyond the vegetation we were actively monitoring. So, after a morning of plant surveys, we went out to Fraser Point (the extreme west end of the island) for the afternoon, and came upon a cove that was littered with dying Humboldt squid. I clambered down to the shore to get a closer look. I’d never seen such an animal with my own eyes, and I was in awe of how beautiful they were, rapidly changing colors in a way that made them look distressed. I wanted to help them back to the open sea where I felt they belonged, but as I watched a few that were still in deeper water where an escape was possible, I realized my efforts would be in vain. They didn’t need saving.
I was conflicted then, not just about whether or not to help the squid, but about everything we were doing there on the island, working to restore the ecosystem damaged by over fifty years of introduced animal habitation gone unchecked. I would realize by the end of the week that we have to learn about the natural history of an environment to understand our place in it. As adults in today’s world, we are often in a place where we must decide where to draw the line between what is ethical, environmentally responsible, or even what is our role in the management of resources. It is important that we are equipped to make informed decisions.
The squid were there to die, responding to a natural change in their underwater ecosystem. The wildlife on Santa Cruz Island, however, as I would learn throughout the course, were not prepared to have their survival compromised by introduced animals or to be outcompeted by introduced plants. The Santa Cruz Island Field Biology program was established so that students could be introduced to and be a part of the real world challenge of finding balance between meeting the needs of people and other living things that call a place home. In that moment on Fraser Point in 2007, the floodgates of inquiry opened in my mind, and I haven’t stopped wondering about the world around me and where I fit into it since.
Although I haven’t left a legacy that measures anywhere close to that of E.O. Wilson, my short career to date as a Marine Biologist and Naturalist has allowed me to communicate the importance of observing and understanding the environment around us to thousands of adults and children. When I speak to an audience on a cruise ship, I am often asked what career advice I’d give to students. I love to share my experience on Santa Cruz Island, stressing the importance of volunteer field work and taking advantage of opportunities to learn outside! I attribute much of my own career direction to the exposure I found while on Santa Cruz Island.
The field of island biogeography embodies another connection between E.O. Wilson and my first experience on Santa Cruz Island. Wilson's theories have been critical to understanding the natural history of island groups like the Channel Islands and the very subject would be my research topic to present to the class at the end of the week. Since that trip, I guess I’ve been studying island biogeography ever since … Hawaii, French Polynesia, Australia, New Zealand ... where I have worked to convey the unique nature of these places, and am always fascinated to learn more about the driving forces behind these characteristics.
My point is that the trip was incredibly valuable to me as a student nearly ten years ago, and continually proves it’s worth as my career develops. This year, it was wonderfully fulfilling to watch an entire group of students also appreciate the value of the experience, fully embracing every challenge and chance to realize their growing edge as young adults. E.O. Wilson said, “Nature is where we belong.” Many of those kids said throughout the course of the week that they felt like they belonged there. I knew the feeling then, and know it now.
As we left the island with a dramatic send off from a pod of close to a thousand common dolphins, an unforgettable experience similar to that of my first time leaving in 2007, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for every person who has made this program possible, and was so honored to be a part of its ongoing success in positively influencing the lives of PRHS students this year! Whenever you get the chance, encourage and facilitate opportunities for young people to get out and be inspired by such experiences. They may be among those that influence them for the rest of their lives.