The Pros and Cons of Remoteness


By Katie Davis


Katie is a marine scientist based in Santa Barbara, California. While most of her research takes place at the Channel Islands (off the Santa Barbara Coast) the last two summers she has been in Palmyra, researching movement and foraging ecology of parrotfish. We're getting a few posts from Katie, so keep comin' back for more!!


Aloha from paradise. This particular paradise takes the form of a tiny island atoll in the middle of the Pacific. The remoteness and isolation present some benefits and challenges that keep life here pretty interesting. Here are a few of them:

Palmyra on an epic, clear day

Pro:  Community

There are sixteen of us here on this tiny island. There’s no resident population here, just station staff (they keep this place running and feed us amazing food) and us, the scientists. Also, the occasional visiting sailors (a couple of weeks ago there was a guy who sailed here solo from Hawaii on his way to Thailand  - eventually.  He had only two of his four limbs and sailed here fishing game fish along the way.  Impressive).  Most of the science will come and go at three-week intervals while we stay on through the majority of the summer.  It’s sort of like in the old days when huge families - grandparents, uncles, cousins, in-laws - all lived and worked together on the family farm. We eat meals together, we do chores together, we tell stories and have inside jokes, we steal each other’s bikes.  It’s weird, every time a new team arrives we get a little bit of “stranger danger” and long for the last crew to be back.  But after just a few days the new crew feels like family too.  The only downside to all of this togetherness is that if there is someone who grates on your nerves so that you want to wring their neck when they so much as look at you… you just can’t avoid them.  This is a hypothetical, of course. 

Black tip reef shark

Con:  Transportation can be tricky

To some people, Waikiki is tropical paradise.  People pay thousands of dollars and yen to take their families there to the beaches and huge hotels and shopping malls.  Sorry though, there are no shopping malls in my paradise and so when our flight was delayed for three days and we were stuck in Waikiki it began to feel more like tropical hell.  I mean, who goes on vacation to go shopping?  (Sorry, no offense if you do.  I shouldn’t judge.  It’s just not for me.)  When we got word that our flight was a go we were ready to leave.  But alas, it was not to be.  Twelve hours on the plane (a few of them parked on the runway Christmas Island) and we were back in Honolulu.  There was a storm and the pilots couldn’t see the runway to land.  But we tried again a few days later and this time:  SUCCESS!!  We had arrived in paradise for real this time.  My kind of paradise.

Manta Ray

There was an injury on station last week and the evacuation took five days to get here.  We have to be conscious that help is not around the corner but 1000 miles and a $35,000 flight away.  We always take a few more risks on plane day though (mostly doing tricks off of the rope swing at the swimming hole).  And come on people, an Indo board on a cement floor??  That’s a terrible idea even if there’s a hospital nearby.  I won’t Indo board here.

Pro:  It’s pristine!

Most people don’t get to experience coral reefs like this because most coral reefs that humans can access have years of human impacts affecting them.  The big fish and sharks have been removed, the corals are damaged by anchors, the visibility is clouded from agriculture.  Of course, there are lots of nice reefs out there but to have a place so far removed from human populations means that the reefs look the way they are supposed to look.  There are sharks, huge groupers and snappers, turtles, a few hundred species of corals, and my favorite:  big parrotfish!!  To name a few.  And since there are no spearfishermen here we get to get up close and personal.  We are lucky.  We still see the effects of humans though, even this far off on our own.  There is an organism called corallimorph (sort of like an anemone) that is growing over parts of the reef, killing corals, and it’s spread seems to be related to a ship that wrecked here in the 1990s.  

We also get trash washing up all of the time.  Mostly plastic.  Flip-flops, buoys, bottles.  The staff makes the most of it by using the flip-flops as decoration and lining the paths with the buoys.  It definitely makes me think about human consumption and all that we throw away.  I’ve got a major aversion to one-time-use bottles and plastic trinkets at this point.  All of this crap has to end up somewhere, whether in landfill or washed up on a beautiful beach (or worse, eaten by marine life).  For the most part though, this place is refreshing for how immersed we are in nature.  It’s amazing and I feel so lucky to get to see it.

There are many many more pros and cons that I could list.  And I think you can find the con in every pro and the pro in every con.  But if I zoom back a bit, it’s all pro baby!  It’s paradise.

Mr. Parrotfish says "Hi!"